Thursday, July 11, 2013

Random Ex-Brave of the Day - Kerry Ligtenberg

Welcome to the Walk-Off Walk's latest on-going series, the Random Ex-Brave of the Day.  Like the Random Prospect of the Day, using random.org, I will be pointed to a random player to write about.  Unlike my prospect series, where I just pull up the current list of minor league players and, while alternating hitter/pitcher, use a generated random number to write about, I will need to add a step. Random. And random.

Using 2012-1991 as my perimeters, I use a random number between 1-22 for the year and for that year, I pull up the roster to get a random number from 1-x with x=number of players who played for that year's Braves.  Today's number is 15, or 1998, and from a roster of 42, I got the 22nd player alphabetically...or as I like to call him...

Kerry Ligtenberg

I love this column already.  Ligtenberg was one of my favorite Braves in the late 90's and he had his best professional season in 1998 with the Braves, who fell in the playoffs to the San Diego Padres and Roid Caminiti.  And so few people could pull off his facial hair selection with such ease.

Originally a product of the University of Minnesota, Ligtenberg left school to pursue a professional career in the North Central League in 1994.  In 19 starts with the Minneapolis Loons (yes, the Loons), Ligtenberg went 5-5 with a 3.31 ERA over 114.1 innings.  As the Major League players went on strike, Ligtenberg was improving his stock and even crossed the picket line to sign his first organized ball contract with the Seattle Mariners in the spring of 1995.  However, with the players coming back, Ligtenberg was released within a week of signing.  This horrible act barred him from ever joining the MLBPA.

Ligtenberg returned home, logging a second season with the Loons, who were now in the Prairie League after their previous affiliation disbanded.  Ligtenberg improved his strikeout rate from 7.3 K/9 to 8.4 while lowering his WHIP to 1.17 while throwing his only professional shutout of his career.  After the season, his manager, former Braves catcher Greg Olson, informed the Braves of the right-handed youngster he had and one of the best trades ever was completed in January of 1996 as the Braves acquired Ligtenberg for $730 worth of baseball equipment.

After 20 saves and a 11.5 K/9 rate as a member of the Durham Bulls in 1996, Ligtenberg rocketed up the ladder in 1997, pitching for both Greenville and Richmond before making his major league debut on August 12th.  He did not need much time to assume an increasingly valuable role for the Braves.  He struck out 19 in 15 innings while also picking up his first of 48 career saves.  He even secured a significant role in Bobby Cox's bullpen during the NLCS against the Marlins, pitching twice and logging three innings with four K's.

In 1998, Ligtenberg started the season as one of Mark Wohlers's primary setup guys.  However, Wohlers famously lost it in 1998 and by May, Ligtenberg had ascended to the closer role.  He posted a 9.7 K/9 and a 1.03 WHIP while saving a career-high 30 games for Atlanta.  His success garnered him support after the season as he finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting, though well behind Kerry Wood, who won it, and Todd Helton, who finished in a close second.  Ligtenberg did receive one first place vote.

Ensconced as the the Braves closer, Ligtenberg entered 1999 ready to establish himself as Wohlers had done for a few seasons before the latter's bout with the yips.  However, shortly before the season was to begin, news circulated that Ligtenberg had severely injured his elbow and soon after that, it was announced that he would need Tommy John surgery and would miss the entire season.

It was unfortunate for Ligtenberg and fortunate for John Rocker.  Like Ligtenberg before him, Rocker took over the reigns and became a true weapon for Cox in the late innings.  Unlike Ligtenberg, who was unassuming, Rocker's mouth quickly became a problem and despite a dominant display on the mount during the 1999 season, his time with the Braves had an expiration date.  Entering 2000, Rocker was the guy, but the media coverage seemed to haunt him and his effectiveness plummeted.  Ligtenberg and lefty Mike Remlinger were there to pick up the pieces with each saving a dozen games to go with Rocker's 24.

Rocker was once again the closer for the 2001 Braves, leaving Ligtenberg in middle relief, which he pitched well in.  Another season of middle relief followed in 2002 and he seemed to log more multi-inning appearances.  He finished the season with 66.1 innings, second most of his career, and pitched in 52 games, but failed to secure a save.  His K/9 rate fell to just 6.9 and after the season, the Braves let Ligtenberg leave.

He would sign with the Orioles for 2003 and was solid for them, but after a bad 2004 for the Blue Jays, Ligtenberg spent most of 2005 in the minors for Arizona while getting into just nine games for the varsity squad.  In 2006, Ligtenberg played the whole year for the Iowa Cubs, picking up 18 saves, but no call up to the majors.  However, a serious knee issue developed for him in 2007 while he tried to secure a spot with the Cincinnati Reds.  He would miss all of 2007 and 2008 before trying his luck with the St. Paul Saints in 2009.  However, the knee would not hold up and he called it quits after 30 games with the Saints.

Since hanging up his cleats, Ligtenberg has been both a high school baseball coach and a pitching coach for his former team, the Saints.  He also has a chemical engineering degree from the University of Minnesota, which he finished up in 2000 and received his diploma at Turner Field.  Ligtenberg made the most of his chance in the bigs and pitched well for the Braves.  Sadly, what could have been an even better story was done in by his 1999 injury.  Still, considering where he came from and what the Braves invested in him, Ligtenberg's success was a tremendous surprise. 

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