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August 26, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

Detroit Tigers

  • Emergence: The Tigers have had to put up with a whole lot of snickering the last two years over their decision to push Jeremy Bonderman, 20 years old and with no experience above A ball, straight into their Opening Day rotation last year.

    Payback time has arrived, in the form of one of the most dominant starts of the season. Against the White Sox on Monday, Bonderman threw a seven-hit shutout and struck out 14 batters, the highest total by a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich back in 1972. What's most impressive is that Bonderman struck out those 14 hitters, and faced 36 overall, in the span of just 114 pitches.

    That's a remarkable combination of power and efficiency. Bonderman struck out five batters on just three pitches; four batters on just four pitches; four batters on five pitches; and one batter on six pitches. Amazingly, none of the 14 strikeout victims, 13 of whom went down swinging, managed to foul off a two-strike pitch.

    It's not that unusual for a pitcher to strike out 14 batters in a single start. But it is unusual--very unusual--for a pitcher to do so at such a young age.

    As Bill James noted on many occasions, the single most important indicator for a pitcher's long-term future isn't his age; it's his strikeout rate. The 40-year-old pitcher with a league-leading strikeout rate (think Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson) is likely to still be pitching in the majors when the 25-year-old pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate (Nate Cornejo, anyone?) is long gone. (As with other laws of nature, this rule does not apply to Kirk Rueter.)

    Also, most pitchers improve their strikeout rate during their first few years in the major leagues. So it stands to reason when you have a pitcher who is both extremely young and has a superior strikeout rate, that pitcher would seem to have an almost limitless future, no?

    Let's see. Let's find all the pitchers in major-league history who, like Bonderman, threw at least 125 innings at age 20 and age 21; struck out at least five batters per nine innings at age 20; and struck out at least 7.5 batters per 9 innings at age 21. (Bonderman's rates are 6.00 and 8.13, respectively.)

    
    Name                 Years    K/9 (Age 20)  K/9 (Age 21)
    
    Smokey Joe Wood     1910-11       6.57          7.54
    Dave Morehead       1963-64       7.01          7.51
    Bob Moose           1968-69       6.62          8.74
    Frank Tanana        1974-75       6.03          9.41
    Dennis Eckersley    1975-76       7.33          9.03
    Jeremy Bonderman    2003-04       6.00          8.13
    
    That's a pretty exclusive list. Dennis Eckersley is in the Hall of Fame; Frank Tanana survived the death of his fastball in 1978 to win 240 games; Smokey Joe Wood was one of the game's best pitchers before arm problems forced him to become one of the game's better outfielders. Dave Morehead's career fizzled out quickly, in large part due to command problems, but at least he didn't meet the fate of Bob Moose, who was killed in a car accident on his 29th birthday.

    How much should one shining start alter our impression of Bonderman's future? More than you might think. Here is a list of all the pitchers in our database (going back to 1972) who struck out 14 batters in a start before their 22nd birthday:

    
    Name                   Date             Age           K
    
    Frank Tanana         06/21/75   21 years, 11 months  17
    Frank Tanana         06/30/75   21 years, 11 months  15
    Dennis Eckersley     08/13/76   21 years, 10 months  14
    Moose Haas           04/12/78   21 years, 11 months  14
    Dwight Gooden        05/25/84   19 years, 6 months   14
    Dwight Gooden        09/12/84   19 years, 9 months   16
    Dwight Gooden        09/17/84   19 years, 10 months  16
    Jose Rijo            04/19/86   20 years, 11 months  16
    Jose Rijo            04/24/86   20 years, 11 months  14
    Kerry Wood           05/06/98   20 years, 10 months  20
    Kerry Wood           08/26/98   21 years, 2 months   16
    Jeremy Bonderman     08/23/04   21 years, 9 months   14
    
    Of the six other pitchers on that list, the closest to a turkey is Moose Haas, who won 100 games in his career. Haas' start was quite clearly a fluke; outside of his performance on April 12, he struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings that season.

    If we extend the age limit out a couple of weeks, we can include this performance:

    
    Roger Clemens        08/21/84   22 years, 0 months   15
    
    As much as one start can change the perception of a pitcher, Monday's start against the White Sox should make everyone stand up and take notice: one of the best young pitchers in baseball toils for the Tigers.

    So are we now saying that the Tigers were right to start Bonderman in the majors last season? Of course not. Because of that decision, Bonderman will be a free agent after the 2008, not 2009, season. At the rate he's going, by 2009 (when he'll be only 26) Bonderman could be one of the best pitchers in the game, period.

Kansas City Royals

  • Arrival: At 6 a.m. this past Sunday morning, readers of the Topeka Capital-Journal opened their sports page to read this insightful column advocating that the Royals really ought to consider promoting long-time Triple-A slugger Calvin Pickering.

    By one o'clock that afternoon, Pickering was in the Royals' starting lineup. By three o'clock, he was a folk hero.

    Pickering's promotion may seem like an inevitable consequence of a season in which the 27-year-old humbled PCL pitchers to the tune of .314/.451/.712, with 35 homers in just 88 games. But a trip down history lane shows us that the Royals have had a tough time accepting the inevitable when it comes to giving productive Triple-A hitters a shot.

    In April 1993, the Royals signed Karl Rhodes to a minor-league deal after the 24-year-old had been released by Houston following just two hitless at-bats. Rhodes then started ripping the stitches off the ball in Triple-A, hitting .318/.380/.603 in an 88-game stint for Omaha. Despite his excellent numbers and relatively young age, Rhodes never got an opportunity to play for the Royals, who instead inexplicably dealt him to the Cubs at the trading deadline in a three-way deal that netted them John Habyan. After the trade, Rhodes hit .320/.415/.600 in 35 games for Triple-A Iowa and .288/.413/.538 for the Cubs down the stretch, then hit three homers on Opening Day 1994, and it looked for all the world like the Royals had made a colossal error in judgment.

    Fate smiled on the Royals and dealt Rhodes a nasty shiner. He hit just five homers the rest of the season, and got just 41 at-bats in 1995 before his major-league career came to an end. Rhodes headed across the Pacific, where he became one of the greatest sluggers in Japanese history, punctuating his career by tying Saduharo Oh's single-season record of 55 homers in 2001.

    A year later, the Royals were similarly unimpressed when minor-league journeyman Dwayne Hosey, still looking to make his major-league debut at age 27, rocked the casbah with .333/.424/.628 numbers accompanied by 27 steals in Omaha. The strike prevented Hosey from getting a call-up in 1994, but the following season, Hosey was sent back to Omaha and hit .295/.363/.535…whereupon he was simply released.

    The Red Sox, who were then looking to hold off the Yankees for the AL East title, not only claimed Hosey on waivers, they promoted him to the majors and immediately made him the leadoff hitter. He responded by hitting .338/.408/.618 and scoring 20 runs in just 24 games, as the Red Sox won the division by seven games.

    Again, though, what briefly looked like a monumentally stupid decision ended up being merely a footnote. Hosey got off to a slow start in 1996, hitting .218/.282/.333 in 78 at-bats, was sent to Pawtucket and hit .297/.366/.501…and then, as best we can tell, never played another game of pro ball.

    The Royals twice got away with ignoring minor-league statistics, but only by the skin of their teeth. It is a testament to the evolution of the team's front office that they did not try to press their luck a third time with Pickering, who unlike either Rhodes or Hosey was once a well-regarded prospect (he ranked #28 on our Top Prospect list…in 1999) prior to his breakout season.

    While Mike Sweeney's balky back figures to let Pickering play everyday, it is unlikely that Pickering will receive much more than 150 plate appearances with the Royals, a short enough audition that sample size issues may obscure his obvious hitting talent. It is imperative that Pickering use his tryout wisely.

    Done. In Pickering's first four games, he has hit three homers, a triple and, for the more traditional stat crowd that flocks to Kauffman Stadium, he also has a mind-boggling 11 RBIs. As Jim Baker notes, in just four games, Pickering already ranks among the Royals' top five hitters in terms of VORP.

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