Monday, April 13, 2009

The Best "One Time Only" Performances

Playing around on (the newly - and wonderfully - re-designed) Baseball-Reference yesterday, I stumbled into their "Frivolities" section. It's the section that they market as the "fun stuff" part of the site, and which contains such interesting tools as the Oracle of Baseball ("find a chain of teammates between any two players in MLB history"), the English-Spanish/Spanish-English baseball dictionary, the list of non-pitchers who have pitched, or the list of players listed in the Mitchell Report, to name a few. The tool that I found myself playing with yesterday, though, was the "Cups of Coffee" list - the players who played in only one major league game.

It's an interesting list and one that makes you think. When you look through the 976 batters and 517 pitchers named on the list (with some obvious overlap), it's hard not to see a Moonlight Graham in each of them. For those on the list who are now out of baseball completely, what have they been up to? Were they satisfied with the little taste that they got, or was it a disappointment that they didn't get more? And the ones who are still playing, what drives them? How often do they think of that brief moment they had in the sun? There's a story behind each name, and you can't help but wonder about the details.

But I'm not here to give mini-biographies on 1,000+ players. That's a job for some hard-working, dedicated SABR group. Instead, I thought I'd highlight a few of the more impressive single-game players. After all, there have to be one or two players who performed head and shoulders above the rest in their only shot at glory.

Currently, the best performance of a recent player with only one major league game to their credit belongs to Lou Marson, a catcher for the Phillies and 4th round draft pick from 2004. He made his major league debut last September 28 against the Nationals and batted 2 for 4 with a home run and 2 runs and 2 RBIs. But, at 22 years old, there's still a lot of time for the promising catching prospect to get many more at-bats in his career.

After Marson, the best performance of those players with only one major league game to their credit was by John Paciorek on September 29, 1963. It was the final game of the season, and Paciorek finally got into the Houston Colt .45s lineup. He proceeded to go 3-for-3 with 2 walks, 4 runs, and 3 RBIs. That's an OBP and AVG of 1.000 in 5 plate appearances. It's a fantastic performance, and one that just begs for more to come. I won't go into more details about the game, though, since the folks at Dugout Central did a fine job of detailing his career just last summer. It seems that he was derailed by a back injury in the offseason, though, and he was never able to get it all back together.

Behind Paciorek, you have to go back to 1935 to find the next best performance. On September 29, 1935, Pittsburgh's Aubrey Epps started at catcher. In his four at-bat, he got three hits, including a triple, while scoring one run and driving in three. There seem to be fewer details (in my admittedly cursorary searching, at least) available about Epps' career than the other guys at the top of the list, so I can't say what happened next. But a single-game career with a triple and a slugging percentage of 1.250 is certainly one to be proud of.

On the pitching side, the list is a little shallower. Currently, the best performance of a pitcher with only one major league game to their credit belongs to Chris Saenz. In 2004, he was called up in April to make an emergency start in place of Chris Capuano. He faced the Cardinals on April 24, and pitched very well. In six innings, he struck out seven batters while walking three and giving up only 2 hits (singles to Ray Lankford and Albert Pujols) to earn the win. He gave up no runs, and even got out of a bases loaded jam in the first by getting Edgar Renteria to fly out. Saenz is the only pitcher since 1899 to pitch more than 5 innings and give up zero runs in his only major league appearance. According to his BR Bullpen page, Saenz suffered a major arm injury later that year and had to undergo Tommy John surgery that September. He has since been bouncing around the minors and independent leagues, and hasn't had too much success.

To find the next best performance, you have to go back to 1945 and Bert Shepard. Shepard pitched in relief for the Washington Senators against the Boston Red Sox on August 4. For 5 1/3 innings, he held the Sox to three hits, one walk, and one run in a game the Sens lost 15-4. Shepard is much more interesting than this cup of coffee, though. As a fighter pilot in World War II, he was shot down and captured by the Germans. As a result of the crash, he had to have his right leg amputated. He learned to pitch with a prosthetic leg, and did so on that August day versus the Red Sox. The rest of his career was as a player/coach in the minor leagues. He also spent some time on the National Amps baseball team of former servicemen with amputations secondary to war injuries, and he won the National Amputee golf championship in 1968 and 1971. Shepard died last summer at the age of 87.

In 1909, Ray Brown pitched a complete game for the Chicago Cubs over the Philadelphia Phillies. In the game, he struck out two while giving up two earned runs on five hits and four walks. He even drove in a run himself in the 6-3 Cubs victory. As with Aubrey Epps above, there doesn't seem to be a lot of information available about Ray Brown. But that one complete game victory is one that I'm sure he held onto. Brown died in 1955.

There are a lot more people on that list of Cup of Coffees and, like I said, I have no doubt that there are many, many more stories to be told. In fact, if someone hasn't already made it their mission to study this group of people, I certainly think they should. As far as baseball players go, this group has to have some of the most interesting stories around. I can't claim to know those stories myself, but that's the beauty of statistics: we can still find many stories to tell just from the numbers. These few just happen to be some of the more interesting stories the numbers could tell me. There are plenty more out there, I'm sure.


Kevin said...

FYI, Marson is currently on the big league roster with the Phillies, due to Carlos Ruiz having gone on the DL. Hopefully he'll get some playing time and get to show what he can do. The general feeling in the organization, from what I can gather, is that Marson is the catcher of the future for the team.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

Maybe you or I should do a weekly or bi-weekly feature on one of these guys.

lar said...

Kevin, I saw that Marson was listed on the Phillies' roster on ESPN, but I wasn't sure if that was the 25-man or 40-man. It makes sense. I'd be excited to see him play if I were a Phillies' fan. As long as he's healthy, I'm sure he'll get off this list soon enough (though that same thing was thought about Chris Saenz back in '04, I'm sure...)

Mark, it's not a bad idea at all, and something that kind-of-sorta crossed my mind last night. But I don't think I'm the one to write that. That would be right up your alley, though...

tHeMARksMiTh said...

I just might. Sunday looks to have a couple new additions this week. Stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

One of the most interesting (and saddest) "one time only" guys to me is Larry Yount -- Robin's brother. He was brought in to make his major league debut on Sept. 15, 1971, for Houston. While warming up on the mound, he injured himself and had to be removed. He never made it back. Because he was announced as a sub, he was officially in the game -- but he never threw a pitch.

Kevin said...

A quick update: Marson got his first start of the year vs. the Nats on Thursday 4/16. His line was 2-3, with a double & one run scored.

lar said...

Thanks for the update, Kevin. I knew he wasn't going to stay on the "Cup of Coffee" list for too long.

That's a pretty solid two games to start your career, eh? especially with a full off-season between the games.