Monday, March 24, 2008

Who I'm Watching: John Patterson

This is the first in an occasional series on players that I'll be watching this year with special interest. I have a few in mind and there's no common thread.

Tonight's installment is John Patterson, the prototypical oft-injured power pitcher who was cut by the Nationals last week and this evening signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers. Call me a sap, but I hate to see players who can't stay healthy enough to enjoy the fruits of their own talent. There's something particularly poetic about Patterson, who has enjoyed just one shining season against a star-crossed career.

Patterson was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1996 and broke into the major leagues with Arizona in 2002. The owner of a power-fastball and a big-breaking-curve, he enjoyed by far his best season in 2005, when he struck out 185 batters in 198 innings with a 3.13 ERA, good for ninth in the National League. It was, to date, the only time in his career he topped 100 IP in a major league season, and he would follow it up with a disappointing 72 innings in 2006 and 2007 combined. Over parts of 6 MLB seasons, Patterson has started just 78 games and pitched just 454 innings.

Let's take a look at how his career has unfolded:

June 4, 1996: The Montreal Expos select Patterson with the fifth pick in the first round of the amateur draft, out of West Orange Stark High School in West Orange, Texas.

October 24, 1996: Granted free agency by Major League Baseball after Montreal failed to offer him a contract within fifteen days.

November 7, 1996: Signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for a reported $6 million.

1997: A nice pro debut in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, with a 3.23 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 78 innings. His walk rate is high, at 3.9 BB/9 IP.

1998: A big-time breakout campaign, especially given the very hitter-friendly California League as a context, with a 2.83 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 127 innings. He exhibits improved control to go with his power pitching; his walk rate drops to 3.0 BB/9.

[Side note: Patterson's home park in the California League was High Desert, which Baseball America described in a 2006 story as "a pitching purgatory--a place where the thin air and high winds regularly produce farcical scores." Unless the park has changed markedly in the meantime, that makes Patterson's line doubly impressive. Man, I would love to see what the 1999 Baseball America prospect handbook has to say about him after that 1998 season. Anybody spare a copy?]

1999: Signs of regression. Patterson posts a 5.29 combined ERA in AA and AAA. He's still striking people out, with 10.0 K/9, but his walk rate is higher than ever, at 4.1 BB/9.

2000: Injuries start to rear their head. Patterson throws just 15 innings all season; undergoes Tommy John surgery in May.

2001: Returning from surgery, Patterson struggles, with a 5.47 ERA in 102 innings for AAA Tucson. His strikeout rate is down, at just 6.0 K/9, while his walk rate is a relatively low-for-him 3.8 BB/9.

2002-2003: Makes his pro debut in 2002; bounces up and down between AAA Tucson and the major league club in Phoenix, pitching 30.7 MLB innings in '02 and 55 innings in '03.

March 27, 2004: Out of options and not likely to make the MLB team out of Spring Training, Patterson is dealt by the Diamondbacks to the Montreal Expos for Randy Choate.

2004: Patterson makes 19 starts for the Expos, compiling a 5.03 ERA over 98.3 innings. Evidence of a power arm is there, as he posts a very solid 9.1K/9. Poor control is equally evident, with a 4.2 BB/9.

Baseball Prospectus 2005: Patterson is "cheap, armed with good stuff, and might be a few adjustments away from becoming this rotation's #2 guy. PECOTA likes his profile, and we like his curveball; when that things's really breaking, it's almost hypnotic. Breakout candidate."

2005: And there it is, he puts it all together for one scintillating campaign: 31 starts, 198 innings, 8.4K/9 and a 2.9BB/9. Power and control combine for a 3.13 ERA. The Nationals reward him with terrible run support; he compiles a modest 9-7 record.

Baseball Prospectus 2006: "Eyeballs and PECOTA agreed when we touted Patterson as a breakout candidate last year, and he more than lived up to the billing...There isn't a lot of reason to expect him to regress; the park's still roomy, his elbow surgery is pretty far back in his past, and the time he missed in 2004 was a result of a strained groin."

2006: Alas, it was not meant to be. After a well-deserved turn as the Nationals' Opening Day starter, Patterson manages just 40 innings over 8 starts before being shut down due to elbow and forearm problems.

2007: Patterson was the Opening Day starter again, but he was clearly rushed back and manages just 31 innings over 7 starts.

That brings us to 2008. By now, the bloom is more or less off the rose - per Baseball Prospectus: "This will be Year Three since Patterson's 2005 breakout, and there's still no certainty about whether his elbow is really right...He's supposed to be back, and he's supposed to be fine, but we've heard that before. Give it ten starts before you drink the Kool-Aid."

For his part, Patterson reported to Nationals spring training this year with a feeling of optimism.
"It was right around the time the calendar flipped to December, out on a ballfield in far East Texas, when John Patterson reared back and threw -- and saw something that made his heart flutter. The ball took off, toward its target, but instead of merely dropping into the glove of his throwing partner, Patterson could swear to God it accelerated in midflight -- or 'hopped' -- just like it used to do, a couple of years and a couple of surgeries ago. And it was right then, and it was right there, that Patterson knew he was back."

"'The ball just had a little hop on it", Patterson recalled Thursday, as he sat in the clubhouse of the Washington Nationals' training complex. "And I hadn't seen that in a couple years. . . . When I started seeing that again, I said: 'Here we go. We're going in the right direction.' "
February 22, 2008: Patterson looked forward to a big step in his recovery.
Patterson threw an eight-minute bullpen session Friday and spent much of it tinkering with his mechanics. "Everything feels good," he said. "I'm ready to face some hitters."
March 1, 2008: Patterson's first outing reveals that he may not be as far along as the team had hoped.
A day after potential Opening Day starter John Patterson said he did not go all-out in his first outing of the spring so that he could refine his mechanics, General Manager Jim Bowden said he would prefer for Patterson to establish his fastball and build arm strength.

"I was just glad that he took the mound and he got his first outing out of the way," Bowden said of Patterson, who has been limited to 15 starts the past two years by a series of arm injuries. "That being said, he was trying to get them out. He threw too many breaking balls. He cut his arm off. He had very short arm action.

"My preference would be, 'Let's establish the fastball and build up arm strength and get hit.' "

Bowden stressed that in his bullpen sessions, Patterson has let the ball go and extended himself more, giving his fastball more jump. But after his two-inning outing against the Baltimore Orioles, Patterson said he preferred to tweak his mechanics before unleashing his best fastball in games. He said his stride was about six inches shorter than it would be normally -- 5 1/2 feet as opposed to six. He also said he is working to get his hand in the right position on the ball at his release point.

March 6, 2008: A rainout delays the John Patterson watch.

"I'd like to see the fastball," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

"I think everyone wants to see what he can do," veteran reliever Ray King said.

Patterson is now in a bit of an odd space in his own clubhouse. He is neither promising prospect nor presumed ace, not a reliable 200-inning veteran nor a hanger-on. Rather, the Nationals need Patterson to be something he has been infrequently in a professional career that dates from 1997.

"He doesn't need to throw 200 innings," said José Rijo, a special assistant to Bowden who reached that number just three times in a 14-year career hampered by injuries. "He just needs to go out there every five days. The best thing he can do is make the manager feel comfortable. One thing the manager hates is something that he has to worry about. Then it's harder for him. It screws up the whole program."

Thus, each of Patterson's starts -- be it in Viera or Washington -- is met with some mix of anticipation and trepidation. What might go right often is overlooked, replaced by what could go wrong. "History's there," Manager Manny Acta said. "You can't change it."

March 17, 2008: Patterson struggles in a spring game in Fort Lauderdale.
Trying to build arm strength after a season in which he made only seven starts, [Patterson] allowed six runs in four innings in an 11-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles and said his entire body felt "tight" afterward.
March 20, 2008: The Nationals release John Patterson.
Faced with the prospect of sending John Patterson to the mound every five days this season with perhaps 75 percent of the stuff that made him a budding ace three years ago -- while forcing a younger, more effective pitcher to the minors -- the Washington Nationals abruptly released him instead, a bold move that would have seemed unthinkable a month ago, when Patterson was spoken of as possibly throwing the first pitch at the Nationals' new stadium on Opening Day.
"I knew it could happen," said Patterson, who has battled arm injuries while making only 15 starts and winning just twice over the past two seasons. "It's understandable. If I was in [Jim Bowden's] position, maybe I'd have done the same thing. I knew it was a tough mountain to climb. It was [a matter of] how much time they were going to give me."

According to Bowden, the Nationals felt Patterson's stuff was actually better last spring than this one, as his fastball has been clocked consistently in the 83-86 mph range, down from the low 90s at his best in 2005. It Patterson was truly healthy, as he claims, the Nationals believed it was possible this was as good as he would ever be again.

Patterson emphasized he had no regrets or hard feelings toward the Nationals over the move, but acknowledged feeling "caught in between" the forces he said were pulling him in different directions this spring, with Acta wanting to see him retire batters and Bowden telling him to throw his fastball more.
March 24, 2008 - The Texas Rangers sign John Patterson to a minor league contract.
Patterson, who was the Nationals' Opening Day pitcher in 2007, was pursued by a number of teams, but chose to go with the Rangers because of a long-standing relationship with pitching coach Mark Connor from their time together with the Diamondbacks.

"He understands what I need," Patterson said. "He's a big part of why I am here."

Patterson was 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA for the Nationals in 2005, but has made just 15 starts over the past two years, because of nerve damage in his right forearm. He underwent surgery on Sept. 14. The Nationals then released him .

He passed his physical on Monday and will begin a long-toss throwing program on Tuesday. The Rangers don't expect him to be ready to pitch in the Minor Leagues until late April or early May.

"I just need to throw," Patterson said. "I need to get out there and start throwing again. With the work I did in the offseason, I see my velocity getting there. It's just a matter of getting my strength built up and maintaining it over the course of the year."

You can hear it in his words: Hope springs eternal. There's something admirable about the fact that he just wants another chance to throw the baseball. Is it persistence? Is it denial and delusion? What's the difference?

John Patterson will get a chance to revive his career in Texas. If that doesn't work out, he'll probably get another chance somewhere else down the line. He's made a good living as a professional athlete, even if his body prevented him from cashing the really big paychecks. If he never starts another major league game, he'll always know that for one splendid summer he was among the best in the game. As long as he's willing to pick up a baseball, I'll be watching to see if he can do it again.

Next time on Who I'm Watching: Mark Reynolds.

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