Big League Stew

Taking a look back at the career of Mike Hampton

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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To no one's surprise, Mike Hampton called it a career on Saturday. Unfortunately, over the past six years, he's become less known for pitching and more for a seemingly constant run of injuries. His retirement always seemed just around the corner.

But Hampton was also a Cy Young runner-up, a Gold Glover, a two-time All-Star and a five-time Silver Slugger award winner. He was one of the best pitchers at the turn of the millennium, and appeared to be fully in his prime when the Colorado Rockies made him the best-paid pitcher in history, signing him to an eight-year, $121 million contract in late 2000 at the age of 28. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the high point of his career. {YSP:MORE}

As John Sickels recounts, Hampton was originally a Seattle Mariners draftee, taken out of a Florida high school in 1990. He moved quickly through the minors, perhaps too quickly: He got his first cup of coffee as a 20-year-old in 1993, and got crushed, giving up 18 earned runs in 17 innings in Seattle. The Mariners washed their hands of him, trading him to the Houston Astros that offseason for utility outfielder Eric Anthony. It might not have been Seattle's worst move of the 1990s — trading Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997 comes to mind — but Hampton didn't take much time to make the Mariners regret the trade, pitching effectively in relief in 1994 and then becoming a full-time starter in 1995. In his first full season in the rotation in 1995, he went 9-8 with a 3.35 ERA as a 22-year-old in the back of the Astros' rotation, alongside a future Rockie teammate named Darryl Kile.

From 1995-1999, the groundball-inducing Hampton was one of the best starters in the majors, posting a 67-39 record with a 3.39 ERA. He was arguably the best-hitting pitcher in the majors, too, finishing with a career line of .246/.294/.356, with 16 homers and 79 RBIs. His first manager with the Astros was current New York Mets manager Terry Collins, who led the team to three straight second-place finishes. After Collins was replaced with Larry Dierker, the Astros won the NL Central three years in a row.

Hampton's best season was 1999, when he went 22-4, pitching 239 innings with a 2.90 ERA, as well as compiling a .311 batting average and 10 RBIs. That was the year he finished second in the Cy Young voting to Randy Johnson, who won his second award, and the first of four in a row. (The Sporting News named Hampton its Pitcher of the Year.)

With Hampton eligible for free agency after the 2000 season, the Astros must have thought that they'd already seen the best of him, or realized they wouldn't be able to afford him. So in December 1999 they traded him and Derek Bell to the Mets for Octavio Dotel, speedster Roger Cedeno, and a prospect. It may have been a prescient move. Though Cedeno never did much for the Astros (or anyone else), Dotel has arguably had a better career than Hampton since the trade, accumulating 13.8 WAR since 2000 to Hampton's 7.7.

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Still, facing free agency, Hampton was nearly as good for the Mets as he had been in 1999 with the Astros: He went 15-10 with a 3.14 ERA in 217 2/3 innings for the wild card-winning Mets, and pitched brilliantly in the NLCS, holding the Cardinals scoreless in 16 innings over two starts as he led the Mets to their first World Series appearance since 1986. He was named the NLCS MVP, and not long after the end of the World Series, he got his payday.

You probably remember the rest. After an All-Star first half in Colorado in 2001, he fell apart, putting up a 6.56 ERA over his next 44 starts in Colorado. After his disastrous 2002, the Rockies had seen enough of him, trading him with Juan Pierre and $12.5 million to the Florida Marlins; the Marlins then traded him and $23.5 million to the Atlanta Braves, two days later. The Rockies received Charles Johnson, Preston Wilson, reliever Vic Darensbourg and utility infielder Pablo Ozuna while the Marlins received reliever Tim Spooneybarger. The Braves, meanwhile, were left holding the ticket for the remaining $48.5 million over the next six years of his contract. He pitched relatively well when healthy, which he mostly was in 2003 and 2004, but then in 2005 his body simply began to give out. Tommy John surgery ended his season, and he began a long half-decade where he spent more time in the doctor's office than a clubhouse.

Pitching is an unnatural activity which places strains on human muscles that they were not built to bear, and Mike Hampton's body simply became unable to sustain the rigors of baseball. The injuries mounted, and after a few years of watching him constantly rehab and then constantly relapse with a different diagnosis, his health issues became a running gag. Braves blogger Mac Thomason made a series of mocking web videos and wrote, "I think the man is made out of papier-mache." He was placed on the 15-day DL four separate times in 2005, and then spent all of 2006 and 2007, and most of 2008 and 2009, on the 60-day DL. It was inspiring to see him make 13 starts in 2008, and then another 21 in 2009, after going two years without an appearance, but he wasn't particularly effective, and his 2009 ended with a labrum tear that required surgery. He ended his career on a happy note last year, pitching 4 1/3 scoreless innings in 10 appearances as a lefty specialist in the Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen. It was a far better result than was managed by his fellow veteran hopefuls, Bobby Howry, Dontrelle Willis, and Kris Benson, who likewise retired this winter after an unceasing string of injuries.

Hampton's retirement has been a long time coming. But he's at peace with his career. As he told MLB.com's Mark Bowman:

It's unfortunate. I've thought about it quite a bit. Shoot, when I sign a big contract, I want to be underpaid, not overpaid. Even though I wasn't as successful as I would have liked to have been, it wasn't from a lack of trying or lack of work or lack of want. I did everything in my power to be on the field and help my team win a World Series. I can look in the mirror and face the guy looking back and know he's telling the truth.

Mike Hampton won 148 games in the major leagues, tied with Mark Buehrle, Firpo Marberry and Brad Radke for 248th-most of all time, 62nd-most among left-handers. He made somewhere near $140 million, or just under a million dollars per win. His contract damned him to disappointment before the injuries did -- he never could have justified that salary, especially not in Coors Field, even if his arm had held up. With hindsight, though, we should deem his tenacity not laughable but admirable. He was a pretty good left-handed groundballer who had a few terrific seasons and whose desire to play baseball continued to burn after countless sprains, tears, surgeries and setbacks, and that's how I'd like to remember him. He was a bulldog on the mound and a real threat at the plate, a fine athlete whose desire outlasted his health.

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