Monday night I tuned into the Twins-Tigers game, in part because I'm a glutton for punishment with a Pavlovian need to watch Twins games no matter how bad things get, but also because top prospect Jose Berrios was making his fourth career start. I was excited, or at least as excited as baseball fans in Minnesota get these days. Berrios' first three starts weren't great, but his previous outing was encouraging enough to make me think perhaps the 21-year-old former first-round pick was ready to become a full-time member of the rotation for the next decade or so.
He wasn't. Actually, whatever the opposite of that is, he was ready to do that and only that. Berrios failed to make it out of the first inning, recording two outs while allowing seven runs. First-inning knockouts have always fascinated me. It’s like showing up to your office, spilling coffee down the front of your shirt, slipping and falling on the wet floor beneath you, knocking over a filing cabinet in the process, and then being asked to go home by your boss. Not only did you embarrass yourself in front of co-workers, now they’re all watching you exit in shame. It’s made even worse by knowing that everyone else has to keep working for the rest of the day.
Twins manager Paul Molitor came out to remove Berrios following a bases-loaded double by light-hitting shortstop Jose Iglesias, and their limited interaction had a "put him out of his misery" vibe. Shortly after the game–which the Twins came back to tie at 8-8 before losing, thus providing their fans with the maximum possible pain–Berrios was demoted to Triple-A. There he joins fellow top prospect Byron Buxton, who began the season as the Twins' starting center fielder before being demoted to Triple-A three weeks later after hitting .156 in 17 games.
Buxton ranked No. 2 overall on our top-101 prospect list and Berrios was No. 17, so in addition to all the losing happening in Minnesota it's getting increasingly difficult to convince people here that prospects are worth believing in. I'm still a big believer in Berrios (and Buxton too), but his disastrous start Monday did give me some pause, in that it got me wondering how often a prospect as young and as highly touted as Berrios has ever been that helpless on a mound. My hope was that it actually happens quite a bit, and better yet happens quite a bit to prospects who go on to become amazing pitchers. But… well, it doesn't.
Here's the complete list of pitchers since 1995 who've been knocked out of a start in the first inning while allowing seven or more runs before turning 22 years old:
That's it. That's the whole list. Three times in two-plus decades.
I suppose the good news for Berrios–as long as he's into making sweeping pronouncements based on minuscule sample sizes, and really who isn't?–is that half of the previous pitchers to crack that list went on to be the MVP of the World Series. In fact, one night after Berrios' hideous start, Madison Bumgarner tossed an 11-strikeout shutout of the Padres to lower his career ERA to 3.01. He turned out just fine.
Hayden Penn? Not so much. Penn was a consensus top-100 prospect in multiple seasons and debuted for the Orioles in 2005 at age 20. He was out of the majors for good at age 25 and finished his big-league career with a 9.51 ERA in 82 innings. That means his career was 8.71 in all the starts that weren't the disaster we're talking about right now. This is the point at which I would advise Berrios that, contrary to what he may have thought while reading the previous paragraph, sample sizes this small should not be trusted for much of anything.
In an effort to expand the sample size a bit, let's change the qualifications for "young pitchers getting clobbered shortly after being called up." Berrios was 21 years old and making his fourth career start Monday when he allowed seven runs in two-thirds of an inning. So, how about a list of every pitcher since 1995 knocked out of a start in the first inning while allowing five or more runs before turning 23 years old. And let's toss in the additional qualifier that it had to be one of the first 10 outings of their career. In parentheses, we note the pitchers who were immediately sent down after their disaster starts:
- Jose Berrios, 2016 (Demoted)
- Trevor Bauer, 2013 (Demoted)
- Brandon Maurer, 2013
- Jesse Litsch, 2007 (Demoted)
- Hayden Penn, 2006
- Chad Durbin, 2000 (Demoted)
- C.J. Nitkowski, 1995
Bumgarner disappears, because his Berrios-like disastrous start came in his 37th career game. By that point he was already established as a really good pitcher and a big part of the Giants' long-term plans, whereas Berrios was probably still living out of the suitcase that he schlepped back to Rochester. The list that remains is an underwhelming mix of busts, injury flameouts, and guys mediocre enough to stick around as back-of-the-rotation starters and middle relievers once it became clear they weren’t going to be impact arms. Most of all, it’s a very short list.
Trevor Bauer stands out as the most recent apt comparison to Berrios. Bauer, like Berrios, was a first-round pick and top prospect who cracked the top-25 on our list in 2012 and 2013. He debuted for the Diamondbacks as a 21-year-old in 2012 before being traded to the Indians that offseason. In his fourth Indians start–and eighth career start overall–Bauer recorded two outs and allowed five runs against the White Sox, on June 28. He was immediately demoted to the minors, where he stayed for the remainder of the season.
Bauer's blowup start may have simply been one very bad day at the office, but it's also possible that it hinted at larger issues holding him back from developing into the top-of-the-rotation starter many people expected at the time. He's still just 25 years old, so there’s certainly no need to write him off, but Bauer has a 4.44 ERA in 397 innings as a big leaguer and was demoted to the bullpen by the Indians this season before injuries forced him back into the rotation.
Bauer has mostly been held back by his lack of command and spotty control, walking 4.1 batters per nine innings for his career. His raw stuff is good and he's averaged 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, but Bauer simply can't be counted on to throw the ball over the plate. That also makes him very different than Berrios, whose minor-league track record includes just 2.4 walks per nine innings at Double-A and Triple-A. If anything, Berrios is known for having plus command and good control for a 21-year-old. Until he reached the majors, that is. Berrios walked 12 of the 75 batters he faced for the Twins after walking just 25 of the 385 batters he faced at Triple-A.
His stuff was plenty good, with a 93 mph average fastball and a swinging strike rate of 11 percent. He just couldn't throw strikes, with only 43 percent of his offerings in the strike zone. It's hard to know whether to chalk that up to nerves or too much adrenaline or a pitcher merely having a bad four-start stretch, but in addition to not being any good Berrios also wasn't anything like his usual self. In particular he seemed to lack the feel for his off-speed pitches. He hung a lot of breaking balls; his changeup, which has always been billed as a plus offering, was either taken by hitters who weren't even close to fooled or clobbered by hitters who were equally unsurprised.
It’s worth noting that, first-inning knockouts or not, pitchers fail to live up to their hype all the time. In addition to throwing baseballs it’s basically what they do. Come up with any list of young pitchers using just about any qualification and you’ll probably be underwhelmed by their collective career value. Which is why showing patience with young pitchers can be so difficult. They often struggle, sometimes to degrees that make people question why anyone viewed them as having upside in the first place. But it's also true that simply being in the majors at a young age–for instance 21 years old, like Berrios–is in itself a decent sign that the upside exists.
In some cases teams just promote mediocre pitchers too quickly, but most of the time if a prospect gets to the majors at 20 or 21 or 22 it's because they dominated the minors and/or are clearly a special talent. Still, when a pitcher reaches the majors before turning 23 and fails to make it out of the first inning in one of his first 10 starts it certainly leads to lots of overreactions. He stinks. He wasn't ready for the majors. He doesn't have the proper makeup to succeed long term. You know the drill.
In some cases that stuff is true–the young pitcher wasn't good enough and his first-inning clobbering was a red flag that proved predictive. In other cases it was mostly just evidence of a talented young pitcher taking some lumps before eventually settling into a groove as a big leaguer. As a Berrios believer I want to think the latter will be the case, but in looking at the list of names who’ve had similar starts it’s hard not to be swayed at least a little bit by the former.