Prospect Retrospective: Vida Blue
The only place in Oakland you might have found a pitch count in 1971 was on Sesame Street.
Vida Blue was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in the second round in 1967, out of high school in Mansfield, Louisiana. A multi-sport athlete, he was an excellent quarterback who drew interest from many top football programs; indeed, many experts thought he was better at football than baseball. Blue chose to sign with the Athletics and play baseball. He was the oldest of six children and responsible for the family after the death of his father, so he felt he had little choice.
Sent to the Arizona League, he threw 34 innings with a 2.65 ERA and a 26/22 K/BB with 26 hits allowed. He was rather raw, but was extremely athletic and had the arm strength you'd expect from a top-flight quarterback. Nowadays, someone like that (second round pick, great athlete, strong arm, rather raw and just getting started) would be something like a high-ceiling B- prospect.
Sent to Burlington in the Midwest League for 1968, Blue posted a 2.49 ERA with 231 strikeouts and 80 walks in 152 innings with just 102 hits allowed. With that many strikeouts, walks, and innings pitched, his pitch counts must have been murderous by modern standards. He made a name for himself as a prospect quickly, showing an overpowering mid-90s fastball and big-breaking curveball, but his command needed work. He would certainly be considered a superior prospect nowadays, a Grade A- or maybe even a straight-A if reports on his command projection were good enough.
Blue moved up to Double-A Birmingham in 1969, going 10-3, 3.20 with a 112/52 K/BB in 104 innings with just 80 hits allowed. Command was still a concern, but his stuff was blistering, with his fastball now approaching 100 MPH at times, along with the wicked-nasty curveball and a very good changeup.
He received a trial in Oakland and had problems, posting a 6.64 ERA in 42 innings with a 24/18 K/BB and 49 hits allowed. His stuff was first-class but he still needed more time to put it together, hardly an issue since he was just 20 years old. He'd have to rate as a Grade A guy.
He spent most of 1970 in Des Moines, pitching outstandingly for the Triple-A Iowa Oaks of the American Association, posting a 12-3, 2.17 ERA with a 165/55 K/BB in 133 innings with just 88 hits allowed. He made such a positive impression that long-time baseball watchers in Des Moines still talked about his tenure there 20 years later.
Promoted to the majors in September, he made six starts for Oakland and wowed the baseball world by throwing a no-hitter against the Minnesota Twins on September 21st. It was no fluke; he had obviously found the mark with the strike zone, posting a 2.09 ERA with a 35/12 K/BB in 39 innings with just 20 hits allowed. This would have put him past rookie qualifications, but he was clearly one of the best young pitchers in the game entering 1971.
He exceeded every possible expectation. He made 39 starts in 1971, completing 24 games, throwing eight shutouts. He won the Cy Young Award, and the American League MVP award, going 24-8 with a league-leading 1.82 ERA, with a 301/88 K/BB ratio and just 209 hits allowed in 312 innings. His ERA+ was 183 and he racked up 8.7 WAR.
It was one of the best pitching campaigns in baseball history, a performance which earned Blue a salary of $14,700, a small sum even then.
Blue and cheapskate Athletics owner Charlie Finley could not agree on a salary for 1972, so Blue held out in spring training. He eventually signed for $63,000, but it took time to get back in pitching shape and he made just 23 starts. He wasn't terrible, posting a 2.80 ERA (102 ERA+) with a 111/48 K/BB in 151 innings, but he went 6-10 and wasn't in the post-season starting rotation.
He got his starting job back in 1973 and rebounded with a solid season, going 20-9 with a 3.28 ERA. He was quite effective, but not utterly dominating as he'd been in '71. His stuff (while still excellent) wasn't as good as it had been before, which set the pattern for the rest of his career.
His best subsequent season was 1976, when he posted a 7.0 WAR with a 2.35 ERA (142 ERA+), winning 18 games for a team that was unraveling due to Finley's inability to pay competitive salaries as the free agent era began.
Traded off to the San Francisco Giants in 1978, he pitched well in three out of four seasons, then was traded off to the Kansas City Royals. He had one decent campaign for the Royals in '82, but '83 he sank into a morass of terrible pitching, drug use, an arrest for cocaine possession, jail time, and a release from the Royals in August. He drew a suspension for the entirety of 1984.
He made a comeback in '85 with the Giants, then put in one final season with a 3.27 ERA in 28 starts for San Francisco in '86 before retiring.
Blue never fully lived up to what he showed in 1971. Was it the extreme workload? All the innings did seem to cut his stuff back. However, Blue remained a very effective, durable, and often dominating pitcher for an entire decade. Indeed, aside from the '72 holdout season, he threw 220 or more innings every season until the '81 strike year, with only one campaign (1979 at age 29) with an ERA worse than league average.
Blue's problems with substance abuse are another matter: he battled problems with cocaine and alcohol until it all came crashing down in ‘83. Of course, it is impossible to know how his career would have gone without the addiction factor.
For all of the issues with drugs, salary disputes, and his extreme early workload, Blue's career turned out pretty damn well. He won 209 games, threw 3343 innings, posted a 3.27 ERA (108 ERA+) and racked up 45.3 WAR. He won 20 or more games three times and made six All-Star teams.
His list of Sim Score comparables: Billy Pierce, Catfish Hunter, Orel Hershiser, Hal Newhouser, Bob Welch, Milt Pappas, Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown, Don Drysdale, and Bucky Walters. His 45.3 WAR puts him in a neighborhood of with some other very successful pitchers: Sam McDowell (46.0), Dennis Martinez (45.7), Jon Matlack (45.5), Hershiser (45.2), and Rube Marquard (44.0). There are some borderline Hall of Famers there, and every one was a star in his time.
Perhaps Vida Blue fell short of what he might have been, but he was still pretty damn special.