By Mark Smith
The idea for this post came from an early Saturday morning Twitter conversation that began when Greg Schaum asked, “When I say Florida Marlins what player do you think of as a Marlin?” Matt Klassen responded, “Mike Piazza”, and Bill suggested, “Trevor Hoffman”. In order to outdo them in their sarcasm (Piazza spent a little more than a week in Florida, and Hoffman was drafted by the Marlins but pitched in only 28 games for them), I noted, “Mike Hampton”, who spent not two full days as a Marlin before being traded to the Atlanta Braves.
Few former Braves players inspire more hatred in Braves fans than Mike Hampton. For $14-16 million a season from 2003 to 2008, Mike Hampton provided a whole 4.3 bWAR, and he spent all of 2006 and 2007 injured. Luckily, the Braves gave up nothing of consequence for him, but all things considered, Hampton had a rough go of it in Atlanta. While you could argue that he continued to work to get back and contribute, fans usually can’t overlook the complete and utter lack of contributions of such a highly-paid player, and it is in that vein that I remembered that Hampton had spent like 38 hours in Miami because I’ve often wished he had stayed there. Despite all of that, I find Mike Hampton to have had an incredibly interesting career, so I thought I’d spend some time on it.
I had no idea Mike Hampton was a Mariner. I had no idea Mike Hampton spent any time at all in the Mariners organization. That Hampton was a Mariner for any length of time is as shocking to me as the first time I found out my dad was in seminary school and I was somewhat close to not existing. But Hampton was, indeed, drafted by the Mariners in the sixth round of 1990 draft, which is also the same year that Chipper Jones (his future teammate) was drafted with the first overall pick (it’s also surprising to me that he was drafted only in 1990; it seems that he’s been around for so long and that he shouldn’t be as old as Chipper, but I guess the early retirement makes it seem different). But perhaps I was vicariously blocking out the memory for Hampton because the Mariners attempted to destroy Hampton while he was in the organization. For some odd reason, they threw their 6th-round pick into High-A for his introduction to professional ball, and after he predictably failed, they demoted him back to Low-A, where he did quite a bit better. He returned to High-A the next season and performed well, and he did alright in a brief promotion to AA to end the season. Starting 1993 back in AA, Hampton again did well as he followed a normal and logical progression through the minors, but then the Mariners promoted him straight to the majors at the age of 20, where he fell hard with an ERA of 9.53 in 17 innings and a K/BB of 8/17.
So the Mariners traded Hampton along with utility man extraordinaire Mike Felder to the Houston Astros for 25-year old Eric Anthony who had managed to play 137 and 145 games the past two seasons despite hitting .239 and .249 with OBPs of .298 and .319, though that was good enough for OPS+ of 103 and 94. Well, Anthony flamed out in his one season in Seattle and was released the following season, and Felder was out of baseball following the 1994 season. Hampton, however, had a very successful career as a ground-ball pitcher in the Astrodome. After spending 1994 in the bullpen as a 21-year old, he moved into the rotation for the next five years as an Astro, culminating in his Cy Young season in 1999 as a 26-year old.
There are two interesting things to note about this. One, Mike Hampton has always been known as a good-hitting pitcher, and he had really improved in Houston from .146/.226/.146 in his age-22 season to .311/.373/.432 in 1999. In that 1999 season, he was worth 6.4 bWAR, but he was also worth 1.2 wins on offense. That’s pretty amazing, making him a 7.6 bWAR player in 1999. Most of the time, we just look at a pitcher’s pitching stats that we forget the offensive side because it’s essentially a lost cause, but it is always fun to note when it’s positive. Secondly, Hampton was traded following that Cy Young season.
Along with a declining Derek Bell, Hampton headed to the New York Mets for Kyle Kessel (who never reached the majors), a young hot-shot Roger Cedeno, and the flame-throwing-yet-wild Octavio Dotel. Derek Bell had a somewhat resurgent season after being utterly terrible in 1999. Cedeno couldn’t quite repeat the .313/.396/.408 line from 1999, and he was traded to the Tigers in the trade that brought Brad Ausmus to Houston (I remember Ausmus being a Tiger, but I kind of refuse to for some reason). Dotel had a rough first season in Houston before dominating over the next 3 ½ before being traded to the A’s as part of the trade that brought Carlos Beltran to Houston for that magical run (someone one day should go ahead and try to tell the story of Dotel’s transaction list). Hampton, on his way to free-agency, pitched well for the Mets on their way to a World Series loss to the cross-town rival Yankees.
What followed has become one of the most criticized deals in baseball history, but I wonder if teams have really learned all that much. Hampton was 28 years old, had won a Cy Young within the past two seasons, and had thrown 200+ innings for the past 4 seasons. If a pitcher hit the market with those credentials now, what would he get? Well, Hampton received 8 years and $121 million (Denny Neagle signed a 5/51 contract the same off-season) to make the Rockies rotation respectable, but he did anything but that in his two seasons in Colorado. Having imploded to the point that he walked (91) more than he struck out (74) in 2002, Hampton needed out of Colorado, but the trade was not simple.
The Marlins were the first team in on the action, but it didn’t appear as though they wanted to keep Hampton. Trading Charles Johnson, Preston Wilson, and two others to Colorado, they received Hampton and speedy outfielder Juan Pierre (I almost forgot he was a Rockie). But it wasn’t guaranteed that the Braves would be the next part of the deal, and Hampton sat in limbo while the Marlins tried to reel in Jose Reyes from the Mets. It didn’t work, and the Marlins accepted Tim Spooneybarger and Ryan Baker from the Braves.
That would prove to be a very interesting off-season for the Braves in regard to their pitchers. While the Mets declined to pay the price for Hampton, they took Tom Glavine off the Braves’ hands, and this could happen because of a weird situation regarding Greg Maddux. Believing that he would leave in free-agency, the Braves offered Maddux arbitration, but he surprisingly accepted, leaving the Braves in a financial bind. No longer able to keep Maddux and Glavine along with the newly-acquired Hampton, Glavine had to be the one to go. Maddux would, of course, leave the following off-season, but it made for an awkward 2003 season.
Hampton’s time in Atlanta would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic. After two relatively healthy and solid seasons in 2003 and 2004, Hampton had an injury-riddled 2005 that ended in Tommy John surgery late in the season, meaning he would miss all of 2006. During Spring Training of 2007, he strained a pectoral muscle, and while coming back from that, he tweaked his elbow again, needing another surgery. Hampton went on to play Winter Ball, but he hurt his hamstring while fielding a groundball, ending his brief stint in Mexico and giving baseball comedians all the material they needed. Hopefully healed this time and ready to go for 2008, Hampton hurt his pectoral muscle while warming up for his 2008 debut against the Pirates and ended up on the DL yet again. Several months later, he finally made his 2008 debut.
Mike Hampton finished out his season and contract with Atlanta in 2008, eight long years after signing that contract after 2000. He was 36 instead of 28, and he really only had 3 Silver Sluggers and a Greg Maddux streak-breaking Gold Glove (my middle brother is still pissed about that) to show for it. He gave it one more go in Houston in 2009, where he actually pitched pretty well, but as you might expect and as it seems cosmically necessary, Hampton’s season ended with a torn rotator cuff. In true Hampton fashion, he dealt with another injury rehab and signed a minor-league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2010 season, but after a few brief appearances, he decided to call it quits and put an end to one of the more interesting careers in recent memory.
I suppose you want a final word on Mike Hampton. Everything about him was kind of weird. He threw left-handed and hit right-handed, and he hit pretty well (worth 7-11 wins on offense, depending on who you believe). He went from extremely durable to laughably fragile, and he had really common injuries (Tommy John and a torn rotator cuff) and bizarre ones (torn pectoral while warming up and pulled hamstring while moving off the mound). He was a groundball specialist, but he’s left-handed, with most being right-handed. And from most reports, he seems like a perfectly nice dude, but I’ll never quite like the guy. I certainly don’t blame him for getting hurt, and I definitely don’t blame him for getting that big contract. Despite that, I’ll probably always have negative reaction to him because he disappointed me so greatly. It’s not fair, he doesn’t deserve it, but it’s there. In the end, that might be the best way I can describe Mike Hampton.