Thursday, April 17, 2014

Card #16: Steve Comer

Who Can It Be Now?
Steven Michael Comer was born in January 13, 1954, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  He grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota (a Minneapolis suburb), and graduated from Minnetonka High School in 1972.  Graduating one year after Comer was WCW/WWE/TNA Wrestling promoter Eric Bischoff.  Comer has been honored by his high school through his induction in the "MHS Skippers Hall of Fame".  

Comer attended the University of Minnesota after his high school graduation and stayed through 1976 for his senior year.  During that time, Comer set a UM record for having a 30-8 record.  Giving credit where it is due, Comer certainly benefited from having two all-time great major-league players on his teams -- first Dave Winfield and later Paul Molitor. 

Comer was not drafted by anyone and signed with Texas to help fill out a roster for the Rangers rookie league farm team in Sarasota in 1976.  Even though he did not have a top-end fastball, his results in rookie ball were excellent -- 7-2, 0.90 ERA and only 35 hits allowed in 60 innings.  Today, we would all discount these results due to the fact that you are talking about a college pitcher facing 17- and 18-year-olds, but the Rangers pushed Comer rapidly through the system.  In 1977, Comer pitched 189 innings over AA and AAA, finishing with a 13-10 record and a 3.62 ERA.  

Anyone that tells you that baseball 40 years ago relied more on "eyes" and "scouts" than it does now is not telling the truth.  Studying minor league records from the 1970s for guys like Comer shows this -- there's no way that a guy who struck out 4 batter per 9 innings and walked more than he struck out in AAA would get an invitation to spring training from the big club.  But that's what happened for Comer.  Less than two years after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Comer found himself in the big leagues pitching in April for the Texas Rangers.

Despite the fairy tale story and despite the fact that scouting has gotten much better since the mid-1970s, Comer's early success would not last.  By 1980, Comer was absolutely rocked by major league hitters -- in 12 appearances (11 starts), Comer pitched just 41-2/3 innings, giving up 65 hits (5 homers), 22 walks, and 2 hit batsmen and struck out only nine. Sporting an ERA of 7.99 -- which Comer had worked down from 8.90 a month prior -- Comer was down to AA Tulsa in the Texas League where his woes continued.  Even in AA, he got hammered -- 14 innings saw him give up 22 hits and an ERA of 6.43.  

Comer came to spring training in 1981 as an afterthought and ended up saving 6 games over the course of the season and vulturing 8 wins in the process despite striking out only 2.6 batters per nine innings.  He saved six more in 1982, but with far less successful-looking statistics -- 2.1 K/9, 0.64 K/BB, and 12.3 H/9.  The main difference appears to be that Comer was extremely lucky in terms of opposing hitters' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) -- 1981 saw a .255 average, while 1980 was .366 (he turned everyone into the greatest hitter for average in major league history!) and 1982 was .338.

Between the end of the 1982 season and Comer's first major-league appearance in 1983, he was released by Texas, signed and released by the Yankees, signed and released by the Mariners, and then signed by the Phillies for three big-league games.  He was then released by the Phillies after the 1983 season and signed by Cleveland, where he had one last twenty appearance season at the age of 30 in 1984.

He pitched in AAA in 1985 at the age of 31 before calling it a career and going into coaching for two years.  He then returned to Minnetonka and became a businessman.

In any case, everyone agrees that Steve Comer was essentially a soft-tosser who got by on control and guile.  His statistics support this picture fully: his high water mark in terms of the frequency of his striking out batters came in his rookie season in the majors when, over 117-1/3 innings, he struck out 5 batters per nine innings.  His next best showing was in his second season, in which he pitched 242-1/3 innings and struck out 86 batters -- 3.2 per 9 innings.  Indeed, those two years were the only years in which his K/BB ratio was greater than 1.0.  

To put a positive spin on these numbers, let's turn to Comer himself.  At his induction into his High School Hall of Fame, he said, "I've always been thankful for the years I had as a pitcher, and that's because I felt like I overachieved."  I'm not being snarky here, but I agree -- Comer got by on smoke, mirrors, and maybe some incense both to get batters out and to get GMs to continue to add him to the roster.  Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good.

Totally Gnarly
This story sounds like one that got passed around from team to team by players until Don Zimmer applied Steve Comer's name to it.  The story goes that Comer was standing behind the batting cage when a ball somehow ricocheted around and hit Comer in the mouth, cracking two of his teeth.  

Rather than receive dental care, apparently, Comer simply sat through the game -- which happened to be a get away game -- and went to the airport with the rest of the team. While there, Comer supposedly ordered a flaming drink.  No word on whether it was a Flaming Moe.  When Comer went to drink his flaming drink, Zimmer said that Comer, "spilled [the drink] on his face and set his beard on fire."

If the story is true, then Zimmer's conclusion -- "It must have been one of the worst days of his life" -- is absolutely correct.  

For some reason, though, I have my doubts.  Not to play wet blanket, but I cannot find a photo of Steve Comer with a beard anywhere on the internet.  Plus, the story supposedly came from Don Zimmer trying to prove that Comer fit the stereotype of the "Crazy Closer!" In that context, it just sounds a bit too convenient -- like it was a story in need of a player to pin it on rather than really being about Comer.  

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Steve Comer's story is one that I have doubts would happen today in many respects.  Guys who don't throw 90 MPH today don't get very far these days.  More to the point, though, is the fact that increased reliance on sabermetric tools would have led the Rangers to discard Comer fairly quickly after his second minor league season.  Rather than getting an invitation to spring training, a pitcher who struck out 4.0 per 9 innings these days would be getting placed on waivers for purposes of giving him his unconditional release.

To be clear, I am not saying that today's focus is a "good" or "bad" thing.  It's just that baseball is in a different place today with respect to talent evaluation than it was in 1975. Now, the fact that Comer's stat lines in MLB caught up to his fastball's speed should not come as a surprise.  The fact that it took as long as it did -- at least a year-and-a-half of major-league action -- is where the major difference lies.

Baseball in the 1970s and early 1980s was more of a "seat-of-the-pants", "trust-your-gut" game.  Comer became one of MLB's "guys" through his 1979 season.  The fact that he kept getting chances came in large part because of that year.  

Comer was right -- he truly did overachieve in his career.  He overachieved and got to play minor league baseball.  He overachieved and had some success in the big leagues as well.  He had a great career for himself, and he has the baseball cards to prove it.

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