On Tuesday, June 14th, Phillies starter Zach Eflin made history. Well, history of a sort. Against the Toronto Blue Jays—an offense that, you may have heard, is pretty good—Eflin pitched 2 2/3 innings, giving up eight runs on nine hits, three of which were home runs. He did strike out three, but also walked two, leading to a pretty rough first night. Here are some sparknotes to help historically contextualize Eflin’s very first start as a major leaguer:
— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) June 14, 2016
Zach Eflin the first pitcher in the majors to allow 8+ earned runs in fewer than 3 innings of MLB debut since Padres' Cesar Carrillo in 2009
— Corey Seidman (@CoreySeidmanCSN) June 14, 2016
Before you ask, yes, that is the immortal Cesar Carrillo, he of the 13.06 career ERA. Clearly, an auspicious, er inauspicious night for Young Eflin.
Meanwhile across the state in spirit if not in material fact, Jameson Taillon was pitching his second game in Pittsburgh, and making it look easy against a Mets offense that, well, has hit some rough spots. Taillon took a no-hitter into the eighth, when he was bested by the bête noir of all no-hitters: the slap-hitter, who took the form this time of James Loney. Still, Taillon won the game, allowing zero runs and going eight strong innings with five strikeouts and one walk. Night and day from poor Eflin north of the border.
I’m telling you these stories that you probably already know so that I can talk about auspicious and inauspicious first (or second) starts. Early moments in sports set the tone in a big way, and in baseball these early moments can take on many different forms. You have the hitter who slugs his way through the minor leagues in short order, as well as the non-prospect who hits a grand slam in his first at-bat—hello Jordan Schafer. You also have the first-season phenoms like Ichiro or Mike Trout, and the adjustment-driven superstar breakouts like Roy Halladay or Jose Bautista. Unlike other sports, I’d argue, the grind, constant readjustments, and multiple developmental levels of baseball encourage multiple “first impressions.” Which is a good thing, especially when the first impression might ultimately mean so little from a practical perspective.
I say “from a practical perspective” because from a kind of spiritual or interpretative perspective, the first impression is huge. We are not just quick to characterize a player as a superstar or a dud, we are cheetah-like in our quick-twitch player-judgment reflexes. Eflin gives up eight runs in 2 2/3 innings and we immediately think Carrillo (who, it should be noted, had eerily similar Triple-A stats as Eflin) instead of Steve Avery, who also gave up eight earned runs over 2 1/3 innings, even worse ostensibly than Eflin.
And for Taillon skepticism, we need only go back a couple of years to the hey-day of Kyle Drabek and Michael Pineda Mania. On April 2, 2011 Drabek pitched a seven-inning gem, with seven strikeouts, three walks, one hit and one earned run. Ten days later on April 12, Pineda pitched a seven-inning, seven-strikeout game, with only two walks, five hits, and one earned run. This led to many breathless (and, without the benefit of hindsight, totally reasonable!) articles about how we might be witnessing the birth of two of the great pitchers of our time, coming into their own in their first full seasons. Fast-forward five years, and Pineda keeps showing flashes, but is largely inconsistent in the Yankees’ rotation, and Drabek has pitched one inning in relief for the Diamondbacks. First impressions can be wrong.
And of course, they can be right as well—it’s not as if we can’t be correct as often as we’re wrong with our wild guesses and snap judgments. But the point isn’t really accuracy—I’m sure someone with more facility in using the Play Index could write a wonderful article about first starts and their predictive value—but rather the necessity for narrative. Baseball, as I’ve noted time and again in these columns, is fairly maddening. It’s impossible to tell when someone will break out or slump; we forecast superstars from high-profile prospects and end up missing the next phenom who signed in the 18th round of the draft; games that are decided by a bad bounce or a lucky wind propel teams to championships. We tilt at windmills as analysts to try to understand the game, and for lots of us at Baseball Prospectus, that’s what the fun of analyzing is all about. Tilting in the hope that we’ll finally pin down the quixotic goal of corralling baseball once and for all with the knowledge that, probably, we never will really explain the game the way we all want to.
But even for those of us who, like the venerable Operation Ivy, only know that we don’t know nothin’, we sometimes want a nice predictive jumping off point. This is why, in Shakespearian drama, you usually get an omen to start the play—a comet, a proclamation, a group of witches basically setting you up to fail—because this gives some structure to the story to come. Instead of a kingdom falling apart because of bad luck and worse leadership, Macbeth is about man’s inability to heed warnings when they compromise his ambition. The witches tell us in the first act what the play is going to be about. Instead of baseball being non-linear and subject to not only performance variation, but the temperature, home park, and various coaches of the player involved, the game is about how a player grows over time, or fails to live up to expectations. We narrativize baseball into a progress narrative, a strategy as old as time. Or at least as old as John Bunyan.
Pitchers, therefore, are especially prone to this narrativization, as they have discrete starts that each can be overanalyzed for five days or more. We are able to crystallize a narrative around them without having to wait an entire season to do so. So Zach Eflin, instead of being a pitcher whose stuff wasn’t working against a tremendously talented team, is a minor-league pitcher who was exposed in one of the most historically lopsided ways possible. Jameson Taillon, instead of building steadily but unevenly from a mediocre first start, is a top prospect finding his stride and buckling down in the big leagues. And if something different happens in the third start, the narrative will shift along with it.
And this is something interesting about the narratives we build on auspicious starts: they are not very permanent. Unlike narratives about team chemistry or bad attitudes, or whatever, young pitchers seem to be in flux when it comes to how we as media and fans understand their progress. From start to start, they change from unworkable non-prospects to diamonds in the rough, from toolsy players already starting to click to post-hype disappointments. In a way, the impermanence of the narrative reveals its insufficiency—we don’t hang on to these generalizations because they really don’t tell us much at all. We keep trying because it keeps us sane, but all the historical context in the world can’t really make one start predictive. They’re little specks of color that flesh out a career but are totally illegible when we look at them too closely.
So it’s lucky, we might conclude, that the players seem to understand this much better than we do.
"It still was a dream come true," Zach Eflin said. "I was out there in front of 50,000 people playing the game I love." He'll start Sunday.
— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) June 14, 2016