Sunday, December 14, 2014

Random Ex-Brave: Paul Byrd

Baseball is full of guys like Eddie Harris from the classic, Major League. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, go see it. It's probably in a bargain bin somewhere. Or steal it from your friend. Whatever the case, it's a must-watch. Harris, played by Colonel Oats, is a pitcher just trying to hold on to a career for a few more years. Maybe he once was blessed with great natural movement, but now he gets by on deception, guile, Crisco, and snot. As he would tell Rick Vaughn, the young fireballer played by Topper Harley, "I haven't got an arm like you, kid. I have to put anything on it I can find." Guys like Harris defy what we think of the Major League Baseball athlete. He lacked the velocity, the athleticism, and the sick movement. What he did not lack was will.

While he didn't doctor a ball with Vagisil (that we know of), Paul Byrd reminds me a little of Eddie Harris. Actually, Charlie Leibrandt is a better comparison, but Byrd is today's random ex-Brave so go with it. Byrd relied on something a bit different than Harris's assortment of cremes. Deception. Using an old-timey delivery and at least five pitches, Byrd tried to offset what he didn't have in velocity and stuff and get batters out that way. His career was both long (14 years) and brief (rarely stayed in one place, nor pitched that many innings). He suffered through an array of shoulder, elbow, and back injuries, possibly due to a Mark Prior like hitch in his delivery. And yet, he kept coming back.

Byrd was drafted twice, first out of his Louisville, Kentucky high school and a second time as a member of the LSU Tigers. After his second selection in 1991, he started his professional career with the Indians organization. Following his first trade during the MLB Strike in 1994, Byrd would make it to the majors for a pair of seasons with the Mets as a reliever. He had little success and the Mets packaged him with a minor leaguer no one has ever heard of, in exchange for reliever Greg McMichael of the Braves. McMichael had been the closer in Atlanta before Mark Wohlers took that title from him in 1995. Due for a big pay day in arbitration based on his effective work with Atlanta, the Braves cut some corners and got Byrd in return. His first run with the Braves wasn't exactly noteworthy. He struggled out of the pen in 1997 with a 5.26 ERA, closely resembling his 5.00 FIP. The next season was spent mostly at Richmond with just one game in the majors before the Braves waived him in mid-August following the signing of Norm Charlton. The Phillies jumped at the chance and put Byrd in their starting rotation to finish 1998.

Byrd got off to a great start with the Phils. After eight pretty good games followed his acquisition, Byrd was an All-Star in 1999 with a 11-5 record and 3.94 ERA. Things unraveled badly after that, though, and his second half ERA was nearly two runs higher. The season also included some eventful games with the Braves, his former club. On July 25th, Byrd nailed Eddie Perez with a pitch high-and-tight. Perez was forced into primary catching duty that season following Javy Lopez's catcher and was considered very important to Atlanta's hopes of another division title. Byrd would match up with the Braves five days later and again plunked Perez. Ballplayers are neanderthals when it comes to getting hit by a pitch and a half-inning later, John Smoltz nailed a Phillie with a pitch. It earned Smoltz an ejection, which he was furious about. Incidentally enough, the next batter was Byrd. With Perez getting hit twice and Smoltz receiving the boot, the score was sufficiently tipped in the Phillies' favor. Before Byrd could even take a pitch from Smoltz's replacement, Perez confronted him and a brawl ensued. Oddly, at the bottom of the pile, Byrd began to pray as he worried about his own safety and Perez, who was over him, came to his aid by holding everyone up. Baseball players are weird. Oh, and Byrd hit 17 batters to lead the league that season. It was one of just three categories he ever led the league in. If you'd like to watch a retrospective on the Byrd/Perez confrontation, click here.

Like I said, the second half of Byrd's 1999 was miserable and they would ship him off to the Royals the following June. It was an abrupt end to his Phillies stay that included his only trip to the Midsummer Classic. In 2002, his first and only full season with the Royals, Byrd was at his best. The 31 year-old led the league in complete games with seven and found a way to win 17 games for a team that lost 100. I don't know if there's a quick-and-easy way to look that up, but in the modern five-starter rotation, it has to be pretty rare to win that many games for a team that loses at least 100 games. Not that win-loss record for a pitcher is of much importance, but it's the kind of dorky stuff I love.

After 2002, the Byrd got the opportunity he was looking for. The Braves came calling. In a whirlwind week that included a starting staff restructuring, Byrd landed in Atlanta on a two-year deal. According to his agent, he had been waiting for five years to come back to Atlanta, which he now called home. His first year in Atlanta was a waste, though. He suffered some elbow discomfort in spring training, which led to surgery to remove bone chips. Byrd's rehab from that was cut short by even more elbow pain. He was advised that he would need, you guessed it, Tommy John surgery.

Byrd finally had one year of starting with the Braves in 2003, though he was limited to 19 starts. He was good, though, and even though the Braves moved on, he would continue to find work, pitching for the Angels, Indians, and Red Sox.

The righty found himself embroiled in a scandal when it came to light that he purchased about $25,000 in HGH from 2002 to 2005. Byrd said that he needed it for a hormonal imbalance and originally seemed to imply that MLB had made an exception for him, though MLB denied it. He would later write about it for a book. More interestingly enough, in the book he spoke of his troubles with porn addiction. According to what WebMD says about those who suffer from porn addiction, his web page history is likely illegal in most states.

All told, Byrd only threw 169.1 ING of his nearly 1700 career innings with the Braves. Nevertheless, he still works with the Braves, now as an analyst. His delivery was strange and unique and has given way to a different kind of delivery, which is often boring and cliched. Still, 1700 innings for a guy who never had an out pitch? I'd call that a successful career.

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