Forgotten Player of the Moment – JIMMY KEY
(by BILL BARNWELL)
Bill James once wrote about how just looking at the statlines of an unnamed player could lead you to formulate a vision of the player: what he looked like, how he played, what had happened to him in his career, the role he played on his team. Likewise, there are some names in sports that seemingly evoke exact images of the players they were. Dirk Graham, for example; maybe you say he has the porn star name if you think about him now. But in the late 80’s? You think gritty, gutty winger. If anything, you’re surprised he scores so many goals, as he really should be a checking-line guy who chips in 10 to 15, not 25 to 30. It works in baseball, too, especially for the really exaggerated body types. Nate Colbert finished up his baseball career eight years before I was born; yet, somehow, I know exactly what kind of player he was without knowing anything about the man beforehand; stocky guy, played first base, big power threat, not much else. The first example, though, of players I think about whose game matches their name is the much-fantasized about by newspapermen “crafty” lefty, the lanky white guy who can’t throw 92 but still manages to keep all the hitters off balance. The prototype was and is Jimmy Key.
Now that I’ve gotten Rippa’s attention, let’s talk objectively about the pasty guy. He actually spent his first season, 1984 (coincidentally the year of my birth), as Toronto’s closer. It’s pretty easy here to see the alternate universe where he fills the LOOGY role inbetween Duane Ward and Tom Henke in the Jays pen for decades and; well, he’d still be pitching today.
One of the really weird things about Key is how he seemingly changed as a pitcher as he got older; but instead of striking out fewer guys, he started striking out more hitters and seemingly became more of a power pitcher as he aged. In the first phase of his career — the Toronto years, he had some pretty pedestrian K rates; 5.47, 5.55, 4.45, 4.92, 5.12, 5.37.
Once he got to the Yankees, though, he picked up his rates (ignoring the one year he pitched five games) — 6.58, 5.2, 6.17, and then 5.98 and 6.01 with the Orioles (when the Orioles were actually contenders as opposed to the laughingstock Orioles). Key brought it in the playoffs too, going 5-3 with a 3.15 ERA.
The thing is, I have no individual, specific memory of Jimmy Key that stands out to me. There’s no Jimmy Key moment. I probably couldn’t even pick his face out of a lineup. But, somehow, the same weird archetype remains; what Jamie Moyer looks in the mirror and wishes he could be.