Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Outstanding Rookie Pitchers

Earlier I wrote about the odds of Blue Jay Brett Lawrie or Yankee Jesus Montero going on to have great careers after their impressive debuts. But this time it's all about pitching prospects.

There are a few good (but not great) rookie hurlers this year. For starters let's talk about starters. In the AL, Tampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson is 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA and a fair 1.19 walks and hits per inning. Seattle Mariner Micheal Pineda, an American League All-Star, has tailed off lately but he's still 9-10 with a lousy team. His 3.72 ERA is good, he has 171 K's, and an excellent WHIP of 1.08. Ivan Nova of the Yankees is 16-4 but with a higher 1.33 WHIP and a 3.62 ERA. Any of them could be Rookie of the Year in a season where there have been no great position playing rookies. Mark Trumbo and Eric Hosmer lead a pretty weak class.

In the National League the Mets' Dillon Gee is 12-6 but his WHIP and ERA are both less than spectacular. Brandon Beachy of the Braves is 7-2 plus a lot of no-decisions. He has 160 strikeouts in 135 innings, a 1.19 WHIP and a 3.58 ERA. Philadelphia's Vance Worley is 11-2 with a 2.85 ERA, and 1.20 WHIP. Let's talk relievers. Could a reliever be rookie of the year? Well, the last two American League ROYs have been relievers. Jordan Walden, the Angels' closer, has 31 saves and might get the nod over Hellickson, Pineda and Nova.

But the cream of the rookie crop is Craig Kimbrel, the Braves' closer. He's smashed Neftali Feliz's 2010 record for rookie saves with 45 in 77 appearances, and has 124 K's in 75 innings. He gets my vote. That kind of debut reminds you of Firpo Marberry. He had 52 saves in three years (1924 to '26) and turned the Senators into winners by finishing up for the Washington starters not named Walter Johnson. That was a pretty impressive number of saves (not recorded then) in an age when relievers were very rarely used. NL rookie position players are not doing much better than their American League counterparts. Who could possibly beat out Kimbrel? Maybe teammate Freddie Freeman (20, 74, .287) but I doubt it.

And now a quick walk down memory lane at some other great pitching debuts. In 1957 the Cubs' Dick Drott won 15 games. In May he struck out 15 Braves including Hank Aaron three times. But the next year he had arm troubles and was never the same again. The very next year George Witt had a great start with the Pirates. He was 9-2 with a 1.61 ERA. In his sophomore season he was 0-7, 6.93. He finished 2-13 after that glorious beginning.

The Red Sox have had a history of promising rookie hurlers. In 1945, his first year David "Boo" Ferriss was the Rookie of the Year. He won his first eights starts, then went on to win 13 more for a 21-10 record. The next year (with everyone back from WWII) he went 25-6. Ferriss was the most dominant pitcher in the game. But a cold, rainy night in Cleveland and a torn labrium effectively ended his career.

Fifteen years later Don Schwall was another Rookie of the Year for the Red Sox going 15-7, 3.92 (pretty good for Fenway). The next year he was 9-15, 4.92 and was dealt to the Pirates. He would win just 25 more games in six years before packing it in.

Mike Nagy went 12-2. 3.11 in '69 and was another Red Sox Rookie of the Year, lifting the hopes of the New England faithful that he would replace Jim Lonborg as the ace of the Boston staff. But injuries did him in and he won just eight more games over his six-year career. He was out of baseball by the time the Red Sox went to the World Series in 1975.

The Orioles had three great pitching prospects in the 60's. 19-year old Wally Bunker was rookie of the year in 1964 on the strength of a 19-5 season. But he tailed off after his first season and was eventually dealt to Kansas City and had just 41 wins over his last eight years in the majors. Tom Phoebus (14-9) won in the ROY award in 1967 and managed 29 victories over his next two seasons before fizzing out.

In J. R. Richard's Major League debut he took the mound for the second game of a 1971 doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants - including Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Bobby Bonds. Richard struck out 15 Giants, including Mays three times. He tied a record for strikeouts in a debut. From then until 1975, Richard threw no more than 72 innings in a season. From 1976 to 1980, he was one of the premier pitchers in the majors. (His slider was only 98 miles per hour, but his fastball was 103.) On July 30, 1980, however, Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed while playing a game of catch before a game, and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove a life-threatening blood clot in his neck. His condition brought a sudden end to his major league career at the age of 30.

The Texas Rangers made pitching phenom David Clyde the number one overall pick in the 1973 MLB draft. He received a $125,000 signing bonus, the highest bonus ever given to a draft pick at the time. Clyde won his first ever Major League start, before 37,000 fans, a Ranger record at the time. But he finished the season with a record of 4-8 and a 5.01 ERA. In '74 Clyde started 21 games and ended up 3-9 with a 4.38 ERA. The next year he started one game, had arm problems and was sent to the minors.

Perhaps at the top of the rookie folk hero pitchers list is Mark "Bird" Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers. In 1976 Fidrych was 19-9 in his rookie year but, plagued by injury, he won just 10 more games in a career that was over four years later. (I wrote earlier about the "Bird' and his antics.)

In 1981 Fernando Valenzuela, a rookie starter for the Dodgers after pitching in 10 games in relief the previous season, threw five shutouts in his first seven starts and won eight straight complete-game wins, allowing a total of four runs! In his three home starts Valenzuela attracted crowds of 50,511, 49,408 and 53,906 including many truckloads of fans from Mexico. Valenzuela would finish 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA in a season that lost a number of games to a labor dispute.

Dwight "Doc" Gooden, a.k.a. Dr. K, came onto the scene in 1984 going 17-9 with the New York Mets at the age of 19. He quickly developed a reputation with his 98 mph fastball and sweeping curve. On July 10, 1984, Gooden became the youngest player to appear in an All-Star game. Gooden won 17 games (the most by a 19-year-old since Wally Bunker's 19). His 276 strikeouts broke Herb Score's rookie record of 245 (in 1955). No flash-in-the-pan, Gooden pitched one of the most statistically dominating single seasons in baseball history winning the Triple Crown the next year with 24 wins, 268 strikeouts, and a 1.53 ERA (the second lowest in the Live Ball era trailing only Bob Gibson's 1.12 (in '68). Though he had his personal problems later on Gooden wound up with 194 wins.

In Kerry Wood's first start with the Cubs in 1998 he threw a one-hit, no walk shutout and struck out 20, tying Roger Clemens' record for a nine-inning game and breaking Bill Gillickson's single-game rookie record of 18 strikeouts in 1980. Wood and Bob Feller (1936) are the only two pitchers to strike out their age in one game. Wood had been a high school phenomenon but he was beset by injuries in the big leagues and has been relegated to the bullpen over the past few years.

The most recent rookie pitching phenomenon of course was Steven Strasburg. Drafted number one overall by Washington he signed a record-breaking four-year $15.1 million contract and debuted on June 8, 2010 against the Pirates.

A Sports Illustrated columnist termed it "the most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen." Strasburg won, pitching seven innings, with two earned runs, no walks and 14 strikeouts. Over thirty of his pitches were clocked at 98 mph or better, two over 100. In his second and third starts he broke J.R. Richard's record for most strikeouts in a pitcher's first three starts. Soon after though Strasburg was placed on the disabled list. Eventually he was diagnosed as having ulnar collateral ligament which would require Tommy John surgery and 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation.

After another few hours of research I am ready to conclude that it's better (and healthier) for pitchers to start out slow. Hot flame throwers sure seem to burn out fast.


John Z said...

How come Vida Blue was not considered a Rookie in 1971 when he had not pitched more than 45 innings in any year prior to 1971?

In 1971 he won CY Young, MVP and would have easily won ROY too if considered a rookie.

Rick Blechta said...

Good question. Will?

Will Braund said...

It's funny. When people ask for advice on editing a speech I often say not to worry about removing things because the audience doesn't know what parts were there before you removed them.
I got caught here though because I thought the piece was a bit too long and removed the following...
Vida Blue wasn’t technically a rookie in 1971, but in his first full season in the bigs (with Oakland) Blue went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA and won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.
Blue had an astounding 23 complete games and twice pitched 11 innings without getting a complete game that year. Though just 6-10 the next season Vida was 77-48 over the next four and ended up with 209 wins.