On Tuesday, long-time Houston Astros starting pitcher Roy Oswalt retired at the age of just 36. There will be no serious Hall of Fame discussion about Oswalt, and that's probably justified, but Oswalt's career looked like it was on a Hall of Fame track before it was derailed later on.
Oswalt finished in the top five of NL Cy Young voting five times in the first six years of his career. He was the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to some guy named Pujols, who swept the voting. He made three All-Star teams and was a member of Houston's 2005 NL Championship team, going 3-0 in four starts during the 2005 Postseason.
From 2001-2008, Oswalt was an absolute monster. He threw 1622 innings over those eight years, averaging over 200 innings per season. His 129-64 record gave him a .668 winning percentage, a truly elite mark. No pitcher had more wins than his 129. During those eight seasons, which were the first eight of his career, only four pitchers had a higher fWAR than Oswalt – Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Johan Santana, all of whom will at least be in Hall of Fame conversations.
Oswalt was more than just a guy who won games early in his career. Those 1622 innings ranked ninth among all pitchers from 2001-2008. He ranked sixth in strikeouts with 1335, and his strikeout and walk rates were better than the league averages in each season. The only starters with a lower ERA than Oswalt's 3.13 mark were Santana and John Smoltz, who spent a few seasons in the bullpen during those years.
But after 2008, Oswalt's career fell apart as back injuries began to overwhelm him. From 2009 to 2013, Oswalt made just 100 starts and 12 relief appearances, posting a 3.96 ERA over 623 1/3 innings. He struggled in 2009 with the Astros, but was brilliant in 2010, especially after his midseason trade to the Phillies. With Philadelphia in 2010, Oswalt went 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 12 starts down the stretch, helping the Phillies win yet another NL East title. He finished sixth in the Cy Young voting that year, but would never touch those numbers again, making just 23 starts in 2011 and playing terribly for the Rangers in 2012 and the Rockies in 2013.
You can only wonder what would have happened in the second half of Oswalt's career had his back not become an issue. This was a guy whose peak seasons were on par with the best pitchers in baseball, but his longevity was nonexistent. If Oswalt was able to string together another couple of good seasons and got to 200 wins, 2,700 innings, and 2,200 strikeouts, he would have a much more compelling Hall of Fame case. But since that didn't happen, we're left lamenting a career that was far too short, yet quite brilliant and underrated.