I want to say that Roy Oswalt always seemed underrated but I'm not sure that's exactly true. He finished in the top five of the Cy Young race five times, so it's hard to argue he was completely ignored. He was certainly respected and admired within the game, in which he was known as a fierce competitor and a guy you wanted to have the ball in a big game. On the other hand, he made just three All-Star teams and always seemed overshadowed in Houston by Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio or even Roger Clemens during his Texas sojourn.
So maybe he was underrated or at least not fully appreciated. Or maybe he was appreciated, certainly by Houston Astros fans. Either way, he was one of the best pitchers of his generation. Oswalt retired on Tuesday, no surprise considering his struggles with the Texas Rangers in 2012 and the Colorado Rockies in 2013. He finishes with a 163-102 career record, 3.36 ERA and 49.9 career WAR that leaves him in the Hall-of-the-Very-Good discussion.
Oswalt was always one of my favorite pitchers to watch. In this era of hulking 6-foot-5 starters, Oswalt was listed at 6-foot-even, small for a starting pitcher. But his fastball was certainly fast enough and he sliced up opponents with a four-pitch arsenal. More than anything, he always believed in his stuff and ability. "If Babe Ruth were resurrected and in the batter's box, Roy Oswalt would believe he could get him out," his catcher with the Astros, Brad Ausmus, once said.
Bill James recently came up with a formula to rank the best "big game" pitchers since 1952. His No. 1 guy? Oswalt, ranked just ahead of Bob Gibson. Oswalt was 5-2 with a 3.73 ERA in the postseason (his one World Series start with the Astros in 2005 was less successful as he allowed five runs in six innings). James' study looked at regular-season results, factoring in things such as the time of season, the standings and the opponent. James wrote:
Gibson’s won-lost record in regular-season Big Games was 36-14; Oswalt's is 37-9. Gibson's teams were 40-17; Oswalt's were 46-12. Think about it: 46-12 in Big Games. Gibson's ERA was 2.26; Oswalt's was 2.63. When you adjust for context, I suspect that Oswalt wins that one. Oswalt pitched 80 fewer innings than Gibson, but struck out almost as many batters (341 to 352) and walked half as many (73 to 144).
In certain ways, we are not as good at making myths now as we were a generation ago. The Wild Card system DOES create more Big Games, I believe, but sometimes it creates Big Games for second-place and third-place teams. The story lacks the clarity and symmetry of a pennant race; it is a harder story to tell.
Roy Oswalt won a tremendous number of Big Games for the Astros in the mid-2000s, but when there are six pennant races to follow and two Wild Cards, things get lost in the shuffle. Oswalt's constant drumbeat of Big Wins late in the season didn't have the impact of Bob Gibson winning 7 games in September of '64. But ... just the facts. Oswalt has won 80% of his Big Games. Wow.
Through his peak years of 2001 to 2011, only Roy Halladay -- briefly his teammate with the Phillies -- earned more WAR. It's a reminder of how quickly even the best can fade away. The 2011 Phillies won 102 games and with Halladay and Oswalt in the rotation allowed the fewest runs of any team since 1989. Less than three years later, the Roys have both headed off into the sunset. For Oswalt, I'm sure that means he'll spend a lot of time riding his bulldozer back home in Mississippi.