Jason Simontacchi – 2002 Donruss Rookies

April 14, 2011

Why Did The Duncan / LaRussa Kool-Aid Wear Off After One Year?

SPRING CLEANING UPDATE: I’ve decided to become an Expos team collector, because I’m ornery, and think that Montreal should still have a team. That means no Expos non-doubles will be in the mix. But any Expos doubles will go with the Nats or in the grab bags.

You’ll also get some ‘sets’ – which is just the doubles of a particular set, plus the minis and inserts. The team sets will have the parallels and relics. And the grab bags will have non team specific good stuff plus the triples, etc. that I have.

And now…

A lot has been written about the ‘magic’ that Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan have performed on starting pitchers in St. Louis (and somewhat in Oakland). Usually, it’s a short-term reclamation project that doesn’t last that long. Pitchers that aren’t projects tend to break down (Matt Morris, Mark Mulder, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter), but most every pitcher breaks down somehow over time. And not every pitcher takes to it (Mike Maroth for one, Kent Mercker for another). And it’s usually short term or only stays in St. Louis (Pat Hentgen, Kent Bottenfeld, Jeff Suppan).

But it isn’t just for vets.

Case in point – Simontacchi.

He was a 21st round draft pick in 1996, and typical of 21st round draft picks, when you go 3-7, 6.97 in the Midwest League you get released. He was.

After his release, he pitched in the Frontier League in 1998. The Pirates picked him up in 1999 to fill a Class A roster. He did that, and was released again after the season. But all was not lost – he was one of the pitchers for Italy in the 2000 Olympics. After the games he signed with the Twins and went to AAA (his first time at that level) in 2001.

The numbers looked bad (7-13, 5.84), but he pitched in Edmonton. The team was awful and those seven wins led the club. Also, his K/W ration was fabulous (83K / 23 BB). So the Cardinals signed him and sent him to AAA, where he probably had no idea at the onset of the season that he’d be in the bigs. But a 5-1, 2.34 slate, coupled with a staff in shambles (Woody Williams, Garrett Stephenson injured – Josh Pearce, Bud Smith, Travis Smith found wanting – and they even had to use Mike Timlin and Mike Crudale as emergency starters) led the Cards to call up Simontacchi.

He came up on May 4, and then the Cards were scuffling at 13-16. Simontacchi pitched an outstanding game, beating the Braves 3-2, allowing just five hits and a walk.

From there, the Cards took off, cruising to a 97-65 record and winning the NL Central by 13. But they lost the NLCS to the Giants. Simontacchi wasn’t lights out all of the time, but he stabilized the rotation during the first part of the year.

The next year, Simontacchi demonstrated why a W-L record by itself is one of the worst gauges of a pitchers’ value. He was 9-5, but had a 5.56 ERA, a 1.536 WHIP and a -1.2 WAR. Whatever Duncan and LaRussa did for him wore off, and he was quite hittable.

He was more down than up in 2004, and kicked around everywhere until 2007 when he all of a sudden resurfaced with the Nationals. Again, he showed a knack of winning, somehow, going 6-7 with a 6.37 ERA in 13 starts before crashing out in Florida on July 15th. Giving up three dingers and five runs in 4 1/3 innings was the last straw even for the 2007 Nationals, who ran through 26 pitchers in a 73-89 season.

Whatever potion Duncan and LaRussa cook up is potent, but it may be short lived and side effects may include your arm falling off. And once you pass outside the domain of the mad wizards, the effect will wear off.

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