Evaluating a draft is a difficult thing. Some say it takes three years—others five—to really evaluate a pick, but realistically even those might be light. Consider the time it take a high school pick to reach the big leagues, as well as the six years of control at the big league level before free agency arrives, and it could take a decade or more to totally realize the value from a selection.
Judging the quality of pitching in total can be equally daunting. What's the best first round of all time when it comes to pitching? In counting pure WARP, the answer is 1983, but the overwhelming majority of that comes from Roger Clemens, with Tim Belcher being the only other starter to have a significant career. And that points to the difficulty of finding pitching.
Think about a career of 100 wins. Now, of course, pitcher Wins is a highly flawed statistic, but to even reach 100, one has to at least get the opportunity to be a big league starter for a good number of years. 584 players have reached triple-digits in wins over their career, so a quick quiz. What is the greatest number of pitchers to win 100 or more games to come out of the first round (including supplemental picks) in any single draft? You might be surprised to learn that no first round in draft history has produced more than three 100 game winners. That could change, though, thanks to a pair of drafts in the last ten years, arguably representing the best in draft history in terms of pitching.
The 2006 draft has already produced Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw, with Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, Brandon Morrow, Luke Hochevar, Kyle Drabek and Daniel Bard also opening the 2012 season in major league rotations. The 2004 draft was a rarity in that it produced two aces in Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver, but it's the 2002 draft that could be the first to produce four triple-digit winners: Joe Blanton, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Joe Saunders are all at or above the 70-win mark.
So finding pitching is hard, finding good pitching is harder, finding great pitching is nearly impossible, and it takes years to judge a draft. With all that out of the way, and as a warning to what I am about to tell you… the 2011 draft is very much looking like it has a chance to be a historic draft in terms of pitching.
The 2011 draft was seen as pitching-heavy into selection day, and the first four picks were pitchers, as were 18 of the first 28 picks. While all of these players are at the earliest of early stages in their career, so many of them have already exceeded expectations, some on an extreme level.
“Ace” is a loaded term. On a scouting level, it is reserved for only the most elite arms who can deliver at least one wipeout offering, two more plus pitches on top of that and above-average command and control. You don't need more than two hands to count the number of true aces in major league baseball, and because of that, you don't need more than your feet to count the number of prospects who even have a chance to be that, yet the 2011 draft already provides several candidates.
Of the 30 pitchers taken in last year first-round, a trio stands out on pure stuff. These pitchers begin their career with at least the raw ingredients to be aces, although there are obviously many challenges and considerable time between now and them reaching that potential ceiling. It's remarkable to think that with so many prospects from last year's draft already putting up crazy numbers, that the top overall pick last June, Gerrit Cole of the Pirates, has almost been forgotten, yet he tops all other 2011 picks in terms of raw stuff. His command and control will be a hurdle to overcome, but his pitches rank with Steven Strasburg's as his fastball frequently touches triple-digits and his slider and changeup are both well above-average. The fourth overall pick, Baltimore's Dylan Bundy, has begun his career on an incredible run while already showing three plus or better pitches, a rarity for a teenager. Closing quickly on both is seventh-overall pick Archie Bradley of the Diamondbacks, who has been terrific in his first three starts. No player from the 2011 draft created more buzz during late fall's instructional league and spring training than Bradley, who has a perfect power pitcher's frame, upper-90s velocity and a monster power breaking ball.
Then there are the pitchers that are known more for how advanced they are, yet their stuff is far from mediocre. The second- and third-overall picks respectively, Seattle's Danny Hultzen and Arizona's Trevor Bauer are both pitching well at Double-A and in a race to see which becomes the first 2011 draftee to reach the big leagues. Both have excellent chances to enter next spring as experienced big league starters.
Now those are the big five, and I could have written the same about them the day after they were drafted. Of course, knowing what we know about previous drafts we might be considered lucky if two of them go on to win 100 games. However, while that quintet gives the draft plenty of potential, a series of first-round pitchers taken outside the top seven picks last June have already taken big steps forward. Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, the 14th overall pick out of a Florida high school, has been touching 97 mph and has struck out 25 over his first 17 innings at Low-A Greensboro. Red Sox righty Matt Barnes, the 19thoverall pick, has 16 strikeouts in his first 10 innings at Low-A Greenville while also touching 97 mph. Both pitchers have shown front-of-the-rotation stuff while picks further down the chain—like Barnes' teammate, left-hander Henry Owens and Diamondbacks southpaw Andrew Chafin—have also put up big strikeout totals early on, and more polished arms like Sean Gilmartin of the Braves and Sonny Gray of the Athletics are already at Double-A. All of a sudden just one or two of those win 100 and we're at historic draft status, not to mention the chances off the many first rounders I haven't mentioned yet.
Three is the record, though, and the 2002 draft has a chance to break that. Still, even though the 2011 draft class has combined to pitch zero major league innings so far, if you set the over/under of 100-win pitchers at 3.5, I just might lean towards the over.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
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