When I wrote about the projected 25-man Opening Day roster last week, the final bullpen spot was a “who knows,” full of Sergio Santos and David Aardsma and Pedro Baez and a dozen other guys. Not included on that list: Chin-hui Tsao, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2007 (for a Dodger team that included names like David Wells, Rudy Seanez, D.J. Houlton, Jason Schmidt, and Mark Hendrickson) and has barely pitched at all since due to a game-fixing scandal in his native Taiwan. When he signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers, he didn’t even get an invite to major league camp, which nearly all players who have major league experience do. That’s how far off the radar he was.
Despite not being on the big league spring training roster, it’s routine for teams to call up arms from the minor league side to eat an inning or two — when you see a guy wearing #85 with no name on his jersey, that’s why — and Tsao has had that opportunity twice so far, looking very impressive both times:
But he’s been added to the squad several times this spring as a backup, been given the ball in two games, and has been lights out, including on Sunday, when he struck out two in 1 2/3 perfect innings, hitting 96 mph on the radar gun.
Early in camp, Tsao’s mere presence led to all kinds of jokes, but the conversation is turning serious enough for manager Don Mattingly to say he left Tsao in an extra inning Sunday so he would face the top of the Mariners’ batting order. He got Austin Jackson on a fly out, struck out Justin Ruggiano swinging and Robinson Cano looking.
“His stuff is good,” said Mattingly. “I kind of left him in there for a shot at Cano and those guys. He’s been interesting to watch.”
After so much time off and with so much competition, there’s almost zero chance that Tsao makes the team out of camp, but it’s a fascinating story nonetheless. Honestly, I have all sorts of conflicting feelings about watching him, because game-fixing is supposed to be baseball’s unbreakable rule — personally, I consider it a million times more offensive than PED usage. Baseball usually approaches it the same way; after all, just look at Pete Rose. But that baseball even allowed Tsao to sign with the Dodgers has to say something, doesn’t it? I’m a little surprised that they would allow even the appearance of impropriety; I’d be more surprised if they allowed him back in if everything he was accused of was actually true.
Still, we don’t know the whole truth, and it’s uncomfortable. But there will be plenty of time for that. Today, what got me thinking about Tsao was not the troubled past or even the 2015 performance. It’s the fact that, wow, this guy missed the last six seasons of baseball and wants to make it back. Has that ever happened?
As it turns out, yes, and I remember why the thought came to mind. Last spring, Mark Mulder attempted a comeback after being out of baseball since 2008. I wrote about it for FanGraphs, noting that he’d attempted to emulate Paco Rodriguez, and while a torn Achilles’ cut Mulder’s comeback short before he could even get into a game for the Angels, I still came out of it with this table showing pitchers who had missed five or more seasons (since 1960) and made it back. Let’s reuse it here:
|Name||Seasons Missed||Final Played|
It’s not exactly the most encouraging list. Bouton came back as a knuckleballer. The overwhelming majority of these guys had put in very little big league time before their absence and didn’t do much to change that afterwards; Winkelsas, for example, faced six batters in 1999, then got into seven innings in 2006. Norris had one great season before dealing with drug issues. Rijo was an elite starter who destroyed his arm multiple times.
None of this is really applicable to Tsao, but not much of it is meant to be, other than to point out that to do what he’s trying to do is really, really hard. It’s still more likely than not that he never makes it back, and the odds are even longer that he’s ever useful. But in a spring training that’s largely been devoid of interesting story lines, at least there’s this. Thanks for not being boring, Chin-hui.