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August 2, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The Best Rookie Pitching Duos of These Modern Times

by Jim Baker

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Last time out, I threw down a trivia question about the best rookie pitching duos since 1960 in light of the seasons Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander were having. At that point, they were a bit over 95 in combined VORP and ranked 10th on the list. Since then, Liriano struck out a career-high 12 men Friday night and Verlander toughed out five innings against Tampa Bay last night, adding another 4.5 points to their combined total. This jumped them six places to fourth. As promised, here are the top 10 pairs going back to the dawn of the Expansion Era:

116.9 (1995) -- Hideo Nomo, Dodgers; 62.8 and Ismael Valdez, Dodgers; 54.1: Nomo had more resurrections than a zombie movie extra but, as with many of the pitchers that follow, he was never quite as effective as he was his rookie year. Having this pair helped the Dodgers win their division and Valdez pitched quite well in Game 2 of the NLDS but lost. Nomo was roughed up in Game 3 and the Reds swept Los Angeles in three. Had the 1995 season run its full course, Liriano and Verlander might be looking at a target of about 125 instead of 116.9. No matter, either is eminently doable for the pair.

100.9 (1980) - Britt Burns, White Sox; 54.8 and Doug Corbett, Twins; 46.2: Corbett was 27 when he racked up 136.1 innings for the Twins. It was the high water mark of his career. He only came within shouting distance of his 1980 2.12 DERA one other time. Conversely, Burns' career was over by the time he was 27. He, too, had his best DERA in his Rookie of the Year season but was still holding it together quite well when the White Sox traded him to the Yankees at the end of the '85 season. A degenerating hip was his undoing.

100.3 (1975) - John Montefusco, Giants; 55.5 and Dennis Eckersley, Indians; 44.9: Put Montefusco on the list of pitchers who never quite had it so good again. Eckersley you know about. Great Zeus he threw hard back then! The 1977 All-Star Game was the first time he had a real national showcase and he did not fail to impress. His smoke had smoke on it that night. He too, faded, alas, but successfully undertook one of the greatest reinventions in the history of the game.

99.8: (2006) - Liriano, Twins; 52.0 and Verlander, Tigers; 47.8: If all keeps going well for Verlander, he will finish with the highest second-best VORP for a rookie pitcher. He's one decent start behind Doc Medich's 1973 season and getting very close to Valdez's 1995 mark of 54.1.

98.5: (1976) - Mark Fidrych, Tigers; 60.4 and Pat Zachry, Reds; 38.1: I'm beginning to think it's not a good thing to be on this list. Fidrych's infamously quirky mechanics got the best of him in no time. Zachry's rookie year was his best; he never pitched as often or as well again. Within a year he was shipped to New York as part of the Tom Seaver trade. Zachry was the inspiration for one of Vin Scully's best lines. Because he was lanky thin and wore a big beard, Scully once said of him that he looked like he had been found floating on a raft.

98.2: (2003) - Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks; 55.7 and Dontrelle Willis, Marlins; 42.5: Webb's big league career was born in the shadow of Willis and it's been a hard go coming out from under. 2006 is kind of the rubber match in their showdown in that Webb won their rookie year (in spite of what the award might have engraved on it), Willis won 2005 and 2004 counts as a draw. Webb, with the best VORP in baseball, has the big lead this year. VORP count to date: Webb: 185.3 - Willis: 153.4

97.2: (1973) - Steve Rogers, Expos; 48.9 and Doc Medich, Yankees; 48.3: We can only hope it will not one day be said of Liriano and Verlander that they had their very best seasons as rookies. Of course, it's going to be very hard for Liriano especially to pitch any better than he has this year. Rogers never again posted a DERA below 3.00 in his career although he was always one of the league's better pitchers and was often hindered by his support. Medich threw over 550 innings in his sophomore and junior (?) seasons and, as we've learned the hard way, you just don't want to be doing that to a fella's arm. After getting all the meat off his soupbone, the Yankees famously traded him for 13 years of Willie Randolph and a 17-8 season by Dock Ellis -- which reminds me of a more recent Yankees-Pirates trade.

There are four extreme types of teams based on how savvy they are or are not and how much money they do or do not have:

IQ + $ (example: Yankees)
IQ + no $ (example: A's)
No IQ + $ (example: Cubs)
No IQ + no $ (example: Pirates)

A team from the last group should make it a practice to never trade with a team from the first group. The Shawn Chacon-for-Craig Wilson trade is the equivalent of the richest guy in the city going down to Shantytown and swapping an old suit for the poor guy's space heater. Not that the poor guy ever figured out how to use the space heater in the first place. The Pirates didn't deserve Craig Wilson. I hope he gets a fair shake from the Yankees for the rest of the year and from whatever team he ends up on next year.

97.0: (1984) - Dwight Gooden, Mets; 53.8 and Orel Hershiser, Dodgers; 43.3: Tommy Lasorda brought Hershiser along slowly his rookie year, splitting his time between the bullpen and starting. After that, though, the kid gloves came off and his innings climbed until he ran off three years in a row over 255. Not surprisingly, his shoulder was a mess and he missed the better part of the next two seasons. Although he would reconstitute his career, he only had one more season in which his DERA was under 4.00 after posting five such turns prior to the breakdown. Unlike a lot of the pitchers listed here, Gooden did get better his sophomore year. (You could, by the way, make the case that Liriano 2006 is on a par with Gooden 1985.) When Doc was racing to his 24-4 showing that year, Bob Gibson said he would never pitch that well again in his life. I scoffed, of course. Why Gooden was 20 and just getting warmed up, I reasoned. Mr. Gibson: I was wrong to doubt you.

96.9 (1963) -- Gary Peters, White Sox; 57.4 and Al Downing, Yankees; 39.4: Peters has got to be the only Rookie of the Year who appeared in parts of four seasons prior to winning the award. By the time he got his full shot, he'd been in Triple A since 1959. Downing's NRA jumped by over a run his sophomore year and pretty much stayed up there for the rest of his career. He pitched for some very good teams at the beginning and end of his career, which never hurts.

One would assume there would have been at least a couple more pairs from the '60s on this list given the gaudy pitching stats of the day. A couple of you suggested 1968's Jerry Koosman and Stan Bahnsen as possible leaders and that's a very reasonable guess as they did total 92.0. VORP takes into account the scoring environment, though, so those gaudy '60s numbers are kept in their proper context.

96.1 (1986) - Mark Eichhorn, Blue Jays; 59.9 and Bruce Ruffin, Phillies: 36.2: Apart from Corbett (and, to some extent, Hershiser) Eichhorn is the only other reliever on this list. Unless there is a drastic change in the way relievers are used, he is bound to be the last. After an aborted attempt as a starter in 1982, he resurfaced in the majors four years later and threw 157 innings in 69 appearances. That was probably a bit too much for him as his STUFF dropped from 32 to four to -15 over two seasons after that. Ruffin got progressively worse after his rookie burst, although he began to look again when he went to Colorado--of all places--in 1993.

Where are Verlander and Liriano going to end up this year? I think somewhere in the 125-130 range is realistic with 140-145 as an everything-goes-right upside, although with Liriano sitting out his next start for precautionary reasons, the lower estimate is the more realistic one.

Thanks to Keith Woolner for research contributions.

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