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May 2, 2012

Future Shock

Dylan Bundy and Future No. 1 Starters

by Kevin Goldstein

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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)
For many in the industry, Bundy's performance hasn't even been the most impressive by a pitcher in the minors. Consider Walker, who has a 1.64 ERA in four starts while striking out 26 over 22 innings and limiting the Southern League to a .203 batting average. Those numbers certainly aren't as gaudy as Bundy's but Walker is doing it at Double-A, and he's just three months older than the Orioles' prize pitcher. With a 92-97 mph fastball, plus-plus mid-70s curveball and impressive changeup, Walker certainly has the stuff to be a No. 1 starter, and his ability to dominate at such a young age says something about his makeup as well. “Every pitch he throws comes out of the same slot and it's just impossible to pick up,” said a National League scout. “He's like a poor man's Doc Gooden, he's really out of that Mantra.”

2. Dylan Bundy, RHP, Orioles (Low-A Delmarva)
Bundy's numbers have been well documented, but he also has No. 1 stuff with an upper 90s fastball, as well as a curveball and changeup that are both already plus. “When you think about future No. 1 starters, Bundy is the guy who has a real chance,” said an American League scouting director. That belief was universal, but one AL executive was sure to point out that with just 17 innings of pro experience, there is still plenty that we don't know. “Bundy is obviously [expletive] ridiculous, but there are things he is still going to go through,” explained the exec. “He's going to get punched in the face, and nobody knows what a guy's makeup is until they fail.” The problem that Baltimore faces, according to the exec, is that they can't force that failure. “Bundy is not going to get touched in Low-A,” he said. “Short of starting him at Double- or Triple-A, there is no way to artificially create that challenge.”

3. Archie Bradley, RHP, Diamondbacks (Low-A South Bend)
The seventh overall pick in last year's draft, no 2011 pick has already done more to boost his stock. From stunning showings in instructs and spring training to a five start stint in the Midwest League in which he's allowed just eight hits over 26 innings while striking out 30, Bradley has shown the rare combination of elite velocity and sink to go with a curveball that earns just as much praise. “I'd actually take him over Bundy,” said an American League scout. “He's the more traditional physical package you look for in a future ace.”

4. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates (High-A Bradenton)
Coming off his best start as a professional on Monday, when he allowed one hit over six shutout innings, Cole has a 3.54 ERA in five starts and 29 strikeouts in 23 innings, but his stuff is still way ahead of his numbers. “People forget that this guy throws 100 mph every time out, and has two plus offerings behind it,” said a National League scout. “If he figures out how to harness everything, he could be as good as any of them.”

5. Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pirates (High-A Bradenton)
The Pirates have focused on pitching with their top picks of late, and Taillon has begun to dominate following a 2011 season during which the Pirates often tied one hand behind his back by forcing him to go without his plus-plus breaking pitches. With the training wheels finally off, he has a 1.46 ERA in five starts with 28 strikeouts and just four walks in 24 2/3 innings. “From the body, to the frame, to the delivery, to the stuff, to the command, I'm not sure there's another guy who can check off as many boxes when it comes to finding a future No. 1 starter,” said one National League scout.

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

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

45 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Tuck
(667)

Nice writeup. Always enjoy reading about potential #1's. The romance, the intrigue. The promise of another Verlander or the heartbreak of, well, one of my favorite player capsules (2002 Annual):

"Like the Cubs with Kerry Wood, the Brewers are going to have to be careful about pushing Neugebauer too hard, because he can be one of the best pitchers of his generation."

May 02, 2012 08:48 AM
rating: 8
 
Dave Holgado

A bit off topic, and maybe also a bit premature, but can we all give KG a huge pat on the back for his bold ranking of Oscar Taveras in this year's top 101? Three more hits (one a HR) yesterday, with a SB thrown in for good measure. Now with a ridiculous triple slash of .347/.385/.694 as a 19 y/o in AA. Extreme violence, indeed. Also, #freedylanbundy.

May 02, 2012 08:58 AM
rating: 10
 
Sharky

I give you credit, DHole. He's not even on your team.

May 02, 2012 09:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Dave Holgado

Ha! Is so (in my other league). Nice to see one of my fantasy rivals come out of the BP woodwork, albeit still somewhat anonymously (Sammy? That's my guess, due to a disproportionate number of posts about the Mets and Cory Spangenberg).

May 02, 2012 17:13 PM
rating: 0
 
Ric Size

Did anyone ever project Cliff Lee as a future ace?

May 02, 2012 09:23 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

No. I wrote something last year at some point about how of all the No. 1s, he's the only one who did not project as one.

May 02, 2012 09:31 AM
 
AadikShekar

Kevin, did you guys project Lincecum as a #1 at the time?

May 02, 2012 09:46 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

I had him as the No. 1 guy in the draft that year.

May 02, 2012 09:55 AM
 
AadikShekar

Huh - thanks. I didn't realize that. Good call! (though Kershaw is worrisome, for this Giants fan). I remember being psyched they they took him and lukewarm on Burriss; guess that worked out.

May 02, 2012 15:13 PM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

Especially after his demotion to the minors in 2007 ....

May 02, 2012 09:39 AM
rating: 0
 
comeonletsgo

There's an article from September of 2002 by Baseball America about their Top 20 Prospects of the Eastern League (http://www.baseballamerica.com/online/minors/eltop2002.html, sub. is required) that mentions the following about Lee: "He's competitive, he's athletic and he has the potential for four outstanding pitches," an NL scout said. "If he keeps getting command, he might even have ace potential at the major league level. But sometimes he battles himself and his command. That should change with maturity."

May 02, 2012 10:35 AM
rating: 5
 
bline24

If the radar gun can't tell you who's a No. 1 and the numbers can't tell you who's a No. 1, isn't that another way of saying that it's a meaningless concept? Now that Verlander has won the AL triple crown everyone agrees he's a No. 1, but it wasn't that long ago that he had a 4.84 ERA and a low strike out total and people were saying he didn't have what it takes to be a No. 1. As the saying goes, you're only as good as your last game.

May 02, 2012 09:24 AM
rating: -2
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

If I thought it was a meaningless concept, I wouldn't have written about it.

May 02, 2012 09:32 AM
 
mdthomp

What does Shelby Miller need to do to jump in this conversation? Are his command issues correctable?

Also, it seems like these guys that were profiled are all in the low minors. That a coincidence? Is AA the level that separates the men from the boys?

May 02, 2012 09:39 AM
rating: 0
 
jfranco77

Can you be on this list without a plus-plus fastball? So can the radar gun tell you who is NOT a #1?

Yeah, yeah, Greg Maddux. All the other guys with an 80 changeup and 80 command please form a line to the left.

May 02, 2012 09:40 AM
rating: 2
 
Mtn Jam

Maddux didn't always sit in the 80s...he pitched into into the low-mid 90s in his younger days.

May 02, 2012 09:54 AM
rating: 0
 
jfranco77

I don't think he ever had plus-plus velocity. Now, maybe 93-94 with 80 command can give you a 70+ fastball. I'd buy that.

May 02, 2012 09:58 AM
rating: 1
 
Mike W
(830)

Not low-mid. Low. As in 92 on a very good day.
Granted, during his career, pitchers weren't near-ubiquitous 90+ throwers like they are now. Still.

May 02, 2012 11:03 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

Routinely got to 93-4 in his prime.

May 02, 2012 11:10 AM
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

You CAN, but it's way way way harder to do it.

May 02, 2012 09:56 AM
 
One Flap Down

So who are the true #1s in MLB if there are only about 10?

Verlander, Lee, Halladay, Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Kershaw seem like no-brainers, and I'd guess we could add Weaver, Lincecum to that list, but there are some tweeners that seems like they could be 1s or 2s: Hamels, Greinke, Price, Shields, Lester, Haren, Cain, and then you have a potential #1 in Strasburg.

May 02, 2012 09:43 AM
rating: 3
 
BillJohnson

I think I'd add Adam Wainwright to at least the tweeners list, and maybe the #1s, if he makes it all the way back from TJ; certainly he was in that perpetual-CY-contender class before the surgery. He also raises an interesting question about the power arm requirement. He doesn't sit in the nineties with the fastball; it's around 89-91. What he does do is throw a curve that starts in geosynchronous orbit and winds up (pre-TJ, this is the thing that hasn't come back yet) just barely tickling the outside corner, or just barely not. FILTHY pitch, and I would claim, an existence proof that there are other ways than big heat to reach #1 status. Those other ways are surely rare, however.

May 02, 2012 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
jfranco77

Greinke probably has the stuff but not the makeup. Cain and Hamels are the closest for me. I'm not sold on Weaver/Lincecum or the rest but I think I have a problem kicking Lincecum out so soon. The only thing Strasburg is missing is the durability.

I think my list would be Verlander, Kershaw, CC, Felix, Lee, Cain, Hamels, Lincecum. (Darvish? :) Too soon. But maybe soon)

May 02, 2012 09:53 AM
rating: 0
 
GTOFORMULA400

Great article Kevin! Beyond this list of 5, who were some of the other names that executives listed as potential #1's?

May 02, 2012 09:55 AM
rating: 1
 
Zach Mortimer

1s
Halladay, lee, hamels, price, verlander, kershaw, lincecum, Cain, darvish, Felix, and weaver.

May be a little bold on price and darvish I believe they have the start to a body of work for a 1.

May 02, 2012 10:26 AM
rating: 0
 
mdthomp

Strasburg? CC?

May 02, 2012 10:36 AM
rating: 1
 
pobothecat

Kevin --- Walker higher ceiling than Hultzen?

May 02, 2012 10:33 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

By a mile.

May 02, 2012 11:00 AM
 
DDriesen

So does Walker get a cup of coffee this year?

May 02, 2012 10:59 AM
rating: 1
 
CRP13

The Pirates make me happy that the Astros are moving to the AL.

Well, that's not true at all, but I would not relish facing the Pirates rotation in about two years.

May 02, 2012 11:01 AM
rating: 0
 
MEDAFAP

Thanks for the great article, Kevin... even though it will probably have little to no impact on all the "Is this guy a #1?" questions you'll receive via Twitter:) Speaking of Twitter... you mentioned a scout gave you a Bundy comp that you liked. You teased that you would include it in an upcoming article, but it's been a couple weeks and, still, no comp... care to share? Thanks... even if you don't share the comp...

May 02, 2012 11:04 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

Sure, I did. It was in last week's scouting notebook.

May 02, 2012 11:10 AM
 
MEDAFAP

You write too many articles:)

May 02, 2012 11:17 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

You're telling me....

May 02, 2012 11:18 AM
 
MEDAFAP

Link? I can't find it because I'm no good at the interwebs...

May 02, 2012 11:20 AM
rating: 0
 
LynchMob

I think this is it ...

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=16522

... comp's Bundy to Ben Sheets.

May 02, 2012 11:47 AM
rating: 1
 
ErikFanClubPres

Speaking of Ben Sheets. wtf happened to him? I know he was a great Oakland Athletic and a great American. Did his body never recover?

May 02, 2012 13:52 PM
rating: 0
 
hessshaun

The answer is in your question. Click on Ben Sheets and read the annual comments. That page will also take you vastly more in depth if your curiosity gets the better of you, especially at work.

May 03, 2012 07:13 AM
rating: 0
 
LynchMob

If you click on a players name which is bold&blue, then it takes you to his player card, and at the bottom of that are links to all the articles he's mentioned in ... for example, for Dylan Bundy ...

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/card/card.php?id=70753

... that's how I found the comp you are looking for. (And note that if/when a players name is spelled out, it turns into such a link for his player card, I think/hope)

May 02, 2012 11:50 AM
rating: 0
 
EricJ

Damn I guess Matt Cain isn't an ace according to the exec because while fully except him to go 7/8 innings and give up maybe a run I fully expect Giants losses.

May 02, 2012 11:06 AM
rating: 5
 
BelongstotheReds

So...has Teheran's stock fallen to where he is no longer viewed as a 1?

May 02, 2012 11:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Worthing

Kevin,

Do prospects ever lose their feel for their breaking stuff? With Taillon, are the Pirates risking him losing his in game feel for breaking pitches if they aren't letting him throw them in game situations?

May 02, 2012 11:45 AM
rating: 2
 
greenfrog

Is Aaron Sanchez a potential #1 down the road?

May 02, 2012 12:56 PM
rating: 0
 
mymrbig

Kevin, I think a fun follow-up article (or 2 articles, depending on length) would be a discussion of a few current #1 starters, how they got there, and why they succeeded, along with a discussion of a few current pitchers who were thought to have #1 starter potential but eventually settled in as something less (#3/4 starter) or never came close (languished in the minors). I'd avoid the guys who didn't make it because of injuries, as that is too easy. More interested in command/control/deception/sequencing/makeup issues.

May 02, 2012 13:17 PM
rating: 7
 
JonSaur

Kevin,

Great article. Awhile ago, I believe you or Jason Parks had included Julio Teheran in a list like this. Have the chances for him developing into a #1 diminished, or have the chances for these 5 just increased and bumped Teheran down?

May 02, 2012 13:48 PM
rating: 0
 
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