Saturday, October 11, 2008

If His Arm Works, Who Cares What He Wears?

On April 9, 2008, the Seattle Mariners beat the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 7-1. Following 7 2/3 forgettable innings pitched by Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine and lefty reliever J.P. Howell, a Rays righthander made his season debut. He got Ichiro Suzuki to ground out and pitched a scoreless ninth to finish the game. Unfortunately, this mystery reliever was optioned to AAA Durham on April 12. While in Durham, he had elbow troubles that required surgery and now he will miss much of the 2009 season.

So who is this mystery player (and will he be voted a playoff share by the rest of the Rays)? None other than Korean right-hander Jae Kuk Ryu. There's not much remarkable about Ryu's career so far, though his one appearance this year did lower his career ERA below 7.50. The reason I bring him up is not for his on-field exploits but instead because of his number. As you can see here, Ryu wears uniform number 11.

Now, Ryu's not the first pitcher to wear that number (that would be Herb Pennock in 1929), but he is, I believe, the only pitcher to wear #11 this season. Since Josh Towers spent all season "pitching" for the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Ryu wore the lowest uniform number of any pitcher in 2008. Wait...I should say that he wore the lowest number of any regular pitcher: Tony Pena Jr. (wearing #1) pitched a perfect inning for the Royals in July. Note: I haven't found a complete 2008 numerical roster for every team so if I'm wrong about Ryu having the lowest number of any pitcher, let me know. I can tell you, however, that Ryu is only the second pitcher in Rays history to wear a number as low as 11. The other? Hideo Nomo in 2005.

Ryu's National League equivalent is a pitcher who spent the entire year on his team's major league roster. Barring any renegade #10's or #11's (or even other #12's) I missed in the senior circuit, the NL pitcher with the lowest number was Carlos Villanueva, wearing #12 for the Milwaukee Brewers. According to the team media guide, Villanueva is only the fifth pitcher in Brewers history to wear such a low number. Curtis Leskanic wore #00 from 2000 to 2002, Chuck Taylor wore #6 in 1972, Bob McClure wore #10 for ten seasons in the 70's and 80's, and the aforementioned Hideo Nomo wore #11 in 1999.

So why do pitchers usually wear higher numbers? On a related note, why did I suggest only renegade #10's and #11's would be out there? The common answer when it comes to the origin and development of uniform numbers in baseball is that they originally had to do with each player's spot in the lineup. The leadoff batter wore #1, the cleanup hitter wore #4, the backup catcher wore #9, pitchers were given numbers in the teens, and so on. This is how Babe Ruth was assigned #3 and Lou Gehrig was given #4 while pitchers like Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt got #11 and #12, respectively.

The Yankees assigned numbers this way, not every pitcher wore a double-digit number. It wasn't common, but twenty-four pitchers on twelve teams from 1931 (when most teams started wearing numbers) through 1940 took the mound with a number lower than 10. A bunch of those guys played for one team, though: the Phillies in 1939 and 1940 had seven different pitchers wear single digit numbers. During World War II, twenty pitchers did the same.

It wasn't until the 1960's that it truly became rare for pitchers to have single digit numbers on their backs. Since the major leagues expanded in 1961, only twelve pitchers have worn such uniforms. Only two pitchers have done so for more than one season. So what caused such a slowdown?

In the 1950's and early 1960's some National League teams (notably the Reds) attempted to standardize uniform numbers. Under their system, single-digit numbers were reserved for coaches and catchers, infielders got numbers in the teens, outfielders drew the 20's, and pitchers were given uniform numbers 30 through 49. The system eventually fell out of use (except possibly for coaches wearing low numbers), but I suspect it had something to do with pitchers shying away from single-digit numbers.

Then again, was it really up to the players in the first place? Of the seventy-six pitchers to wear single-digit numbers between 1931 and 1960, only six of them had those numbers for more than one season. None of them wore it for more than two. This suggests to me that they were assigned numbers rather than allowed to choose them, or, if they were allowed to choose, they didn't want such low numbers anyway. In any event, it seems that baseball tradition looks askance at pitchers with single digits on their backs. That doesn't mean there won't be any rebels looking to shake things up, however.

To conclude this post, I'm going to put up a list of the pitchers since 1961 to wear uniform numbers lower than ten. To get a feel for where Ryu and Villanueva fit in recently, I'm also going to make a list of pitchers to wear #10, #11, and #12 since the 2000 season. But first, I want to note where I got my information on uniform numbers. My first step was to look at each team's media guide (all available here) to see if they had an all-time numerical roster, figuring that should be pretty accurate. Eleven teams had all-time numerical rosters in their media guide. My next step was to try and locate websites online that had uniform numbers data for different teams. Luckily, I found eight such sites. Their names should make it obvious which teams are covered:
Baseball fans are awesome. Again, I only looked for these types of sites if a team's media guide didn't already have a numerical roster, so it's entirely possible I missed some for teams with rosters in their guides. Finally, if both those methods failed, I fell back on the rosters available at baseball-almanac.com. That site has uniform data for all teams going back to the 1930's, but I'm not sure where they got their numbers. I haven't found anything crazy, so it's good enough for me.

With all of that in mind, here are the pitchers (excluding position players throwing mop-up innings) since 1961 to wear numbers lower than ten:
  • #1 Jack Jenkins - 1962 Senators
  • #8 Bob Baird - 1963 Senators
  • #4 George Brunet - 1970 Pirates
  • #6 Chuck Taylor - 1972 Brewers
  • #7 Horacio Pina - 1973 Athletics
  • #7 Atlee Hammaker - 1985 Giants
  • #1 Matt Young - 1990 Mariners
  • #00 Omar Olivares - 1993 Cardinals and 1995 Phillies
  • #7 Jeff Juden - 1997 Indians
  • #00 Curtis Leskanic - 2000-2002 Brewers
  • #2 Wayne Gomes - 2001 Giants
  • #6 Rob Bell - 2001-2002 Rangers
  • #00 Rick White - 2004 Indians, 2005 Pirates, 2006 Reds, and 2006 Phillies
  • #3 David Wells - 2005 Red Sox
  • #7 Josh Towers - 2003-2007 Blue Jays
I can go either way on the double-zero guys. They are wearing a low number (can't go below zero!), but they aren't wearing a single digit. I suppose you have to have a, well, special mindset to want to slap zeros on your back, so I included them as fellow rebellious souls.

As mentioned above, here are the pitchers (again excluding mop-up position players) to wear #10, #11, or #12 since 2000:
  • #12 Denny Neagle - 2000 Yankees
  • #11 Hideo Nomo - 2001 Red Sox & 2005 Devil Rays
  • #10 Mike Hampton - 2001-2002 Rockies
  • #12 Calvin Maduro - 2001-2002 Orioles
  • #10 Hideo Nomo - 2002-2004 Dodgers
  • #12 Matt Riley - 2004 Orioles
  • #10 Shingo Takatsu - 2004-2005 White Sox & 2005 Mets
  • #10 Danys Baez - 2006 Dodgers
  • #11 Scott Sauerbeck - 2006 Athletics
  • #12 Jason Bulger - 2006 Angels
  • #11 Jae Kuk Ryu - 2007-2008 Devil Rays
  • #12 Carlos Villanueva - 2007-2008 Brewers
There you go. Ryu & Villanueva are the latest in a line of only a couple pitchers every season to wear such low numbers on their uniform. I've checked all the 40-man rosters available on mlb.com, so any other pitchers to take the mound with a number below #12 would have had to either been released, outrighted off their team's roster, or changed their number since they pitched.

2 comments:

Bopperland said...

When I first saw what this topic was all about, my thoughts went to three historical HOF players who pitched and did wear low numbers - Lefty Grove's #10, Carl Hubbell's #11, and the Babe's #3 (for the short time he did pitch).

Omar Olivares wearing #00 makes sense, as it mirrors his initials. Maybe he was inspired by Al Oliver wearing #0.

There is a recent book published on baseball uniform numbers in general. "Now Batting, Number... - The Mystique, Superstition, and Lore of Baseball Uniform Numbers" by Jack Looney. An interesting fact that it states (although not pitcher related) is that Don "Popeye" Zimmer (now with the Rays) wore 14 different numbers. There are also 5 MLB teams left who have not retired any player's number (other than the mandatory 42). In general, not many players ever get through their careers with only one uniform number.

Theron Schultz said...

I've heard of that book, but don't have a copy. Olivares could be the baseball version of Jim Otto, the Raiders center who wore #00 as a pun on his last name (aught-oh).