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April 13, 2011
The Wimmers Mystery
On Monday night, right-hander Alex Wimmers, the Minnesota Twins' first-round pick in the 2010 draft, had a season debut that could only be classified as disturbing. Pitching for High-A Fort Myers in the Florida State League, he faced six batters and walked them all, throwing 28 pitches in the process and almost delivering as many wild pitches (three) as he did strikes (four).
That's a troubling line for any pitcher, but it's worse for Wimmers because he has always had above-average command and control, a skill the Twins have always favored more than other big-league teams when it comes to amateur pitchers. What actually happened is still a mystery; Wimmers was placed on the disabled list Tuesday morning with the vaguely termed “flu-like symptoms,” so maybe he felt horrible and tried to gut it out, and maybe the Twins hope that he didn't contract the yips, or the thing, or the monster from Miracle teammate Shooter Hunt, a 2008 supplemental first-round pick who has walked 178 in 154 career innings, hit 27 batters, and uncorked 45 wild pitches. For now, Wimmers gets the benefit of the doubt, but there's surely some concern in the back of everyone's mind.
If I may put on my Jayson Stark hat for a moment, Wimmers' outing was very unique. Our statistical team found no similar game in major-league history by a starting pitcher, and in fact found no game in which a starter survived after walking the first four batters. The last person to do that was the legendary Randy Nosek in a late-season outing with the 1990 Detroit Tigers. Still, this got me wondering, can we actually learn from a highly-regarded pitching prospect's very first outing in his first full season?
For the few first-round pitchers that sign early enough to play in the year they are drafted, there is little actual development until the season is over. They get a physical, get a uniform, and go out there a throw like they always did while getting accustomed to the professional grind. So for the purposes of this study, I looked at the first start of the year for first-round college pitchers in their first full season of professional baseball, without a spring filled with classes and draft hijinks, and after a fall of instruction and an offseason of what is often much-needed rest.
From 2004-2010, 67 college pitchers were selected in the first round. Of those, nine were relievers, and two did not sign. Of the remaining 56, three began their first full year in the big leagues, and four (and that six percent figure is actually disturbing) missed their entire first year recovering from Tommy John surgery. The leaves us with 49 first-round starting pitching prospects out of four-year schools who made their full-season debut in the minors.
The high number of earned runs throws off the ERA a bit, as minor-league defense can be brutal, and there are also a few more walks than one would like to see, but keep in mind that our pitcher put together with 49 puzzle pieces had that one start where he walked the first six batters and then left the game. Overall this also looks like a good year from Tim Lincecum or Justin Verlander, both of whom had starts to qualify for the list, but were those outings indicative of the future? Lincecum's 2006 debut, when he whiffed eight over five shutout innings, was the seventh-best start among the 49 when measured by Game Score, a quick and dirty starting pitcher metric developed by Bill James, while Verlander's first showing in 2005, in which he pitched so-so for just three frames, rates as the 12th-worst.
As one can tell from the summarized numbers, in general, these pitching prospects did quite well in their full-season debut, with 13 of them (27 percent) going five or more innings without allowing an earned run. By Game Score, the best full-season debut was by Rockies righty Greg Reynolds, who was an overdraft at second overall in 2006 (the team passed on Evan Longoria) but began the 2007 season with seven shutout innings while allowing two hits and striking out seven for Double-A Tulsa. Being the only one of the 49 arms to go more than six innings helps his score, which rewards pitchers for going deep into games. The best single performance was arguably the Cardinals’ 2004 first-round pick, Chris Lambert, who went six seemingly perfect innings in the box score, but did hit one Florida State League batter.
Reynolds worked his way back to the big leagues after shoulder surgery, while Lambert threw all of 33 major-league innings, so while the top 10 starters include future stars like Lincecum, the bottom of the list includes current big-leaguers Daniel Bard, Mike Minor, and Brian Matusz. In the end, one start means nothing, be it Wimmers' flu-ridden nightmare, or Indians 2010 first-round pick Drew Pomeranz, whose whiffed nine of the 18 batters he faced in his pro debut last Friday (it’s now the fourth-best full-season debut of the 49). Developing a pitcher from the draft to the big leagues is a cross-country trip, and after just one start, the car isn't even out of the driveway yet.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .