I’m just leeching off other people’s work here, but Gary Huckabay said something so succinctly in today’s Giants’ Hope & Faith piece that I believe it deserves a second look:
When I first wrote that “There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect,” it meant two things, one of which has kind of become lost over time. Yes, it means that pitchers get hurt at approximately the same rate that methheads swipe identities and lose teeth. That’s what all pitchers do, not just prospects. But it also had another meaning—that guys who are totally blowing people away in the minors like they’re so many hot dog pretenders before Kobayashi are absolutely not pitching prospects—they’re already pitchers, and more time in the minors only means time off the living, pulsating clocks that are their labrums, rotator cuffs, and elbows.
One thing that distinguishes young hitters from young pitchers is that young hitters can pretty much count on making steady improvements from the time they start playing professional ball until the time they’re 26 or 27. You might have a guy like Cameron Maybin who would be pretty overwhelmed if he tried to play in the major leagues today — but we can be fairly certain that he’ll be able to handle the big leagues in two or three years time. Cameron Maybin is a prospect.
The same is not the case with pitching prospects. Although there are a few categories of pitching prospects — particularly guys with good stuff, high strikeout rates and highish walk rates (think Homer Bailey) — that tend to improve more often than not, in general there is no systematic pattern of improvement after the age of 21 or so. Sometimes guys get better, of course, and sometimes they do so in a hurry — but you can’t take a young pitcher in a vacuum and expect him to improve the same way that you can for a hitting prospect. Mark Rogers (to pick on some low-hanging fruit) will probably never get his command sorted out, Yusemiro Petit will never add enough ticks to his fastball to become a useful major league starter, Gavin Floyd will never learn how to keep the ball down, and so forth. All of these things are possible — but they’re not very likely.
The flip side, as Gary also alludes to, is that young pitchers often take less time to become dominant big league performers. Pitching, somewhat contrary to the mad genius reputation of pitchers like Greg Maddux, is more of a purely physical skill and less of a learned behavior than hitting is. Pitchers like Francisco Liriano and Jered Weaver and Cole Hamels — these guys weren’t just holding their own last year, they were among the very best pitchers in baseball. Someone like Hamels — or Tim Lincecum or Philip Hughes — might very well be as effective today as he’s ever going to be, before he’s had a chance for injuries and mileage to accumulate. Keeping those guys down on the farm is not conservative — it’s a downright irresponsible way to run a ballclub.