May 2, 2012
Dylan Bundy and Future No. 1 Starters
With both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout getting the call to the big leagues recently, Dylan Bundy is now the official engineer of the Prospect Hype Train, and with good reason. He's faced 52 batters on the young season, and three have reached base, while 25 have struck out. That has prompted the inevitable questions—especially on Twitter—about whether Bundy can become a No. 1 starter. However, becoming a No. 1 starter takes more than just stuff, or more than just command; it takes something that is more than a little bit ineffable.
To be clear, “No. 1 starter” is a scouting/industry term, not a slot in the rotation. There were plenty of No. 3 starters taking the bump on opening day. There are maybe ten No. 1 starters in baseball. These are the guys who enter your head every time it comes time to predict who will win the Cy Young award each year. It takes stuff and command, but also durability, consistency, and that extra something else.
“The label is the ultimate of the ultimate, and there's nothing wrong with a strict standard,” said an American League executive. “I never project a prospect as anything more than a No. 2 starter for a reason,” he continued. “You're not a No. 1 until you actually prove over a period of time that you are a No. 1 in the big leagues. You cannot be anointed by a scouting report.”
“The radar gun can't tell you who is going to be a No. 1,” agreed an American League scout. “We envision guys in the mid-90s with crippling breaking balls and physicality, but at the end of the day, guys like Verlander or Pedro Martinez become No. 1s at the major league-level. Until you are pitching in the big leagues and putting away Cabrera and Fielder back-to-back, you're not a one.”
As for the extra component, people in the industry have trouble explaining it, but they know it when they see it. “No. 1 guys are the guys where every time they take the mound you feel you are going to win. Every time out, you are going to get a defined area of performance. Good starters will give you average starts half of the time, and then be really good 25 percent of the time and bad the other 25 percent,” another executive explained. “A No. 1 is giving you 50 percent elite starts, 25 percent really good and 25 percent average. When you see Verlander get hit hard by the Yankees, you know he's going to deal the next time out. That's a No. 1. When you see Sabathia going late in the season for the Brewers on three days rest and pitching them into the playoffs, that's a No. 1. Most starters can't do that.”
So while Bundy certainly has the makings for being a No. 1, he's far from joining that exclusive club. “The hyperbole is justified,” said a scout who has seen Bundy since his high school days. “His stuff and makeup are off the chart and what he's doing to start a professional career might be unprecedented. But it's a long journey from Delmarva to No. 1.”
Not only are No. 1 starters rare, so are prospects with even the chances to even be a No. 1 starter. When queried as to the numbers of even potential No. 1s in the minor leagues, the answers ranged from just five to fifteen. That's well under one percent of the professional pitching population with even a chance to become an elite starter, and most of their chances are slight. “There have been plenty of guys who looked like No. 1 starters in the minors or in the draft, and we've ended up with far more three, four, five starters or relievers than ones,” said a National League exec. “Whoever takes [Stanford RHP] Mark Appel in June is going to have a press conference, and they are going to say he has a good chances to be a No. 1 starter,” added an American League assistant GM. “And he does. But if we only have ten or so of them in the big leagues, what really are the chances?”
Understanding the rarity and the unlikelihood that any pitcher will become a No. 1 starter, somebody certainly will, and here are five players the industry sees as having the best chance.
1. Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners (Double-A Jackson)
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .