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August 14, 2009

Prospectus Roundtable

The Problem with Young Pitchers Is...

by Baseball Prospectus

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Remember when Mark Prior was on his way to Cooperstown? Or when Edwin Jackson was a bust? Every year, it seems like some young hurler is defying our expectations, yet we are constantly forgetting just how unpredictable young pitchers can be, ready to anoint every phenom the next Mark Fidrych. This season is no different. And we've convened a roundtable to discuss some of the more enigmatic young arms in the game.

Matt Meyers, ESPN Insider: The one guy I can't figure out is Clay Buchholz. The Red Sox righty burst on the scene with a no-hitter in 2007, but has not been able to sustain any sort of success in the majors. However, his 2.36 ERA and 8.1 K/9 at Triple-A this season show us he has little left to prove in the minors. I'll channel my inner Jerry Seinfeld and ask, "What's the deal with Clay Buchholz?"

John Perrotto: There are some around the Red Sox who believe Buchholz enjoyed the trappings of the immediate stardom that came with throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, and that was a major distraction. You can get by on pure stuff in Triple-A, but it's a different story in the majors.

Marc Normandin: Agreed. Buchholz has great stuff, and he throws a ton of first-pitch strikes. But for some reason, he walks too many hitters (4.9 BB/9 for his MLB career). He needs to sort out the "how" of pitching to go along with his natural talent.

Jay Jaffe: I think it's fair to say that few players in baseball have had as much pressure thrust upon them as Buchholz. Ever since the no-hitter, his name has been floated as the key to so many potential big trades (Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez), so every lousy start raises the question of, "What if they'd traded him for X ... "

MM: Jay touches on an important point, because expectations play a major role in our perception of performance, particularly for young players. Buchholz, for example, raised expectations with his no-hitter. On the flip side, you have a guy like Luke Hochevar, whose big-league performance has been uninspiring, and no one has really been expecting much from him. And then recently he started striking people out. And after his 13-strikeout, zero-walk gem that included an MLB season-high 23 swinging strikes, should Royals fans be excited about Hochevar?

Kevin Goldstein: It's important to note that Hochevar's two recent big K games, the 13 against Texas and nine against the Rays came against the two teams that often double as wind machines, and are one-two in the American League in strikeouts. That said, there definitely is some real progress here. Every peripheral ratio, be it hits, walks, or strikeouts has seen a considerable improvement this year. He was the first overall pick in the draft for a reason, and while he's not that good, I think he'll be a good mid-rotation starter for years to come.

MN: Even with the extra strikeouts, Hochevar still has a 5.46 ERA since the break. While a lot of that is the fault of the Royals' defense-they rank last in Defensive Efficiency-not all of it is. He's giving up the same rate of homers that he did prior to whiffing the extra hitters, for one.

JJ: It's too easy for people to pile on an overhyped pitcher when he fails to assert himself as the next Doc Gooden or Tim Lincecum straight off the bat. Look at Felix Hernandez and the way he was crowned "The King" at age 19. You'd expect he'd be gunning for his third Cy Young by now, and that hasn't made him a failure. The reality is that his evolution into an ace has been more gradual.

MM: OK, so at what point can we decide a guy is what he is? For example, Mike Pelfrey now has more than 400 innings under his belt, and his ERA is 4.88. Is that enough for you to say, "This guy just isn't that good?" What about Homer Bailey? He's two years younger than Pelfrey, but he hasn't been good enough in any season to even be able to stay in the majors all year.

KG: I think with Pelfrey we can pretty much say he is what he is, which isn't that good. We can just add him to the very long list of guys who just never threw as hard as they did as amateurs. He sits around 92-93 mph and has done so for three years, when back in his Wichita State days you'd see plenty of mid-90s and up to 98. He never had much of a breaking ball, that never changed, and he only throws four or five changeups a game. For me, he's just a good arm who didn't develop as expected.

Bailey, on the other hand, at least still gives you some reasons to be optimistic. On a stuff level, he can really still impress. Even in his last start against the Giants, he was sitting around 94, touching 97, and showed a lot of really good curveballs. At times, I think he tries to get by on talent alone, but he has to learn how to attack hitters better and hit his spots. If the Reds ever tired of him, and I was with another team, I'd love to pick him up.

MN: I don't like to generalize much with pitchers, since they learn and turn corners at different rates. I will say though, that for someone like Pelfrey, who has such obvious issues, that I am more willing to throw in the towel when no progress is made. He has good velocity, but he barely utilizes his secondary pitches, and it keeps him from bringing up his K rates. For Bailey, I don't think he's ever shown that he's mastered Triple-A until this year, so the fact that the Reds kept throwing him up in the majors is mind-boggling. It's tough to say whether he would be a better pitcher had they left him there in the first place, to figure things out one step at a time, but given his stuff and natural talent, you have to think the answer is "yes." Each pitcher's progress (or lack thereof) tells a different development story, and some of them end up with a happy ending just when you thought all hope was lost (See: Jackson, Edwin).

JJ: I'm not entirely ready to give up on Pelfrey for a couple of reasons. First, he took on an unprecedented workload last year, and his struggles with his velocity may be a reflection of the fact that he shouldn't have been pushed as hard. Second, he's a ground-ball pitcher who hasn't gotten a ton of support from the makeshift defense behind him. Mind you, I still think he's headed for fifth-starterdom unless somebody beats him over the head with a fungo bat insisting he improves his off-speed stuff. (Memo to Omar: I have friends who will volunteer for this.) Cripes, man, learn a changeup!

JP: There is a school of thought among scouts that Pelfrey is pitching hurt because he doesn't have that good sink on his pitches that he had last season when he pitched so well. The lack of sink could likely be from him not being able to fully extend his arm and finish his pitches. Pelfrey is a bright guy with a really good attitude, which leads me to believe it's not a mental thing. Thus, the only explanation is that he is hiding a physical problem.

As far as Bailey goes, I certainly agree with Jay that he needs a change of scenery. It just hasn't happened for Bailey with the Reds, and it seems to me that if it hasn't happened by now then it's never going to happen. He has the reputation of being hard-headed and overrating his talent, so perhaps a trade would wake him up and humble him.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  The Who,  Mike Pelfrey

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