Jeff Suppan, who retired yesterday, was the sort of pitcher who makes you think pitching must not be that hard. He didn't throw hard, he didn't have a great breaking ball, he didn't have a deceptive motion, he didn't do much at all, really. He seemed to just take the ball and throw it. He did that over and over and over. He wasn't that great at it, all told. But he did it for 17 years. Part of me wonders if it's not more impressive to do something mediocre for 17 years than to do something amazing for two.
Suppan seemed to understand this. In his statement to Jon Heyman yesterday -- on his 39th birthday, and exactly six years after the death of his mother -- Suppan said, "After 17 Major League seasons, I've squeezed everything out of my ability." There is something charmingly modest about that statement. Superstars don't say they "squeezed" every last drop out of their ability; they have talent oozing out of every pore. It is just us normal people who have to squeeze. And isn't that all we all want? To squeeze what we can out of the natural limitations imposed on us? Jeff Suppan was an average -- sometimes below average -- pitcher. He was that for 17 years.
Jeff Suppan's is a baseball life. Before he's forgotten forever, let's take a few moments to look at what 17 years in the world of baseball will get you.
He gave up a ton of homers. When you pitch for 17 years in Major League Baseball, even if you're not all that good, you're going to make a mark. Jeff Suppan, regular fella, actually shows up on a few all-time lists. Here's where Suppan ranks in baseball history:
Strikeouts: 1,390 (232nd)
Games started: 417 (107th)
Hits allowed: 2,843 (152nd)
Home runs allowed: 337 (34th)
Walks allowed: 871 (178th)
Losses: 146 (175th)
Earned runs allowed: 1,328 (75th)
Wild pitches: 89 (139th)
Batters hit by pitch: 94 (105th)
Batters faced: 11,139 (206th)
I think that last one is my favorite. There have been billions of billions of people throughout human history and only 205 have pitched to more major league hitters than Jeff Suppan. That's not nothing, you know?
He looked like a generic video game pitcher. If you play MLB The Show -- I'll confess an addiction -- there is a generic pitcher you can modify to look like you, or one of your friends or Sideshow Bob, whoever. But he basically starts out looking exactly like Jeff Suppan. Jeff Suppan is of average height, average build, average complexion, average throwing motion, all of it. Even his beard looks average. Jeff Suppan is Default Normal Guy.
He made the mistake of being bad in Boston. Looking at Suppan -- and noting he never quite touched 90 on the radar gun -- it is surprising he could have ever been considered a prospect. (He's the type of person who feels like he was born in his mid-30s.) But he made his debut in 1995 at the age of 20 for the Boston Red Sox, who had drafted him two years earlier in the second round. Yes, Jeff Suppan was once a phenom. Unfortunately, he was lousy for the Sox (a 5.87 ERA lifetime for Boston) and his name became a punchline for the team's fans his entire career. When you're bad in Boston or New York, because so much of the nation's baseball media is based there, it can be difficult to ever be taken seriously after that. (Ask Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett, who were fine everywhere they pitched other than New York but are still considered a joke by most baseball writers.) No matter what Suppan did everywhere else, he was always mocked by Red Sox fans.
He's responsible for the worst baserunning play in World Series history. Don't worry, Kolten Wong, if Cardinals fans could forgive Jeff Suppan for this, they'll have no problem letting that pickoff go.
The look on third base coach Jose Oquendo's face there … you could write a novel off that expression.
He was an expansion pick. When Boston got sick of him, they left him unprotected in the 1997 expansion draft. It probably wouldn't be wise for Major League Baseball to expand again, but it would almost be worth it just for the expansion draft. Can you imagine, with the amount of attention paid to baseball now, and the number of people getting awesomely wonky about the game, how much fun an expansion draft would be? (Keith Law's mock drafts would be epic.) The Arizona Diamondbacks chose Suppan with their second pick, and he was the last player of the draft still active. The best? Probably Bobby Abreu.
He hit two homers his whole career, both off the same guy. That pitcher was Steve Trachsel -- amusingly, No. 2 on Suppan's Similarity Score on Baseball Reference -- and the second one was in Game 3 of the 2006 National League Championship Series against the Mets.
He once outdueled Roger Clemens in an elimination game. Ending the 2004 NLCS, the best playoff series no one saw.
For one week, he was a golden god. Suppan's career ERA-plus was 97, which makes him almost definitively a slightly below-average pitcher for his career. But for one week in the month of October 2006, he was Bob Gibson. Suppan essentially beat the New York Mets by himself, giving up just one run in 15 innings in the 2006 NLCS, including a terrific Game 7 start that helped the Cardinals clinch a trip to the World Series. The Bob Gibson comparison falls apart when you look beyond Suppan's surface stats. He faced 57 batters in that NLCS and only struck out six, as many as he walked. He still gave up only one run. He won MVP of that NLCS -- joining Ozzie Smith, Darrell Porter, Albert Pujols, David Freese and Michael Wacha in Cardinals history -- and set himself up for a free-agent contract that offseason from the Milwaukee Brewers that, inevitably, turned out to be a disaster. The Brewers gave Suppan $42 million for four years, such an insane deal that Suppan ended pitching for the Cardinals again, essentially for free. Just to annoy the Brewers, he was better that season than he ever was for Milwaukee.
This is key to the Suppan legacy, such as it is. He was never great. He was rarely good. But he was always there. And when you're always there, sometimes, everything will align just right. Baseball has unlikely heroes because everything that happens in baseball is unlikely. Woody Allen famously said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. Jeff Suppan always showed up. That seems like small praise. But it's not. For all of us, really: It's just about what we can squeeze out. Jeff Suppan squeezed out a ton.