Something really weird happened to me this afternoon. I got all nostalgic about Mark Mulder. I was thinking about pitching, preparing to write a post about the rise of a new wave of aces, when all of a sudden there he was. Mark Mulder, free agent. He was sitting in an empty dugout, gazing out on some nameless field, arms crossed, gangly legs kicked out.
Mark Mulder is only 32 years old. He’s got a career record of 103-60. He has started an All-Star game. He has won big in the playoffs. He has led the American League in wins. And now he is all but forgotten. He is not on a big league roster. He is not on a minor league roster. And he is definitely, definitely not among the National League’s ERA leaders.
That list belongs to a different generation. If in some alternate universe Mark Mulder was among the top ten pitchers in the NL in ERA, he would be the second-oldest pitcher there. Once again, Mark Mulder turns 33 in August.
As of today, June 17, 2009, 33-year old Ted Lilly is the elder statesman amongst NL ERA leaders. Next is Dan Haren, 28. After that it’s a bunch of guys aged 23-26. Their names are Johnny Ceuto, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Chad Billingsley, Josh Johnsen, Jair Jurrjens, Yovani Gallardo, and Zach Duke.
ERA is a clumsy metric and stats in mid-June don’t mean a whole lot. But that’s not the point. The list above provides a rough snapshot of the next few years of NL pitching excellence. Surely some of these young guys won’t maintain their current paces, and some guys who aren’t in the top ten will surpass them. If you look beyond the photo’s borders (pardon the extended metaphor), you’ll find unsurprising things: Johan Santana is 11th in the NL in ERA, Roy Halladay is dominating the American League, and CC Sabathia is doing his usual.
But stay within the borders for a moment. Examine this snapshot in detail, ye nostalgic baseball fans, and despair. For soon, none of the old arms outside it will remain. In other words, classes of stud pitchers rise and fall. They rise in exciting waves, cresting like Ceuto and Cain and company right now. Then they fall as pieces, each pitcher alone in success or failure. Some linger, immune to gravity and time like Greg Maddux. Others go the way of the Mulder.
Consider, for a moment, the wave of the early 2000’s. We can call it the Mulder Collective and take 2003 as the year it crested. The American League saw big –or at least very promising – efforts from Roy Halladay, Barry Zito, Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Mark Buehrle, Joel Pineiro, and Mulder himself. The NL saw big things from Brandon Webb, Javier Vazquez, Roy Oswalt, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano. (At this point, Cubs fans are excused). It’s worth noting also, that a year later Jake Peavy and Ben Sheets emerged as aces.
The members of the Mulder Collective didn’t necessarily rise as a monolithic entity. They all entered the league at different times and ages, surrounded by varying degrees of hype and expectations. In the six years since, each member has found his own unique level of success, and they’ve combined for 25 top-5 Cy Young finishes. But at one point, before their destinies unfolded, an air of mystery surrounded the group. Who would climb Mount Olympus? Who would tempt greatness, but ultimately fly too close to the sun?
It’s all fairly arbitrary isn’t it? The Mulder Collective is my invention. It’s how I make myth out of men, because in the end they are just men. That these men happen to be the first pitchers I watched consciously as they entered the league and matured in it is coincidence. That their arrival coincided with the peak of my late-adolescent fantasy baseball obsession is also coincidence. For somebody a few years older, that first class of pitchers might be called the Millwood Collective.
I have no proof statistically that great pitchers arrive in clusters. They probably don’t. If the Mulder Collective is just projected out of my imagination, then the current state of the pitching leader board is an anomaly caused by small sample size, or just a sign of years passing. I’m looking for something meaningful in a relatively meaningless data set.
If the national pastime is baseball, then the national pastime of baseball fans is building up myths and debunking them. Baseball, more than any other sport, is defined by the tension between the truths we believe emotionally and the truths we understand intellectually. It’s about myths and symbols vs. facts and figures; guts and instincts vs. cold competence. In its current form (tools vs. stats, Joe Morgan vs. rational thought), the quarrel has escalated almost to the point where it undermines the fact that its own nature as a pastime. The joy of myth and the joy of fact need one another. Together, they buoy the Game.
In 2003, when the Mulder Collective began to assert itself, I did not have the burden of perspective. There were many great young pitchers and I watched them and I followed their performances and that was it. I would never have bunched them together as a unit like I do in retrospect. I would certainly never have named them. But at the same time, I was excited about them and amazed by them. There was so much joy in Barry Zito’s soul-crushing curveball, in Mark Buehrle’s robotic consistency that I feel ridiculous just typing about it. But it was there. I expected all of them, even Joel Pineiro, to be great.
Now the wave of pitchers dominating baseball is my age or just a few years older. Maybe that’s why I noticed them in the first place. But regardless of how good they are – and they are damn good – the myth seems a little less elevated. I know more about these pitchers as they rise than I did about the members of the Mulder Collective, and I certainly know more about baseball. I know with dead certainty that some of these guys will flame out, or go the way of the Mulder. But a couple will pitch like heroes long enough that they become them.
There is no back-story compelling enough to preordain success. Nor does any past achievement guarantee a future one. The Mulder Collective is breaking, piece by piece into the individual stories of its members. And it will be replaced by these new kids, with new stories. The real magic is in that cycle, those stories, and the mysteries of their unfolding.