Coming off a 22-win season with the Houston Astros, getting traded was the last thing 27-year-old Mike Hampton anticipated heading into the offseason following the 1999 campaign.
“It’s a little bit overwhelming, a little bit shocking,” Hampton told media following the deal. “It seems like it all happened rather quickly.”
The southpaw led Houston with a 7.8 WAR that season, finishing second in the National League Cy Young voting to Arizona’s Randy Johnson, who was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this summer. He joined with the likes of Jose Lima and Shane Reynolds to give Houston one of the best starting rotations in the game, bringing hopes of a Fall Classic to the Astrodome in its final season.
As quickly as Houston rose to prominence in the National League Central in the late 90s, they fell out of memory even faster. After trading Hampton, who won 47 games from 1997 to 1999, to New York, the Astros plummeted to a 72-win campaign after reaching the Division Series the year prior.
This back-and-forth, up-and-down pattern marred not only the Astros during this time, but also Hampton – who, after breaking out in his late 20s, saw his once-promising big league career marred by injuries and bloated contracts.
So where does he rank in terms of history? Is he worth taking note of as we look back on the history of a game that has featured countless talented pitchers over the years?
After being selected in the sixth-round of the 1990 draft by the Seattle Mariners, Hampton rocketed through the minors, altogether skipping Triple-A ball before making his big league debut with the M’s on April 17, 1993.
To say that start was memorable is fair, but not in the way Hampton likely hoped for. The then-20-year-old lefty allowed four earned runs in just 2 2/3 innings of work against Detroit – which was far from indicative of what lay ahead for Hampton, who went on to win 148 games over the course of parts of 16 seasons.
His rookie campaign was altogether forgettable and the Mariners soon moved on past Hampton, trading him to the Astros along with Mike Fielder for Eric Anthony. an outfielder coming off a 15-homer campaign in ’93.
And thus began Mike Hampton’s first go-round as a member of the Houston Astros.
He never won a Cy Young Award while down in the Lone Star State, never won 20 games and only won more than 15 games two times with the Astros. Heck, he didn’t even make an All-Star team until 1999, his final season in a Houston uniform.
So while he lacked the eye-popping performances put forth by some of the other aces in the game at this time, a list that included the likes of Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, he brought one invaluable thing to the table in Houston – consistency.
Even in his early-to-mid 20s, Hampton demonstrated an artist-like approach to pitching. He was effective far more often than not, never posting an ERA north of 3.83 as a member of the Astros’ starting five. He turned in more than 200 innings annually from 1997 to 1999, a streak that continued until 2002.
His successes spanned all facets of the game – not just the pitcher’s mound.
Hampton ended his big league career with five Silver Slugger Awards, thanks to a .246/.294/.356 batting line across 845 plate appearances over 16 years. To say he was a sure-fire out would be a disservice to Hampton, especially in an age where nine out of 10 hurlers can’t even get a bunt down successfully when asked to.
The Brooksville, Fla. native also picked up a Gold Glove in his career, but that came long after his time with Houston drew to a close.
The lefty struggled badly out of the gates to open the 2000 season with the Mets, with his earned run average pushing 7.00 after the first month or so, but he turned things around and went on to win 15 games for New York that season, helping lead the club to the World Series – in which the Mets fell to their crosstown rival Yankees in the Subway Series.
It was at this point when the story surrounding Mike Hampton changed forever.
The veteran inked an eight-year, $121 million deal with the Colorado Rockies in the offseason, in what was, by-far, the biggest, most lucrative contract in sports history. Sure, today, we have $200 million-plus being thrown around with regularity, but 15 years ago, this was a power move by the Rockies, who finished fourth in the NL West in 2000.
With Todd Helton coming off an MVP-caliber season and Hampton in-tow, the Rockies had their sights set on October in 2001, but they again fell short. As we all know by now, Colorado would not see postseason play until 2007, when they were swept by the Boston Red Sox in four.
And, to this day, there are more than a handful of fans that place the blame at the feet of the front office who threw that kind of money at Hampton, as well as the hurler himself, who never lived up to the enormity contract.
Despite earning an All-Star selection in his first year with the Rockies, opposing hitters reached against Hampton with great regularity. Right-handed bats hit the Rockies’ new starter at a .284 clip, with lefties performing even better, evidenced by their .985 OPS against Hampton.
He won nine games before the Midsummer Classic, but faded badly down the stretch, as his second-half earned run average ballooned to nearly 8.00, putting Rockies fans in a full-blown panic over their left-hander, who was still owed the remaining seven years on his massive contract.
Now, knowing what we all know about pitching in Denver, it wouldn’t seem too far-fetched to attribute Hampton’s struggles with the Rockies to pitching at Coors Field.
Except for the fact that his numbers at Coors were actually better than they were on the road from 2001 to 2002.
At home over the course of those two seasons, the left-hander pitched to a 5.73 ERA and 1.667 WHIP in Colorado. When he took the ball for the Rockies on the road, Hampton was good for a 5.77 ERA and 1.682 WHIP – barely serviceable numbers for a back-end starter, let alone a guy who was making ace money.
The next season wasn’t any better for Hampton, who would soon find himself the subject of trade rumors, eventually winding up with the Atlanta Braves, where legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone breathed life into the struggling southpaw’s career.
In 2003, his first year with Atlanta, Hampton won 14 games – but more importantly, his numbers headed back toward where they sat while he pitched in Houston, giving he and the Braves reason to have hope moving forward.
He did his part in helping the Braves win division titles the next two years before losing the subsequent two seasons to injury after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2005 and dealing with elbow issues in its aftermath.
This, more often than not, is what Mike Hampton’s legacy is reduced to now.
He pitched one more season in Atlanta, struggling in 13 starts back in 2008, before finding himself testing the waters of free agency for the first time in almost a decade.
In what seemed poetic in some fashion, the Astros took a flyer on their former ace, signing Hampton to a one-year, $2 million deal with a couple million dollars worth of incentives built-in. Tried as they may, Houston couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle, as the former Cy Young front-runner pitched to a 5.30 ERA in 21 starts before succumbing to a rotator cuff injury.
After a quiet final season with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010 that spanned all of 4 1/3 innings, Hampton called it quits – destined to be nothing more than the most-overpaid baseball player of the decade, a mere footnote in the baseball history books and the occasional bar stool conversation in Houston and Denver.