It's tough to go through life as a cautionary tale. Todd Van Poppel is remembered as a draft bust, and it's clear that his entire career was colored by the weighty expectations that were heaped upon him as the consensus top prospect in the country in 1990. But he seemed uncertain that he even wanted to be drafted, convincing Sports Illustrated's Phil Rogers to write in an article the day before the draft:
Barring an unexpected change of direction, the next Nolan Ryan is going to do something the original Ryan did not: He will delay his pro career as a baseball pitcher to spend at least three years working toward a college degree. As a result, he is passing up the chance to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Van Poppel did pass up the chance to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Braves, frightened off by his desire to attend college, selected Chipper Jones instead, and have been thanking their lucky stars ever since. Twelve other teams passed up the chance to draft him before the Oakland Athletics took a flier on him with the 14th pick, and then managed to sign him for $1.2 million. It's hard to fault him for taking the money, but he was never able to live up to it.
Best Year: 2001: 4-1, 5 Holds, 2.52 ERA, 75 IP, 3.73 FIP, 1.35 WHIP, 2.37 K/BB
Van Poppel was long bedeviled by overly high expectations. He was rushed through the minor leagues and obviously unready for the majors when he was called up: his 5.04 ERA as a midyear rookie call-up in 1993 was actually lower than his 5.83 ERA in Triple-A earlier that year. After thoroughly failing as a starter, he spent most of the 1997-1999 seasons in the minor leagues, finally re-emerging as a very good middle reliever with the Chicago Cubs in 2000-2001.
His earlier lack of success had clearly weighed on him, and in 2000, he gave an interview to Sports Illustrated's Stephen Cannella in which he admitted as much, saying that he preferred relieving to starting.
"I overthink, and as a starter I had too much time to sit around and analyze," he told Cannella, admitting to having had confidence issues as a starter. "Now I feel I can get people out on any given day. In the past I felt I had to have my real good stuff."
Worst Year: 1996: 3-9, 9.06 ERA, 99 1/3 IP, 7.21 FIP, 2.02 WHIP, 0.85 K/BB
Todd Van Poppel earned his way out of Oakland in 1996, putting up a 7.71 ERA in 63 innings over six starts and 22 relief appearances. Then Detroit picked him up on waivers in August and he was even worse. His season overall puts him in rare company: He owns the all-time record for most innings pitched in a season with an ERA over 9.00, and he is one of just eight pitchers to allow more than one earned run per inning in a season of at least 60 innings.
Of the two other most notable pitchers on the list, one is Steve Blass, who had a 9.85 ERA in 88 2/3 innings in 1973 and became so famous for the mental block that contributed to his inability to pitch that season that it was renamed Steve Blass Disease. Blass spent most of the following season in the minors, where he posted a 9.74 ERA, and he never pitched again. The other is Roy Halladay, who had a 10.64 ERA in 67 2/3 innings in 2000, when he was 23, before being sent back to the minors to rebuild his pitching motion. Now, he's a likely Hall of Famer.
Van Poppel nearly reached the century mark in innings despite the fact that his first team got rid of him in early August. But the Tigers were 38-74 when they picked him up, and all they needed was a warm body, so they let him make nine starts. He allowed 11 homers in 36 1/3 innings, putting together a 11.39 ERA in about a month and a half. Understandably, he spent 1997 in the minor leagues.
Claim to Fame: It's probably unfair to Van Poppel, but he'll always be remembered as a bust, rather than as an inspiring tale of someone who overcame adversity to achieve success in a different role. Whenever a young fireballing phenom comes up, from Rick Ankiel to Stephen Strasburg, Van Poppel's name is likely to be mentioned. As Tom Verducci wrote in a 1999 article about Ankiel, offering the Cardinals a touch of caution against calling up their top pitching prospect too early:
Only two teenagers have pitched in the big leagues this decade, and both have had Danny Bonaduce-like careers: Van Poppel, who at 27 is with the Triple A Nashville Sounds, in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system, and has a 22-37 career record in the majors; and Rich Garces.
I think that's unfair to Van Poppel's tenacity and his real accomplishment in becoming an effective major-league pitcher more than a decade after being drafted, and five years after the worst season of his career, when many teams might have simply given up on him. He never became the pitcher that others hoped he would become, but he became a solid major-league pitcher for two seasons, and that's no small feat. It's also far more than most other "busts" ever manage.
Off the Field: Todd Van Poppel went to high school in Texas, intended to attend the University of Texas and still maintains a ranch in Bosque County. You may not be shocked to learn that he's an avid hunter, as Ray Sasser of the Dallas Morning News approvingly noted earlier this year. He favors a muzzleloading shotgun, as Sasser writes:
When he squeezes the trigger, it makes as much noise as a small cannon. Under the right conditions, it's a deep, explosive "boom" that can heard just about anywhere on the 900-acre spread. [...]
Van Poppel stays busy coaching youth baseball these days and heads south to the ranch every chance he gets. Both his kids took their first deer on the family ranch last season, and the kids don't much like it when he goes turkey hunting during the school week and leaves them at home.