Best First-Round Picks – #9
A reminder, here’s our methodology.
Best First-round Picks — #9
1985 – Bobby Witt
That number would follow Bobby Witt more than any number. More than the 95, which is what his fastball touched. More than 34, the number of the Texas legend he was constantly compared to.
No, it was that eighty that turned a solid career into something of a “what might have been”. That, and his classmates. When you’re drafted with perhaps the lefty of all time (Randy Johnson), and the greatest power player since Babe Ruth (Barry Bonds), and you go ahead of both—auspicious doesn’t begin to cover it. Pressure falls far short.
The Next Nolan
White Sox scout Larry Monroe tracked Witt in the Arizona Fall League. His scouting report was prescient:
He only needs better command of slider and forkball to be a big winner, but needs 2 years. Good loose arm at about 92 MPH, average ML slider. Good tight one but tends to drop elbow and lose all command. He has quickly developed a good forkball and has decent command. 3 ML pitches + he will be a good one if they don’t rush him.
Sadly, it’s likely the Rangers did rush Witt; he joined the 1986 pitching rotation out of spring training, and led the American League in walks in each of his first two seasons.
As ESPN chronicled, his second big league start summarized all anyone needed to know about Bobby Witt; his start was against a mix of powerful, free swinging and professional Milwaukee hitters like Robin Yount, Rob Deer, and Paul Molitor. They would see all they needed of Witt:
Witt threw five innings of no-hit ball, but this was not your typical no-hit bid.
In those five innings, Witt’s pitches were literally all over the place. He struck out 10, walked eight, and threw four wild pitches. He allowed two runs.
Baseball-Reference.com has box scores of games dating back to 1920 and lists 73 games in which a pitcher struck out at least 10 and walked at least eight. Nolan Ryan, ridiculously wild in his prime, owns 14 of them.
Witt is tied with Hall of Famer Bob Feller and Herb Score for second-most, with four. He was pulled from this one mainly because his manager was fearful that this could end up being a 200-pitch start. The Rangers bullpen would end up yielding five hits for the game in a bizarre 7-5 Rangers win, before 5,800 in Milwaukee.
“I wasn’t going to finesse you,” Witt said, “My thought process was to go out there and let it go. At 100 pitches, I was just getting loose.”
Then-Rangers manager Bobby Valentine recalled the game last week. “I remember (pitching coach) Tom House and I didn’t have any regrets about taking him out,” he said, “because we thought he’d have plenty of other chances to throw a no-hitter.”
Witt was among baseball’s most entertaining, albeit sometimes exasperating pitchers that season. He threw every fastball with everything he had, an appealing quality to the Rangers, who selected him third overall out of the University of Oklahoma in 1985. Eight minor league starts and an impressive spring training later, he was called up to the big leagues.
Possessing a fastball with high-90s velocity, Witt was among baseball’s premier strikeout pitchers for a time. In his first two seasons, he struck out 334 in 300 2/3 innings. Problem is, he walked 283. In 1986, he walked 8.1 hitters per nine innings. In 1987, he bumped that to 8.8, the second-highest rate of anyone who threw at least 100 innings in a season. He hung around because teams thought that eventually he would evolve into a really good pitcher.”
For Witt, always, it was the simmering potential. He had, as they say, no-hit stuff every night.
He peaked in 1990, going 17-10, with a 3.36 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 222 innings. He also walked 110, and gave up his share of hits, giving him a pedestrian 1.38 WHIP (although it ended up being the second best of his career).
Even with the wins and a solid ERA, the command never came – rarely even for a game – but when it did, few could match him.
The best example was June 23, 1994, as Oakland faced Milwaukee. As noted in the NY Times, Witt came within one call of a perfect game—one likely blown call from going down in baseball history:
“Witt (5-7) had a perfect game until Greg Gagne beat out an infield hit with one out in the sixth in Oakland’s 4-0 victory over visiting Kansas City yesterday. Gagne grounded to first baseman Troy Neel, who threw to Witt covering the bag. Umpire Gary Cederstrom called Gagne safe on a close play, although TV replays appeared to show that Witt and the ball beat Gagne to the bag.
“I honestly believe when I looked down, I saw my foot hit the bag, then Gagne’s foot hit,” said Witt, who tied a career high with 14 strikeouts. Witt did not walk a batter.
That game saw him, for the first and only time, truly reach Ryan-at-his-peak levels.
His 99 game score was phenomenal. From the dawn of the pitching-rich 1960s to today, a 99 or higher has been reached 54 times. That’s Roughly one a year. Of those, Nolan Ryan has seven, only 3 of which were his no-hitters.
And so, the potential was always there, always so tempting. Consider this, from Gene Mauch, who saw them all from the 1960s to the 1990. After a 1986 matchup between brothers Mike and Bobby Witt, the Angels manager said this:
“The other Witt ain’t bad, boys. Roger Clemens doesn’t walk out there with better stuff. I’m not talking about knowing how to pitch and winning; there’s a disparity there. But he has the velocity.
A couple of years ago, Tom House made a visit to the Rangers booth, where he regaled with Bobby Witt stories; he recalled the 5-inning “redacted” no hitter, among others:
- House recalls the time that he threw 99 pitches in 3 innings (still a record) and only allowed one run.
- In the aforementioned 5-inning game of no-hit wildness? He walked in FOUR runs while allowing NO hits and striking out 10! Can you imagine?
- Another time he hit four consecutive batters; that’s right – he forced in a run with hit batsmen.
In short, his career makes one wonder how he made this list.
But here’s the thing to remember: the Rangers have had far more hit than misses. A 100-game winner is a hit.
Witt pitched 16 years in the major leagues, from 1986 to 2001. He had two runs through Texas, the first from 1986 to 1992 and the second from 1995-98.
For his career he was 142-157 with a 4.75 ERA. During his 11-year tenure with the Rangers he was 104-104.
He averaged over 200 innings pitched a season, which made him a workhorse in today’s context and at least an innings-eater in his day. Across 2,465 innings, he struck out 1,955 batters and walked 1,375.
He led the league in walks three times and in wild pitches (128 in his career) two times.
He never led the league in strikeouts but he did lead it in earned runs allowed with 111 in 1989, the same year he led the league in walks with 114. That was a market shift forward, however: in his rookie year he walked 143, and in his second year improved to a still-staggering 140.
And on top of all that, there was his hitting. Actually, his hitting wasn’t much to look at, but he did provide this:
On June 30, 1997, he became the first American League pitcher to hit a home run in a regular-season game since October 3, 1972. Facing Ismael Valdez of the Los Angeles Dodgers in an interleague contest in the top of the 6th inning, he took a fastball over the left field fence in Dodgers stadium. His bat is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
For anyone who saw Witt at 21, odds were even that his bronzed visage would have joined his lumber.
The greatest draft in history
The 1985 draft is generally considered the greatest draft in the history of the amateur draft process. Why? Here’s a short summary from Major League Baseball:
For the time being, all classes are measured against the 1985 crop, arguably the greatest draft ever. For Allan Simpson, founder and editor of Baseball America, there’s no second-place group.
“Without question, that’s the best draft. We knew it at the time it happened that it would be the best to that date, and it’s stood the test of time.” (Simpson published the draft bible we used for this entire project).
“You could see talent in the prominent unsigned high school players in the 1982 draft,” Simpson said. “They were immediate factors at the college level. You could project ahead to ’85 and you knew at that time that it was going to be a great draft, one for the ages.”
Another factor, according to Simpson, was the college-dominated 1981 draft. “I think this group of kids going into the ’82 draft looked at that and said, ‘You know it’s not so bad if you don’t sign out of high school and go to college.'”
Notable players the 1985 draft produced, by career WAR, include:
- Barry Bonds (Pirates, Rd. 1) – 162.5 WAR
- Randy Johnson (Expos, Rd. 2) – 102.1 WAR
- Rafael Palmeiro (Cubs, Rd. 1) – 71.8 WAR
- Barry Larkin (Reds, Rd. 1) – 70.2 WAR
- John Smoltz (Tigers, Rd. 22) – 69.5 WAR
- Will Clark (Giants, Rd. 1) – 56.2 WAR
- Mark Grace (Cubs, Rd. 24) – 46.1 WAR
- David Justice (Braves, Rd. 4) – 40.4 WAR
The cumulative WAR of all first rounders is 495.7—easily the highest in history.
There were also some of the greatest college players in history (both with Rangers ties) taken, as Witt went #1 to the Rangers and Pete Incaviglia went #1 to Montreal (and was later traded to Texas before ever playing a game in the Montreal system; that was later declared illegal – no pick can be traded sooner than one year post-signing. For this reason, he doesn’t qualify as a Rangers pick, otherwise, he’d undoubtedly be in the Top 10 best).
Incaviglia’s drafting and signing by the Rangers, on top of Witt’s, was seen as particularly a steal. Why? Because he’d come off of perhaps the greatest career, and doubtlessly the greatest season, in college baseball history.
He was no less than Baseball America’s college player of the century.