By Joe Lemire
Which would you rather have, longevity or dominance? To be steady for a long time or outstanding for a short while?
Those are the legacies left behind by two prominent righthanded starting pitchers Kevin Millwood and Brandon Webb, who recently retired from baseball and a fascinating study in contrast.
Neither was a high draft pick -- the Braves selected Millwood in the 11th round back in 1993 and the Diamondbacks picked Webb in the eighth round in 2000 -- but both unquestionably had successful big league careers, albeit in very different ways.
Millwood was an above-average pitcher with great longevity, interspersed with occasional flashes of stardom. In 1998 and '99, his first two full seasons, he went 35-15 with a 3.29 ERA and his only All-Star selection in the latter season, helping Atlanta reach the World Series before losing to the Yankees. He later threw a no-hitter for the Phillies in 2003 and started the first six innings of one with the Mariners in 2012, before exiting with a groin injury. He had an aberrational 2.86 ERA with the Indians in 2005, leading the majors in between seasons for Philadelphia and Texas with figures north of 4.50.
For his career, however, Millwood became a classic journeyman -- good enough to keep getting a job, but never so good that he found a long-term home. He went 169-152 over 2,720 1/3 innings in 16 seasons for seven teams. He had a 4.11 ERA that, when adjusted for league and ballpark, is a 106 ERA+, which is a scant six percent better than the average pitcher.
Webb, meanwhile, had fleeting brilliance for the Diamondbacks. From 2006 through 2008 the sinkerballer led the majors in wins (56) and innings (698), while leading the National League in ERA (3.13). He won the ’06 Cy Young and was the runner-up each of the other two seasons, including '08, when he led the majors with 22 wins. By the end of that season Webb had pitched six seasons and had a career ERA+ of 143, which ranks seventh all-time among starters who threw at least 1,000 innings in their first six seasons, trailing Hall of Famers Walter Johnson, Mordecai Brown, Christy Mathewson and Lefty Grove as well as Smoky Joe Wood and Roy Oswalt.
Little did anyone know, Webb's career hadn't just peaked it was all but over. He returned to the mound for Opening Day in 2009, threw four undistinguished innings, left with a shoulder injury and never made it back despite tireless efforts in rehab. He threw his last big league pitch that day, April 6, a month before his 30th birthday. Arizona picked up his 2010 option and the Rangers offered him an incentive-laden one-year deal in ’11, but Webb never pitched again. There was no gradual decline, just a curtain coldly pulled across his career.
While Webb vanished, Millwood hung around, compiling both stats and salaries. The term “compiler” has been used in a derogatory fashion in Hall of Fame debates, but among any other class of players, it’s complimentary -- that a player has the ability to achieve the tenure necessary to compile large career numbers. Until Millwood’s retirement, he was the career strikeout leader among active righthanded pitchers, and he had made some $90 million in total earnings. There is something admirable about answering the bell so often and for so many years. He made 28 or more starts in 12 seasons, tied for ninth most among pitchers in the last 30 years. Millwood had a good career.
Webb, on the other hand, more fully experienced what it was like to be among the game’s best. But his career also has that nagging “what if” question attached to it, leaving all who watched it to wonder how good he could have been had he stayed healthy. He was elite, but not for long. As a result, Webb made roughly $32 million in his career -- plenty, to be sure, but only a third of what Millwood made.