Before Blogs: Scott Ruffcorn can't win

While writing Dylan Axelrod's player review for White Sox Outsider 2012, I came across a SouthtownStar article from 2009. The paper interviewed Axelrod, then a Windy City Thunderbolt who pitched his way into the Frontier League All-Star Game, and Axelrod recalled the way the Gateway Grizzlies knocked him around.

This caught my eye, because if you put me in a room with 25,000 randomly selected baseball fans, it's a pretty good bet I've seen more Frontier League baseball than all of them. The Frontier League game is a messy game, and even though Axelrod was succeeding at his last chance, he still hit Gateway-shaped speed bumps along the way.

Two years later, he's pitching for the White Sox in September, and pitching well enough to pick up a major-league win. He actually deserved two. That's kind of nuts. Prior to the season, if you were to rank all White Sox pitchers at Double-A or higher by their chances of winning a big-league game in 2012, his name would be near the bottom. But hey, there he is on Baseball-Reference.com with a perfect 1-0 record.

It's reminiscent of one year earlier, when the White Sox pulled off the Jake Peavy Edwin Jackson trade, leaving the Sox without a starter for that day's game. They called up Lucas Harrell by default -- he wasn't Charlotte's best starter, only their scheduled one. Still, he took the ball, and thanks to Daric Barton's bases-loaded fly falling short on the warning track, he pitched around five walks to throw six innings of one-run ball in a 6-1 victory over Oakland. He received a celebratory beer shower, and headed back to Charlotte the next day.

And then there's Scott Ruffcorn.

Scott Ruffcorn never experienced the beer shower, though it wasn't for a lack of opportunities. He was the White Sox's first pick in the 1991 draft (25th overall), and he tore through the minor leagues. He overmatched the competition at High-A Sarasota, going 14-5 with a 2.19 ERA and allowing just a baserunner per inning.

The Sox pushed him more next year, with half-seasons in Birmingham and Triple-A Nashville. Neither level fazed him -- he went 11-6 with a 2.75 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP, and 185 strikeouts over 180 innings.

His performance earned him a promotion to Chicago in September of 1993. It did not go well, and thus began a vicious cycle that never stopped.

This is what Ruffcorn achieved in the minor leagues.

Year Age Tm Lg Lev W L W-L% ERA G IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1991 21 2 Teams 2 Lgs A-Rk 1 3 .250 3.76 13 55.0 43 33 23 1 30 60 1.327
1992 22 Sarasota FLOR A+ 14 5 .737 2.19 25 160.1 122 53 39 7 39 140 1.004
1993 23 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-AAA 11 6 .647 2.75 27 180.0 138 63 55 11 60 185 1.100
1994 24 Nashville AA AAA 15 3 .833 2.72 24 165.2 139 57 50 5 40 144 1.080
1995 25 3 Teams 3 Lgs AA-Rk-AAA 0 2 .000 5.13 8 26.1 27 19 15 0 18 20 1.709
1996 26 Nashville AA AAA 13 4 .765 3.87 24 149.0 142 71 64 18 61 129 1.362
6 Seasons 54 23 .701 2.90 121 736.1 611 296 246 42 248 678 1.167

And this is what happened in the majors:

Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP WP ERA+ WHIP
1993 23 CHW AL 0 2 .000 8.10 3 2 10.0 9 11 9 2 10 0 2 0 1 54 1.900
1994 24 CHW AL 0 2 .000 12.79 2 2 6.1 15 11 9 1 5 0 3 0 0 39 3.158
1995 25 CHW AL 0 0 7.88 4 0 8.0 10 7 7 0 13 0 5 2 0 59 2.875
1996 26 CHW AL 0 1 .000 11.37 3 1 6.1 10 8 8 1 6 0 3 0 2 44 2.526
1997 27 PHI NL 0 3 .000 7.71 18 4 39.2 42 40 34 4 36 1 33 7 6 56 1.966
5 Seasons 0 8 .000 8.57 30 9 70.1 86 77 67 8 70 1 46 9 9 52 2.218
CHW (4 yrs) 0 5 .000 9.68 12 5 30.2 44 37 33 4 34 0 13 2 3 48 2.543

It's possible that Ruffcorn is the most AAAA pitcher of all time. Even when he switched teams and leagues, he didn't find a different fortune. According to his Bullpen page at B-R.com, he owns the most consecutive seasons with an ERA of 7.00.

How did it go wrong?

Ruffcorn fell to the Sox with the 25th pick because a muscle tear in his elbow caused him to miss a month and a half of his junior year. Then-scouting director Duane Shaffer described him as "a big, strong kid with a good fastball and a real good slider," in a Chicago Sun-Times article from June 4, 1991. He also said:

"I can say in two years (he will be in the major leagues) and he'll be very effective in two years."

Well, he got the first part right. Everything went according to plan -- a good year at Sarasota, a strong showing at spring training, and then domination of Double-A from the get-go (43 strikeouts over his first 27 innings). When an elbow injury put Kirk McCaskill on the DL, the Sox picked Ruffcorn to replace him. He was the third 23-year-old on the White Sox staff, with Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez preceding him.

He made his debut on June 19 in Anaheim, and in his first three innings, Ruffcorn faced the minimum thanks to a couple of flyball double plays. That would be the peak of his pro career, because his fortunes plummeted shortly after Ron Karkovice had to leave the game. He got tangled up with with J.T. Snow at first base, hit the ground and separated his shoulder.

In came 45-year-old Carlton Fisk, and when Ruffcorn walked speedy Luis Polonia to lead off the fourth, the Angels proceeded to abuse the White Sox battery on the basepaths. Per the B-R.com game log:

Inn Score Out RoB Pit(cnt) @Bat Batter Pitcher Play Description
Bottom of the 4th, Angels Batting, Tied 0-0, White Sox' Scott Ruffcorn facing 1-2-3
b4 0-0 0 --- 5,(3-1) CAL L. Polonia S. Ruffcorn Walk
b4 0-0 0 1-- 3,(1-1) CAL C. Curtis S. Ruffcorn Polonia Steals 2B
b4 0-0 0 -2- 6,(1-2) CAL C. Curtis S. Ruffcorn Wild Pitch; Polonia to 3B
b4 0-0 0 --3 8,(2-2) CAL C. Curtis S. Ruffcorn Single to CF (Ground Ball thru SS-2B); Polonia Scores
b4 1-0 0 1-- 4,(2-1) CAL T. Salmon S. Ruffcorn Curtis Steals 2B
b4 1-0 0 -2- 5,(3-1) CAL T. Salmon S. Ruffcorn Walk
b4 1-0 0 12- 1,(0-0) CAL C. Davis S. Ruffcorn Single to LF (Line Drive); Curtis Scores; Salmon to 2B
b4 2-0 0 12- 5,(3-1) CAL T. Lovullo S. Ruffcorn Salmon Steals 3B; Davis Steals 2B
b4 2-0 0 -23 7,(3-2) CAL T. Lovullo S. Ruffcorn Walk
b4 2-0 0 123 4,(2-1) CAL J. Snow S. Ruffcorn Ground Ball Double Play: 2B-SS-1B (SS-2B);
Salmon Scores/No RBI; Davis to 3B
b4 3-0 2 --3 3,(0-2) CAL R. Gonzales S. Ruffcorn Groundout: 2B-1B (Deep 2B-1B)
3 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 LOB. White Sox 0, Angels 3.

Polonia wrought more havoc in the next inning, and Ruffcorn couldn't finish five. His final line: 4.2 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 6 BB, 0 K.

He was demoted the next day, replaced by catcher Rick Wrona. The Sox had an off day coming up, so Gene Lamont didn't need a fifth starter immediately ("I liked what I saw of Ruffcorn, but he needs more time," Lamont said). Ruffcorn didn't take the defeat or demotion personally, saying in classic Bull Durham parlance, "I'll go back down and tell the guys, `I've been there, and they can hit.'" He continued to pitch well at Birmingham, and then adjusted quickly to Triple-A in August.

The game accounts mostly pinned the blame on Fisk, who had only thrown out one of 23 baserunners. Anaheim manager Buck Rodgers had a particularly scathing observation, saying, "When you elect to play that extra year or two, that's what happens sometimes. We all saw Willie Mays. A bunch of things happened."

Two games later, Fisk would break the record for games caught, receiving a motorcycle to commemorate the milestone. Then he was told to ride his bike into the sunset.

Jerry Reinsdorf wasn't scared by Ruffcorn's early stumble, either. When other teams wanted Ruffcorn in deadline talks, Reinsdorf said:

"Ron and his people feel strongly about some of their players coming up and that's good enough for me.

"A player asked me the other day what it would take to get (Tim) Belcher. When I told him Ruffcorn , he said, `No, no. You can't give him up.'"

In a readable Jay Mariotti column on July 30, 1993, Frank Thomas said he would trade James Baldwin (the Sun-Times called him "Jim" at the time) for major-league pitching help, but not Ruffcorn. Sure enough, Ron Schueler was able to strike a deal to get Tim Belcher without giving up Ruffcorn. He dealt Johnny Ruffin and Jeff Pierce instead.

Ruffcorn made one more start that year, losing to Seattle on Sept. 28. He had more issues with walks, and also gave up a pair of two-run homers, but Gene Lamont chalked it up to post-clinching hangover. Ruffcorn would identify his own problem in a Sun-Times article from Feb. 18, 1994:

"I read in some paper that I was too tentative in the big leagues," Ruffcorn said. "At first I was mad, but then I realized it was true. It's something I want to change."

He missed out on a chance to take the fifth starter job out of spring training in 1994 because Scott Sanderson pitched out of his mind. Ruffcorn went to Nashville, where he'd only pitched a month before. He continued to pitch well, and his stock remained high. His stumbles with the Sox seemed like no big deal.

When Sanderson came crashing back down in July, Ruffcorn took his place in the rotation against the vaunted Cleveland Indians lineup. It didn't go well for anybody. Ruffcorn only walked two over four innings, but the Indians smacked around his strikes, dinging him for seven runs on nine hits. Worse yet, Lamont said Ruffcorn "needed to get over his nervousness."

(Oddly enough, a short-notice start for Ruffcorn ended up accompanying a damaging day for a White Sox legend once again. That was the game where Frank Thomas could have tried plowing over Sandy Alomar Jr., but instead slowed down and essentially let Alomar tag him. Thomas said it was too late for him to make up his mind; Lamont said he needed to plow him over; Alomar said he thought Thomas was going to kill him.)

His next start was worse -- Lamont pulled him in the third inning after Ruffcorn allowed four runs, but the Royals already had all the runs they needed to seal a sweep. The Sox demoted Ruffcorn to Nashville, with Lamont opting for a four-man rotation in an attempt to stack up quality starts before the Aug. 12 work stoppage deadline. He didn't quite bury Ruffcorn, but four ugly starts, Lamont finally used the "W" word: "The bottom line in the big leagues is you have to win."

When Ruffcorn returned to Triple-A, Schueler explained why Ruffcorn couldn't get major-leaguers out. From an Aug. 19, 1994 Sun-Times article:

"We want him throwing a lot more changeups," Schueler said. "Everything he threw up here was hard. Even if he gets hit around right now, we're not concerned. He has to develop a breaking ball."

The reasoning is this: Ruffcorn 's fastball is good enough to strike out almost a batter per inning in the minor leagues, but it's not enough to get by in the big leagues. Once hitters adjust to Ruffcorn 's heat, it's over.

"I need a third pitch," Ruffcorn said. "I agree with (Schueler). They've been sitting on my fastball. I need something to keep them off-balance."

Of course, Ruffcorn probably would have been in Triple-A regardless, since the strike ended the season.

When the abbreviated spring of 1995 rolled around, Schueler still had faith in Ruffcorn. He said it wasn't an accident that Ruffcorn dominated Triple-A. He blamed himself for the short-notice call-ups, and said that if Ruffcorn had 15 starts, he'd win a majority of them. After trading Jack McDowell to the Yankees, Schueler had a spot in the rotation for the taking. But James Baldwin (no longer "Jim" to anybody) and his three pitches passed him by.

However, he did break camp with the club as a middle reliever. Ruffcorn said he had no issues with the change, and Schueler thought it would be a good way for Ruffcorn to get acclimated to big-league hitters.

Much like his starting career, it looked good for a second. In his first relief outing, he began with a 1-2-3 inning, striking out two and throwing nine of 12 pitches for strikes. In his second inning, he gave up two runs on two hits and two walks, and only 11 of his 27 pitches were strikes.

And his second outing? It was the beginning of the end, as Ruffcorn walked six Red Sox batters over 1 2/3 innings, prompting Scot Gregor to write a blistering column on April 30, 1995:

In the season opener at Milwaukee, he pitched 1 2/3 innings and gave up 2 runs on 2 hits and 2 walks. Ruffcorn followed up that gem with another 1 2/3 innings against the Red Sox Friday night. He gave up 4 runs on 3 hits and 6 - yes, 6 - walks.

Was he upset after that kind of showing? Hardly.

Ruffcorn almost seemed amused by his performance, with a hint of disbelief thrown in.

"I don't have any answers," he said.

I do. Scott, you can't pitch in the major leagues because you don't care enough and you don't work hard enough. Pretend you are one of the hitters you are pitching to.

Take a walk.

Ruffcorn would be cut on May 15 after a couple more walk-laden outings, and when he returned to Nashville, he soon hit the DL with what was described as a muscle pull in the back of the shoulder. On top of his physical problems, Dave Van Dyck said that mentally, Ruffcorn was "ruined forever because the Sox rushed him to judgment."

Schueler didn't disagree. In a Sun-Times notebook item from Oct. 29, 1995, he said about Ruffcorn and Baldwin, "Maybe we talked about them too much. Maybe we babied them." From that point on, Schueler would be extremely hesitant to call on Ruffcorn again. Ruffcorn tried out for a Japanese team before spring training. He ended up getting one more chance in middle relief in August of 1996, including one more start, but couldn't quite cut it in either. The Sox and Ruffcorn parted the ways after the season, but a new organization didn't make a difference.

Terry Francona was the Phillies' manager at the time, and he had managed Ruffcorn at Birmingham. In a Sun-Times item from May 18, 1997, Francona ended up stating an epitaph for Ruffcorn's big-league career:

"Scottie said he doesn't know what's happening, that when he gets up to the big leagues he has a tough time throwing strikes," said Phillies manager Terry Francona, who managed Ruffcorn at Class AA Birmingham in the Sox' system. "I didn't know what to tell him except, `You've got to get over it.'"

Afterthoughts

You've been with me this long, so I'll itemize it for your reading convenience.

No. 1: It's kind of funny how a lack of a third pitch didn't come up until the second time he stumbled in the big leagues. Nowadays, that's pretty much the first thing people look at when trying to assess a pitching prospect's chance at starting. However, Ruffcorn's stock rose every year despite major-league failures. Baseball America called him the 80th-best prospect in 1993, the 32nd-best in 1994, and the 23rd-best in 1995.

No. 2: A couple times while reading this, I was reminded of the Daniel Hudson saga. We saw a guy utterly dominate the minor leagues, and then look a little nervous with the strike zone when called up. In comparison to Ruffcorn's career, the scrutiny for Hudson was almost immediate. When he didn't pitch well in his second stint, the trade rumors intensified, and so did leaks of doubts from the White Sox's side. Although Hudson picked up a win in his second big-league start.

No. 3: The Chicago papers used to devote a lot more newshole to the minor leagues. Big, sprawling notebooks every weekend. Now they're largely ignored, except when they want to denigrate prospects by slapping the "false savior" tag on them. Rodney Bolton. Larry Thomas. Steve Schrenk. Jeff Schwarz. These guys were mentioned weekly. This past season, the papers went three months without mentioning Alejandro De Aza.

No. 4: As I've mentioned before, since the Sox drafted Ruffcorn, the White Sox haven't connected in the first round. Prior to the Ruffcorn selection, the Sox drafted Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas and Alex Fernandez, who gave the Sox 149.2 bWAR over their South Side careers.

Starting with Ruffcorn, the last 21 first picks have contributed a grand combined total of 4.3 bWAR to the Sox. That's what you call regression to the mean, and now it's all on Chris Sale's bony shoulders.

No. 5: One thing I always liked about Ozzie Guillen -- he'd give young pitchers public hell for missing the strike zone, but if they challenged hitters and paid the price, he'd downplay their struggles, even if they were clearly overmatched (Jack Egbert comes to mind in this regard).

Maybe Axelrod can serve as living proof post-Guillen. On paper, Axelrod doesn't stand much of a chance, given his track record, his lack of velocity and the absence of a third pitch. But he does have the ability to throw strikes on both sides of the plate, and because he has an edge in that category, he has an edge in the win column, too.

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