Due to its length, I have chosen to break up this edition of Game of Numbers into two parts; #59-55, and #54-50. #54-50 will be released tomorrow. #99-90, #89-80, #79-70, and #69-60 of the series can be found here, here, here, and here respectively.
NOTE: We are NOT looking for the total career statistics of players, just their stats while wearing the number listed.
#59 Ismael Valdez (1994-2005)
Valdez, a native of Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, signed with the Dodgers immediately after high school, at the age of 17. Pitching for both the Dodgers’ minor league affiliates and the Mexico City Tigres of the Mexican league, Valdez developed quickly, and two years after signing, at the age of 19, he was in the major leagues. After a brief big league stint in 1994, Valdez burst onto the scene in 1995. He and Hideo Nomo, both rookies, came together to form an international one-two punch; Nomo went 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA, while Valdez chipped in with a 13-11 record and a 3.05 ERA. In fact, by bWAR, the only more valuable rookie in the NL than Valdez was Nomo himself. After his strong debut season, the sky seemed the limit for the man they called, “The Rocket”. In the spring of 1996, the LA Times’ Bob Nightengale wrote, “The Dodgers and the rest of baseball not only anticipated Valdez to perhaps become a 20-game winner, but also emerge as a Cy Young candidate and ace of the staff.” Unfortunately, Valdez never reached his full potential. After a strong season in 1996 and a remarkable one in 1997 (a 146 ERA+ in 196.2 innings, though a 10-11 record kept him from Cy Young consideration), Valdez was mediocre in 1998 and 1999, posting consecutive 3.98 ERAs. The Dodgers shipped him to the Cubs after the 1999 season, and it seemed Chicago was where The Rocket ran out of fuel. He struggled so badly as a Cub that they cast him off midseason, back to the Dodgers, where his struggles continued. Valdez then signed with the Angles, but after one mediocre year in Anaheim, Valdez went to Seattle, where he switched his number from 59 to 47. Valdez accumulated 20.7 bWAR while wearing 59, making him far and away the most valuable player to don the number.
#58 Jonathan Papelbon (2005-2013)
Assigned the number 58 when he was called up in 2005, Papelbon was drafted and developed by the Red Sox as a starting pitcher. But his effectiveness in the 2005 season, combined with the ineffectiveness of incumbent closer Keith Foulke, forced the Red Sox to move Papelbon into the closer’s role for the 2006 season. He responded by having one of the most dominant seasons by any reliever; his 0.92 ERA was the sixth-best by a reliever since 1970. While his successive seasons never quite reached the level of dominance of his first, Papelbon settled into the Boston closer’s role quite nicely. In his seven seasons in Boston, Papelbon compiled a 2.33 ERA and a 1.018 WHIP, as well as a Red Sox-record 219 saves. In December 2011, he signed a 4 year, $50 million deal with Philadelphia, and while the Phillies have nosedived during Papelbon’s tenure there, Papelbon has continued to be among the most reliable closers in baseball. By virtue of his consistency, rare at the volatile position of closer, he earns a place on this list, beating out Chad Billingsley and Doug Fister.
#57 Johan Santana (2000-2012)
Johan Santana remains one of the more unlikely superstars of our generation. After being signed by the Houston Astros at the age of 16, Santana was recruited as a center fielder, but after five weeks in the Astros’ Venezuelan academy, he was converted to a pitcher. While in the Astros’ system, Santana posted a 5.85 ERA, with less-than-impressive control and a propensity for giving up hits. Left unprotected by the Astros, he was drafted by the Marlins in the Rule 5 draft, but the Marlins traded him to the Twins for minor league pitcher Jared Camp, who would be out of baseball by 2002. Santana stayed on the Twins roster all of 2000, but fared extremely poorly, struggling both as a starter and reliever. But in April 2002, Santana, demoted to AAA Edmonton, started working on locating his changeup with pitching coach Bobby Cuellar, and something clicked. By May, he was back in the big leagues, where he would put together a run of dominance matched only by a select few. From 2002 to 2010, Santana won 2 Cy Young Awards, made 4 all-star teams, won 130 games, struck out a batter an inning, and had an ERA+ of 150. And of course, we would be remiss if we failed to mention Santana’s no-hitter in 2012, the first in Mets’ history, the last inning of which can be found here:
Arm issues have since derailed his career, but Santana’s 9-year peak, during which he accumulated more than 50 bWAR, is more than enough to put him on this list. Competitors like Darryl Kile and former teammate Francisco Rodriguez cannot match the combination of durability and dominance Santana had at his peak.
#56 Mark Buehrle (2000-2013)
No pitcher is a better poster child for durability than Mark Buehrle. For 13 consecutive years, Buehrle has taken the ball every fifth day, not once going on the disabled list. It should come as no surprise that since he debuted in 2000, no one has thrown more innings than Buehrle, who has surpassed the 200 inning mark every full season of his career. Buehrle hasn’t achieved success due to outstanding stuff — the former 38th-round draft pick has a fastball that, even in his younger days, barely touched 90 MPH, and this year averaged 84. In an era when the average pitcher strikes out 7.2 batters per nine innings, Buehrle’s career rate is an unimpressive 5.2. Buehrle has had unlikely success in the major leagues by playing technically sound baseball. He doesn’t walk very many batters (just 2 per nine innings). He fields his position well (in addition to his four all-star appearances, he has four Gold Gloves). And, most importantly, he hits his spots. And on a day when he hits every spot, despite the slow fastball and his lack of swing-and-miss stuff, he can be downright unhittable:
It’s rather unsurprising that Buehrle, when randomly assigned the number 56 as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training in 2000, decided to keep the number for the length of his career. After all, he is nothing if not consistent.
#55 Orel Hershiser (1983-1999)
The story of Orel Hershiser’s career is really the story of two separate careers, separated by a gruesome injury. Hershiser, almost a non-prospect coming out of Bowling Green State University, worked his way up through the Dodgers’ minor league system, earning a promotion to the big leagues in September 1983. In early 1984, Hershiser was struggling, when he was called into manager Tommy Lasorda’s office. According to one profile, the encounter went something like this:
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda finally summoned Hershiser to his office one day and delivered unto him an upbraiding of such Biblical proportions that it was later referred to as the Sermon On The Mound. “Tommy told me that I belonged at this level, but that I was pitching to every hitter like he was Babe Ruth,” Hershiser says. “I gave the big league hitters too much credit, and it was hard for me to believe I could get them out.”
Hershiser seemed to take this advice to heart. After being inserted into the rotation, he dominated the opposition to the tune of a 2.66 ERA and a third-place finish in the Rookie of the Year balloting. More, Hershiser’s ferocity and borderline cockiness on the mound earned him the nickname, “Bulldog” from his manager. Hershiser improved from his stellar rookie season in 1985, posting a microscopic 2.03 ERA (the lowest of his career) in 239.2 innings, and finishing third in the NL Cy Young race. From 1987 to 1989, Hershiser put together three truly exceptional seasons, but his 1988 season stands out. On August 30th of that year, Hershiser’s ERA stood at 2.82; a good year to be sure, but by no means a historic one. Then, on September 5th, he threw a 4-hit, complete-game shutout against the Braves. On September 10th against the Reds, he threw another shutout. Then another. And another. And another. On September 28th, his final start of the season, he needed to throw 10 innings to eclipse Don Drysdale’s mark of 58 consecutive scoreless frames.He did it; 10 innings of four-hit, shutout ball. In the playoffs, Hershiser was equally as magnificent, allowing only 5 runs in 42.2 postseason innings. Hershiser remains the only player to win the Cy Young Award, NLCS MVP, and World Series MVP in the same season (for good measure, he also added a Gold Glove).
In 1990, Hershiser pitched only four games before finding out he had torn his rotator cuff, an injury which threatened his career. When he returned (a return he called “a miracle”), he was still effective, but not nearly as good as he was while at his peak. Making do with a fastball that was lucky to reach 88 miles per hour, Hershiser managed to hang on for 10 years after his surgery. He made it back to the World Series with the Indians in both 1995 and 1997, managing to be a large part of both postseason runs. The first six years of Hershiser’s career were Hall of Fame-caliber, and are the reason he makes it onto this list. But it is the latter 10 years that show why the Bulldog had truly earned his nickname.