While sifting through Fangraphs’ sortable data on Pirates pitchers for a possible upcoming piece, I got all the way back to the 1993 Pittsburgh Pirates’ staff. There was a name that caught my eye, John Hope, and a flicker of recognition started in the deep recesses of my gray matter. I wasn’t into the minors at that time, but it seemed like Hope was a guy I remembered hearing about. I was struck by his age, 22 in 1993, and the fact that he was a starter in the majors.
That led me to the Google machine and 12 open tabs in Safari later, here I am writing about John Hope. On Baseball Reference, I looked up his draft status and saw that he was a 2nd round pick of the Pirates back in 1989 out of a high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was a 6 foot 3 inch, 195 pound right-hander so he would have been a perfect “projectable right hander” by Neal Huntington today. How much do you think that signing bonus was for a 2nd rounder back in 1989? Hope received a cool $85,000 for signing his name on a contract. By comparison, the Pirates’ 2nd round pick this year is slotted for $746,300. I know there’s been some inflation in the economy over 23 years, but not that much.
Hope debuted in the GCL in 1989 after signing and pitched 15 innings with decent peripherals (14 K’s, 6 BB’s) before getting shut down with discomfort in his throwing elbow. Soon after that, he was found to have a tear in one of his elbow ligaments and underwent surgery. In this article from the Sun Sentinel that I found, there was a tiny bit of verbal sparring between the Pirates’ director of minor league operations (more on that later) and Hope’s high school coach, relating to potential overuse. It says in the article that during Hope’s senior year, he struck out 159 in 106 innings of work. Contrast that number with recent high school phenom and Pirates’ farmhand Jameson Taillon. In his stellar senior year, he pitched only 62 innings in equally baseball-crazy Texas. Most HS-drafted pitchers only pitch 90-110 innings when they first hit full-season ball today.
Nowadays, getting Tommy John surgery is almost a rite of passage for pitchers — sort of like getting a prison house tattoo, of sorts — and the recovery period is very smooth, with most pitchers coming back at regular strength or even better. But back in 1989, the procedure was still being refined. Hope missed all of 1990 while recovering from the procedure, but when he got back in 1991 he was still just 20 years old. So if you have a high round draft choice coming off of major surgery, how many innings would you give him his first season back? How about 91 innings spread over 3 affiliates, from short season Welland in the NYPL to Augusta in the SAL to Salem in the CAR. OK, that’s not totally ridiculous, I suppose, but then 1992 happened. Now a ripe old man of 21 and a Tommy John survivor, Hope jumped from 91 innings in 1991 to 176 innings in 1992 while pitching the whole year at Salem in the Carolina League. His stats were OK in 1992, as he allowed only 169 hits and walked 46, but only struck out 106. Without knowing his pitching arsenal, I would put him as a possible 4th starter by the stats.
For whatever reason in 1993 (year 1 of a sure-to-be-short rebuilding phase), the Pirates aggressively pushed Hope through the system. He had 20 mediocre starts at Double A Carolina, but was then shunted up to Triple A Buffalo where he had 4 bad starts (6.33 ERA, 21 IP, 30 H, 2 BB, only 6 K’s). But that was good enough for the Pirates to bring him up to the majors on August 29 for 7 so-so starts to finish out the year.
Hope went on to pitch in parts of three more seasons for the Pirates (1994-96), but didn’t start for them until 4 starts in April-May 1996. In each year he was in the majors, Hope received a pro-rated portion of his $109,000 salary (major league minimum today is $480,000). Hope latched on with Colorado’s Triple A affiliate in 1997, but was awful, and then played independent ball for 2 years until 1999 when he left baseball at age 28.
And that Director of Minor League Operations for the Pirates back in 1989? None other than Chuck LaMar, ex-GM of the inaugural Tampa Bay DEVIL Rays. There but for the grace of Dave Littlefield, LaMar was probably the 2nd worst GM of recent years. His moves at the major league level were atrocious and chaotic, but he laid the foundation for the Tampa Bay Rays’ resurgence by giving Andrew Friedman a strong farm system to inherit.
With all of the concern over pitch counts in games, pitch counts in innings, total inning counts, methodical advancements through the system, and maximizing asset value, it was a hoot to see how things were so different just 20’ish years ago. I’m not sure if this gave me validation of how the Pirates and other teams handle their young pitchers, but it definitely did give a different perspective on the issue.