Thursday, July 12, 2012

Top 100 Indians: #89 Paul Shuey

Since I’m not going to feign interest in the All-Star Game (though watching the player introductions with a 5-year-old forces me to remember how exciting the game once was for me) and as I’m not one of the “graders” or “where are we now” type of guys when it comes to taking the All-Star Break to evaluate the Tribe, I’m pleased to contribute to the Top 100 Indians countdown currently taking place at Let’s Go Tribe.  Fortunate enough to be asked to pen a write-up (or a few), allow me to present my first offering, one Mr. Paul Shuey, #89 on the Top 100 Indians list…
Paul Kenneth Shuey
Pitcher, 1994-2002
Height: 6’3”, Weight: 216 lbs
Acquired: Draft, 6-1-1992:
Drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 1st round (2nd pick) of the 1992 amateur draft

Left Via: Trade, 7-28-2002:
Traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Francisco Cruceta, Terry Mulholland and Ricardo Rodriguez.

As a result of a disastrous 57-105 campaign in 1991, the Indians held the 2nd pick in the Amateur Draft in 1992 (matching the highest spot that they’ve ever drafted in, drafting 2nd overall four times prior to that), using it on University of North Carolina pitcher Paul Shuey.  Though the picks after Shuey in the 1st round of the 1992 draft would produce players that would have Hall of Fame careers (Derek Jeter, #6), players whose HofF credentials are being currently parsed over (Johnny Damon, #35), and a litany of picks that would turn into solid MLB players (Jason Kendall, Shannon Stewart, Charles Johnson, and Rick Helling with Todd Helton and Jason Giambi both going in the 2nd Round), the Indians went with the big RH from Chapel Hill as they already had a number of position player prospects that projected to carry them through the 1990s on board.

Shuey reported to the Columbus Red Stixx of the Sally League and began his Minor League career, interestingly starting all 14 games he would pitch for the Indians’ A affiliate for what remained of the 1992 season.  Control problems plagued Shuey as a member of the Red Stixx however, walking 47 in his 78 innings thrown that year and the Indians made the decision in 1993 to make Shuey a full-time reliever, a role that he had thrived in as a Tar Heel, as he started only one game in his career as a Tar Heel. 

Though a move to the bullpen that quickly for the #2 pick in the draft may have seemed sudden (and seeing the Indians draft a college reliever with the #2 pick is jarring in hindsight), it is important to remember that Dennis Eckersley and Tony LaRussa were revolutionizing bullpen usage in Oakland and the effect of the Nasty Boys in Cincinnati was changing the way that teams were thinking about the construction of the back-end of their bullpen.  Additionally, the tragedy at Lake Lucille in the Spring of 1993 had prematurely robbed the Indians of their current closer Steve Olin and putting Shuey on the fast-track into the back-end of the Indians’ bullpen was set into motion during that 1993 season, when a 27-year-old Jose Mesa led the Indians (by a wide margin) in games started with 33.

Now fully in the bullpen, Shuey thrived and began his journey to the parent club, posting K/9 over 10 at each minor league stop at which he was solely a reliever and earning call-up to the Indians on May 8, 1994, less than two years after he had been drafted by the Tribe.  Though he would only pitch in 14 games for the 1994 club as a 23-year-old, Shuey showed enough promise to be named the 67th best prospect in MLB entering the 1995 season as the Indians looked to build on their promising, if strike-shortened, 1994 season and assert themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the American League, with Shuey as an assumed vital cog in the machine.  Starting the 1995 season in AAA, Shuey earned his promotion to the Tribe in late April, being thrust immediately into the back-end of the bullpen as he would only pitch in the 8th and 9th innings in the 3 games that he would pitch for the team before a hamstring injury would land him on the DL.

Unfortunately, that brief glimpse of Shuey at the beginning of the 1995 season would provide a snapshot of what was to come with Shuey as he would thrive when healthy, struggling at times with command but with the pure “stuff” to regularly miss bats to the point that he always teased the Tribe into thinking that his “stuff” was going to translate into that late-inning dominance that they envisioned when they drafted him with the 2nd pick in 1992.  After getting healthy, Shuey returned to the Indians in late September of 1995, pitching in four games down the home stretch as the Indians prepared for their first playoff appearance in over 40 years, but with Shuey left off of the postseason roster.

In 1996, Shuey would once again start the season bouncing around between Buffalo and Cleveland before earning a more permanent spot in the Tribe bullpen in mid-June.  Ostensibly on the parent club to stay, the 25-year-old Shuey asserted himself as a force in the bullpen, posting a 1.75 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP with 41 K in 51 1/3 IP after being recalled in mid-June as he served as a set-up man for Mesa for the division champion Indians.  Pitching in three of the four ALDS games against the Orioles in a series the Tribe would ultimately lose, Shuey’s future looked bright as a rising star in the Tribe bullpen, presumably playing a vital role in the back-end going forward for the building juggernaut on the North Coast.

But that “vital role” would not materialize for Shuey in 1997 as he had multiple stints on the DL, missing a month early in the season with a twisted knee, then missing nearly two months from mid-June to mid-August with a sore hamstring, with his performance when “healthy” underwhelming as the Indians’ bullpen evolved without him to the point that he was left off of the 1997 postseason roster.  And so it went for Shuey, year after year, with effective pitching out of the bullpen being interrupted by all-too-frequent trips to the Disabled List, for a variety of injuries.  Even now, as names like Jose Mesa, Mike Jackson, Eric Plunk, and others are fondly (for the most part) remembered for their late-inning contributions on those teams of the late-1990s, Shuey remains an overlooked player as his injuries sabotaged his ability to contribute on a regular basis and (with the exception of that 1996 season) to establish himself in a late-inning role the way that those other bullpen arms did.  In missing significant time every year – he was on the DL from the beginning of April to mid-June in 1998 – he became that one missing piece…that always seemed to be missing due to inconsistent health.

Even when he was able to stay relatively healthy in the 1999 season, the seeds of serious injury were planted as he explained the injury to his right hip that would ultimately end his career thusly, “I have what you’d call a violent pitching motion, with a lot of torque involved.  One night, I was pitching on a wet mound in Cleveland and I started slipping. Then, I felt something funny.”  That “something funny” would be an injury to his right hip, an injury that would require multiple surgeries and result in his ultimate retirement from baseball.  Though his talent was unquestioned (he posted an 11.4 K/9 in that 1999 season), injuries always had their way of finding Shuey, bubbling to the surface at the most inopportune times for him.  Prior to the 2000 season, Tribe manager Charlie Manuel stated his desire to use Shuey in the closer role, but eventually gave way to Steve Karsay as he ended up on the Disabled List again in late May due to his now troublesome right hip.

While it may seem inconceivable to think that the #2 pick in the 1992 draft who pitched (and pitched well) for all of those Tribe teams of the “Era of Champions” is more remembered for what he was not instead of for what he was, Paul Shuey’s career as an Indian is viewed as unfulfilled potential, one in which his body did not allow him to become the late-inning stalwart that was so often envisioned year after year for one of the best teams in baseball.

That’s not to say that Shuey’s career as an Indian is not impressive as a complete body of work as his 404 IP ranks 3rd all-time on the Indians among players who were used only as relievers (behind Eric Plunk and Rafael Betancourt) and his career 10.01 K/9 mark as an Indian is the best among all Indians’ players who have thrown more than 400 innings as an Indian, just besting Herb Score’s 9.35 K/9 and Sam McDowell’s 9.21 K/9.  Among that same group of 110 pitchers that have thrown more than 400 innings for the Tribe, his 133 ERA+ ranks 7th all-time…and yet it feels oddly incomplete or even somehow forgettable.

Maybe Shuey is often forgotten because of the lack of Saves as an Indian (as he was even just mentioned this past week in an article about Chris Perez as a player who didn’t have the “mental make-up” to close) as Shuey would notch only 21 Saves in his Indians career.  But that rings hollow as other set-up men (Eric Plunk and Paul Assenmacher, most notably) are still referred to in reverential, and almost hushed, tones while Shuey is largely remembered for being hurt and not for his contributions to those winning clubs of the 1990s.  Maybe that has something to do with Plunk and Assenmacher looking more like an accountant and a roofer, where fans didn’t expect them to be as effective as they were while Paul Shuey had the look of Goose Gossage re-incarnate (bushy mustache, intimidating legkick, drop-off-the-table splitter, etc.), but could never consistently contribute to the team to the point that he is an often-overlooked piece of those Tribe teams of the late-1990s.  Whether that’s fair or not is up for debate, as is whether a fully healthy Paul Shuey would have meant that the Indians would be flying a World Series flag over the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as the idea that he could have played a role in some sort of North Coast “Nasty Boys” redux never materialized. 

Regardless of his legacy, Shuey stayed on with the Indians into the 2002 season, traded a month after Bartolo Colon made his way to Montreal, as Shuey was sent to the Dodgers in exchange for veteran Terry Mulholland and two young arms in Francisco Cruceta and Ricardo Rodriguez.  Though the prospects never contributed much despite some promise (most notably from Rodriguez, who was eventually traded to the Rangers with Shane Spencer for Ryan Ludwick), Mulholland stayed in Cleveland through the 2003 season, serving as a mop-up man for a young Tribe team.

Interestingly, Shuey would re-sign with the Tribe as a minor-league FA with the club after the 2004 season (at a time when the Indians were loading up on veteran bullpen arms on minor-league deals), but would pitch all of 2 innings for the Aeros, due to the ongoing issues with the right hip injury sustained those many years ago on a wet night in Cleveland.  Shuey retired from the Indians after the 2006 season and had a right hip replacement in 2006.  In 2007, his MLB swan song came in Baltimore as he pitched briefly for the Orioles before Shuey injured his back and was released, ending his MLB career at the age of 36.

Among all of the players that made their way through the corner of Carnegie and Ontario during those halcyon days of the late-1990s, nobody represented more “promise” over “production” than Paul Shuey.  And while his “production” (when healthy) should not be overlooked, on a team full of bright lights, Shuey was supposed to be a beacon at the back-end of the bullpen.  It’s just that the faulty wiring in that beacon prevented much more than a sporadic glimpse of what could have been.


Jason said...

I never realized that two of the Indians from the dynasty of the 90s ended up in Baltimore with bum hips.

Hyde said...

Wasn't Shuey also the Indian who once got hurt taking batting practice as part of prep for going on a NL road trip? Not that closers and setup men bat all that often even over in the other league.

It's not Shuey's fault that he proved to be injury-prone, or that it was an insane idea to draft him second in the first place (despite being a "disappointment," he turned out to be the best of the three #2 overall draft picks we had in that stretch from 1986-92). It's also curious that even though it was only the recent past, I've heard many fans claim that Shuey was a failure as a Tribe closer. I don't think there was ever a stretch of any length where he was installed as the closer. I don't know that he would have been optimally successful in that role because he allowed too many baserunners, and given his many injuries it was probably just always easier to leave him in the set-up role. But could he have had success on the level of a Mike Jackson or Bob Wickman had we committed to him for weeks at a time? I don't see why not.

Paul Cousineau said...

Agreed completely on all counts and I'm not sure where the "lacks the mental make-up to be a closer" narrative came from. What's closer to the truth is that the guy couldn't stay healthy long enough to be an everyday closer and when he was healthy for long stretches, the Indians had guys like Mesa or Jackson already locking down the 9th inning.

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