Back in 1992 the Cincinnati Reds used their 6th round pick to draft Curt Lyons out of Madison Central High School in Richmond, Kentucky. While it was less than a two hour drive from Richmond to Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Lyons was just 17-years-old at the time and was going to be moved up the farm system at a pace in which his talent dictated.
The big right-handed pitcher had plenty of success early on in his minor league career. In his first 2.5 months after being drafted he posted a 2.77 ERA for Princeton in the Appalachian League. In 1993 he moved up to Billings where he posted a 3.00 ERA as an 18-year-old in the Pioneer League. During the 1994 season he made 15 starts and one relief appearance between Princeton (four starts) and Charleston in the South Atlantic League, posting a 3.30 ERA between the two stops. In 1995 he would move up to the Advanced-A level and post a 2.98 ERA in 160.1 innings with Winston-Salem.
All of that led to the 1996 season, which would go down as the most memorable one of his professional baseball career. As a 21-year-old, Curt Lyons jumped up to the Double-A level where he joined the Chattanooga Lookouts in the Southern League. The right-handed started went 13-4 across 24 starts that stretched out for 141.2 innings pitched. He would allow just 113 hits that year, including eight home runs. Lyons would walk 52 batters and he struck out 176 that year.
While 176 strikeouts in 141.2 innings pitched is a lot by today’s standards, by 1996 standards it was next-level kind of good. He struck out 30.5% of the hitters he faced that year, and he did that as a 21-year-old. The Southern League average strikeout rate was just 18%. This past season the Southern League strikeout rate was 22.8%.
Curt Lyons led the league in ERA by 0.79 among qualified pitchers over Nelson Cruz (not the one you are probably thinking). He also led the league in strikeouts, 176 to 164, over his teammate and future big leaguer Brett Tomko.
That strong showing in Double-A for Chattanooga led to a September call up for Curt Lyons. He made his Major League debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 19th in Pittsburgh, allowing four earned runs in 5.0 innings. He would pick up his first Major League win five days later at home in Cincinnati against the Chicago Cubs, allowing one run on a solo homer by Brooks Kieschnick (this was his only home run of the season, and the first of his career) in 6.0 innings. On September 29th, the final game of the regular season, Lyons would pitch in his final Major League game, picking up his second win of the season as he allowed three earned against the Cardinals in St. Louis over 5.0 innings pitched.
The next season he was traded just before the regular season began to the Chicago Cubs. It appears he suffered an injury early on in the year at the minor league level and made just 17 appearances in the minor leagues between 1997-2000 before hitting the indy leagues for one final season in 2000.
Stacking up with the contenders
The Cincinnati Reds were long known as an organization who couldn’t develop a starting pitcher to save their lives. They are still trying to break that curse, if you will. But much of it began in the 1990’s, and if you look at the list of contenders here you may not recognize many of the names as future big leaguers – though there were a few on the list who saw limited time.
Let’s start with John Roper – he made the list twice. He was very good in the minor leagues and was twice rated in the top 100 prospect list by Baseball America, peaking at #36 after his 1992 season. It was his 1991 season that put him on the map, though, and earned him the #53 overall prospect in the game following the year. The 19-year-old struck out 189 batters that season – the most in the last three decades by any Reds farm system pitcher. He also threw 186.2 innings that year, which would get someone fired in today’s game. Despite a 2.27 ERA, the league was rather pitcher friendly and left him with a strong, but not quite as impressive as his ERA would suggest, 160 ERA+ that year. His raw numbers were better than those of Lyons, but the ERA+ gave Lyons a significant edge, and he had similar if not better rate stats, too.
All of those innings may have added up for John Roper, who reached the Majors in 1993-1995, but missed nearly all of 1996, then missed all of 1997 and 1998 before resurfacing in the Atlantic League in independent league baseball.
Tim Pugh had a better statistical season in 1990 than Lyons did in 1996. He threw more innings, had a lower ERA, had a better ERA+, and an edge in WHIP. But Lyons performed his season in Double-A as a 21-year-old, while Pugh had his season as a 23-year-old in Low-A. The age and level gap made the difference in my decision here. Pugh would go on to pitch for the Reds from 1992-1996, and then spend partial seasons with both the Royals and Tigers in a 6-year Major League career.
There were some truly dominant season from rookie-ball, including that from John Roper in 1990 where he posted a 343 ERA+. But with the sheer lack of innings it’s going to take an absolutely mindblowing ERA, ERA+, and insane strikeout and walk numbers to put a guy from rookie-ball into the conversation.
Here are the other winners for Season of the Decade:
|2010’s||Devin Mesoraco||Tony Cingrani||Donnie Joseph|
|2000’s||Adam Dunn||Travis Wood||Robert Manuel|
|1990’s||Jason LaRue||Curt Lyons||Victor Garcia|
|1980’s||Danny Tartabull||Mike Dowless||Clem Freeman|
|1970’s||Gary Redus||Keefe Cato|