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May 11, 2007

Future Shock

Two Debuts

by Kevin Goldstein

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Two undersized righties made their professional debuts earlier this week. From their backgrounds to their minor league careers to the results of their first starts to their projected future, the two couldn't be more different--except for one remarkable similarity. Both are unique talents, and therefore both took some time to earn praise from scouts. Let's compare and contrast what we saw from Tim Lincecum and Matt DeSalvo before they hit the big leagues, and then review their pro debuts.

The Amateur Backgrounds

"Anonymous" doesn't really do DeSalvo justice. A 1998 graduate of Union High in Western Pennsylvania, DeSalvo was a good high school pitcher, but not really one that had pro scouts or major colleges knocking down his door to get his name on a contract. He took himself off to Marietta College in central Ohio, where he became arguably one of the greatest pitchers in college baseball history.


YEAR  G GS CG SHO  W  L SV   IP    H  BB  SO   ERA
--------------------------------------------------
1999 14  8  2  0   7  1  0  58.1  54  24  66  3.70
2000 21 16  5  2  13  1  0  98.1  52  54 138  1.56
2001 21 17  9  5  17  1  2 120.0  62  51 205  1.50
2002  4  4  1  0   3  1  0  22.2   6  19  37  1.59
2003 18 14  8  2  13  2  1  96.0  46  40 157  1.31

The 205 strikeouts in 2001 set a single-season Division III record, and his career totals of 53 wins and 603 strikeouts are NCAA records at any level. In his final start for the Pioneers, he struck out 19 in a complete-game three-hitter, setting an Ohio Athletic Conference mark.

Scouts still didn't warm up to him. Even after his record-breaking junior year, he went undrafted, as evaluators saw him as an undersized righty with a no more than average fastball, and below-average command for a player that profiled as a finesse righty. Allan Simpson, a renowned draft historian and currently the national coordinator for Perfect Game (a scouting service), remembers that DeSalvo generated little interest at the time. "Nobody would really touch him," recalled Simpson. "He had remarkable numbers, but scouts just didn't think it would work at the professional level." DeSalvo returned for his senior year, but he was re-shirted after a knee injury limited him to just four outings. Following his senior year, DeSalvo maybe would have been drafted had he been eligible, but it's a little known rule that fifth-year seniors are actually free agents, and available prior to the draft to all 30 teams. While it wasn't exactly a traditional bidding war, the Yankees acquired his services for a final price of $30,000. "After five years, teams finally said that no matter what you think about him, this kind of statistical performance has to mean something," added Simpson. "In the 2003 draft, he would have gone in the sixth to tenth rounds."

Lincecum had a much more storied prep career at Liberty High School in Washington. In his senior season he was the state's player of the year, going 12-1 with 0.70 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 91.2 innings. Big bonus demands from Lincecum's father combined with the kid's unique profile had teams puzzled. "Looking back, he's exactly now what he was then, but scouts were real leery of him," remembers Simpson. "Just the size and the mechanics and big concerns about his workload--he'd often start on Tuesday and come back on Friday." However, as it has been throughout his career, the wear and tear never seemed to catch up to him. "Even then, he never lost velocity or showed any signed of soreness," added Simpson. "Teams were just afraid of him. He was kind of a freak, he just didn't look the part, and there was just nobody to compare him to."

The Cubs selected Lincecum in the 48th round of the 2003 draft, but it was more of an incidental pick, as they never made any push to sign him, and Lincecum enrolled at the University of Washington, where like DeSalvo, he'd make his own run at college conference record books.


YEAR  G GS CG SHO  W  L SV   IP    H  BB  SO   ERA
--------------------------------------------------
2004 20 18  0  0  10  3  0 112.1  83  82 161  3.53
2005 16 16  4  1   8  6  0 104.1  62  71 131  3.11
2006 22 17  3  2  12  4  3 125.1  75  63 199  1.94

In just three years, Linecum achieved the Pac-10's all-time strikeout record, and he fell three whiffs short of Mark Prior's single-season mark in his junior year. His three seasons with the Huskies are numbers one, two, and three for single-season strikeout totals in school history.

Because he turned 21 before the 2005 draft, Lincecum was a sophomore-eligible, and while scouts had certainly warmed up to him, there were still some problems. First off, there we're the usual problems with his uniqueness--even now it's hard to evaluate a player with his combination of size, stuff and mechanics. Hurting him further was the fact that his sophomore year featured a bit of a dip performance-wise, with a lower strikeout rate than his freshman campaign, and a walk rate that had risen to a level that many saw as unacceptable. On a pure talent level, primarily because of the control problems, teams saw him as sitting just outside the first round. Making things worse was that Lincecum's father was still working as his advisor, a move that always makes teams nervous--baseball negotiations are a business matter, and family involvement turns it into a highly emotional exercise. The Lincecum family made it clear to interested teams that the negotiations for his services began at $2 million dollars, and come draft day, those teams stayed away. Much like two years prior, one organization took a late flyer on the diminutive hurler, as the Indians selected him in the 42nd round. By all accounts, the Indians made a very real and honest run at Lincecum, but never came close to his asking price.

So Lincecum went back to school, and in 2006, he was the best pitcher in college baseball and the winner of the Golden Spike Award as the top player in amateur baseball. His command was greatly improved, albeit far from perfect, and his stuff was better than ever. In the offseason, Lincecum had 'bulked up' to about 160-165 pounds, and was consistently pitching in the upper 90s once the season began, to go along with the best curveball scouts had seen in years. On March 31, he fired a two-hit shutout at UCLA, striking out 18 in a game one scout refers to as, "the most dominating single game performance I've ever seen in a major college game." His stock skyrocketed, and by the time June came around, it was clear that at least one team would be willing to brush away the concerns about Lincecum's one-of-a-kind package and take him among the first 15 picks. Nobody expected it to be the Giants at number 10, but as the most unpredictable team in the draft, it wasn't exactly a huge surprise. Now with an agency (the Beverly Hills Sports Council) instead of only taking parental advice on contract matters, Lincecum singed relatively quickly for an in-line bonus of $2.025 million.

The Minor League Career

DeSalvo's pro career began much like his college one. Despite a heavy college workload, DeSalvo went straight to Staten Island of the New York-Penn League after signing, and in his pro debut he fired four shutout innings, allowing one hit and striking out five. After ten games, he had a 1.84 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 49 innings, earning a promotion to Low-A Battle Creek in the Midwest League for his three final outings. In his first full-season game, he fired eight shutout innings, allowing three hits and striking out nine. Eleven days later, in his final game of the year--seven more scoreless frames. Suddenly, the Division III nobody was a pretty solid prospect. The following season, now 23, DeSalvo began his first full pro season with Tampa in the High-A Florida State League, and kept on rolling. In his sixth start of the year, he struck out 11 over seven no-hit innings, and by mid-June he was bumped up to Double-A Trenton with a 1.43 ERA and just 48 hits allowed in 75.1 innings. It was there that DeSalvo would struggle for the first time in his life. Trying to pitch through a sore back, he'd have a 6.59 ERA in six starts for the Thunder before getting shut down at the end of July.

In 2005, DeSalvo picked up where he left off--back in the Trenton rotation, and back to struggling, including a 5.55 ERA in his first five starts. He began May with a three-start run in which he allowed one run over 21 innings while striking out 26, and everything suddenly began to click again. He'd finish the season third in the Eastern League with a 3.02 ERA and third in strikeouts with 151, accomplished in just 149 innings. Entering 2006, DeSalvo was seen as a player who could get a big league look at some point in the season, but then the wheels fell off. Beginning the year at Triple-A Columbus, DeSalvo got rocked, and even more concerning was what many saw as a sudden case of what is known in various circles as the yips, the monster, or Steve Blass disease.

On May 13th, in a start at home against Norfolk, DeSalvo gave up two hits and walked five in the first inning, getting pulled before retiring the side, and getting charged with his fifth straight loss. By the time he was demoted back to Trenton, he had a 7.68 ERA and more walks (34) than strikeouts (30) in 38.2 innings. Back in the Eastern League, the monster would come and go. In his second outing, he didn't walk a batter in 6.2 solid innings. Five days later, he'd give up five free passes before being pulled in the second inning. On July 21, he'd walk six of the 11 batters he faced, and in his final two outings, he's walk 12 more in 11.1 innings. Final line in 16 starts: 5.77 ERA, 78 innings, 59 walks, 52 strikeouts. Not only was DeSalvo's prospect stock taken off the market, his entire career was in jeopardy. Prior to spring training this year, the Yankees removed DeSalvo from their 40-man roster in order to add Miguel Cairo. Available to any organization for the meager price of a waiver claim, 29 organizations passed on him.

Nobody really has a good answer for what, if anything, happened between the end of 2006 and the time pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, but all of a sudden, DeSalvo was getting a lot of attention. Both the Yankees and scouts from other teams were suddenly talking positively about a pitcher who was all but written off less than a month before. Starting the year with the Yankees' new Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, DeSalvo was a much improved pitcher, firing six one-hit innings in his second start of the year, and holding the opponents scoreless in three of five outings. Before he got the call, DeSalvo had a 1.05 ERA in 25.2 innings, and while the control problems still showed up from time to time (he walked 13), the monster was clearly being tamed.

Lincecum's pro career is far shorter, and far less complicated to discuss, as he made a total of 13 starts before the Giants brought him up to pitch on Sunday, and the organization came very close to calling him up to pitch out of the bullpen down the stretch last year. Here is Lincecum's entire minor league career:


DATE   LEVEL  IP  H  R ER BB  SO
7/26/06  SS  1.0  0  0  0  0   3
7/31/06  SS  3.0  1  0  0  0   7
8/ 5/06  A+  2.2  3  3  2  2   5
8/10/06  A+  3.2  1  0  0  2   6
8/16/06  A+  6.0  3  2  2  1   7
8/22/06  A+  4.2  4  2  2  2  10
8/27/06  A+  5.2  1  0  0  2  11
9/ 1/06  A+  5.0  1  0  0  3   9
------
4/ 7/07 AAA  5.0  2  0  0  3   8
4/12/07 AAA  7.0  4  0  0  2   9
4/17/07 AAA  6.2  3  0  0  0  11
4/23/07 AAA  6.1  0  1  1  6   4
4/29/07 AAA  6.0  3  0  0  0  14
------
Totals      62.2 26  8  7 23 104

In other words, utter dominance.

The Debuts

With little fanfare, DeSalvo took the mound at Yankee Stadium on Monday night to face the Mariners in what was the American League's only night game on the slate. It's easy to assume that in his entire career, he never faced a hitter of Ichiro Suzuki's caliber, and it sure looked like it when Ichiro led off the game with a double to right. Three batters later, Raul Ibanez would single him home for a 1-0 Seattle lead, and things looked a bit grim.

Over the next six innings, DeSalvo would give up just one more hit, finishing the night with seven innings and just the one run. DeSalvo would walk three, including the first two batters of the third inning when his command troubles briefly appeared, and not strike out a single Mariner. It was one of the most dominating-yet-not-dominating performances you'll see, and awfully fun to watch. In the postgame press conference, DeSalvo mentioned how a pre-game meeting with catcher Jorge Posada limited his arsenal to just three pitches--fastball, slider, changeup--in order to keep things simple. But that was a simplification in itself, as DeSalvo mixed in six pitches once you break down all the variants. He threw both a two- and four-seam fastball, with the latter sitting at 88-91, and the former featuring better movement. He also occasionally mixed in what looked like a cutter, which featured late horizontal break. His slider is more of a slurvy, show-me offering, but the changeups were special. DeSalvo's natural mechanics have both a body turn and a hiccup, both which add to the deception of his pitches, especially on his off-speed offerings. His arm action is fantastic on his straight change, and then he also throws what scouts often refer to as a "changeup off a changeup", as the pitch is another 3-6 mph less than normal change, while featuring more fade. Posada called a wonderful game, stirring up DeSalvo's arsenal, and DeSalvo himself--a player with a long record of praise for his makeup and mound demeanor--looked like a 15-year-veteran on the mound, working quickly, showing no signs of emotion either good or bad, and showing no fear by challenging hitters at every opportunity.

Lincecum's start on the other hand, arrived with nearly as much hype as the weekend's Mayweather/De La Hoya fight. It was the Sunday night national game on ESPN, and he'd be facing off against Philadelphia ace Cole Hamels. It was the chance to see two young pitchers dominate, and some fans even set up viewing parties for event.

It disappointed. Unlike DeSalvo, Lincecum clearly looked jacked up from the moment he took the mound, and his never found his command. Jimmy Rollins opened the game with a single up the middle, and Lincecum followed that up by hanging curve that Shane Victorino crushed. Before he retired a single batter, he had already doubled the runs allowed total from his five starts at Fresno combined. The rest of the inning gave fans the opportunity to see the player they had heard so much about. Sitting in the mid-90s, touching 98 and fooling advanced hitters with his curve, Lincecum would wrap strikeouts of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Aaron Rowand around a Pat Burrell walk to get out of the inning, showing the stuff that excited everyone who had the opportunity to see him pitch before he hit the big stage.

Lincecum would run into trouble again in the fourth, walking Utley before giving up a towering blast to Howard, and he'd leave in the fifth after once again walking Burrell to load the bases. His final line would read 4.1 innings, five hits, five runs, five walks and five strikeouts on 100 pitches.

One scout was not only still impressed, but thought that the start could have a positive spin for Lincecum. "The stuff was there, but the command was way off," said a National League scout who witnessed the game. "He made some mistakes, and he paid for it--this isn't the Stockton Ports anymore--but he'll be fine. The fact that he struggled in his first start might be the best thing that's happened to him as a pro. He needs to learn failure and how to work back from it and learn about making adjustments, and you can't learn that until you get hit."

The Future

For DeSalvo, all we know is that he'll start Saturday, once again against the Mariners, only this time in Seattle. He'll likely make one or two more starts after that, but an end-of-month return for Philip Hughes and the impending arrival of Roger Clemens clouds any projection into the summer. With a resilient arm, he'd be a better option than Luis Vizcaino in the bullpen, so don't rule out a more permanent role in the big leagues, but it's more likely he'll return to Triple-A once the Yankee rotation is bolstered by the best 20-year-old pitcher alive, and the best 45-year-old one as well. On a long-term level, his projection is just as difficult. Despite Monday's outstanding effort, DeSalvo remains an "is what he is" guy. The kind of player who mixes pitches, changes speeds, hits his spots, and keeps hitters off balance. On another team, he'd be a solid fourth or fifth starter. With the Yankees, a team with little patience for young players that don't scream "future all-star," it's harder to say where he'll end up.

Lincecum will also remain in the big leagues for now, taking the mound tonight at Colorado. With Russ Ortiz coming off the Disabled List on May 17th, it might be his final start for now, unless an injury occurs in the rotation or the Giants just get tired of Ortiz' inability to get batters out. Any way you cut it, it's hard to not see him in the Giants rotation during the second half of the season, giving them a lift in what looks like a winnable National League West. From there, the sky's the limit.

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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