Cosart, Simpson, History Lesson

USA TODAY Sports

Jarred Cosart's first four games accomplish a rookie performance unseen since the Reds' Wayne Simpson in 1970.

A history tid bit inspired this post. Brian T. Smith at chron.com points out:

Cosart is just the second pitcher in the last 100 years to throw six-plus innings while allowing one run or less in their first four starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He joins Cincinnati’s Wayne Simpson, who accomplished the feat in 1970.

Cosart has been stellar, giving up only 3 runs in his first 28 inning, for a microscopic 0.96 ERA. But the name that caught my attention is Wayne Simpson. That set me out on a history lesson---and a cautionary tale about rookie pitchers.

You see, I very much remember Wayne Simpson. He was one of the great rookie pitching phenoms in baseball history. And, as a young man, I had been following baseball closely for only 2 or 3 years when he led his team against the Astros.

Jealousy isn't a commendable emotion. But it sometimes envelops the emotions of sports fans. I felt the kind of jealousy you feel when a division rival calls up a rookie pitcher and he instantly becomes the best pitcher in baseball. It was unfair. 1970 was the first year of the Big Red Machine (the Reds jumped from 3d to 1st place with 104 wins). And combining a pitcher who was near-unhittable with that kind of offense was unfair.

Before the all-star break, Simpson was 14-1 with a 2.69 ERA, a .189 BA-against, and 1.51 K/BB ratio. Johnny Bench wrote in his autobiography that Simpson had the "most explosive stuff" he ever saw in his career. He had a high velocity fastball that darted and dived, and a change up that fell off the table. Then Simpson suffered an arm injury in the second half of the season, and it just seemed like he was gone. As fast as he became baseball's most talked about pitcher, you never heard about him again.

Reading about the connection to Cosart led me to do a little research about what happened to Simpson. As it turns out, we see some similarities between Simpson and J.R. Richard's tale. And a cautionary story about the treatment of young pitchers' arms. For this post, I relied on a SABR biography project article on Simpson by Rory Costello, as well as a 1981 article "Price of Persistence" in the New York Times.

Some points of interest about Wayne Simpson:

  • He has a couple of other Astros' connections. As a young baseball player, Don Wilson's father was his American Legion coach. Also, former Astros pitcher and scout Scipio Spinks is a distant cousin of Simpson.
  • As a high school quarterback, Simpson threw a touchdown of 88 yards on the fly. His parent wanted him to go to college, and UCLA and USC offered football scholarships. But major college programs weren't ready for African American quarterbacks Simpson didn't want to be a cornerback, and he signed in 1967 with the Reds as the 8th pick of the first round of the MLB draft.
  • As a young minor leaguer, Simpson's fastball was regarded as special, but his control was not good. Simpson's BB/9 ranged from 7.9 (A ball) to 5.7 (AAA). His k/9 was 6.7. Shortly before the 1970 season, Simpson had a breakthrough improvement in his control; Simpson credited Reds' catcher Pat Corrales with helping him figure out his control problems.
  • Simpson was chosen for the All Star team as a rookie, but he didn't get in the game. On July 31, 1970, Simpson felt a painful snap in his shoulder, but somehow rang up the final two outs of the inning. Hoping to get him ready for the post-season, the Reds gave Simpson two weeks rest and then gave him two unsuccessful starts. Simpson was given Novocain injections for the pain before pitching, saying, "I didn’t know any better. I just wanted to pitch." In the second start, he had serious internal bleeding in his shoulder. The orthopedic specialist told him that he needed 3 - 4 years of rehabilitation.
  • Most likely, Simpson's arm injury was caused by an excessive inning workload for a 21 year old major league pitcher. Between the minor leagues, winter league, spring training, and the majors, Simpson logged more than 400 innings over a one and two thirds year period. Interviewed years later, Simpson says he wishes that pitch count restrictions had been used then. Even though he was effective in 1970, he had some continuing bouts of wildness which drove up his pitch counts past 140 pitches in some games.

Despite the seriousness of his shoulder injury, Simpson continued pitching through pain with the Reds in the next two years. His relationship with the Reds began to deteriorate, with the Reds doubting the extent of his injury. Sparky Anderson publicly said that Simpson's injuries were in his head. Without today's diagnostic technology, team doctors couldn't pinpoint the cause of his pain.

Simpson was traded to the Royals, and subsequently pitched in the major and minor leagues for the Royals, Phillies, and Angels in the 1970's. He adapted himself to a different style of pitching, with less velocity and more craftiness. But he was a marginal 4A type pitcher. Executives of ML teams continued to question his complaints of arm injury, which included periodic bouts of painful cramps in his arm.

In 1979, Simpson tried to resurrect his career in the Mexican League when he had his most severe bout of shoulder and arm cramps after a bullpen session. His hand became cold, white without any feeling, and the team doctor told him that he would need emergency surgery in order to avoid amputation of his hand. Simpson had a blood clot in his arm and was fortunate that he didn't suffer a stroke, like J.R. Richard did the next year.

Simpson underwent several bypass surgeries in Los Angeles, but was still unable to use his hand. As a result, he went to famed Houston doctor, Denton Cooley, for further surgery to increase the flow of blood to his arm. Simpson says that the artery in his shoulder was destroyed by pitching through the torn rotator cuff injury. His arm remains disabled, though he finds that he can use modern devices like the iPhone.

So, the next time you hear someone complaining about baseball organizations "coddling" young pitching prospects, think about Wayne Simpson's story.

Also, if the time comes to shut down Cosart this season because of his innings work load (and I think that time will occur at some point this year), don't get mad. There is no reason to take unnecessary risks.

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