August 12, 2003
No Such Thing
There's no such thing as a pitching prospect.
I probably use that phrase a couple of times a week. It comes up a lot around trade-deadline time, as teams swap known quantities for unknowns in Double-A or lower and make a big deal about how those guys will be throwing 200 innings and saving 30 games in a few years' time. It doesn't happen that way.
What does it mean, though? Clearly, hundreds of young men pitch for baseball teams below the level of the major leagues, and many of them have the chance to become major-league pitchers. They're prospective ones, so literally, the phrase is untrue. Pithy, but untrue.
"There's no such thing as a pitching prospect" (TNSTAAPP, for short) is actually a shorthand way of expressing the idea that minor-league pitchers are an unpredictable, unreliable subset of baseball players. The concept isn't mine, although I'm probably the most dogmatic BPer on the subject. Gary Huckabay was the first to use the phrase; some Googling turned up credit to him in the late 1990s on rec.sport.baseball.
The principles behind TNSTAAPP are pretty simple. Pitchers are unpredictable. They're asked to perform an unnatural act--throw baseballs overhand--under great stress, thousands of times a year. They get hurt with stunning frequency, sometimes enough to cost them a career, more often just enough to hinder their effectiveness. (Modern medicine has dramatically changed what a pitcher can do to his arm and still have a career.) Even the better ones--Andy Pettitte, for instance--have wide year-to-year variations in their performance. It's only the very top 0.1% of pitchers who are consistently good year-in and year-out over substantial careers.
That's major-league pitchers, who have proven themselves to be the best in the world at what they do, and are physically mature. Minor-league pitchers have all of the inconsistencies of the class, and are still developing in significant ways: physically, mentally and emotionally. If you can't predict where most major-league pitchers will be two years out, it's quite a conceit to think you can predict where any minor-league pitcher will be even one year out.
Within the baseball industry, placing outsized expectations on boys too young to buy a drink after their game is a time-honored tradition. Every night in small towns across America, scouts get worked up over the physical attributes and ability shown by 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds. What they don't see, however, is the stress and strain placed on developing shoulder muscles and elbow joints. They don't see the third pitch so essential to major-league success, because that third pitch often doesn't exist. They certainly don't see that dominating a game in the Eastern League or the Florida State League is absolutely nothing like doing so in even the high minors, much less the major leagues.
TNSTAAPP, to a certain extent, means throwing up your hands and admitting that there's no way of knowing which pitchers are going to come through that wringer intact. The irrational exuberance that develops over teenagers who can propel horsehide at high velocity is one of those inside-baseball things that, as an outsider, I just don't get and don't want to. The path from dominating teenagers in states with two-word names to being a successful major-league pitcher is long and difficult. One-hundred forty years into the baseball industry, how to navigate that path is still an open question, and while there's been progress, I see no one turning teenagers into rotation starters on a regular basis.
Then again, I'm dogmatic about TNSTAAPP. I pretty much believe that you can throw all pitchers into a bin until they're 21 years old or in Triple-A. (If a pitcher is at Triple-A at 20, that's a warning sign as well.) It's not a performance analysis thing, because even great numbers from teenagers aren't going to sway me. It's just a concession to what we know about physics and physiology, and how the two intersect at the corner of Jobe and Andrews.
Does subscribing to TNSTAAPP mean I'm going to miss some guys? Sure. Not the Mark Prior class--the polished college pitcher who comes into professional baseball pretty much ready for the major leagues. Those guys are never pitching prospects; they're pitchers marking time with 15-20 starts until their team decides to promote them. I will, however, be wrong about the guys who are touted, who reach the majors, and who have successful careers from the start without getting injured because they were worked too hard at ages 19-21.
It doesn't happen that often, because most young pitchers--even heralded ones--either get hurt or get pounded. We remember Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game, but forget the 18 months he lost to surgery. We remember Steve Avery's two great years, but forget that he was basically useless after turning 24. We celebrate Dontrelle Willis, but if he gets to 2005 without surgery or an seasonal ERA above 5.00, he'll be an exception.
Mostly out of my own curiosity, I've compiled a list of every pitcher who appeared on BP's Top 40 Prospects lists from their inception in 1999 through 2001. I don't do this to be critical of Rany Jazayerli, but because I think it's instructive to use a list that is already compiled with a significant dose of skepticism about young pitchers.
Career Career Pitcher Innings ERA Comment ------------------------------------------------------------------- Bruce Chen 453.1 4.59 Seven teams, four seasons Octavio Dotel 477.1 3.68 Dominant reliever since 2001 Matt Clement 921.1 4.47 High ERA, walks until age 27 Rick Ankiel 232.0 3.84 Variety of problems Brad Penny 604.2 4.24 Nagging injuries Ed Yarnall 20.0 5.40 Ended up in Japan Scott Williamson 326.0 3.01 Lost year-plus to TJ Freddy Garcia 931.2 4.08 Successful through mid-2002 Rob Bell 435.2 5.99 Waived by pitching-rich Rangers Roy Halladay 766.1 3.93 Rebuilt in 2000 (10.64 ERA) Luke Prokopec 231.0 5.30 Out through 2003 Kip Wells 597.1 4.29 6.02 ERA in 2000 Tony Armas 493.0 4.11 Can't stay healthy Matt Riley 11.0 7.36 Head case; still young Ryan Anderson -- -- Might never pitch in majors Eric Gagne 422.1 3.69 Best reliever alive Jon Garland 514.0 4.64 On this list, a success Mike Meyers -- -- Possibly a mistake selection Ramon Ortiz 723.1 4.48 Healthy, but homer-prone Josh Beckett 211.0 3.50 Blisters are main concern Juan Cruz 180.0 4.15 More walks than runs allowed Dennis Tankersley 51.1 9.29 Head issues Jake Peavy 242.2 4.30 Looks good so far Mark Prior 260.1 3.01 Arrived fully-formed Nick Neugebauer 61.1 4.99 Injured Carlos Hernandez 128.2 3.92 Out for 2003 (shoulder) John Stephens 65.0 6.09 Soft-tosser Rafael Soriano 79.0 3.30 Good reliever; shoulder Qs Ty Howington -- -- Assorted minor owies Corwin Malone -- -- Back in A-ball Kenny Baugh -- -- Overworked in college Nate Cornejo 223.1 5.36 Bad team, awful K rateSome of these guys are pretty good now, but only Prior--who I would consider separate from this group--and Rafael Soriano haven't met with either a scalpel or lousy performance since they were branded a pitching prospect. Moreover, dozens of guys who never sniffed these lists--or ones like them--have been healthy and effective in the major leagues. When it comes to pitchers, we just don't know. Admitting that is the hard part, both for people within the game and for those of us who on the outside who are supposed to know.
I know Cole Hamels can throw hard, and make the ball move, and has great stats. I know Zack Greinke makes old men weep. Maybe one of those guys will be the exception. But it's much more likely that they'll be injured or ineffective or go through a conversion to the bullpen before ever throwing 200 innings in the majors.
And that's what TNSTAAPP is: a statement that the hype about young pitchers is out of touch with the reality. For every pitcher I disregard who goes on to be successful, there will be 10 others who never have any career, much less one that would justify the hype. I stand by TNSTAAPP as one of the principles I use in my analysis, and believe it holds up well against the industry's fascination with hard-throwing teenagers.