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I try to catch every starting pitcher's big-league debut or, failing that, one of their first few starts. It's a good way to get familiar with everyone's stuff and approach, and I like seeing how rookies react to the stress and pressure of their first game.

I've done this for about four years now, and I’ve noticed a few patterns. First, almost to a man, these guys are pulsating with adrenaline. Not surprisingly, they tend to overthrow, frequently missing with their offspeed pitches and often sitting a couple miles per hour higher than they normally do. I’ve also found it amusing that umpires will sometimes stop the game after the first pitch so that certain pitchers can keep the ball for a souvenir (Jameson Taillon) but not others (sorry, Adrian Sampson). Finally, particularly if a pitcher speaks English, you’ll get the obligatory interview with his parents. Most of these are run-of-the-mill awkward mid-game interviews, but occasionally you’ll hear a gem; Zack Godley’s parents are hilarious.

In 2016, I’ve noticed another trend: as a class, rookie pitchers this year simply look less prepared for the brights lights than in years past. Obviously, that’s a loaded statement, and it’s certainly not true in every case. Michael Fulmer has been outstanding, Blake Snell has pitched very well, Tyler Anderson is thriving in Colorado, etc.

But a closer look suggests that this observation is more than a drunken hiccup. Take a look at a table of some basic numbers from rookie starters over the last four years:

GS

IP/Start

SO/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

2013

4862

5.9

7.19

2.83

1.01

4.01

2014

4860

5.97

7.36

2.69

0.91

3.82

2015

4848

5.81

7.40

2.72

1.06

4.10

2016

3232

5.74

7.93

2.97

1.21

4.32

Now, the numbers above haven’t been adjusted to reflect the higher scoring environment we’ve seen this season, so the difference isn’t quite as dramatic as it may look. That said, rookie starters are accruing fewer WAR per start than in any of the past four seasons, and they aren’t working quite as deep into games either. We also haven’t reached September yet, a month where we can expect a number of teams to rely on particularly green farmhands to get through the season. On top of that, many of the rookies who are throwing the ball well this year (including Jon Gray, Zach Davies, and Steven Matz) debuted last season; it’s the guys who are coming up for the first time who look relatively unprepared.

It's possible that I'm just spinning my wheels: rookies have always had less command, less feel for their breaking stuff, and a more immature approach than veterans. That holds now, just as it did in 2010 and 1960. But there are a number of top prospects who have struggled initially, and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a couple of them and examine whether their issues are emblematic of a larger trend.

Tyler Glasnow: Universally considered a top-15 prospect, and often ranked higher than that, Glasnow struggled in two starts before succumbing to a shoulder injury. His bread and butter is a mid-90s fastball and an 11-5 power curve that’s meant to generate whiffs from hitters on either side of the plate. He also has a changeup. The raw stuff is tantalizing, but his execution of it in two starts revealed an immature approach and an arsenal that needs refinement.

Glasnow throws hard, and with his big frame, he can reach 95 mph without much effort. At 6-foot-8 though, he's huge, and not surprisingly, he has trouble aligning his upper and lower halves. His control isn't particularly good, to say nothing of his command. His average fastball is 93.8 mph so far, which is fast, if not top shelf. His curve is sharp, and when he throws it for strikes, it's a nice of change of pace, about 15 mph off the fastball. He doesn't always throw it for strikes, however, and he hasn't been able to induce big-league hitters to chase it off the plate. Between that and his unwillingness to use his change (it's not very good right now and he threw only two in his first two starts), hitters can sit on one pitch and they can afford to wait him out until he throws it. The result is a lot of deep counts, plenty of walks, and more balls in play than you'd expect from a guy with his fastball-curve combination.

This isn't to crush Glasnow going forward, although I don't think his ascension to the top of a big-league rotation should be treated as a formality. Those who know him best were bearish on his prospects for helping the Pirates in 2016, so his MLB struggles shouldn't be a great surprise. All of this does get back to my original point though: if he wasn't ready to help, why was he brought up? His BB/9 was over 4.5 and he isn't comfortable using his changeup; his sub-2.00 ERA in Triple-A papered over the fact that he was very green and had a ton of development left ahead of him at that level.

Julio Urias: After a rough debut, Urias was actually pretty good in June and July. He throws hard, he's left-handed, the curve is a weapon, and he struck out well over a batter per inning across nine starts. More than Glasnow, I feel comfortable saying he has a very bright future.

That's the good news. All of the concerns related to his durability, however, remain. Through nine outings, he averaged fewer than five innings per start, and he completed six frames only once. The Dodgers notoriously babied his pitch counts as he climbed through the minors, and for the most part, that pattern continued in the majors. He did reach 100 pitches once, and he wasn't efficient in his other outings, reaching the 70s in fewer than five innings on four occasions. After two poor outings to begin his career, he was effective, although it's fair to wonder how much of his success stemmed from not having to turn over the lineup three times; he only faced more than 21 hitters twice.

Urias is clearly good enough to get big leaguers out right now, but even a team torpedoed by injuries can't afford to burn the bullpen every five days in accordance with his pitch limitations. He fits better on a big-league roster as a vintage long reliever, a pitcher capable of tossing several innings once a week. That role probably provides the best of both worlds for keeping him healthy and letting him develop against the best hitters on the planet, although it doesn't seem that the Dodgers are interested in the idea.

Using him in the rotation is more than a little unconventional; more than any pitcher in recent memory, Urias cannot (or is not allowed to) meet the basic workload expectations required of a big league starter. Has there ever been a starter expected to carry less of an innings burden?

Cody Reed: Reed's approach in the minors and his first big-league starts was simple: mix 93-mph heaters with plus sliders. The southpaw recorded a bunch of swings and misses with both—they're both very good pitches, and the slider in particular has some wicked vertical movement—but like with Glasnow, the predictability of his arsenal led to a battering. Righties in particular had nothing to fear from his offspeed, as the only way he could steal a strike with anything but a fastball was with a backdoor slider.

Reed has already started making adjustments: he's incorporated a 90-mph cutter, and he does a good job of tucking that pitch under the hands of right-handed bats. He's also leaning more on his changeup. Despite it's reputation, his change is not a bad pitch, as it features fading action and he throws it with decent arm speed. Still, his command wavers over the course of games, and he's still refining his new pitch mix. It's also not clear that he'll be able to solve righties: so far they're hitting .317 and slugging nearly .600 against him. There's a lot to like here, but again, it's worth asking why the changeup (or the cutter) wasn't more of a developmental goal in Triple-A, and why he was summoned to the majors before the pitch was ready.

With each passing year, teams treat their young pitchers with more caution than ever before. This can be seen in everything from Urias’ usage pattern, to the Aaron-Sanchez-to-the-bullpen discussion that drew so much ire in recent weeks, to the shutdowns so common throughout the industry. Teams are particularly protective of their top farmhands, and perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve seen a number of them struggle when pressed into duty this season.

Any team restricting a pitcher’s workload is doing so with the player’s best intentions in mind. These development decisions come at a price though, and the cost comes in the form of refinement. Every 20 innings a pitcher doesn’t throw are 20 innings where they can’t work on their changeup, can’t learn how to attack hitters without a platoon advantage, can’t push themselves through a lineup a third time as physical and mental fatigue begin to set in. And so, faced with the inevitable pressure to promote their top farmhands whenever a rotation spot opens up, teams are letting potentially impact pieces take their lumps. Whether this approach provides an opportunity for on-the-job learning or merely stagnates a player’s development process largely depends on the individual pitcher: his attributes, his pitching acumen, his tolerance for failure in the name of development. It’s hard to say whether this is a blip or part of an emerging trend. What is clear is that promoting players before they’re ready is a development risk, and it’s a bit odd to see teams that wouldn’t dream of exposing their young hurlers to 110 pitches or a large innings bump embrace a different kind of developmental gamble.

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frank522
8/14
Tangential to this article, but why are taller pitchers less able to control their bodies? It seems intuitive that people should be able to control the bodies they have and grow into. But maybe taller people have more to learn as their bodies change more? Has anyone done work on this question?