Steve Blass Disease Claims Another Victim


It has to be unnerving. To work your entire life, to raise your level of performance to match that of the elite. To see it all fall apart. A select few people in this world can say they are among the best at their chosen profession. Most of us just drift through life unnoticed. We aren’t spectacular in our fields.

Major league ballplayers are the elite, perhaps more so now than at any point in history. Players from all parts of the world now come here to play on the games biggest stage, and if you are in the majors, that means you are one of the best 750 people in the world at doing what you do. Even the absolute worst player in the majors was easily the best player on his high school team, and probably the best in a thousand mile radius growing up.

By the time a player has shown enough talent to be signed to his first professional contract, he has already shown greatness among his peers. He works his way through the minor leagues, his career topping thousands of other players who make it that far only to see it end. The player shows he is good enough to earn a shot at the big leagues, maybe he even has some success once he’s there, one of the best 750 in the world.

Then, seemingly overnight, it all falls apart. The player loses the ability to do what he does. The simplest of baseball tasks becomes foreign. And the whole world watches him suffer.

That’s what happened to far too many players over the past three decades. In the mid-90s, Braves closer Mark Wohlers was at times unhittable. He threw nearly 100 mph and was one of the best in baseball. One day Wohlers couldn’t throw a strike anymore. Chuck Knoblach was a second baseman, and a gold glove winner at that. Suddenly after years and years of making difficult plays look routine, he could no longer make a simple throw to first base. In 2000, the Cardinals had the most prized pitching prospect in the majors with 20 year old Rick Ankiel. He had won 11 games and had a devastating arsenal of pitches. But when the Cards made it to the playoffs, Ankiel lost the ability to throw a strike.

These players didn’t just lose a bit of command, their throws were very often no where near the intended target. Knoblauch would often throw the baseball into the stands behind first base, Ankiel threw nine wild pitches in four post-season innings in 2000, along with 11 walks handed out.

It’s also what happened to Tigers left hander Dontrelle Willis, and now it may be what’s happening to Pirates starter Kevin Hart.

Anyone who has watched one of these players try to work through their troubles knows exactly what I’m talking about. There is a horror in watching someone who was once elite struggle to do things your eight year old son can do. These players were all without injury, all early enough in their careers, and all had experienced a good deal of major league success.

There was no fore shadowing of a problem, no hint of this disease. But once it hits, it takes control away from the player and puts that players on display for all the world to watch as he tries to regain himself. It is a cruel fate.

The recovery process is sort of an unknown, as no player has ever truly gotten back. After years of trying to find his old form, Ankiel finally did return to the major leagues in 2007, but as an outfielder. Ankiel hasn’t thrown a professional pitch since 2004. Knoblauch was also shifted to the outfield, but he wouldn’t play second base again. He was out of baseball at age 33.

Wohlers made it back as a pitcher after nearly three years and he did become a serviceable bullpen guy again. But gone was the 100 mph fastball and the big strikeout numbers. Before the disease caught him, Wohlers posted four straight years of better than 10 K/9, after his return he never again approached those totals. He was out of baseball by age 32.

None of this bodes well for Willis, or for Hart. But if there is a model to follow, Wohlers is the one they need to study. Knoblauch and Ankiel both changed positions, effectively avoiding the problem, but they didn’t fix it. Others like Steve Sax and Steve Blass (for whom the disease was named) had their careers ended by it. But Wohlers came back and was average again. Never dominant like he once was, but good enough to get people out, and did so often enough to earn a living.

For Willis, the hope is that his career may be on the rebound. Over five seasons and 1000+ innings in Florida, Willis averaged only 3 BB/9. In the 57.2 innings he has thrown since coming to the Tigers, he has walked 63 batters. Still just 28, Willis is enjoying his best Spring Training as a Tiger. His control has returned enough that he is making himself a viable option to win a starting job for Detroit.

More than control however, command is needed to pitch effectively. Willis has a ways to go to show full recovery, but he still has the good stuff he used to feature and his command is starting to come around. For the first time since he came to the Tigers, there is hope for Willis.

Sadly, Kevin Hart may just be starting his journey. Hart has a good fastball and throughout his minor league career (spanning over 600 innings) he has limited his walks to just 3.3 per nine innings. As would be expected, his major league numbers aren’t quite as good. He has walked five batters per nine innings over 119 major league innings. Coming into camp this year, the Pirates all but named Hart the fifth starter, an opportunity he earned by showing the talent to get hitters out in the strike zone.

It hasn’t gone as planned.

In yesterday’s game versus Detroit, Hart walked the first batter he faced, but rebounded to strikeout the next hitter on just three pitches. Another walk followed, then another, then another. Hart managed to escape trouble by picking off a runner and striking out a batter to end the inning. The next frame was much worse.

While a few pitches in his first inning were wildly out of the zone, most were near enough to be borderline. The second inning saw Hart really struggle. His pitches missed everywhere they could miss. Catcher Ryan Doumit did his best to block fastballs in the dirt and on the next pitch would have to jump to catch a ball over his head.

With each offering, Hart dug his hole deeper. When he missed with a first pitch curve, he came back with a fastball that would miss wide. At 2-0 he tried another heater which missed badly. Even on three 3-0 counts, Hart couldn’t get strike one. In one such scenario, Hart actually hit Ramon Santiago in the back of the leg with a 3-0 fastball. The Pirates radio team noted that Hart had taken 6-7 mph off his fastball, yet was still nowhere close to the plate.

His final line: 1.2 innings, 12 batters faced, 6 BB, 1 HBP. He has now walked 13 batters in 4.1 ST innings this year.

For any player who has seen this disease take hold, one can only feel sadness. These players by all accounts did nothing wrong, nothing to earn this fate. No, it’s not terminal. There are certainly far worse things to happen. But in the context of baseball, Steve Blass Disease is just about the worst thing imaginable. It is interesting that the Tigers and Pirates met yesterday; Willis’ team versus Hart’s.

Hopefully soon, Hart can take a glimmer of hope from the progress that Willis is making. Hopefully he too can work his way back.