Game of Numbers: #54-50

In this segment, we take a look at the best players to ever wear the numbers 54-50.  We have also added an honorable mentions section, for those that still put together careers of note while wearing these numbers, yet couldn’t make the cut.  Numbers 59-55 can be found here.

NOTE: We are NOT looking for the total career statistics of players, just their stats while wearing the number listed.

#54 Goose Gossage (1972-1994)

Today, we think of closers as specialists who rarely appear when their team doesn’t have the lead, and almost always pitch only one inning — usually the ninth.  The top five closers last year by games saved threw a combined 333 innings in 341 appearances, an average of less than one inning per appearance.  So to a modern eye, Goose Gossage’s numbers seem almost unimaginable; in 965 games as a reliever, Gossage threw 1556.2 innings, an average of almost 5 outs per appearance.  To put that in perspective, Mariano Rivera threw only 1233.2 innings in 1105 career relief appearances, 140 more than Gossage.  Gossage threw 100 relief innings in four separate years; there have been just six such seasons this millennium, and none since 2006.  And yet, despite this gargantuan workload, Gossage remained both healthy and effective for the great majority of his 22-year career.  In his first truly great year, with the White Sox in 1975, Gossage struck out 130 batters in 141.2 innings, punching up a 1.84 ERA and a career-high 8.2 bWAR.  Two years later, with the Pirates in 1977, Gossage’s ERA (1.62) and strikeout totals (151, an average of 10.2 per nine innings) were even better, and his dominance earned him a six year, $2.8 million contract with George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees.  During Gossage’s tenure in New York, he made three all-star teams, twice finishing in the top 5 in the Cy Young race and the top 10 in the MVP race.  His personal success was accompanied by team success — the Yankees won two pennants and a title with Gossage in New York.  After his six-year contract was up, Goose moved on to San Diego in 1984, helping the Padres to their first World Series in franchise history.  Though Gossage didn’t fare so well in that World Series, he pitched very well in both 1984 and 1985, and though arm trouble limited his effectiveness later on in his career, he managed to stick around for 8 more years, earning his 300th career save in the process.  Gossage, who relied almost entirely on his 100+ MPH fastball, had a career 3.01 ERA with 310 saves and 41.8 bWAR, earning his place in the Hall of Fame.  He wore the number 54 during the entirety of his career, and thus easily earns his spot on this list.

Honorable Mentions: Ervin Santana, Steve McCatty

#53 Don Drysdale (1956-1969) — retired by Dodgers

Don Drysdale was so well-known by his number, which he wore throughout his career, that Herbie the Love Bug bears the number 53, in honor of Drysdale.  Born in Van Nuys, California, Drysdale spent only parts of two years in the minor leagues before making his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956, at the age of 19.  After a solid debut season as a spot starter, Drysdale was moved into the rotation in 1957, going 17-9 with a 2.69 ERA and finishing 19th in the National League MVP balloting.  Drysdale moved with the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, and after solid seasons in the LA Coliseum, Drysdale flourished after the Dodgers moved to their new home in Chavez Ravine.   In 1962, Drysdale pitched a league-high 314.1 innings (averaging 7 2/3 innings a start) leading the league in both wins (25) and strikeouts (232), earning his only career Cy Young award.  Drysdale, along with Sandy Koufax, formed perhaps the best pitching duo in baseball history; from 1962 to 1966, the two combined to win 209 games, with a 2.37 ERA, 2551 strikeouts, and a WHIP of just over 1.  While Koufax was clearly the better of the two, taking home 3 Cy Young Awards and throwing 4 no-hitters, Drysdale was still dominant in his own right.  Famous for his sidearm delivery and his blazing fastball, Drysdale was never afraid to throw inside on a batter, and it showed — he led the league in hit-by-pitches five times in his career, and his 154 career hit batsmen is still a National League record.  Like Koufax, Drysdale’s career came to an abrupt end at an early age, as a persistent shoulder injury forced him to retire at the age of 32.  Perhaps because of this, it took until the tenth ballot for Drysdale to earn his place in the Hall of Fame.  But make no mistake, Drysdale clearly deserves a plaque in Cooperstown — over his career, he accumulated 67.2 bWAR, more than Bob Feller, Juan Marichal, and yes, Sandy Koufax.

Honorable Mentions: Bobby Abreu, Arthur Rhodes

#52 CC Sabathia (2001-present)

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Sabathia’s physique — he is 6’7″ and is listed generously at 290 pounds — belies a remarkable durability and an even more remarkable consistency.  Since entering the major leagues in 2001, Sabathia has yet to pitch less than 180 innings, and has visited the disabled list only twice in his 13-year career.  But Sabathia hasn’t merely taken the ball every fifth day; he has excelled nearly every year.  From 2001 to 2012, Sabathia’s ERA+ remained at 100 or better every year, meaning that, for the first 12 years of his career, he was no worse than league-average.  And even including his poor 2013 campaign, Sabathia has yet to finish a season with a win-loss record of .500 or worse, with 205 wins lifetime and a .641 career winning percentage.  In his 8-year stint with the Indians, Sabathia made three all-star teams, winning his only career Cy Young award in 2007 with a 19-7 record and 3.21 ERA in 241 innings, averaging a league-high 5.65 strikeouts for every walk recorded.  After bringing the Indians within one win of a World Series in 2007, Sabathia was traded to Milwaukee near the 2008 trade deadline, where he went 11-2 in 17 starts with a remarkable 1.65 ERA, leading the Brewers to their first playoff berth since 1982.  In the offseason, Sabathia signed a 7 year, $161 million deal with the Yankees, to that point the largest contract for a pitcher in baseball history.  In his first year with the Yankees, Sabathia got his World Series ring, pitching quite effectively in the postseason as the Yankees bested the Phillies in 5 games.  And Sabathia’s first four years in the Bronx were among the finest of his career, winning a total of 74 games, putting up a 3.22 ERA in 905 innings, and finishing thrice in the top 4 of the Cy Young balloting.  Sabathia struggled in 2013 (85 ERA+), and still needs several more good years if he wants a shot at the Hall of Fame.  But his career accomplishments to this date are easily enough to make him the best player to have ever worn the number 52.

Honorable Mentions: Mike Boddicker, Jose Contreras

#51 Randy Johnson (1988-2009)

Randy Johnson, with his 100+ MPH fastball and his tight, low-90’s slider, always had the stuff to be among the most dominant pitcher in the major leagues.  But for the first five years of his career, he could not seem to find the strike zone — he led the American League in walks from 1990 to 1992 (his first three years in the AL), walking 5.9 batters per nine innings over that time period.  Johnson struggled to find consistency with his mechanics, until a meeting with Nolan Ryan in mid-1992.  In Johnson’s own words:

I don’t think I had any breakthrough to where I am now until I met with [Ryan] and (then-Texas Rangers pitching coach) Tom House. I think a great deal of my success started after that meeting… Lots of people have tried working with me and they were all helpful, but it was the one thing that [Ryan and House] taught me about landing on the ball of my foot as opposed to landing on the heel of my foot that has helped me the most.

After fixing his mechanics, Johnson almost immediately became the most dominant pitcher in the American League.  His walke rate dropped precipitously, and he remained unhittable — from 1993 to 1997, he won 75 games with a 2.86 ERA, made the all-star team four times (missing in 1996 due to injury), won his first Cy Young award, and allowed only 6.6 hits per nine innings.  Yet these were not the best years of Johnson’s illustrious career.  In 1999, at the age of 35, Johnson signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that had lost 97 games in 1998, its only year of existence.  In his first four years in Arizona, Johnson won four consecutive Cy Young awards.  From 1999-2002, he threw over 1000 innings, with a 2.48 ERA, 6.9 H/9, 12.4 K/9, and 31 complete games.  On May 8th, he struck out 20 batters in a game — though he did it in 9 innings, the game went extra innings, meaning he isn’t recognized as holding the record.  And later that year, Johnson entered in relief in Game 7 of the World Series, becoming the winning pitcher as Luis Gonzalez hit a walkoff single to make the Diamondbacks World Series champions.  Johnson missed much of 2003 with injury, but in 2004 came back strong, including pitching perhaps the greatest game of his career:

After 2004, Johnson pitched 5 more years for three teams, the Yankees (where he did not wear his trademark 51), a second stint with the Diamondbacks, and finally, the Giants, where he earned his 300th career win.  He finishes with astounding career statistics, including 4875 strikeouts (the most ever by a left-handed pitcher), 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings (the most by any pitcher), 303 wins (239 of which came after his 30th birthday), and 102.1 bWAR, 9th all-time for a pitcher.

Honorable Mentions: Ichiro Suzuki, Bernie Williams

#50 Jamie Moyer (1986-2012)

No one will ever have a career quite like Jamie Moyer’s.  By 1993, Moyer had already thrown 700 innings in the big leagues, with a career 4.56 ERA.  He had been released by four teams, and traded by another.  From Rob Neyer’s final column at BaseballNation:

In the spring of ’92, the Cubs released him. They did offer him a coaching job.

“I’m not interested,” he immediately responded. When the Cubs’ farm director asked him to think about it, Moyer said his thoughts weren’t going to change. And they didn’t. His father-in-law, a famous man with powerful friends, suggested that Moyer find himself a real profession. Moyer’s thoughts still didn’t change, even though he was nearly 30 years old and owned 34-54 record in the majors, with a 4.56 ERA.

So Moyer stayed in shape. Nobody called in April. Or most of May. Finally, in late May the Tigers called. They were looking for a long reliever. A mop-up man. For their Triple-A club. Moyer signed. For $12,000.

Moyer spent the rest of that season in the minors, and opened the next season in the minors, too. But yes, of course he did finally get back to the majors in 1993 and would win another 235 games over the next 20 years.

Just making it back to the major leagues was a minor miracle for Moyer.  Butafter three years in Baltimore and a half-season in Boston, Moyer was traded to the Mariners for utility outfielder Darren Bragg.  It was a match made in heaven.  Over his 11 years in Seattle, Moyer won 145 games, and put up a 3.97 ERA.  Three times, he earned Cy Young votes.  Twice, he won 20 games.  He was named an all-star in 2003, becoming a first-time all-star at the age of 40.  At the age of 43, he was traded by the Mariners, onto the Phillies, where he continued to pitch until he was 48.  He finished with a record of .500 or better every single year in Philadelphia, including 2008, when he went 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA and, at the age of 45, won his first World Series.  At the age of 47, Moyer found out he had torn his UCL, and would need Tommy John surgery.  Yet he still wasn’t done.  In 2012, at the age of 49, coming off major surgery and arduous rehab, he earned a job in the Colorado Rockies rotation.  He wore the number 50, and nearly pitched to that age.  Moyer, with his career 50.2 bWAR and 103 ERA+, is likely not a Hall of Famer.  But his story of perseverance, and refusal to admit defeat, is one of the best baseball has to offer.

Honorable Mentions: Sid Fernandez, Tom Henke

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