The Ballot: Roy Oswalt
Pitching: 292 points
League leaders: 15 points (wins, ERA, WHIP)
Worked fast, didn't fool around: 10 points
Postseason bonus: 5 points
Best pitcher ever from Mississippi: 5 points
Hall of Fame Race to 400 points: 327
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Roy Oswalt was on his way to being a Hall of Fame pitcher until he turned 30 ... and then he faded quickly. It's not an uncommon story.
Just to get a glimpse, here are the top pitchers to age 30 for non-Hall of Famers since Deadball, by Wins Above Average:
Roger Clemens, 45.4
Bret Saberhagen, 32.6
Johan Santana, 30.3
Kevin Appier, 29.7
Roy Oswalt, 28.1
Dave Stieb, 26.7
Rick Reuschel, 25.7
Mike Mussina, 25.3
Wes Ferrell, 24.2
Dwight Gooden, 23.5
And here's the same list, but this time we include the top 15 Hall of Famers:
Pedro Martinez, 47.2
Tom Seaver, 45.0
Greg Maddux, 38.8
Bert Blyleven, 38.5
Hal Newhouser, 37.0
Bob Feller, 35.2
Sandy Koufax, 30.7
Robin Roberts, 30.2
Fergie Jenkins, 28.6
Don Drysdale, 27.2
Dizzy Dean, 26.8
Juan Marichal, 26.4
Dennis Eckersley, 22.9
Lefty Grove, 22.9
Jim Palmer, 22.7
Those lists are looking pretty similar after you get through the very top guys, right? And you can see how many Hall of Famers are missing from the under-30 group -- Gibson, Unit, Ford, Ryan, Carlton, Smoltz, Niekro, etc. They were pitchers who did much or all of their best work after age 30.
In most cases, what separates the Hall of Famer from the merely great is what you do after age 30, what you do when the stuff begins to dull and the arm begins to break down and the hitters have learned your tricks. There have not been many pitchers in baseball history who were as good as Oswalt was from 2001 to 2008. But then it ended too quickly.
Oswalt grew up in Weir, Miss., population 555, and he was short and kind of stocky. Nobody drafted him out of high school, but maybe that's because his high school didn't even HAVE a team until his sophomore year, when Roy's Dad, Billy Joe, appealed to the school board to start one, and then used his own farm equipment to clear a field.
Oswalt went to Holmes Community College, about an hour and a half southwest, down the Natchez Trace Parkway, and he threw hour after hour, until he pumped his fastball up to the mid 90s. The Astros took him in the 23rd round, and gave him a half million bucks to keep him from going to Mississippi State.
[caption id="attachment_24012" align="aligncenter" width="439"] Oswalt, at his best, was great. He just didn't do it long enough.[/caption]
Then came one of my favorite baseball stories, one that the great Richard Hoffer wrote about in Sports Illustrated in 2006 -- I don't even want to know if it's true. Oswalt pitched pretty well in the minors, but not well enough to move up. He spent his first two years dividing his time between A-ball and rookie ball, and then finally he was moved up to High A in Battle Creek, Mich., where he pitched OK but hurt his shoulder so badly that he found himself taking Advil like they were Smarties.
In the offseason, he came home and was working on his Ford F-150 when he touched a live spark plug, which shocked the living hell out of him.
"He reported it thus to his wife," Hoffer wrote. "'My truck done shocked the fire out of me, and my arm don't hurt no more."
There's a proud history in baseball of such miracles. Dazzy Vance supposedly brought his arm back to life by smashing it on a poker table after a losing hand. Satchel Paige supposedly brought his arm back to life by rubbing it down with something he called "yellow juice," which was probably as disgusting as it sounds.
And Roy Oswalt done shocked the fire out of his arm, and the next year he pitched so well in Round Rock (11-4, 1.94 ERA, 141-22 strikeout-to-walk) that he left the team owner breathless. Fortunately for him, the team owner was Nolan Ryan. Oswalt, all of a sudden, was one of the best prospects in baseball.
A year later, Oswalt was in Houston, where he was so good that he would have won Rookie of the Year had it not been for some other rookie named Albert Pujols.
In 2002, he put up a Cy Young sort of year, but that was probably Randy Johnson's best season (and Curt Schilling's too), so Oswalt finished fourth.
In 2003, he was good, but he was also hurt; in 2004, he led the league in wins and finished third in the Cy Young voting, behind his teammate and hero Roger Clemens.
In 2005, he was terrific again, and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. In 2006, he led the league in ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. In 2007, everyone thought he had a down year -- no Cy Young votes -- but he actually led the National League in Baseball Reference WAR. In 2008, he turned 30 and began to decline.
He would have one more good season, 2010, when he led the league in WHIP, and he retired at age 35 after going 0-6 with an 8.63 ERA in Colorado. If he'd had three good seasons after age 30 instead of one, he'd be a real Hall of Fame candidate. Instead, he will fall off the ballot after one year.
That's the ever-so-slight difference between greatness and Greatness.