August 08, 2006


Young Pitchers

First off, I should say that I'm going on vacation tomorrow and I have no idea if I'm going to be able to write or not. So, if you come across this a week from now and see that it hasn't been updated in a week, check back a little later. I'll write again eventually.

Anyways, in honor of the Year of the Rookie Pitcher, I've decided to do a study of all the "can't miss" pitchers that had outstanding seasons in one of their first years. All the pitchers in this year's class would never be traded in any deal whatsoever. Basically, the question I'm trying to answer is: Should these rookie pitchers be as untouchable as they really are?

So I looked for all the similar seasons in years past. I only went back to the beginning of this decade/century/millenium, because that was as far back as I could really remember. The pitchers on this list have to have dominating stats, but the media hype surrounding these pitchers is just as important as their pitching itself, and I would not be able to judge the hype on any player farther back.

To clarify my selection process:

The player must be 25 years old or younger. All the pitchers in this year's class are 25 or younger, as are most hyped young pitchers. Pitchers that young still haven't matured completely, and as a result they are often injury risks. Most of these organizations have taken all the necessary precautions to lessen the risk of serious injury, but pitchers can still always get hurt at any time. That's one of the reason young pitching is such a risky investment.

They must have a career high in innings pitched, in the year that they finally became a can't miss pitcher. They don't necessarily have to be rookies, but they can't have been around the league for a while either. Occasionally you'll see pitchers come up at 21-22 years old, and struggle some, then gradually improve and have a great year by the time they're 25. That's not the kind of player I'm looking for right now.

They must be a top prospect. Here's a perfect example of this: Last year the Pirates called up Zach Duke around July to make his big-league debut. Duke was a 20th-round draft choice, and was thought of as a decent but not great prospect coming up in the system. But Duke won his first six decisions, with a number of great starts in July and August, and finished the year 6-2. This year, he has an ERA in the fives, and is nothing more than a subpar #3 starter on a bad team. But this wasn't hard to see coming - Duke was never supposed to be that good in the first place.

Anyways, onto the list. The list is sorted chronologically by year in which the players had their breakout season.

Class of 2000:

Tim Hudson - One could make the case that Hudson's breakout season was actually '99, when he went 11-2 with a 3.24 ERA. But, since I didn't go back that far, I put his 2000 season on the list. Hudson seemed poised to become a big-time ace after his 20-6 season in 2000. And, for the most part, he was, posting three more 15+ win seasons over the next three years while anchoring the vaunted Athletics staff. He went 12-6 in 2004, and was traded to the Braves before the 2005 season. But this year, Hudson has been atrocious, with an 8-10 record and a 5.22 ERA. Did the A's get their money's worth out of Hudson? Absolutely. Is this season just an aberration? Possibly. But maybe all the innings he worked when he was 24-25 caught up to him; he is only 31 right now but seems a couple more bad years away from retirement.

2000 Stats: 202.1 IP, 20-6, 4.14 ERA, 169 SO (Age 24)
2006 Stats*: 148.1 IP, 8-10, 5.22 ERA, 93 SO
Career: 114-58, 3.51 ERA
The Verdict: Overall, a very good career.

Rick Ankiel - Probably the most famous case of a young pitcher gone bad. Ankiel finished 2nd in the ROY voting in 2000, finishing with a 3.50 ERA and an astounding 194 strikeouts. Entering the postseason, Ankiel was thought of as the top young pitcher in baseball and a future Cy Young candidate for the remainder of the decade. But in the postseason, things started to go wrong. Ankiel started Game 1 of the NLDS against Atlanta, and proceeded to throw five wild pitches in the third inning. He lost his control again in Game 2 of the NLCS, and was never the same again. Ankiel posted a 7.13 ERA in six games in 2001, and was sent down to the minors. After a brief big-league stint in '04, Ankiel decided to switch to the outfield. He's currently trying to make the Cardinals roster as a left fielder (really).

2000 Stats: 175 IP, 11-7, 3.50 ERA, 194 SO (Age 21)
2006 Stats: N/A
Career: 13-10, 3.91 ERA
The Verdict: Total Bust


Wade Miller - Who? Wade Miller, that's who. Not many people remember it now, but once upon a time Oswalt and Miller were as dominating a pair of young aces as Hudson and Zito. Miller posted a 16-8 record and a 3.40 ERA in '01, helping lead the Astros to the playoffs. Miller posted another stellar season in '02, going 15-4 with a 3.28 ERA. He took a small step back in '03, but was still thought of as a good pitcher entering 2004. Miller posted an ERA in the threes in '04, but went on the DL in late June and didn't pitch for the rest of the year. Miller signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox in 2005, but was injured again. This year he is under contract with the Cubs, but has not pitched yet due to a shoulder injury.

2001 Stats: 212 IP, 16-8, 3.40 ERA, 183 SO (Age 24)
2006 Stats: N/A
Career: 62-43, 3.98 ERA
The Verdict: Mostly a bust.

Roy Oswalt - Hey, speaking of Astros, here's one that turned out a little better. Oswalt had a great rookie year in 2001, going 14-3 and posting a 2.73 ERA. And he's been almost as good since. Oswalt posted 20-win seasons in both '04 and '05, despite having a bad offense behind him. He missed a couple weeks this year due to injury, but it wasn't anything serious. Oswalt now is definitively one of the top ten pitchers in the game, and he's in his prime.

2001 Stats: 141.2 IP, 14-3, 2.73 ERA, 144 SO (Age 23)
2006 Stats: 151 IP, 8-7, 3.34 ERA, 103 SO
Career: 91-46, 3.34 ERA
The Verdict: Big-time stud.

Ben Sheets - Actually, I have no idea if 2001 is the right year to put Sheets. '01 was his rookie year, but you could make a case to put Sheets in '02 or '03. But, whichever year you want to go with, Sheets was supposed to be one of the best pitchers of the decades. But, for some reason, it didn't pan out. I guess Sheets is a little different from everyone else on this list in the sense that he never completely proved himself in the big leagues. But he had such great stuff, everyone figured he would eventually (the Brewers are still holding out hope). His '01 stats aren't impressive - 11-10, a 4.76 ERA - but people figured he would just get better from there. Problem was, he didn't. 2004 was his best season, where he had a 2.70 ERA but posted a 10-12 record. But Sheets has had injury problems this year, and has performed poorly when he hasn't been hurt. We'll see what the future holds for Sheets. The Brewers certainly hope he can right himself.

2001 Stats: 151.1 IP, 11-10, 4.76 ERA, 94 SO (Age 23)
2006 Stats: 36.1 IP, 2-4, 4.71 ERA, 44 SO
Career: 57-66, 3.86 ERA
The Verdict: Unless he gets better quickly, somewhat of a bust.

C.C. Sabathia - Sabathia finished second to Ichiro in the 2001 ROY voting and deservedly so, with a 17-5 record. Since then, he has been a decent pitcher, but not quite the top-of-the-rotation stud that he was expected to be. Sabathia has a good winning percentage over his career, but he has had a very good offense behind him, for the most part. Sabathia has also stayed remarkably injury-free, though the Indians have been careful to limit his innings. All in all, he's been a decent pitcher.

2001 Stats: 180.1 IP, 17-5, 4.39 ERA, 171 SO (Age 21)
2006 Stats: 123.1 IP, 8-8, 3.43 ERA, 109 SO
Career: 77-53, 4.02 ERA
The Verdict: A solid pitcher, but not a great one.

Mark Buehrle - I can never spell his last name correctly, but otherwise Buehrle has been a very good pitcher for his career. Buehrle's numbers in '01 were spectacular - 16-8 with a 3.29 ERA. And he continued to be a very good pitcher over the next few years. He did make the All-star team this year, but everything has gone wrong since then. In Buehrle's last seven starts, he has gone 0-6 with a 9.61 ERA. People are saying he's tipping his changeup; I don't know the reason but I know that he's going to have to perform better if the Sox are going anywhere this year. This rocky stretch aside, Buehrle has been a very good pitcher.

2001 Stats: 221.1 IP, 16-8, 3.29 ERA, 126 SO (Age 22)
2006 Stats: 151 IP, 9-10, 4.89 ERA, 67 SO
Career: 94-63, 3.77 ERA
The Verdict: A very good pitcher. Not quite Cy Young caliber, but the next level.

Barry Zito - Zito was great as well in '01, with a 17-8 record and a 3.49 ERA. He had an even better season the next year, posting an amazing 23-5 record. He hasn't been quite as good since, but has been a solid pitcher in front of a weak lineup. This year, he has a 3.50 ERA and a 12-7 record as he approaches free agency. One note of worry to prospective buyers in the offseason: Zito has thrown over 200 innings in each of the last five years, and is on pace to do so again this year. Eventually, all those innings are going to catch up on him...

2001 Stats: 214.1 IP, 17-8, 3.49 ERA, 205 SO (Age 23)
2006 Stats: 156.2 IP, 12-7, 3.50 ERA, 109 SO
Career: 98-60, 3.50 ERA
The Verdict: Certainly a very good pitcher, but not quite as great as you'd think (and don't be surprised if he's headed for some rocky seasons ahead)

Mark Mulder - Mulder completes the Oakland trio, and he started with arguably the best season out of all of them. Mulder had a 21-8 campaign in 2001 in which he posted a 3.45 ERA. Mulder's strikeout numbers are low compared to the rest of these pitchers, but his numbers have been surprisingly stellar up until this year. Mulder put up 15+ wins and single-digit losses every year from '01-'05, and only once had an ERA above 3.70. But this year in St. Louis, Mulder has just a 6-5 record with a 6.09 ERA, and that's while playing in AAA the National League. Mulder is currently on the DL with a sore shoulder; his sudden downfall looks much loke that of Tim Hudson. You might want to wish Zito some good luck...

2001 Stats: 229.1 IP, 21-8, 3.45 ERA, 153 SO (Age 24)
2006 Stats: 88.2 IP, 6-5, 6.09 ERA, 48 SO
Career: 103-55, 4.03 ERA
The Verdict: One of the game's best until this year.


Jason Jennings - Jennings won the NL Rookie of the Year award in '02, and was supposed to anchor the Rockies' staff for the rest of the decade. But since then, he's been nothing short of average. His ERA was above 5 until this year (when all the Coors Field numbers mysteriously dropped), and his record has been below .500 every year since '02. He has been a decent middle-of-the-rotation guy, but that's not what you want from your ROY winner (even if it was a sub-par rookie class).

2002 Stats: 185.1 IP, 13-8, 4.52 ERA, 127 SO (Age 24)
2006 Stats: 157.2 IP, 7-9, 3.48 ERA, 111 SO
Career: 56-52, 4.75 ERA
The Verdict: The definition of a mediocre pitcher.

John Lackey - Lackey was a forgotten piece of the Angels' '02 pennant run, and he's stayed largely forgotten since. Lackey was called up midseason but made the best of the limited opportunities he had, going 9-4 with a 3.66 ERA. After a couple down years in '03 and '04, Lackey became a top pitcher again in '05 with a 14-5 campaign, and he's been great again this season. He is definitely one of the most underrated pitchers in the game today, and he's still only 27.

2002 Stats: 108.1 IP, 9-4, 3.66 ERA, 69 SO (Age 23)
2006 Stats: 153.2 IP, 10-7, 3.28 ERA, 129 SO
Career: 57-45, 4.00 ERA
The Verdict: Going to be great for years to come.

Francisco Rodriguez - "K-Rod" was arguably the most famous piece of that '02 Angels team, being called up in September and delivering in key spots at the tender age of 20. What he did in the playoffs was even more impressive, pitching more than 18 innings with an ERA just under 2. K-Rod attracted media attention like no other middle reliever ever has, and has since settled into the closer role nicely. Rodriguez is probably one of the top ten closers in the game as of today, and he's still only 24.

2002 Stats: 5.2 IP, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 13 SO(!) (Age 20)
2006 Stats: 45.1 IP, 27 SV, 2.38 ERA, 58 SO
Career: 14-11, 86 SV, 2.44 ERA
The Verdict: Certainly a great pitcher so far, though he's still fairly young.


Dontrelle Willis - Willis set the baseball world on fire with his performance after being called up from AAA in 2003, going 14-6 with a 3.31 ERA. And his fun-loving style and herky-jerky motion made him a media darling then and now. But Willis hasn't been as good as you'd think since then. He deserved to win the Cy Young last year (and got ripped off for reasons I'll describe another day), but that year is now sandwiched between two seasons with an ERA over four. Willis has tremendous talent (and he's still only 24), but he needs to be more consistent if he's going to be a top-level pitcher.

2003 Stats: 160.2 IP, 14-6, 3.31 ERA, 142 SO (Age 21)
2006 Stats: 153.1 IP, 7-8, 4.05 ERA, 99 SO
Career: 53-35, 3.43 ERA
The Verdict: Insanely talented in odd-numbered years, mediocre in even ones.

Josh Beckett - Best known for his complete-game shutout of the Yankees to close out the '03 World Series, Beckett joined Willis to make the Marlins' rotation a fearsome bunch. Beckett was only 23 when he posted a 3.08 ERA over the course of the '03 season, and was even better in the playoffs. The Marlins suprisingly dealt him to Boston after the '05 season, and Beckett has struggled in Beantown. He has an ERA of exactly 5.00, and has not pitched nearly as well as his 13-6 record seems to indicate. And Beckett has suffered from the injury bug as much as anybody else has over the past few seasons, missing 5-10 starts every year due to injury. Beckett has been lucky to escape the DL this season, but Boston fans still have reason to worry.

2003 Stats: 142 IP, 9-8, 3.04 ERA, 152 SO (Age 23)
2006 Stats: 140.1 IP, 13-6, 5.00 ERA, 115 SO
Career: 54-40, 3.75 ERA
The Verdict: Servicable #1 or #2 starter until this year; not Cy Young stuff but still very good.

Carlos Zambrano - Zambrano has been and still is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, standing under the shadow (or is it now gravestone?) of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. But Zambrano has been much better than either of those two over the past few seasons, and deservedly made the all-star team this year. Zambrano was mostly an afterthought in 2003 with Wood and Prior each taking the mound every five days, but Zambrano put up good numbers as well. He's only gotten better since then, and he's still just 25 years old. Draft him for your Fantasy team next year and be smarter than everyone else in your league (if only I had done that this year...). His workload may cause some trouble later on in his career, though.

2003 Stats: 214 IP, 13-11, 3.11 ERA, 168 SO (Age 22)
2006 Stats: 158 IP, 12-4, 3.42 ERA, 158 SO
Career: 60-39, 3.28 ERA
The Verdict: One of the game's best. He will anchor the Cubs' rotation for the rest of the decade, if not longer.

Mark Prior - From one extreme to the other. Prior was the #2 overall pick in the 2001 draft, and by 2003 it looked like the Twins made a mistake by passing over him. (Who did they take? Some guy named Joe Mauer. Yeah, I don't think the Twins regret it any more.) Prior posted an 18-6 season in 2003, backing that up with a 2.43 ERA. And then the injuries started coming. Prior missed a third of his starts in 2004 and some more in '05, though he finished last season with a respectable 11-7 record and a 3.67 ERA. This year, he's only started eight games and has been awful overall, with a 6.64 ERA and a 1-5 record. And there's no real bright spot on the horizon. Prior is another great example of why not to put all your faith in a rookie pitcher.

2003 Stats: 211.1 IP, 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 SO (Age 22)
2006 Stats: 40.2 IP, 1-5, 6.64 ERA, 37 SO
Career: 42-28, 3.45 ERA
The Verdict: As of now, mostly a bust.

Brandon Webb - Webb is another of the most underrated pitchers in the game today. Webb posted a 2.84 ERA in his rookie 2003 campaign, and his career has been just as good since. He suffered through a 7-16 season in '04 despite having a 3.59 ERA, and this year is 12-4 with a league-leading 2.74 ERA. He does have a minor injury right now but nothing too serious, and Webb is right now one of the top five or ten pitchers in the game. If the season ended today, Webb would almost certainly win the NL Cy Young award.

2003 Stats: 180.2 IP, 10-9, 2.84 ERA, 172 SO (Age 24)
2006 Stats: 167.1 IP, 12-4, 2.74 ERA, 125 SO
Career: 43-41, 3.22
The Verdict: Absolutely a top-five pitcher this year and should be for years to come. Things couldn't have worked out better.


Oliver Perez - The story of Oliver Perez was what actually inspired me to write this column. As recently ago as 2004, Perez was one of the best young pitchers in the game. That year, his first full season as a starter, Perez posted a 2.99 ERA and an astounding 239 strikeouts. Two years later? He was essentially a throw-in to a Roberto Hernandez-Xavier Nady trade. Oh yeah, and he has a 2-10 record. As a 22-year-old phenom in '04, his trade value (at that time) would be somewhere near that of Liriano or Verlander right now. It's amazing how things can change. What happened? Perez simply lost control of his pitches. His walk total stayed almost the same from '04 to '05, even though he threw half as many innings in the latter year, and his ERA almost doubled. Right now, he's struggling in AAA. Perez is only 24, so there's still some hope. But not much.

2004 Stats: 196 IP, 12-10, 2.99 ERA, 239 SO (Age 22)
2006 Stats: 76 IP, 2-10, 6.63 ERA, 61 SO
Career: 29-40, 4.56 ERA
The Verdict: Right now, a complete bust. But there's still some time.

Rich Harden - Yes, another member of the A's is on this list. And early on in his career, Harden was thought to be even better than the first three. His numbers weren't astronomical - 11-7, 3.99 ERA - but he was supposed to get better and better. What's happened? Well, we can't really tell for sure. He missed a third of the season last year to an injury but still posted a great 2.53 ERA. And this year, he's only made six starts (though he's thrown well then). So we can't really get a feel for what Harden will be like in the future. We know he's talented. But we've been down Injury Road before, and it's not easy to come back from.

2004 Stats: 189.2 IP, 11-7, 3.99 ERA, 167 SO (Age 22)
2006 Stats: 35 IP, 3-0, 3.86 ERA, 34 SO
Career: 29-16, 3.62 ERA
The Verdict: Bitten by the injury bug. He definitely can pitch, though.


Huston Street - Street claimed AL Rookie of the Year honors last year despite not taking over the closing job until late May; Street still finished with 23 saves and only 4 blown saves. Street has the stuff to be a closer, and it looks like he will be good in the big leagues. He had some problems earlier in the year, but it looks like he's over them now. It's too soon to get an accurate read on his full big-league potential, but he's progressing really well.

2005 Stats: 78.1 IP, 23 SV, 1.72 ERA, 72 SO (Age 22)
2006 Stats: 53.1 IP, 25 SV, 2.87 ERA, 52 SO
Career: 48 SV, 2.19 ERA
The Verdict: Too soon to tell.

Felix Hernandez - King Felix absolutely lit the baseball world on fire with his pitching last season - he posted a 2.67 ERA in 12 starts of work. Oh yeah, he was only 19 years old. I still think that most baseball GMs would take Felix over any other young, unproven pitcher in the game (including Liriano), but he hasn't really pitched like it so far this year. He has a 10-9 record, and his 4.49 ERA is cause for concern. He's still striking out hitters at the same pace he always was, but he seems to be struggling a little bit everywhere else. This is probably just an adjustment period; he's still only 20 years old.

2005 Stats: 84.1 IP, 4-4, 2.67 ERA, 77 SO (Age 19)
2006 Stats: 128.1 IP, 10-9, 4.49 ERA, 117 SO
Career: 14-13, 3.77 ERA
The Verdict: Too soon to tell.


Obviously, it's too soon to give any predictions on the 2006 class. But they're certainly very good. We'll see what happens in the years to come...

Scott Kazmir -

2006 Stats: 128.2 IP, 10-7, 3.36 ERA, 139 SO (Age 22)

Justin Verlander -

2006 Stats: 135.1 IP, 14-4, 2.79 ERA, 92 SO (Age 23)

Francisco Liriano -

2006 Stats: 119 IP, 12-2, 2.19 ERA, 142 SO (Age 22)

Jonathan Papelbon -

2006 Stats: 56.2 IP, 30 SV, 0.64 ERA, 58 SO (Age 25)

Jon Lester -

2006 Stats: 62.2 IP, 5-1, 3.59 ERA, 46 SO (Age 22)

Jered Weaver -

2006 Stats: 63.2 IP, 7-0, 1.70 ERA, 50 SO (Age 23)

So, adding up all the "verdicts" here...we basically have four great aces (Zambrano, Webb, Oswalt, K-Rod), six very good to great pitchers (#1-2 starters), two "good" pitchers (decent #2 guys), four "average" pitchers, and three complete busts. Expanding that to the six pitchers in this year's class, it looks like we should have one stud, two very good pitchers, one good pitcher, one average pitcher, and one bust.

Going back to the question I asked at the beginning of this column (if you can remember that far back), should a team think about trading one of these young pitchers? They'd have to get a great offer, but they should think about it. There's roughly a 50% chance that the pitcher becomes an all-star caliber pitcher, but also a 33% chance he becomes a back-of-the-rotation type or worse. So, if you can get a great deal, you should probably think about it.

(My follow-up post on this topic gives my pick for who will be the star, bust, etc.)

*2006 and career stats are as of 8/8/06

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