Brandon Webb Prospect Retrospective
Brandon Webb announced his retirement yesterday, ending his three-year quest to recover from injury problems. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball before his arm gave out, so let's review his career with today's Prospect Retrospective.
Brandon Webb was drafted in the eighth round in 2000 from the University of Kentucky. He posted a 4.55 ERA in 113 innings for the Wildcats that spring, with a 123/41 K/BB and 123 hits allowed. Considering the offensive context in which he was pitching, his college performance was credible, but he wasn't seen as a hot prospect, projecting more as an inning-eater type due to an average fastball, although his curve and slider were solid. The Diamondbacks sent him to South Bend in the Low-A Midwest League for his debut, where he posted a 3.24 ERA with a 18/9 K/BB in 17 innings. I gave him a Grade C+ in my 2001 book, seeing him as a sleeper and writing that Webb "could end up being an astute pick."
Moved up to High-A Lancaster and into the starting rotation, Webb went 6-10 in 28 starts with a 3.99 ERA (very good for Lancaster), with a 158/44 K/BB in 162 innings, 174 hits allowed. Those were very solid numbers, particularly his K/BB ratio, but scouting reports were muted, pointing to just upper-80s velocity and average secondary pitches. He wasn't ranked in the Top 20 Cal League prospects by Baseball America, for example. I gave him a Grade C in the 2002 book, concerned by the lack of scouty buzz and noting that "none of his pitches were overwhelming", but I did write that he had a shot at being a "decent fourth starter." Nowadays, a guy with those numbers and scouting reports would likely get a Grade C+ from me, perhaps with a sleeper notation.
Moved up to Double-A El Paso to open 2002, Webb went 10-6, 3.14 in 25 starts with a 122/59 K/BB in 152 innings, 141 hits allowed. He ended the year with one start for Triple-A Tucson. His statistical performance was excellent, as he ranked fourth in the Texas League ERA hunt while posting solid components, especially considering the context in which he was pitching. Despite all this, there was still little scouting buzz about him, and he was once again left off the BA Top 20 list for his league.
I was fortunate enough to have seen him in person that summer, so I had a personal report to back up the intriguing numbers. Webb showed a nice 90-93 MPH power sinker, both his slider and curveball looked solid to me, and he was mixing in a better changeup. Based on one of those "gut instinct" things plus personal observation, I gave him a Grade B for 2003, though he fell just short of my Top 50 Pitching Prospects list.
Webb ended up spending most of 2003 in the Diamondbacks rotation and had an excellent rookie season, going 10-9, 2.84 in 28 starts with a 172/68 K/BB in 181 innings, with a tremendous 165 ERA+ and a 4.8 WAR. And that was just the beginning.
I was one of the optimists about him, but I didn't expect Webb to become the pitcher he did. As Jeff Sullivan puts it at Fangraphs, for six years "Webb was healthy and incredible. . .third in baseball among pitchers in WAR."
In six seasons before his shoulder finally exploded, Webb posted a 32.9 WAR. His worst season was 2004 with a 3.1 WAR. He led the National League in victories twice, made three All-Star teams, won the Cy Young Award in 2006 and was runner-up in both '07 and '08.
Overall, Webb went 87-62, 3.27 ERA, 142 ERA+ with a 1065/435 K/BB in 1320 innings, 1200 hits allowed. Yes, his career ended at age 30, and he is a good example of how shoulder injuries are not easy to come back from, not as "easy" as elbows anyway.
In career terms, Webb's 32.9 WAR in 1320 innings is an historical anomaly. Very few pitchers have racked up that much WAR in that short amount of pitching time.
There are 70 pitchers in major league history with a career WAR between 30 and 33. Of those 70 pitchers, Webb's 1320 innings is the fewest by far. In fact, in the 30-33 WAR band, only 15 pitchers have fewer than 2000 innings on their record, and only two of those (Joe Wood, WAR 30.2, 1436 IP), Ed Seward (30.7 WAR, 1486 IP) have fewer than 1500 innings. Wood pitched a hundred years ago and Seward was a 19th century guy, so they aren't really comparable.
Historical pitches with a similar WAR/innings profile include Bob Moose (22.8 WAR, 1304 IP), Mark Mulder (21.1 WAR, 1314 IP), Ewell Blackwell (25.2 WAR, 1321 IP), Len Barker (26.8 WAR, 1324 IP), Tex Hughson (27.3 WAR, 1376 IP), and Teddy Higuera (29.6 WAR, 1380 IP).
Unless I am missing something in the databases, Webb is the only pitcher in major league history who pitched between 1300 and 1400 innings in his complete career and posted a WAR in excess of 30.0.
As a prospect, Webb showed the ability to eat innings, throw strikes, get ground balls, and pitch well in difficult, high-offense environments despite middling scouting reports. He turned into an amazing pitcher, even if his career was too brief.
LESSONS LEARNED: Gut instincts can pan out. Staying healthy is a skill. If a pitcher throws strikes, he has something to build on. Don't be afraid to go against the crowd.