Don't believe all the talk about Rocker

The belief that John Rocker's career went down the tubes after he made disparaging remarks prior to the 2000 season is far from the truth.

Originally Published: April 11, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

History's messy, so quite often we just don't bother trying to get it right.

For example, a lot of people think the turning point in Cesar Cedeno's career was an ugly incident in his native Dominican Republic, where his girlfriend died when a gun went off (supposedly accidentally).

It wasn't.

For another example, a lot of people think the turning point in Ellis Valentine's career was a severe beaning he suffered in May of 1980.

John Rocker
John Rocker's best season came in 1999, when he had 38 saves and a 2.49 ERA while with Atlanta.

It wasn't.

Yet, these perceptions endure. Some misguided souls proposed them and then they just sort of stuck, because they're simple and they're easy to remember and they appeal to our natural inclination to stick things into little boxes and leave them there.

And we're going to do the same thing with John Rocker.

I was reading an article about Rocker signing with the Devil Rays -- a match that's made in heaven, by the way -- when I saw this: "Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella and general manager Chuck LaMar said Rocker, whose career has plummeted since a Sports Illustrated article before the 2000 season in which he made disparaging remarks about gays, minorities and others, showed he's healthy."

The impression I get from that sentence -- and the impression that's probably going to last for as long as people are talking about John Rocker -- is that he was good before the article, and bad after.

Got that?

Good before ... click, whir ... Bad after.

The problem is that it's not really true.

Rocker actually pitched well for the Braves after he was suspended because of the Sports Illustrated article. That was in 2000, and in 59 games he posted a 2.89 ERA and converted 24 of 27 save opportunities. In 2001, before the Braves traded him to the Indians, Rocker posted a 3.09 ERA and converted 19 of 23 save opportunities.

No, he wasn't Trevor Hoffman. But purely in terms of performance, there were probably two dozen teams that would have been happy to have Rocker as their closer.

The turning point for John Rocker came on June 22, 2001. That day, the Braves traded him and minor-league third baseman Troy Cameron to the Indians for Steve Karsay and Steve Reed, in what now looks like one of the most lopsided trades in history that involved three relief pitchers.

Here are Rocker's post-Sports Illustrated numbers, before and after the Braves finally dumped him:

            IP   ERA  Sv  H/9  W/9   K/9
 pre-trade  85  2.96  43  7.1  6.8  12.0
post-trade  59  5.95   5  9.5  5.8  11.1

Those numbers are weird. Rocker struck out slightly fewer hitters per nine innings after the trade, but compensated with a lower (better) walk rate.

So the question that arises is, how did he post a 2.96 ERA with the Braves while walking nearly seven hitters per nine innings?

The answer, I think, is that he was lucky. And I think his luck just didn't hold after leaving the Braves. But he got unlucky in two ways. Not only did his luck not hold, but he went from being exceptionally lucky to being exceptionally unlucky. Giving up 9.5 hits per nine innings is very hard to do while you're also striking out 11 batters per nine.

I mean, you couldn't do that if you tried, and we can guess that Rocker wasn't trying.

The truth is that he really hasn't been the same since Sports Illustrated; somehow it just doesn't show up in the "result stats" (in this case, saves and ERA). Somehow he squeaked by with the Braves even though he really wasn't pitching particularly well.

So does John Rocker have anything left?

I think he probably does. I'll be pretty surprised if Rocker ever gets back to where he was in 1999, but then I never thought he was really that good anyway. He always seemed to me like a pitcher who was just barely in control, of both his fastball and himself. And that's not the sort of pitcher who is likely to be successful for long.

That said, if Rocker can still strike out 11 hitters per nine innings, he's probably worth a flyer. I'd like his chances a lot better if Leo Mazzone was again his pitching coach, though.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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