May 12, 2011
Painting the Black
Todd Wellemeyer retired last week in a muted fashion well-suited to a nondescript pitcher. The journeyman label might be applied too often, but it does fit Wellemeyer—a flamethrower without much idea of where his pitches would wind up—who broke into the majors with the Cubs and spent time in the majors with the Marlins, Royals, Cardinals, and Giants. Wellemeyer inked a minor-league deal with the Cubs this offseason, but he chose to walk away after making one ugly Triple-A appearance.
My Wellemeyer moment came in his first big-league appearance. After I got home from school, I flipped the television to WGN, where the Cubs were battling the Brewers. Kerry Wood was on the mound and went seven strong, striking out 13 batters while allowing five baserunners and no runs on 121 pitches. However, Antonio Alfonseca and Joe Borowski blew separate leads, as they were wont to do at times, propelling the game deep into extra innings. The contest lasted long enough that Dusty Baker had to use Shawn Estes as a pinch-hitter and allowed both Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth to go three innings apiece.
The Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 17th thanks to a Corey Patterson two-run shot off Brooks Kieschnick. With five relievers already burned, Baker gave the ball to the 24-year-old Wellemeyer. All that stood between Wellemeyer and a save was Eddie Perez, Royce Clayton, and the aforementioned Kieschnick. After falling behind 1-2, Perez gave Wellemeyer hell by fouling off four straight pitches. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Perez failed to make contact and returned to the pine. Clayton was more kind to the youngster, fanning in four pitches, and Kieschnick followed suit in six.
Not only had Wellemeyer recorded a save in his first appearance, he had done so by striking out the side. Back then, youthful optimism still took root easily. Although I hadn’t know Wellemeyer’s name an hour before, I now regarded him as an object of great potential. At that time, I never looked up a player’s minor-league stats—not that I’d have known how to evaluate them anyway—and if he wasn’t in the latest Baseball Prospectus annual I had lying around, I wouldn’t know much more about him than what I saw. I evaluated players like a caveman.
Time passed. Wellemeyer became mediocre, and I became marginally better at analyzing baseball performances. Still, the mystique of Wellemeyer’s debut remained. I wondered whether Dave Duncan had unfettered Wellemeyer’s inner star when the pitcher enjoyed a renaissance with the Cardinals. He hadn’t, of course, but similar feelings crept into my heart when Wade Davis debuted and fanned the first four batters he faced.
Is there any reason to believe that pitchers who strike out the first three batters they face in the majors are more prone to successful big-league careers? Luckily, talented gentlemen like Dan Turkenkopf are capable of running queries to supply answers to these burning questions. Per Turkenkopf’s research, 24 pitchers have begun their major-league careers with three straight strikeouts, the most recent being the Rangers’ Michael Kirkman in late 2010.
The search wasn’t limited to a pitcher’s first appearance, so a hurler would have been included if, for whatever reason, he had been brought in to face one batter per outing over a three-game span and struck out each one. Here is a complete list of the pitchers who appeared in the results, along with career innings pitched and earned run average totals for each:
Success stories like All-Stars Dennis Martinez and Pete Richert aside, it’s clear that not all that glitters immediately is gold. More interesting than the spread of success is the spread of work. Some pitchers, like Carl Schutz and Angel Lipetri, might have a bone to pick with anyone who thinks baseball decision makers are prone to putting too much stock into small-sample successes, as their flashy debuts still left them on the outside looking in shortly thereafter.
Wellemeyer actually places in the upper half in innings pitched among this group, which provides some indication of the longevity and quality of pitchers on display here. Striking out the first three batters faced is more of a trivial feat than an earmark of unbelievable talent, since it’s dependent on an arbitrary endpoint and dramatized only because of the timing. First impressions are built up as important events, and often they do have an outsized impact on subsequent events, but that’s not always the case in baseball—for the purposes of analysis, at least, if not from the standpoint of sentiment. No one would blame Wellemeyer if he one day tells his grandchildren about the fastballs he threw by the first three major-league batters who dared to test his might.
Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.