Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. Yesterday, we published the honorable mentions.
On a list of twenty-five people ranked from least to most impactful, it makes sense that the player ranked lowest would be the least famous of the lot. But Todd Stottlemyre, a starting pitcher for a little over 2 1/2 seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1996 through a 1998 trade deadline swap which sent him and shortstop Royce Clayton to the Texas Rangers for Darren Oliver and Fernando Tatis (and later Mark Little), feels especially anonymous.
Todd Stottlemyre was never an All-Star, and despite a fourteen-year MLB career, it seems inevitable that, to the extent he is remembered generations from now, it will be as the lesser end of a father-son duo with his father Mel, a five-time All-Star for the New York Yankees who was the team’s best pitcher for a rare decade stretch in which the Yankes didn’t win any championships. Unlike Mel, Todd did win a couple of titles, as the fifth starter for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993, but despite being drafted third overall in 1985, Todd was a bit of a layman–a perfectly acceptable pitcher, even one who could be part of a World Series-winning team, but mostly roster filler.
Todd Stottlemyre didn’t join the Cardinals until 1996, but the catalyst for his time in St. Louis occurred in 1995, when he signed as a free agent with the Oakland Athletics. The 1995 A’s, despite the presence of Mark McGwire, a pair of Hall of Famers in Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley, and rookie Jason Giambi, finished 67-77, in last place in the American League West, but Stottlemyre was the team’s workhorse. His 4.55 ERA, even in the offensive environment of 1995, was not ideal, but Stottlemyre was striking out over two more batters per nine innings than he ever had before, and was largely the victim of a .335 opponent batting average on balls in play. Among those who believed in Stottlemyre as a potential top-end starter was manager Tony LaRussa, who brought Stottlemyre to St. Louis with him the next season via a trade that sent three minor leaguers (including future bullpen journeyman Jay Witasick) and reserve outfielder Allen Battle to Oakland.
The 1996 Cardinals won the National League Central and the clinched the franchise’s first division title in nine years. And while the lineup was strong, it was the rebuilt starting rotation, headlined by new additions Stottlemyre and Andy Benes, that pushed the team over the top. The duo were essentially identical (with 1995 holdover Donovan Osborne pitching slightly fewer innings with slightly more efficiency) in the regular season, but it was Stottlemyre who got the Game 1 start againt the San Diego Padres in the National League Division Series. He rewarded Tony LaRussa’s confidence in him with 6 2/3 innings innings, seven strikeouts, and just one run allowed. He picked up his second postseason win in Game 2 of the NLCS, striking out eight members of the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves, but his postseason prowess came to a thunderous halt in Game 5, a potential series-clincher for the Cardinals during which Stottlemyre allowed seven runs in his sole inning of work.
The 1996 Cardinals were carried by an outfield of Ron Gant, Ray Lankford, and Brian Jordan–three players in their prime–and the team expected to continue to compete for division titles going forward, but as it turned out, his Game 5 blowup would be the final postseason start of Todd Stottlemyre’s Cardinals career. But assigning blame to Stottlemyre would be unfair. He was arguably even better in 1997, increasing his strikeout rate while decreasing his walk rate. With a relatively economical 181 innings, he wasn’t quite the workhorse that he was in 1996, though the rise of rookie Matt Morris made Stottlemyre’s presence less essential.
1998 was a strange season in Cardinals history in that the team was both at the center of the baseball universe and more or less a nonfactor in the postseason race. They were a decent team being elevated in the headlines via the hulking muscles of Mark McGwire, but around the hubbub of the single-season home run record chase was a team that was fundamentally rebuilding. Stottlemyre, now 33, was pitching well into July–his 8.2 strikeouts per nine was his best mark with the Cardinals, and his walks per nine and ERA were also his peak with the team. But entering the day before the trade deadline, the Cardinals were 50-57. They would eventually heat up down the stretch of the season and finish with a winning record, but at the time, they sat 11 games behind the Chicago Cubs for the National League Wild Card, and a veteran who would become a free agent at the end of the season was of little long-term use to the Cardinals. Darren Oliver was a lesser pitcher, but he was younger and had another full season until free agency, and Fernando Tatis (he wouldn’t become Senior until five months later) was a toolsy twenty-three year old at a position that at the time was patrolled by a nearly-forty year-old Gary Gaetti. And the Texas Rangers, a game behind the Anaheim Angels in an AL West race they eventually won, had a more urgent need for Stottlemyre’s immediate value.
Todd Stottlemyre would eventually start Game 1 of the 1998 ALDS against the New York Yankees, going eight innings and allowing just two runs to the vaunted Yankees lineup, but David Wells and Mariano Rivera combined for a shutout, and the Rangers were eventually swept. Stottlemyre signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks to be the second-year club’s ace (a title which was short-lived, as the team signed Randy Johnson eight days later), and he won the first playoff game in franchise history in Game 2 of the 1999 NLDS against the New York Mets. The next season, his age-35 campaign, Stottlemyre regressed, and he missed the Diamondbacks’ 2001 World Series-winning campaign recovering from Tommy John Surgery.
Stottlemyre returned in 2002 but was unable to regain his form, and he retired from baseball to pursue a successful career as a stock trader, which is in some ways a perfect metaphor for the man’s MLB career. He wasn’t flashy or exciting or particularly interesting, but he was the kind of player you would want to have on your team’s roster: the equivalent of a savings bond that won’t return much but will most definitely return something. And this is ultimately his legacy, both as a pitcher and as a Cardinal.