Todd Van Poppel – 1994 O-Pee-Chee

December 3, 2010

The Ballad Of Todd Van Poppel

Well, it ain’t gonna write itself, is it? Though I don’t think Todd will ever get a song of his own, not like Dock Ellis, or Catfish Hunter, or even Van Lingle Mungo.

What we have with Todd is a story, mostly sad, but there’s a glimmer of redemption here.

He was a highly touted prospect in the 1990 draft. That was a very strong draft, but by all measures Van Poppel was the cream of the crop. Chipper Jones went #1, and Van Poppel only went #14, but by all measures that was a economy move by Atlanta.

The sad is this:

1. He signed a major league contract as a high school draftee, which meant that his option clock ticked right away and he had to be in the bigs full time in 1994. Scott Boras was his agent and he really put the screws on teams to meet his price. Sadly, while Boras maximized his client’s bonuses, more often than not he’s really put his charges behind the eight-ball when it comes to starting their major league career.

2. His mechanics were all kinds of messed up. In my observation, he was a stiff, mechanical pitcher that needed a lot of help in his delivery. That help could have happened with some serious instruction in the minors, but it didn’t happen because he was fast tracked right away.

3. While Oakland was on top when he was drafted, by the time his option clock was up the A’s had some serious issues with their staff. Tony LaRussa experimented with a full-blown pitching rotation in 1993, with platoons of pitchers going every three days and then three short relievers. He had no choice, he had to try something! That idea may have merit, but the 1993 A’s were not the team to start it.

What Van Poppel walked into in 1993 was a team whose staff was a mess. The LaRussa / Duncan magic dust wore off or didn’t work on those guys. Bobby Witt, Shawn Hillegas, Ron Darling, Storm Davis, and Kelly Downs would have been a great staff in 1988, not 1993. They were hanging on to their careers and didn’t have time to really mentor Van Poppel. The bullpen was no better – Eckersley was pretty bad that year, and Boever, Nunez, Honeycutt and Gossage weren’t that tremendous either.

The next year, the year Canadians everywhere collected this card, the pitching improved, but just so. A lot of the vets regressed further or were marginalized. Van Poppel had to stay in the bigs, though, and he was pretty bad. 7-10, 6.09 with more walks than strikeouts isn’t something that shouts future greatness. Looking at the back of his card, if you can see the stats, there wasn’t much optimism going into 1994.

But, he had to stay up in the bigs, because if he was sent down he’d have to pass through waivers and someone would claim him.

After the strike, there was some improvement in 1995. His ERA was high and he gave up a lot of home runs, but he improved his K/W ratio. He was much better as a reliever than a starter, and faded badly in September. Still, there was optimism.

Then came 1996.

He opened the year in the rotation. After six starts (one quality – barely) he was 0-3 with a 10.00 ERA. He then made 22 relief appearances with an ERA of 6.00 and an OPS against of .862. He had regressed.

Oakland tried to send him down. As Oakland feared, someone claimed him. The Tigers snagged him and put him into the rotation. This was one of a series of wretched Tigers squads, a 53-109 beauty that allowed 1,100 runs that year. The team ERA was 6.38. The ‘best’ starter was Omar Olivares, all 7-11, 4.89 of him.

Detroit had nothing to lose, except more ballgames and starts by dudes like AJ Sager, Clint Sodowsky, Greg Keagle, Greg Gohr or Tom Urbani.

And Van Poppel did his best to make Tigers fans forget about the Clint Sodowsky experience.

His first two starts were bad, but he won his third start, giving up three runs in six innings. His next start was his best, a five-hit shutout of the Royals.

“Hey,” said many, ” he may have finally gotten it.”

On his next start, he was knocked out in the fifth by Chicago.

The Yankees got him in the fourth in his next one (the Tigers knocked Dwight Gooden out – what a star-crossed matchup of pitchers…)

The Orioles knocked him out in the third in his next start.

The next start, against the Brewers, Van Poppel gave up 10 runs (six earned) in 1 2/3 innings. Jeromy Burnitz’ grand slam was the nail in that coffin.

Game 160 was next for the Tigers. Van Poppel took the mount again against the Brewers. No doubt that in his last start he felt like Charlie Brown on the mound – he was determined to not let that happen again.

AAAAAUUUUGGH!

It was a wet field, and only 8,606 in the stands to witness the end of Todd Van Poppel, pitching prospect and the beginning of Todd Van Poppel, journeyman reclamation prospect.

Fernando Vina leads off with a single to left. He then steals second.

Jeff Cirillo walks, but Van Poppel fans Dave Nillson.

John Jaha is up. Van Poppel, whose motion wasn’t good at holding runners on, sees Vina steal third. He walks Jaha to load up the bases.

Jose Valentin walks on four straight pitches.

Matt Mieske walks on a full count.

Buddy Bell walks out to the mount. Van Poppel leaves before his nemesis, Burnitz, can face him again with sacks packed.

Sager comes in and gives up a sac fly, then another runs scores for Detroit on a broken play (Valentin scored as Mieske got caught in a rundown trying to steal second).

In five starts after the shutout, he pitched 12 1/3 inning and had a 21.89 ERA, giving up seven home runs.

With the shutout, his ERA at Detroit was 11.39. Remember, that’s WITH a shutout.

His final tally for 1996 – 3-9, 9.06 in 99 1/3 innings.

It was obvious that Van Poppel was not a major league pitcher at that juncture. The odds were that he’d never be a major league caliber pitcher.

But give him credit – instead of taking his millions and running – or thinking that his talent was everything and blaming it on his coaches and teammates – he sucked it up and gave baseball another chance. Which meant, he had to go to the minors to prove himself, like 99.99% of all baseball players.

He signed with the Angels, who cut him in the spring. He signed with the Royals, who cut him from Omaha in June. He signed with the Rangers, and in 1998 he was back in the bigs. After four bad starts, he was traded to Pittsburgh with Warren Morris for Esteban Loaiza. He finished the year with the Pirates, and then pitched fairly well (for him) in AAA in 1999.

The Cubs signed him for the 2000 season, and wonders of wonders he put something together. Finally! At age 28 he had a good start for Iowa and then the Cubs called him up. And while he wasn’t put into high-leverage situations he didn’t give up any runs in his first ten appearances and wound up with two saves, seven holds, and a 3.75 ERA.

The next season, he started out OK but had an ERA killing appearance in Colorado. He ended April with a 9.82 ERA.

From May to the end of the season, 50 appearances covering 67 2/3 innings, his ERA was 1.73.

Now THAT’S the Todd Van Poppel they drafted – except he was a middle reliever.

I’d love to say that there was a happy ending, but not many baseball players have happy endings in their careers. He signed a contract with Texas, was so-so, was released midway through 2003 and snagged by the Reds. He lasted 1 1/2 seasons in Cincy, but ended it on a 4-6, 6.09 note in 2004.

By all accounts, Van Poppel was screwed by his first contract. Had he signed a normal minor league contract, and allowed to develop in places like Madison, Modesto and Huntsville on a normal basis, he may have been ready for duty by 1995 or 1996 and had a good career. But it wasn’t to be. And agents and others didn’t heed the warnings, as they still pushed for big bonuses, and turned down contracts that weren’t up to scratch. Matt Harrington, anyone?

But to his credit, he stuck with it, and tasted some big league success, which is more than many first round draft picks could say.

And really, he seemed like an OK guy, even during his struggles in Oakland…

 

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