The player who I have slotted at #48 on the list of all-time greatest Rangers is probably going to be one of the more controversial choices...someone for whom the reaction, for a lot of fans, will be, "How did THIS guy crack the top 50?"
He's a pitcher, a native Texan who was drafted by the Rangers out of high school in the 2nd round of the amateur draft, and who spent his entire major league career with the Rangers. Despite being a hard-thrower with a decent pedigree and solid minor league numbers, he never was able to crack the BA Rangers top 10 prospect list, stuck behind guys like Brian Bohanan, Eric McCray, the lefthanded Dan Smith, and Brian Romero in the rankings hierarchy. And yet he made to the majors and helped the Rangers win their first division title, before having his career cut short due to injury.
And thus, for a lot of us Rangers fans, when we go down the list of "might have beens" in Rangers history, one of the names that inevitably comes up is #48...Roger Pavlik.
Yes, yes, I know...I'm sure that some folks (I'm not going to name names) are probably scoffing, laughing derisively, asking how someone like Roger Pavlik could have made the cut. And yes, part of him making the list owes to the fact that the Rangers history is not the most illustrious...barely 30 years of existence, and a lot of those years dark ones.
But nevertheless, Pavlik had some nice seasons in the Rangers rotation, something that seems to be forgotten when people remember him. Pavlik seems to be remembered as the guy with the bad mechanics who couldn't stay healthy, and who went to the All-Star game with a 5+ ERA because the Rangers scored a ton of runs for him and pumped up his win total. Pavlik's name is one of those thrown out, along with Darren Oliver and Kevin Gross and John Burkett, to illustrate why those great Rangers offenses of the mid- to late-90s couldn't ultimately get the team over the hump.
But Pavlik was something of a Jekyll and Hyde pitcher in his career. When he was healthy, was a pretty damn good pitcher for the Rangers. With five of the "good" Roger Pavliks in the rotation in either 2004 or 2005, the Rangers wouldn't be heading into the 2006 season trying to finish higher than third for the first time in this millennium. Of course, part of the problem the last couple of years - the last decade or two, really - is that the Rangers' rotation has been stocked with the "bad" version of Roger Pavliks, the guys with ability who can't stay healthy enough to stay on the mound, and who haven't pitched well when they've been out there.
Most of Roger Pavlik's minor league career looks much like the minor league careers of a lot of hard-throwing high school draftees...a slow but steady progression up the affiliate ladder, middling ERAs in rookie and low-A ball while striking out a ton of guys and walking almost as many. In every minor league season on his way up, Pavlik averaged at least 7 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, and for his entire minor league career he averaged 8.75 Ks per 9. However, he was also consistently walking anywhere from 5.5 to 6.5 batters per 9 innings, an unacceptably high number, while his mechanics had those who watched him fearing that he was heading for a physical breakdown.
At the start of the 1992 season, Pavlik seemed to be at a crossroads. He was 24 years old. He only had 126 innings above A-ball, most of them at AA Tulsa in 1990, where he posted a terrific ERA, but had continued to struggle with his control, walking 71 batters in 100 innings. He spent 1991 at AAA Oklahoma, but only logged 26 innings on the season, as he struggled to stay healthy. And in that limited exposure to AAA, his control problems appeared to get worse...he struck out 43 hitters, but walked 26 in those 26 innings, while posting a 5.19 ERA. If Pavlik was going to make it in the major leagues, 1992 was going to be a critical season, the year when he either re-established himself as a prospect or got stuck with the stigma of being an "organizational depth" guy.
Pavlik was up to the challenge, and 1992 was a breakout season for him. He was able to keep his wildness under control and had a big year for AAA Oklahoma, posting a 2.98 ERA in 18 starts while striking out almost 8 batters and walking just under 4 per 9 innings pitched. Pavlik also made his major league debut in May of 1992, getting called up for a spot start on May 2 against the ChiSox, and pitching six scoreless innings, giving up just one hit (albeit against 6 walks) and getting a no-decision.
Pavlik struggled in his next start, getting pulled in the fourth inning against Cleveland in a game where he allowed 4 runs, 7 hits and 4 walks (and got another no-decision), and after getting pulled in the first inning of his next start, retiring none of the three batters he faced, Pavlik was sent back to Oklahoma, with the Rangers continuing with their rotating door approach to the #5 spot in the rotation.
Pavlik re-joined the rotation for the rest of the season on August 14, 1992, but it was not an auspicious return...pitching at home against the Detroit Tigers, Pavlik couldn't get out of the first inning, giving up 6 runs in 1/3 of an inning and picking up his first career loss in a 9-6 Detroit victory. The game ended up having a particular symbolic significance for the Rangers, as that loss dropped them a game below .500 on the season, and August 14 was the last time during the 1992 season that the Rangers had a .500 record.
Pavlik bounced back the next day, however, pitching a shutout relief inning against the Tigers, and he got his first career victory in his next start, a commanding complete game win against the ChiSox. Pavlik gave up just six hits and one walk in the game, and came within one out of recording a shutout, with George Bell's 2 out, ninth inning homer resulting in the only White Sox run of the game.
Pavlik ended up with a fairly solid major league debut, posting a 4.21 ERA and a 90 ERA+, but started the 1993 season back in AAA, with the Rangers rolling out a veteran rotation featuring holdovers Nolan Ryan, Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers, trade acquisition Charlie Liebrandt, and free agent signee Craig Lefferts. However, Lefferts' early struggles and Ryan's health resulted in Pavlik being called up in May.
The Rangers' 1993 rotation was a fascinating mix...it included a future Hall of Famer in Ryan, a possible Hall of Famer in Brown, and in Liebrant and Rogers, two lefties who had long, successful major league careers. And yet, for that season, the best starting pitcher the Rangers had was probably Roger Pavlik. He posted a 3.41 ERA, just barely finishing outside the team top 10 in the A.L. that season (he was 13th, .08 behind 10th place David Cone), and recorded a career-best 122 ERA+. Despite getting a late start to the season, Pavlik was 16th in the American League in VORP, and a WARP3 of 5.8.
At age 25, Pavlik had broken through with a terrific debut season for the Rangers, and although the team finished in second place once again, 8 games back of the first place Chicago White Sox, Pavlik's performance, along with Kenny Rogers and Kevin Brown, had Rangers fans optimistic that their three young starting pitchers would be able to get them over the hump in the new, re-aligned A.L. West come 1994.
Of course, it didn't happen. Pavlik's 1994 season was a disaster. He was on the shelf early in the season, forcing the Rangers to go with the likes of Steve Dreyer and Jack Armstrong in the rotation in his place for the first six weeks of the season. He got rocked in his debut appearance in May, picking up a loss against the White Sox, and then followed that up with a 1 2/3 inning, 9 run, 3 homer start at the Kingdome, that included a three run homer by Reggie Jefferson - Reggie Jefferson, of all people - that chased him in the second inning.
Pavlik was all over the map in 1994, struggling, starting only once over a six week period in late June and early July, and his final two starts of the season epitomized the year for him. In his next-to-last start of the year, he once again only went 1/3 of an inning, giving up 5 runs to the Chicago White Sox before being pulled with one out in the first for John Dettmer. The Rangers ended up coming back, though, behind two Jose Canseco homers, and won the game, 11 to 8...one of the last victories the Rangers would record that season.
His last outing was August 6, just four days before the strike, and he went 7 innings, giving up just one run - a 7th inning homer to Scott Brosius - and turning over a 4-1 lead to the bullpen in the bottom of the 8th. But Darren Oliver and Tom Henke got shelled, and the Rangers lost 6-4, with Pavlik getting a no-decision in a Rangers loss that was the second of six consecutive losses to end the season. That outing "lowered" his ERA to 7.69, with the strike then mercifully terminating an awful, forgettable year for Roger Pavlik.
Pavlik did bounce back in 1995 and 1996. Although he was never again as good as he was in 1993, he gave the Rangers solid back-to-back seasons, starting 31 and 34 games, posting ERA+s of 107 and 97, and giving the Rangers a solid middle-of-the-rotation presence.
His 1995 season was particularly encouraging for those of us who were hoping he could build on his earlier success and establish himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter. Other than an awful month of June, when he posted a 9.72 ERA over 6 starts, Pavlik was brilliant, putting up a 3.56 ERA for the rest of the season and giving every indication that, despite his funky mechanics that terrified his pitching coaches, he could be a reliable presence in the Rangers rotation for the rest of the decade.
1996, though, was a turning point in the career of Roger Pavlik. Overall, he had a decent, but not great, season...a 97 ERA+ in 34 starts is something you can live with from a #3 or #4 starter, particularly when you have the type of potent offense that the Rangers had that year, and he got into the history books when, on May 4, he one-hit the Tigers the day after Ken Hill threw a one-hit shutout against Detroit, the first time teammates had thrown back-to-back one-hitters in the American League since 1917. But Pavlik became a lightning rod for controversy when, despite a 4.82 ERA as of the All-Star Break, he was named to the All-Star team, largely on the strength of his league-leading 11-2 won-loss record.
Pavlik's season only got worse as the year went on, culminating in a disastrous month of September. With the Rangers seeing an enormous lead over the Mariners dwindling almost day by day, Roger Pavlik fell apart in the month of September. In six September starts, he only made it 5 innings once - a 5 1/3 IP, 7 run outing against the Brewers - culminating in his September 19 start in Seattle. It was the fourth game of a four game series against the surging Mariners, with Seattle having taken the first three games, and another loss would mean not only a sweep, but the Rangers' lead being reduced to just two games. A Rangers victory, on the other hand, would put them four up on Seattle with nine games to go.
In the Rangers' biggest game of the season, Pavlik stumbled coming out of the gate. He got pulled with none out in the third inning, allowing 3 runs on 4 hits and a couple of walks. Although the Rangers tied up the game in the top of the fourth, getting Pavlik off the hook, they eventually lost the game, allowing the Mariners to continue to stay in the race.
Pavlik only pitched three more times in the 1996 season, struggling against the A's in his next start, and then going 3 1/3 scoreless innings in the season finale against the Angels. Pavlik's late-season collapse caused manager Johnny Oates to bump him from the playoff rotation, although Pavlik was called upon in relief in game 4 of the ALDS, his, and the Rangers', last game of the season.
With the Rangers down 2-1 in the ALDS, and starter Bobby Witt having been knocked out of the game, Pavlik entered in the top of the 5th inning with a 4-3 lead. He immediately gave up a leadoff homer to Bernie Williams to tie the game, but retired the next six batters in a row to keep the Rangers in the game. In the 7th inning, though, Pavlik got into a jam, ultimately allowing a 2 out RBI single to Cecil Fielder, to give the Yankees a lead they would never relinquish.
It was all downhill after that for Roger Pavlik. He only started six games in 1997 before going on the d.l., including another 1/3 IP start against the Blue Jays that got him in the record books again, this time for the first American League pitcher ever to have started the game with four walks in a row. He went on the disabled list in May with a 6.28 ERA, and stayed on the shelf until the September roster expansion, when he returned and gave the Rangers four solid starts in a row at the end of the season, renewing hopes that he could solidify the rotation in 1998.
Unfortunately for Pavlik, those four starts at the end of September were pretty much his last hurrah. A free agent after 1997, he re-upped with the Rangers on a one year, $1.6 million deal for the 1998 season, but only appeared in five games in relief before he went back on the disabled list with a rotator cuff injury, never to return. The bad mechanics that had dogged Pavlik throughout his career finally ended it, prematurely. Pavlik had a comeback attempt with the Rockies not long ago, but ultimately could never make it back.
Pavlik was a difficult person for me to rank. My initial reaction was probably the same as a lot of yours...that he couldn't be one of the top 50. But the more I looked at it, the more I considered, I finally decided he had to make the cut. He had a couple of very good seasons as a Rangers starter, in 1993 and 1995, plus a decent half-season in 1992 and a decent full season in 1996. He had a WARP3 in his three best years of 17.3, which is more than either #49, Mickey Tettleton, or #50, Jim Kern, had during their entire Ranger careers, and 21.2 career WARP3 as a Ranger puts him surprisingly high on the overall list.
Pavlik is one of those guys who caused a lot of heartache for Rangers fans. A lot of talent, but mechanics that made it almost inevitable that he would burn out. Maybe the Rangers are to blame, for not doing something about it in the late-80s, when he was still young and fixable. Or maybe there was nothing that could have been done to save his career...maybe changing his mechanics would have made him less effective, would have made him a healthy pitcher with no major league career instead of an injured pitcher with a short career.
But at the end of the day, there's something uniquely "Ranger" about Roger Pavlik. The guy had 125 career starts, a 101 ERA+...and yet, he had a whopping 6 starts where he didn't even make it out of the first inning.
That, to me, epitomizes Roger Pavlik...a good pitcher, sometimes great, but sometimes unbelievably bad. And uniquely "Ranger."