The Longest Active Individual Playoff Droughts: Pitchers

Heath Bell's best chance to make the playoffs might be with the Nationals this season. (via Dirk Hansen)

Heath Bell’s best chance to make the playoffs might be with the Nationals this season. (via Dirk Hansen)

This fall, Terrance Gore of the Royals accomplished the feat after just 11 career games played. Hunter Strickland of the Giants got it done after seven career innings pitched. The late, great Ernie Banks, who played 2,528 games — a famous percentage of those coming twice in one day — never accomplished it in his 19 Hall of Fame seasons: appearing in a playoff game.

On the one hand, it makes sense that the best baseball players would most reliably arrive in the playoffs. The best baseball players make their teams better, and the better teams are the ones that, you know, make the playoffs. In some unique and unforeseeable cases, though — such as the career experienced by Mr. Banks — trades, injuries, and indomitable fate have a way of keeping players out of the playoffs.

It was easier for a player to stay out of the playoffs back in Banks’ day, with the playoffs not expanding from the single round of the World Series into the League Championship Series until in 1969. In that year, four of the league’s 24 teams got into the playoffs — still just one in six. Fast forward to 2014, so many billions of dollars and rounds of playoffs later, and a full 10 of the 30 major league teams entered the postseason — a robust one in three.

With more and more teams making the playoffs each year, it is next to impossible for a modern player to have a career as long as Banks’ and not make the playoffs at some point. Banks’ 2,528 career regular-season games are good for 47th of all time, and he is the all-time record holder for most games played while appearing in zero career postseason games (and probably will be for a very long time). While a single postseason appearance no doubt means less today than it once used to, in a way this could be more painful for the player who annually finds himself on the outside looking in: the postseason club is getting less and less exclusive, but he’s still getting excluded just the same.

Adam Dunn just retired with 2,001 career games played, good for 203rd all time, as the modern titan of playing exclusively in the regular season. In 2014, a late-summer trade from the White Sox to the A’s gave Dunn a front-row seat to Oakland’s Wild Card play-in game against the Royals, but Stephen Vogt started at first and Brandon Moss at DH. Four hours and 45 thrilling, agonizing minutes later, Dunn’s career also concluded, still without a postseason appearance to his credit. One of the few modern players who can hold a candle to Dunn’s non-postseason career is Vernon Wells, who contributed 1,731 career games (that’s 408th all time), played with perennial contenders in the Angels and Yankees and still had each and every of his Octobers free.

So, who are the active players who have toiled in the regular season the longest without appearing in the postseason? I’ll be separating relievers, starters, and position players into their own categories, tackling the pitchers today and the hitters tomorrow (I’m separating relievers and starters because if I don’t, the pitchers will just be relievers). By virtue of their long careers, none of the following players are bad — some, as you’ll see, are veritable superstars — so being continually shut out of October baseball must be truly maddening.

Relievers

5. Chris Perez – 393 games since 2008 debut, has played for Cardinals, Indians and Dodgers

Even though the Cardinals have won the World Series after as few as 83 regular-season victories, Perez was a rookie with the 2008 iteration of the team that won 86 games but still missed the playoffs. Between 2013 in Cleveland and 2014 in Los Angeles, Perez has seen his team make the postseason in consecutive years, but he has yet to be trusted with the game ball in either scenario. Now he’s a Brewer. FanGraphs projects Perez will be on a 77-85 team in 2015.

An honorable mention must go to Frank Francisco, who has appeared in 391 games since 2004 for the Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets and White Sox. After being released twice last season, Francisco might have reached the end of his career before reaching October baseball.

4. Matt Lindstrom – 469 games since 2007 debut, has played for Marlins, Astros, Rockies, Orioles, Diamondbacks and White Sox

It looked like the stars finally had aligned for Lindstrom in 2012, when he was part of the Pythagorean-defying Orioles bullpen. Baltimore would win 93 games, but Lindstrom was traded to the bland, .500 Diamondbacks in late August in exchange for Joe Saunders. (As difficult as it is to imagine that same trade working in the present day, Saunders posted a 1.59 ERA in two 2012 postseason starts.)

Projected for a sub-replacement performance in 2015 by Steamer, Lindstrom remains a free agent with the start of spring training having already arrived.

3. Shawn Camp – 541 games since 2004 debut, has played for Royals, Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Cubs and Phillies

That’s right, Camp played for the Devil Rays. But in 2008, when Joe Maddon was leading his new-logoed squad all the way to the World Series, Camp had left in free agency the previous winter for the perennial playoff avoiders in Toronto. Because he was released in the middle of last season by the dreary Phillies, it looks like Camp, too, will retire without a postseason appearance to his credit. Only twice in his 11 seasons did Camp play for a winning team (2008, 2010 Blue Jays), compared to four seasons playing for a 100-plus-loss team (2004 and 2005 Royals, 2006 Devil Rays, 2012 Cubs).

2. Heath Bell – 590 games since 2004 debut, has played for Mets, Padres, Marlins, Diamondbacks and Rays

While Bell is arguably one of the game’s more recognizable relievers — he certainly has been one of the more expensive, earning $31.5 million over the last four seasons — all of his girthy glory has taken place in the regular season. In 2010, the 90-win Padres would have been contestants in the Wild Card play-in game, but they were beaten out by the 91-win Braves for what was then just a single Wild Card entry. That was a 2-WAR season for Bell, as he was the closer in a mighty bullpen that also included Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica, Mike Adams, Joe Thatcher, Tim Stauffer, Ryan Webb and Ernesto Frieri.

Now a member of the Washington Nationals, it would appear that all Bell needs to do to crack the postseason in 2015 is to maintain his roster spot. After posting a 7.27 ERA in 17.1 innings last season, that’s a proposition easier said than done.

1. Scott Downs – 619 games since 2000 debut, has played for Cubs, Expos, Blue Jays, Angels, Braves, White Sox and Royals

Downs really must feel like there is an active conspiracy to keep him off the postseason mound. For two consecutive years now, he has been traded from a non-playoff team (Angels in 2013, White Sox in 2014) to a playoff team (Braves in 2013, Royals in 2014) in the middle of the season. And yet in both Octobers, Downs has been merely an observer as his new teammates have gone out and competed for the crown. Now a Cleveland Indian entering his age-39 season, Downs has another great opportunity to make the postseason. Perhaps this time he’ll get to participate.

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Starters

5. Paul Maholm – 273 games since 2005 debut, has played for Pirates, Cubs, Braves and Dodgers

Crazy enough, Maholm was teammates with Downs on those 2013 Braves, and they were held out of the playoffs together. There’s also Maholm’s season-ending ACL injury with last year’s Dodgers, and also his absence for the Braves in the 2012 Wild Card play-in game. Maholm has been on playoff teams for the last three seasons and has entered a playoff game not even once. Allowed to walk away from the Pirates in free agency after seven years of service, Maholm will likely be remembered as a symbol of the futility-era Pirates instead of as a factor in Neil Huntington’s playoff teams.

4. Felix Hernandez – 303 games since 2005 debut with Mariners

Well, what can ya do? King Felix has been in Seattle for a decade, and for most of that time the Mariners have floundered around well out of a playoff spot. It’s a streak that finally could end in 2015, but also very well could not. Hernandez is fourth all-time in Mariners WAR, behind Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr. Oh, and Felix is entering only his age-29 season. It’s madness to think that one of the game’s most transcendent players has gone so long without making the playoffs, but everybody inside and outside the Mariners knows it’s not his fault.

3. R.A. Dickey – 306 games since 2001 debut, has played for Rangers, Mariners, Twins, Mets and Blue Jays

Dickey’s late-career renaissance has to be one of the most wholly entertaining baseball stories of the last five years. Alas, Dickey has been knucklin’ for the Mets and Blue Jays, and so all his adventures have taken place in the regular season. Dickey was with the 2009 Twins team that made the playoffs (what? that actually happened?), but he was optioned to Triple-A in August. With a 5.75 ERA over five seasons in Texas, Dickey definitely was part of the problem for the early-aughts Rangers teams that always slugged big but allowed their opponents to slug big, too.

The good news is, the knuckler could give Dickey plenty more opportunities to shoot for the postseason. He is entering his age-40 season. The majors’ last knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, started for a contending team through age 44. What’s more, since Dickey’s arrival with the Mets in 2010, he is seventh in the majors in combined innings pitched, behind a group of pitchers far younger than him: Hernandez, Justin Verlander, James Shields, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Cole Hamels.

2. Kevin Correia – 353 games since 2003 debut, has played for Giants, Padres, Pirates, Twins and Dodgers

We’re counting Correia as a starter here, even with his 137 career relief appearances. Traded from the Twins to the Dodgers last August, Correia blew his chance to contribute to a postseason runs by surrendering 28 runs in 24.2 pretty underwhelming innings. His last game for the Dodgers came on Sept. 22.

Correia was teammates on the Giants with both Barry Bonds and Tim Lincecum — unfortunately for him, as a bridge between two generations of Giants winners. He was a productive rookie for the 100-win 2003 team that wouldn’t let him on the mound during its Division Series loss — which, amazingly, is still the last time the Giants lost a playoff series. He’s still a free agent; as of right now, it seems unlikely that Correia will be in the 2015 postseason.

1. Aaron Harang – 358 games since 2002 debut, has played for A’s, Reds, Padres, Dodgers, Mariners, Mets and Braves

Here’s a fun Harang fact for you: Four pitchers have pitched a 10-inning game in this century. We have Roy Halladay (who did it twice), Mark Mulder, Cliff Lee and, that’s right, Harang.

Somehow Harang has become a sort of model for a cheaply available, fill-in starting pitcher, but in truth he’s had a real nice career, even outside of the 10-inning outing. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2004, Harang is sixth in the league in games started, eighth in innings pitched, 10th in shutouts, and 11th in strikeouts. Yeah, Aaron Harang.

Maybe we don’t think highly of Harang because of the bad luck he’s had in terms of getting to the postseason. Harang debuted in 2002 for the 103-win, Moneyballing A’s, but he didn’t make a postseason appearance. The next season, Harang was traded from the 96-win A’s to the 69-win Reds. Harang stayed in Cincinnati through 2010, which was the first year the Reds cracked the playoffs since 1995. It’s also the one year in the last decade that Harang didn’t make at least 25 starts, as a late-season injury kept him out of October. Over the next three years, he pitchef for four teams, before landing in Atlanta last season. Although the Braves collapsed from a likely playoff berth in 2014’s second half, don’t blame Harang, whose first-half FIP (3.55) was more or less identical to his second-half FIP (3.59). Now that Harang is with the Phillies, his best shot at the playoffs is to be rescued by a contending team at the trade deadline.

References & Resources

  • Compiled with assistance from the indispensable Baseball-Reference Play Index.


Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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