Does anyone remember Scott Williamson?
Perhaps no rookie reliever has made a bigger splash than did Williamson in 1999, when he won the Rookie of the Year award for the Cincinnati Reds despite spending most of the season as the team’s set-up man. Williamson would dominate again in 2000 and (after an injury stole virtually all of 2001) in 2002, but he began to fade into obscurity thereafter. Beginning in 2003, he pitched for five teams in five season before slipping permanently back into the minors at age 31.
A decade later, Carlos Marmol is doing what Scott Williamson used to do. Marmol is a more extreme example, but like Williamson, he strikes out a ton of batters and walks too many. Like Williamson, Marmol has shifted between the rotation and bullpen but looks much more comftoable in relief. Both men rely on devastating sliders.
Is Marmol in for the same sort of fall Williamson had? Not necessarily, but we might be wary of it. Let’s compare and contrast.
Career (Age 27): 385.1 IP, 3.25 ERA, 11.68 SO/9 IP, 5.89 BB/IP
Marmol’s 2010 was historically good. He did not break the record for strikeouts per nine innings pitched; he authoritatively obliterated it. Marmol’s slider is so good that batters missed on 14.4 percent of their swings against him this season.
Marmol is a fly-ball pitcher, but is so good at averting solid contact–if he qualified, his career rate of 5.5 hits allowed per nine innings would be the best ever by about 15 percent–that he has allowed just three home runs in 151.2 IP over the last two seasons.
A pitcher whose command is so miserable presents inherent risk of a meltdown, but Marmol has the tools to dominate NL hitters for years.
2003 stats: 62.2 IP, 74 SO, 34 BB, 4.16 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 3.72 xFIP
Career (through age 27): 342.2 IP, 3.13 ERA, 10.5 SO/9 IP, 5.0 BB/9 IP
Williamson’s last full big-league season was 2003, and it did not end well for him. Cincinnati traded Williamson to Boston mid-season, where Williamson’s ERA ballooned from 3.19 to 6.20. Injuries nagged at Williamson throughout 2004, and he managed only 28 appearances despite a sparkling 1.26 ERA.
Williamson’s injury problems arose from overuse and an early set of arm troubles that made him chronically vulnerable. Marmol is in no such danger, having never exceeded 87.1 IP in a single season: Williamson pitched 93.1 IP in 62 relief appearances in his stellar rookie year.
Williamson dropped from an average velocity of over 93 miles an hour on his fastball in 2003 to a pedestrian 90.6 by the time he joined the Cubs in 2005, and his slider lost its snap as he tinkered with his delivery, all in an effort to stay healthy.
Marmol has done his utmost to avoid the Williamson pitfalls simply by not getting injured early in his career. The Cubs deserve credit for not overusing their relief ace even during playoff pushed in 2007-08, although it may be argued that Marmol could now stand a much heavier workload than he has gotten the past two seasons.
In the meantime, the Cubs should feel confident in Marmol, and lock him down for two or three years with the assumption that no Williamson-like implosion is likely.