The Return of the Wild Thing: If you looked very casually at Stephen Randolph‘s numbers, you might not notice anything out of the ordinary. In 32 innings, he’s allowed 18 hits, struck out 25, allowed five homers, and has a 3.90 ERA; your typical hard-throwing reliever, in other words. Maybe he’s given up fewer hits than expected, but nothing out of the ordinary.
And then you notice the outlier: In 32.1 innings, Randolph has walked 35 batters.
Now, walking over a batter an inning is not an unique occurrence; it has happened 29 times in the modern pitching era (min: 30 IP), most recently by Franklyn German, who contributed to the Tigers’ 119-loss campaign last season by walking 45 batters in 44.2 innings.
But walking over a batter an inning while actually maintaining a semblance of competence at your job–now that is unusual.
We’ll use RA as a measure of pitcher effectiveness instead of ERA, figuring that a pitcher prone to that many walks is probably giving up an above-average number of unearned runs. Among those pitchers who surrendered at least one walk per inning, Randolph’s effectiveness is almost without peer:
Year Pitcher IP BB BB/9 R RA HR 1951 Tommy Byrne 143.2 150 9.40 73 4.57 5 1942 Bob Savage 30.2 31 9.10 16 4.70 0 2004 Stephen Randolph 32.1 35 9.74 18 5.01 5 1984 Mark Clear 67.0 70 9.40 38 5.10 2 1937 Whitey Moore 38.2 39 9.08 22 5.12 1 1960 Ryne Duren 49.0 49 9.00 29 5.33 3
Tommy Byrne not only had the best RA on the list, but also lapped the field in innings pitched: He’s the only pitcher in major league history to walk a batter an inning for more than 100 innings in a season. The 1951 season was par for the course for Byrne, who went 85-69 in his career (pitching mostly for Casey Stengel‘s Yankees) despite walking 1,037 batters in 1,369 innings. It’s safe to say that Byrne was the most wildly effective (or is it effectively wild?) pitcher in major league history.
(This concludes the Steven Goldman-inspired portion of this essay.)
One obvious lesson to take from this list: If you want to survive in the majors without the slightest pretense of control, it helps to keep the ball down. The other five pitchers on this list combined to allow just 11 homers in 329 innings. Randolph, on the other hand, has given up five in just 32.1 innings, and his G/F ratio is an unsightly 0.55. Which is to say, don’t expect him to be on this list at the end of the season.
But for now, he’s not only on that list, but also tops another one, this being the list of pitchers (min: 30 IP) with the highest ratios of walks to hits allowed in a single season:
Year Pitcher IP BB H BB/H 2004 Stephen Randolph 32.1 35 15 2.33 1950 Rex Barney 33.2 48 25 1.92 1911 Gene Woodburn 38.1 40 22 1.82 1960 Ryne Duren 49.0 49 27 1.81 1987 Mitch Williams 108.2 94 63 1.49 1984 Mark Clear 67.0 70 47 1.49
Draft Report Card: Don’t let the Tigers’ surprisingly competitive start fool you. Dave Dombrowski & Co. certainly haven’t–this is still a team that’s building for the future.
More than two seasons after Dombrowski finally cashiered his underling Randy Smith to take full control of the franchise, enough time has elapsed to determine whether Dombrowski, fresh off building winners in Montreal and Florida on the strength of homegrown players, is having similar success in revamping the Tigers’ previously moribund farm system.
Let’s look back at their first three picks in each of their first two drafts to see how Dombrowski’s kids are coming along.
First round: Scott Moore, SS/3B, High School (California)
Having been selected with the eighth overall pick, Moore was considered a disappointment even before this season, after hitting just .239/.325/.363 in his first full pro season. This season, Moore has managed to handle a promotion to high-A without further stagnation, hitting .236/.343/.391 in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. With 20 errors in just 66 games at the hot corner, though, it’s questionable whether Moore will be able to stay at third base as he moves up the ladder, and his bat can’t take another hit down the defensive spectrum.
Second round: Brent Clevlen, OF, High School (Texas)
Clevlen was probably the Tigers’ best hitting prospect entering this season, and a trendy sleeper prospect. He hit only .260/.359/.410 in the Midwest League last season, but away from the unfriendly confines of West Michigan’s home field, he hit .290 with 10 of his 12 homers. This season, though, Clevlen has slumped to .234/.302/.357 at Lakeland, and has somehow already managed to commit 13 errors in the outfield. Like Moore, he’s still very young (both turn 21 in the late fall), but the Tigers were hoping for more production at this point in his career.
Third round: Curtis Granderson, OF, College (U. Illinois – Chicago)
Granderson was selected after hitting .488 as a college junior and leading UIC to its first-ever conference title. Since turning pro, he has quietly advanced up the chain, and this year he’s hitting .268/.356/.416 in his first exposure to Double-A. The Tigers like his defense enough that they’ve kept him in center field for most of his pro career, although he projects as a corner outfielder in the bigs. Basically, Granderson looks for all the world like a quality fourth outfielder in the making.
First round: Kyle Sleeth, RHP, College (Wake Forest)
Picking third overall, the Tigers had the unhappy duty of selecting the best non-Delmon Young/Rickie Weeks player in the draft. The Tigers settled on Sleeth, the college pitcher with the consensus best stuff available. Sleeth made his pro debut this year and pitched well at Lakeland (3.31 ERA in 68 IP, 65 Ks, 78 baserunners), but in his first two starts at Double-A Erie, he’s been beaten around a bit (11 IP, 12 earned runs, 24 baserunners). There’s certainly nothing wrong with his development to this point, but hopes that Sleeth would be one of those college pitchers who blew through the minor leagues like a Porsche through Montana have been dashed.
Second round: Jay Sborz, RHP, High School (Virginia)
Sborz is back for a second go-round in rookie ball this year, which is never a good sign for a high draft pick. In his defense, so far he has thrown 12 scoreless innings, with 11 Ks and only seven baserunners. He’s way too young and too far from the majors to know how he’ll pan out; right now the biggest point in his favor is simply that he hasn’t been injured yet.
Third round: Tony Giarratano, SS, College (Tulane)
Giarratano was widely considered a defense-first shortstop in player, which has only made his hitting prowess since turning pro that much more impressive. Giarratano hit .328/.369/.476 for Oneonta in his pro debut, and began this season hitting .285/.383/.352 in 43 games for West Michigan. Promoted to Lakeland earlier this month, Giarratano has so far reached base in all 25 games in the FSL while batting .404/.432/.510. If he can hold onto his offensive gains as he moves up the ladder, Giarratano could project as a switch-hitting shortstop capable of batting leadoff in the major leagues.
So how is the Dombrowski regime faring overall? While they haven’t struck out with any of their top draft picks yet, they certainly haven’t hit any homers. In particular, neither Moore nor Sleeth project as the sort of star-quality player that you expect to find in the draft’s top 10 picks. Sleeth’s inability to dominate minor leaguers despite his sterling college pedigree is not a good omen for Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ first pick (second overall) this year, who threw as high as 99 in college but posted curiously unimpressive stats for a second-tier collegiate program at Old Dominion.
The Tigers have found potential impact prospects elsewhere; Jeremy Bonderman, acquired in the Jeff Weaver trade, has struck out 71 batters in 82 innings this year, and at age 21 is still the second-youngest starting pitcher in the majors. Wil Ledezma, a Rule 5 pick last season, is dominating hitters in Double-A. Joel Zumaya, an 11th-rounder in 2002, added five mph to his fastball after being drafted and might be the best power arm in the system. But so far, at least, it doesn’t appear that the new administration has pulled any star talent out of the draft.
A Phenom Is Born: The Zack Greinke Era has arrived, and so far, it’s gone exactly as advertised.
Ignore his 1-3 record, the product of criminal run support so far (the Royals have scored more than two runs just twice in his seven starts). Two years to the month after he was drafted out of high school, Greinke is the ace of the Royals’ staff. His 3.48 ERA leads all K.C. starters, and even though the Royals are monitoring his workload to an Orwellian degree (he has yet to throw more than 101 pitches in any start), his average of 6.3 innings per start also tops the rotation. Greinke has yet to be pulled from any of his starts in mid-inning, and he has tossed seven innings without breaking 100 pitches in four of his seven outings.
Most impressively, Greinke’s command has been as preternatural as it was in the minor leagues. In all seven of his starts, Greinke has thrown his first pitch of the game for strike one. He has yet to walk more than two batters in any of his starts. In 44 innings, he has allowed only nine walks–two of them intentional.
There have been many pitchers in baseball history who have overpowered major league hitters at the tender age of 20, if not younger. But what Greinke is doing–pitching effectively at such a young age by relying primarily on his control–is much more rare. It is nearly unprecedented.
Greinke is currently walking just 1.84 batters per nine innings. Since 1893, when the pitching rubber was set at its current distance, here are the only pitchers to have walked fewer than 2.2 batters per nine innings, at age 20 or younger, minimum 125 IP:
Year Pitcher Age IP BB BB/9 UIBB/9 K/9 1977 Dave Rozema 20 218.1 34 1.40 1.24 3.79 2004 Zack Greinke 20 44 9 1.84 1.43 5.32 1908 Walter Johnson 20 256.1 53 1.86 5.62 1971 Bert Blyleven 20 278.1 59 1.91 1.88 7.24 1899 Noodles Hahn 20 309 68 1.98 4.22 1934 Paul Dean 20 233.1 52 2.01 5.79 1984 Bret Saberhagen 20 157.2 36 2.05 1.83 4.17 1968 Bob Moose 20 171.1 41 2.15 1.79 6.62 1966 Larry Dierker 19 187 45 2.17 2.17 5.20 1903 Chief Bender 19 270 65 2.17 4.23
(UIBB/9 refers to unintentional walks per nine innings, listed for pitchers for whom we have that data.)
How many of you expected to see Walter Johnson at the top of a list of control pitchers? That’s an incredibly impressive list; Johnson and Chief Bender are in the Hall of Fame, Bert Blyleven should be, and Bret Saberhagen and Larry Dierker might have made it had they not been overworked at a young age. (Even Paul Dean, a.k.a. Daffy, won 38 games by the time he turned 22. He won only 12 more after that.)
The cautionary tale on this list is Dave Rozema, the only pitcher who showed better control than Greinke has to this point. As a rookie for the Tigers, Rozema went 15-7 with a 3.09 ERA in 218 innings; he would never match his ERA, wins, or innings totals again. Rozema’s career ended in 1986, at age 29, not as a result of any serious injury, but simply because (according to the Detroit Free Press) Rozema could “no longer get anyone out.”
Rozema also had the lowest strikeout rate of this group, and despite reaching the major leagues at age 20, his stuff was considered marginal to begin with. (Thanks to Gary Gillette for filling in the details of Rozema’s career.)
Rozema’s struggles help to point out the obvious: Whether Greinke can post an above-average strikeout rate to go along with his exceptional command may determine on which side of the line dividing good pitchers from great pitchers he ends up.