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March 23, 2006

Future Shock

Ten Teenage Throwers

by Kevin Goldstein

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Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as a pitching prospect; they're just far more risky. Pitching prospects do not come out of thin air, and they're not a matter of luck. They just have a significantly higher level of failure because so much more can go wrong in a pitcher's development, especially along the injury nexus.

But in general, the top amateur pitchers are the pool where the top professional pitchers come from. Looking at the top 50 pitchers by VORP in 2005, 37 of them (74%) entered professional baseball via the draft, and more than half of those drafted (18) were taken in the first two rounds. Only seven were taken after the 15th round, and four of those were highly regarded draft-and-follows (indicated as "DNF" in the chart below) who would have been selected much higher had they been eligible the following year. Here's the raw data, sorted by 2005 VORP rank.

RK PLAYER            ROUND
 1 Roger Clemens       1
 3 Andy Pettitte      22 (DNF)
 4 Chris Carpenter     1
 5 Dontrelle Willis    8
 7 Roy Oswalt         23 (DNF)
 8 John Smoltz        22
 9 Jake Peavy         15
10 Mark Buehrle       38 (DNF)
11 John Patterson      1
12 Roy Halladay        1
13 Kevin Millwood     11
16 John Lackey         2
17 Jon Garland         1
18 Jarrod Washburn     2
20 Brandon Webb        8
21 Joe Blanton         1
22 Randy Johnson       2
23 Tom Glavine         2
25 Barry Zito          1
28 Rich Harden        17 (DNF)
29 Tim Hudson          6
30 Kenny Rogers       39
31 Brett Myers         1
32 Cliff Lee           4
33 Dan Haren           2
35 Aaron Harang        6
37 Mark Mulder         1
39 Paul Byrd           4
40 Josh Beckett        1
41 Doug Davis         10
42 Noah Lowry          1
43 C.C. Sabathia       1
44 Josh Towers        15
46 Huston Street       1
47 A.J. Burnett        8
48 Tim Wakefield       8
49 Zach Duke          20
So in general, the cream of the major league crop comes from the cream of the amateur crop. We just have so much more failure to look at as well, which at times can blind us to where the good arms are coming from.

I had a recent discussion with a scout in which he talked about looking at high school pitching in a slightly different way. He believes that the radar gun is still an essential tool in scouting prep arms, but because these players are so far away, he thinks others skills are just as essential. When evaluating high school arms, he wants to see:

  • Plus velocity and some idea of how to control it. Too often scouts see a kid pumping mid-90s gas without worrying about the pitcher's ability to throw strikes. See Griffin, Colt.
  • A plus second pitch. The biggest mistake here is assuming that a player can learn a curveball or slider or changeup. It's certainly possible, but entering the pro ranks without one puts a pitcher well behind the eight ball.
  • Sound mechanics. Again, coaching can help clean up mechanics, but if a pitcher is overly violent in his delivery, significant changes in his mechanics could make the pitcher less effective overall, and take a long time to learn. The development staff at least needs a good foundation to begin with.

With those basic points in mind, here are 10 high school pitchers in alphabetical order who have those three ingredients and who also performed well numbers-wise in their 2005 pro debuts. Will they all make it? No. Will most of them make it? No. But the one or two (what the heck, or three) teenage prep pitchers who survive all of the pitfalls to get to the big leagues will likely come from this group.

The Teenage Tommy John Survivor
Nick Adenhart, rhp, Angels
Drafted: 2004, 14th round
Velocity: Average-to-plus, and entering second year out of surgery
Second Pitch: Curveball, changeup
2005 Debut: 3.24 ERA in 50 innings with 59/24 K/BB ratio
The Good: I detailed Adenhart's entry to pro ball in my American League West State of the System Report, but once again, let's give props to Scouting Director Eddie Bane for his creativity. He got one of the best prep pitchers in the 2004 draft for $710,000. Not yet 100% back from 2004 Tommy John surgery, Adenhart showed good command of three-pitches, and tossed six innings without allowing an earned run in his final start of the season after a promotion to the Pioneer League.
The Bad: He's 19 and already has a major injury history, which will remain in the back of every scout's mind for years to come. Lefthanders hit him hard, and he struggled with men on base.
The Immediate Future: Adenhart was impressive in camp, with his stuff taking another small step forward as he's now almost two years removed from going under the knife. He'll pitch for Low Class A Cedar Rapids.

The PECOTA Darling
Brandon Erbe, rhp, Orioles
Drafted: 2005, third round
Velocity: Plus-plus
Second Pitch: Average-to-plus curve
2005 Debut: 4.15 ERA in 30 innings with 57/14 K/BB ratio
The Good: In his blistering pro debut, Erbe's stuff looks like it belonged more in the first round than the third with a fastball that touches 98 mph. After getting ripped for six runs over two innings in his first two New York-Penn League starts, Erbe rebounded with five shutout innings and seven strikeouts in the season finale.
The Bad: While PECOTA loves him with good reason, it's not fair to single him out as the young pitcher to bet on, as PECOTA projections were for the most part not even run for most teenage pitchers who made their debut in 2005. At this point, there are no giant flaws in his game--if anything; he simply needs to prove that what we saw in his debut was real.
The Immediate Future: Despite not turning 18 until last Christmas, Erbe will pitch in a full-season league, at Low A Delmarva.

The Polished Strike Thrower
Will Inman, rhp, Brewers
Drafted: 2005, third round
Velocity: Average
Second Pitch: Slurvy, but effective
2005 Debut: 1.91 ERA in 47 innings with 59/12 K/BB ratio
The Good: Constantly throws strikes and gets ahead of the count. Allowed an earned run in just four of 14 appearances and had a three-game stretch in August where he allowed one hit over 12.2 shutout innings while striking out 18. The Brewers love his makeup.
The Bad: Relatively undersized at 6-foot, his pitches can come in a bit flat, meaning the ball does not come in with the same downward plane as that of a taller pitcher. Inman struggled at times with runners on base, and needs to pitch more off his fastball.
The Immediate Future: Ready for a full-season league, Inman with pitch for West Virginia in the Sally League.

The Next Braves Pitching Prospect
Beau Jones, lhp, Braves
Drafted: 2005, supplemental first round
Velocity: Average-to-plus
Second Pitch: Plus curve
2005 Debut: 3.86 ERA in 35 innings with 41/16 K/BB ratio
The Good: One scouting executive recently told me that his team preferred Jones over every high school pitcher taken ahead of him last June. His breaking ball is highly advanced for his age, and he did not allow a run in half of his eight games in the Gulf Coast League.
The Bad: At 6-foot-1, Jones is a bit undersized and, like many of these pitchers, he's not used to pitching with runners on base, causing him to press at times. Jones often got off to slow starts, walking more than a batter per inning in the first frame of games, with an ERA of 6.43.
The Immediate Future: Jones earned raves in Braves camp and will open the year at Low Class A Rome.

The Sleeper
Tommy Mendoza, rhp, Angels
Drafted: 2005, fourth round
Velocity: Average-to-plus
Second Pitch: Plus curve, and three other decent pitches
2005 Debut: 1.30 ERA in 62 innings with 68/13 K/BB ratio
The Good: Mendoza surprised team officials with both his stuff and his maturity in his pro debut. When injuries created the need for a late-season arm at High Class A Rancho Cucamonga, Mendoza was the surprise selection, and he pitched seven shutout innings in an emergency start, striking out nine while facing hitters primarily 3-to-5 years older.
The Bad: Right now, it's hard to find any flaw in Mendoza's game, other than the usual ones assigned to young arms: the need for consistency and health.
The Immediate Future: Mendoza will join Adenhart in the Cedar Rapids rotation.

The Rare Boras Prep Pitcher
Mark Pawelek, lhp, Cubs
Drafted: 2005, 1st round (20th overall)
Velocity: Plus
Second Pitch: Average curve and changeup
2005 Debut: 2.54 ERA in 46 innings with 60/22 K/BB ratio
The Good: What were the odds of a Scott Boras client being the first to sign out of the entire draft? Pawelek was just that. While his $1.75 million bonus was well above slot, it wasn't out of line with Pawelek's talent, and it's easy to imagine some teams picking in the range where that money falls into line (12-to-14) wishing they knew Pawalek was available for a reasonable price. Pawelek already pitches like a pro, mixing three pitches and setting up hitters well.
The Bad: Strangely, Pawelek struggled against the few left-handed hitters he faced, giving up four hits in 15 at-bats and walking seven. He also seemed to run out of gas fairly quickly in some outings, which may be the result of his high school workload.
The Immediate Future: Pawelek will open in the Peoria rotation in the Midwest League.

The Classic Power Pitcher
Chaz Roe, rhp, Rockies
Drafted: 2005, supplemental first round
Velocity: Plus
Second Pitch: Plus-plus curve
2005 Debut: 4.17 ERA in 50 innings with 55/36 K/BB ratio
The Good: Roe already has effective four-seam (for its velocity) and two-seam (for its sink) fastballs, and his curve is highly advanced for a teenager. 6'5" and lanky, his body is almost ideal for a starting pitcher. Roe delivered six shutout innings three times in his debut, which is especially impressive in the offense-oriented Pioneer League.
The Bad: Roe's control, specifically of his curve, can get shaky at times. While his delivery is smooth, he can get out of whack--leading to more issues with throwing strikes.
The Immediate Future: Roe will start the year at Low Class A Asheville.

The One With Plenty Of Projection
Chris Volstad, rhp, Marlins
Drafted: 2005, first round (16th overall and first high school pitcher selected)
Velocity: Average-to-plus
Second Pitch: Curve
2005 Debut: 2.22 ERA in 65 innings with 55/15 K/BB ratio
The Good: One of the biggest problems with exceedingly tall pitchers (Volstad is 6'7") is that they often have problems throwing strikes, as the long arms and legs lead to inconsistent release points. Volstad has excellent control for his size and age, and is expected to add velocity as his body matures. While not as statistically impressive as some of the other pitchers here, his potential surpasses most because of his size and clean mechanics.
The Bad: Volstad did not miss as many bats as you'd like to see in a highly-touted pitcher throwing in short-season leagues, and his ERA is deceiving as he gave up more unearned runs (17) than earned (16). While Volstad did not give up a home run in 38 New York-Penn League innings, lefties hit .343 off him.
The Immediate Future: Volstad was outstanding in spring camp, and the Marlins are planning to skip a level with him, sending him to Jupiter in the High Class A Florida State League, an aggressive move for a player who will be 19 years old for the entire season.

The Really Tall Lefty
Sean West, lhp, Marlins
Drafted: 2005, first round (supplemental first round)
Velocity: Average-to-plus
Second Pitch: Average curve with plus potential
2005 Debut: 3.10 ERA in 49 innings with 54/12 K/BB ratio
The Good: West is even taller (6-foot-8) than Volstad, but like his teammate, he has good control and a consistent delivery. West had at least as many strikeouts as innings in eight of nine Gulf Coast League starts and dominated lefties, who went just 3-for-20 against him.
The Bad: West is generally considered rough around the edges and might require a little more patience than most. Promoted to the New York-Penn League at the end of the year, the more advanced hitters battered him around to the tune of a .362 average.
The Immediate Future: The Marlins are finding room for all of their young pitching, and West will likely join a prospect-laden group at Low Class A Greensboro.

The Surprise
Travis Wood, lhp, Reds
Drafted: 2005, second round
Velocity: Plus, especially for lefthander
Second Pitch: Plus-plus changeup
2005 Debut: 1.29 ERA in 49 innings with 67/20 K/BB ratio
The Good: As an Arkansas prep star Wood was seen by scouts primarily as a raw lefthander whose primary skill was the ability to throw hard, and even the Reds seem shocked at his initial success and polish. Wood began his career with 17.2 scoreless innings over six games, allowing seven hits and punching out 31. He showed little sign of slowing down when promoted to the Pioneer League, limiting opposing batters to a .174 average.
The Bad: While it is rare to find a teenager with an advanced changeup, Wood still needs a breaking ball, and he's yet to acquire a feel for the pitch. Short (6-foot) and slight of frame, he offers little projection.
The Immediate Future: Wood will pitch for Low Class A Dayton.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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