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21 Apr 2006
Guest column by Jim Baker
In a few days, the last two Heisman Trophy winners will be feted and spotlighted all over again when they are selected in the annual NFL Draft. Meanwhile, their opposite numbers in baseball will be toiling in front of relatively small crowds in places like Wichita and Salt Lake City. Not everyone is aware that baseball has an equivalent award for its collegiate stars. Obviously, it's one that suffers from being in the long shadow of the much older football award. The Heisman began life in 1935 while the Golden Spikes didn't come along until 1978.
I thought it would be interesting to compare the winners of each award by year and see how they fared as professionals. While these awards were never meant to be predictors of professional performance, that doesn't mean we can't use them as such, what with free speech and all. Here, in chronological order, is my assessment of which of the winners won the post-award battle.
A high-caliber running back who is done by the time he is 30 is pretty common. There are quite a few on this list. A top-rated third baseman, though? Not so. Horner was overrated in his time but could have, with better self-discipline, had a better career than he did. The nation got to see Sims at Thanksgiving every year as he ran his way from Detroit toward Canton, until a knee injury got in the way of that. Advantage: football
White had one big year (1987) and a few seasons in which he caught a pretty good number of passes coming out of the backfield. Wallach made the All-Star team five times and was respected with the bat and in the field. Advantage: baseball
Rogers made the Pro Bowl his first two seasons in the NFL and closed out his fairly brief career as a running back with the Super Bowl champion 1987 Redskins. He rushed for 1,000 yards four times and scored 54 touchdowns. Some personal problems and a toe injury kept him from being all he could be. Francona was never more than a platoon player in his 10 seasons in the majors, although he, a lefthander, once played third base. Two years ago, his post-playing career finally earned him a ring to match the one Rogers has.Advantage: football
Fuentes was taken in the second round of the Rule 4 draft by the Montreal Expos, giving them their third consecutive Golden Spikes winner. How did this pan out for them? Very well -- provided you are the sort that takes an extremely bright view of everything. In four games in late 1983, all three of their Golden Spikers â€“ Wallach, Francona and Fuentes -- appeared in the same game. The results? A 3-1 record, although it should be pointed out that Fuentes had just one at bat in those three contests. He got into three more games in 1984 and that was it for his big league career. Allen is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and even his brother Damon far outranks Fuentes in the annals of Canadian athletics. Advantage: football
Schmidt was the first Golden Spikes winner not to make it to the majors. A shortstop, he was the second player selected in the draft behind Shawon Dunston, but his career stalled in the minors and he went into college coaching by 1987. He has done extremely well at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, compiling a .700 winning percentage there. Walker was very close to being a household name and was one of the players that gave the USFL credibility. When he moved to the NFL, he never quite became the deity he was supposed to be, but still, in part because of a demanding training regimen, played until he was 35 years old. He has surfaced lately on Pros vs. Joes getting tackled by men he would have broken in two in his prime. Advantage: football
When Magadan came up with the Mets in 1986, he had the look of the next Wade Boggs. He never developed the power necessary to hold down a full-time job on somebody's corner, but he had a long run and finished with a career .290 EqA â€“ nothing to sneeze at. Much more was expected from Rozier, and his career just never quite got to the lofty heights that were predicted for him. Advantage: baseball
(Ed. note: EqA explained here. It's so nice to be able to say that for somebody else's stats.)
Save for a brief comeback in 1994, McDowell has been essentially done since the administration of George the Elder. Flutie, on the other hand, actually got into a game this past season â€“ not that that alone should be the criterion. Flutie has spent most of his post-collegiate life as the outsider, but he did have the big years with Buffalo in 1998 and 1999. Advantage: football
Jackson's yards/carry numbers would make Jim Brown blush: 6.8, 4.3, 5.5 and 5.6. Staggering stuff. His split career costs him in a comparison with Clark, however. The years spent learning baseball undo him in this face-off, injury or no. Also, the fact that he made the American League All-Star team might throw extra weight baseball's way. Advantage: baseball
Loynd's was an extremely short trip to the majors. He was taken in the seventh round by the Rangers and, after less than 30 innings at Tulsa (where he put up a 31:3 K:BB ratio), he was starting against Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and the Indians (possibly the fastest-ever rise for a seventh rounder). By the end of the following season, his big league career was over. Testaverde has played for very few winning teams in his long career, but he has, at least, played â€“ and played and played and then played some more, even in 2005. Advantage: football
When it comes to injuries, it's usually the football players that lose out in these comparisons. Pitchers are like running backs in that regard, though: their careers are often truncated by the wearing down that comes with their line of work. Abbott had some great moments but also had the relatively unique experience of going 2-18 as his pitching health faltered. Brown, on the other hand, is one of the most prolific receivers in history. He currently ranks behind only Jerry Rice and Cris Carter in career receptions. Advantage: football
The only instance so far where both winners were from the same school. Unfortunately for the baseball cause, one of the better players ever to win the Golden Spikes comes up against one of the greatest running backs of all time. Advantage: football
Ware didn't play much in the NFL and, when it didn't work out there, he didn't fare much better in the Canadian Football League either. The Lions, the team that drafted him and gave him a $1 million bonus, could have used a football equivalent of BP's minor league translations on his run-and-gun college career. If McDonald's shoulder hadn't gone south on him for good in 1998, he would have signed with Toronto for four years and $44 million this past off-season. Advantage: baseball
Here's the difference between the Heisman Trophy and the Golden Spikes: you'll never see anybody but a Division I-A player win the former. Even with his more humble academic beginnings and a career-killing injury, Fernandez had the better pro career. Barring, that is, some sort of miracle resurgence on Detmer's part. He's still on the Falcons' roster, after all. Advantage: baseball
Kelly's high water mark was a 1.8 WARP1 with Cincinnati in 1997 (wins over replacement player). It earned him a trip to the expansion Devil Rays where he managed a 1.2. That was pretty much the end of his big league career as he never hit quite enough to hold down a corner outfield spot. Howard's career would have been similarly disappointing had he not discovered the joys of special teams work. He went insane in the 1996 postseason, culminating in a Super Bowl MVP. He also had a Pro Bowl appearance four years later. Advantage: football
8-to-5. That's the ratio of number of times waived to number of games played for Torretta in his NFL career. Nevin has certainly had his share of disappointments, but he's got a great year under to his credit (2001) and still has a career. Advantage: baseball
Dreifort may have been the signatory to one of the more infamously misguided contracts of the past decade, but at least he stayed in the sport for which he was rewarded in college. He wins this one by default as Ward wasn't even named in the NFL draft and opted instead for a career in the NBA. Advantage: baseball
Just about anybody can rush for 1,000 yards in a 16-game season if they get the ball enough. Salaam did it as a rookie while averaging only 3.6 yards a carry. Off the field, it was a case of life imitating art. Unfortunately, that art was Reefer Madness. Last seen in the XFL. Varitek is still going strong, posting his second straight .300 EqA in 2005. Advantage: baseball
George was a grinder who churned his way into the top 20 all-time in rushing yardage. It took its toll as it always must in the cruel world of the NFL. He only averaged more than four yards per carry twice in his career. Kotsay has been a big league regular since he was 22 and just turned 30 in December. He was excellent in 2004 with an 8.8 WARP3. 5.5 to 6.0 is more his usual speed, though. Because of the nature of George's game and the fact that Kotsay probably has another four or five full seasons ahead of him, this one is going to be Advantage: baseball
To date, Lee has had one pretty good season (2003). To best Wuerffel's 23-game NFL career, that's all he needs, really. Advantage: baseball
Drew has now appeared in eight seasons and qualified for the batting title once. Woodson â€“ the only defensive player to appear on this list â€“ has made three Pro Bowls, although nobody seems to want to sign him this off-season because no team wants to do business with the Postons. Maybe Drew should lend him Scott Boras for a month or two. Advantage: football
The Whacker vs. the Weeder. Burrell had an excellent 2002, fell off the face of the earth, and then normalized without approaching '02 levels again. Williams also had a huge 2002. I'm not very objective here. I have a hard time with guys who would prefer finding their inner Willie Nelson for a year over spending time with their three biological children. Advantage: baseball
Jennings is going to get the nod here because he has had to perform under the difficult playing conditions of Coors Field. True, Dayne had the pressure of playing professionally in his home state (New Jersey) but responded with some truly uninspired running. The linemen in the NFL are simply better equipped physically to jackknife a truck. They now get to share the fields of Colorado, where the state motto is "Colorado: Good for Running Backs, Bad for Pitchers." Advantage: baseball, pending Mike Shanahan's attempt to prove he can work miracles.
Both are still in there fighting. Bouknight split 2005 between the Eastern and Pacific Coast Leagues making 21 starts and posting a combined ERA in the high 3.00s. He's currently the number two starter on the AA Harrisburg Senators in the Washington Nationals organization. Weinke spent 2005 as the backup in Carolina. His 293-for-540 rookie year (2001) and the fact that Bouknight hasn't made the majors yet make this one Advantage: football
A non-starter in spite of Prior's many physical distractions. Crouch never played a down in the NFL and never will. Advantage: baseball
This could change over the course of time, but right now, Palmer is cooking with gas, as those bribed by the Gas Council used to say. Only Peyton Manning ranked higher than Palmer in FO's passing stats last year, and Greene's .296 OBP in 2005 is troublesome as Palmer's knee injury. Advantage: football
"Sometimes I think that you have to swallow your pride a little bit and know when you are done," White told UPI upon his retirement in August of 2005. He cited knee problems as the reason his NFL career ended before he ever played a game. Advantage: baseball
Weaver got the early pro jump on Leinart and will have had two pro seasons under his belt by the time the 2006 NFL season kicks off. 2005 was a strong debut in High-A and AA ball and he will, at the very least, get a call-up around the same time Leinart is breaking camp with whichever team expends a high draft choice to collar him. Which player has the better upside? If the previous pitcher vs. quarterback matchups on this list are any indication, then neither of them. As unpredictable as the careers of pitchers can be â€“ even those with the college pedigree of Weaver -- highly-rated quarterbacks also have their share of disappointments. Then again, David Lewin's projection system says Leinart is close to a sure thing, and it's not fair penalizing a fellow for staying in school, even if all he learned was ballroom dancing. Advantage: too early to call
Gordon, the second pick in last year's Rule 4 draft and Bush, the expected first pick in this year's NFL draft, have something in common: they are both great hopes for franchises in crisis â€“ the Royals and Texans. Gordon is currently making his pro debut in Wichita and living up to expectations in the early going. He'll be in Kansas City before you know it. No doubt, the Texans will have Bush in their backfield against the Eagles on September 10. The long-range advantage goes to the baseball position player who, if everything goes pretty well, will still be drawing major league breath in 2021. Bush, like many RBs â€“ especially those with teams that don't block so well â€“ could have a short and dangerous career. Advantage: too early to call
The final tally:
Too early to call: 2
Jim Baker writes the column "Prospectus Matchups" at our sister site Baseball Prospectus, where an earlier version of this article appeared in December.
43 comments, Last at 25 Apr 2006, 9:19am by Trogdor