How Will History Remember Erik Bedard?
It’s extraordinary, what Erik Bedard did last Saturday night. It’s extraordinary that Bedard no-hit the scorching Seattle Mariners into the top of the seventh inning. It’s extraordinary that he managed to rack up so many strikeouts. It’s extraordinary that he was removed, and that he wound up with the loss, without having surrendered a hit. And then, more than anything, it’s extraordinary that he pitched. That he even pitched in the first place. That much is extraordinary in two ways.
Other fans don’t have the relationship with Bedard that we do. He’s pitched for a whole bunch of teams, but they haven’t gone through the same ups and downs. Other teams didn’t invest so much into an Erik Bedard acquisition. Other teams didn’t start Erik Bedard over Felix Hernandez on opening day, and other teams didn’t go through the same drawn-out Erik Bedard experience. Bedard is not remembered fondly in Seattle, and something about the Saturday performance felt uniquely appropriate — here’s a guy, talented, hitting the wall and all but removing himself despite the circumstances. Twitter was littered with jokes, and that was even before the Mariners closed out their incredible win.
Think about Bedard’s reputation these days, and think about the stories we’ve all heard. Bedard has never come off like a leader, and he’s never seemed like one to hang around the practice fields after hours. Bedard has appeared to exhibit disinterest, and not just with the media — he’s never seemed that committed to the game, or to his team, and it’s because of Bedard that I’m familiar with the expression five-and-dive. You think of Bedard and you think of a guy who’s toast after five innings or 100 pitches, whichever comes first. And, naturally, you think of the aches and pains. Bedard’s always been fragile, and he’s seemed to take his time. He’s seemed to demonstrate an unwillingness to work through much in the way of discomfort.
I’m not here to say that anyone’s wrong. Bedard is written about in a certain way for reasons. Departing coaches, in the past, have taken parting shots at Bedard, accusing him of not giving enough or caring enough. Bedard isn’t Derek Jeter, and there’s no way to twist the tale such that a comparison fits. Bedard, often, has disappointed in a variety of ways, and that colors the way that he’s covered. But, for not my first time, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge the rest of the story.
Bedard had his first taste of surgery in 2002, when he had his UCL replaced. The first taste wouldn’t be the last, as Bedard had different shoulder surgeries in 2008, 2009, and 2010. You can’t fake or exaggerate a needed surgical procedure, and Bedard cited those surgeries when explaining why he was okay with coming out of his no-hitter. To quote:
“I’ve had three shoulder surgeries, so I’m not going over 110. I’d rather pitch a couple more years than face another batter.”
Look at that quote, examine it. It’s not just Bedard trying to quit his day’s work. When he came out, he’d walked four of seven hitters. His last fastball came in under 87 miles per hour. Bedard was finished, and he knew it better than anyone. Then there’s the last bit. “I’d rather pitch a couple more years.” For a guy who’s long been accused of disinterest, Bedard seems pretty damn interested in sticking around as a major-league pitcher.
Which might explain why he’s been pitching for the Houston Astros after signing as a free agent. Bedard re-signed with Seattle in December 2010 after all his shoulder surgeries. He pitched pretty well, he got traded to Boston, and he got hurt. Then, in December, he signed as a free agent with the Pirates. 13 months later he signed a minor-league contract with the Astros. Bedard made $7 million in 2008. He made almost $8 million in 2009. Bedard didn’t need to keep pitching, but he kept getting hurt and he kept coming back, signing with teams that wouldn’t be good. Let it not be said that Erik Bedard doesn’t care about baseball.
And as for his toughness? In 2009 he pitched through a torn labrum. Though he was dropped by the Pirates in late August 2012, to that point he’d missed just one turn, with back spasms. And there’s the reality of Bedard overcoming all of those operations. Sometimes one shoulder surgery can mean the end of a pitcher’s career. Bedard had three in three seasons, and since then he’s thrown 353 innings, with 332 strikeouts. Bedard, in the past, has pitched through pain, and he’s started regularly, and he’s fought back from being hurt and virtually forgotten.
He hasn’t always pitched through pain, or fatigue, as he’s famously racked up a bunch of short outings. But how much of that is weakness, instead of intelligence? We know beyond a shadow of any doubt that Bedard is injury-prone. We know that pitchers tend to perform worse when they approach a triple-digit pitch count, such that it might be in everyone’s best interests to go to a reliever. When managers ask starting pitchers how they’re feeling, the pitchers almost always respond as if they’re good to keep pitching. Much of the time, they’re not. Injuries and ineffectiveness happen when a pitcher goes too long. Bedard’s gotten crap for seldom putting up much of a fight. He even took the ball out of his own hands in a no-hitter. Why is that weakness? Why is that not refreshing, helpful honesty? I get that there’s a balance, and you want a guy to want to keep pitching, but maybe Bedard’s just deeply aware of his own limits. That would be good for a team, not bad for it.
So Bedard doesn’t go deep enough. So he has one career complete game. He’s thrown more pitches per plate appearance than average, because he’s been so difficult to hit and because he’s never had pinpoint command. And, of course, Bedard isn’t any kind of work horse. To complain about this is to say “you should be better and more physically blessed.” Everyone in baseball could be better, and Bedard wasn’t blessed with a work horse’s body, but he was blessed with a body that could spin a hell of a curveball, sometimes, and even though that meant sometimes he’d be inefficient, Bedard could at least get outs, for five or so innings at a time.
What I personally can’t know is how much effort Bedard has put into making himself better. I don’t know if his injuries could’ve been avoided with, say, more or different conditioning. I do know you don’t just recover from three consecutive shoulder surgeries by accident overnight. I know you don’t just luck into being able to retire major-league batters, especially after all those times being knocked unconscious in a hospital. We’ll never be able to know what Erik Bedard’s career might’ve looked like had he possessed Raul Ibanez’s work ethic and leadership skills. You’re left feeling like he could’ve and should’ve been more, and you wonder if he could’ve been more durable. But the career Erik Bedard has actually had has been remarkable, and it seems like he’d like to extend it, even though he doesn’t have a need. Maybe he likes pitching away from the spotlight, in places like Seattle and Pittsburgh and Houston, but he wouldn’t be the only such player.
It’s tradition in sports to play through pain until someone pulls you off the field. Erik Bedard has done that. He’s also not done that, on purpose, but there’s a balancing point beyond which it’s stupid to play through pain, both in the short-term and the long-term. Maybe if Bedard were more conventionally “tough,” his career would already be over. With luck, attitudes will change over time, and with luck, athletes will come to better understand their own physical limits. Bedard gets his, even if we all wish his limits would’ve been higher.
The headline question is a dumb one. History will remember Erik Bedard the way it remembers everyone: too simply. Bedard will have been a talented but fragile pitcher who sadly could’ve been more than he was. The reality of Erik Bedard is the reality of everyone: it’s complicated. Erik Bedard might just be baseball’s toughest weak player.