Jeff Manship and the Denny Bautista-line

Jeff Manship signed a minor league deal with Cleveland this past December.  These are the sorts of deals the Jeff Manships of the world get.  Manship has made two Opening Day rosters in his career--in 2011 and again in 2014--and he had to fight it out in Spring Training for both.  In 2011, he made it to April 17, just 3.1 IP over 5 games, before getting sent down.  Last year, he stayed up until July 23, but over a month of that time was spent on the DL.

No, there's nothing remarkable at all about Manship's contract with Cleveland. He's the type of player who is only even a free agent at all because no one wants to hand him an MLB roster spot, and he's out of options.  What is remarkable is that Manship keeps making the Majors anyway, every single year.  Since his first call-up in 2009, he has now spent time in the Majors for six years running.  And in every single one, he's had an ERA above 5.00.
 

Denny Bautista was, in some ways, a rather un-Manship-like prospect.  Manship was drafted in the 50th round out of high school, went to Notre Dame, and then signed as a 14th round pick three years later.  In 2008, he climbed to #9 on Baseball-America's list of the Twins' top ten prospects, only to drop back out of the list the following year.  John Sickels, who also had Manship as the Twins' #9 prospect in 2008, had him at the back end of their top 20 each of the next two years.

Bautista, meanwhile, was signed as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic.  He was (and still is, presumably) the cousin of Ramon and Pedro Martinez.  He twice (in 2002 and 2004) cracked Baseball-America's top 100 prospect list, peaking at #59.  At 21, an age where Manship was still finishing up his career at Notre Dame and just starting off in the Gulf Coast and Florida State Leagues, Bautista was already in the Majors.

In spite of their different pedigrees, Jeff Manship and Denny Bautista ended up as very similar pitchers:  failed starters, journeyman relievers, shuttling up and down between cities like Minneapolis and Denver and Kansas City and cities like Rochester and Colorado Springs and Omaha.  They are so similar, in fact, that Denny Bautista is the only other pitcher in Major League history to keep succeeding in precisely the same sub-par way that Manship has.

There have been other pitchers who kept putting up ERAs above 5.00 and kept getting shots in the Majors.  A handful of them, including future Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey in his pre-knuckleball days, have even had ERAs above 5.00 in each of their first six seasons.  None of them, other than Manship and Bautista, have kept getting back to the Majors every single year, though.  There has always been a year or two in between somewhere where they languished in the minors without getting the call.

Of course, Dickey aside, there isn't much hope for success for these kind of pitchers.  Kevin Jarvis somehow managed to stick around another six seasons and pitch past his 37th birthday after putting up 5+ ERAs in each of his first six years, but he was just as ineffective in those final six years as in the first six (140 ERA-/124 FIP- in his first six seasons, 135 ERA-/125 FIP- in his final six).  Everyone else disappeared pretty quickly.

As for Bautista, he did get a seventh year.  It was actually his best, at least by ERA.  He finally broke the 5.00 barrier and posted a 3.27 ERA in 2010, good for right about average for a reliever.  However, in a rather cruel statement about age and the ticking clock on failed prospects, this of all years was finally the year that failed to earn him another shot in the Majors.  The following June, he was released from Seattle's system and wound up pitching in Korea.  He's still around--he pitched in the Mexican league last year--but he hasn't been back in affiliated pro ball since.

It's not like you need any careful analysis to know that the outlook is not good for Manship's career, though.  I mean, he's a guy who has thrown 139.1 innings over the past six years with a 6.46 ERA and just got released by his third team in three years.  It's interesting, though, don't you think?  That he keeps finding his way back, year after year?  That even when you split his career ERA into 20-30 inning chunks (or 3.1 inning chunks, as was the case in 2011), they all still come in over 5.00?  Even the progression is interesting: his 6.65 ERA was actually the third straight season his ERA dropped from the year before (Manship's ERAs from 2010-2014:  8.10, 7.89, 7.04, 6.65).  And he could go right on dropping the ERA again and again for years to come, and still not be any good.  That's amazing, in its own way.

If he ends up above 5.00 again this year, he would be the first pitcher ever to pitch in seven different MLB seasons and post an ERA that high in every one.  Here's something else interesting, though:  Steamer actually projects him for a 4.38 ERA this year.  That's...that's less than 5.00!  By a pretty fair amount!

When you think about it, the projection actually makes sense.  Even with ERAs consistently north of replacement level, teams have to be projecting him for something below 5.00, or they wouldn't bother calling him up.  And his fielding-independent numbers are actually...well, they're not good, but they're a lot better than his ERAs.  So there is a pretty good reason to believe he can break the Bautista-barrier if he finds his way back to the Majors this year.

Even so, every year that passes, Manship's career is on thinner and thinner ice.  It has to be--look what happened to Bautista, whose 3.27 ERA in year seven couldn't even save his career.  In all likelihood, if he gets another shot, he probably will have the best ERA of his career, but there is a very real chance that it would still be his last year anyway.  Heck, there is a very real chance we've seen the last of Jeff Manship in the Majors already.  That is, of course, unless he starts working on his knuckleball.

Edit: Manship did make it back to the Majors in 2015, and posted an 0.92 ERA in 39.1 IP with Cleveland. Well done, Jeff!

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