Few things excite fans more than mega pitching prospects. Sizzling fastball velocity, sinister breaking pitches, off-speed stuff that makes grown men look like dizzy, blindfolded kids slashing at a pinata. Every spring, there’s a short list of elite starting pitching prospects on the cusp of the major leagues who are considered must-haves. It’s hard not to get swept up in the quest to draft The Next Big Thing. Hit on one of these picks, and you’ll not only climb the standings, but you’ll also look cool, trendy and sage. Prophetic, even. I knew he’d be a star right away, you brag to your friends as your young ace crushes their dreams of victory and empties their pockets.
That’s if putting down a high pick on that top starting prospect works out, however. And, as anyone who once saw stardom for the likes of Nick Neugebauer, Carlos Hernandez or Adam Loewen can tell you, young arms are anything but predictable. For every Stephen Strasburg, there are dozens of Jesse Fopperts and John Van Benschotens.
To add some clarity to the top pitching prospect conundrum, I sought to answer the following question: Just how good are these young guns during their first extended run in the major leagues? Do they tend to dominate from Day One, or are they merely average? Answering that question goes a long way toward determining when to pop that elite pitching prospect.
Here’s how I tried to answer that question. I found all starting pitching prospects ranked in the top 25 on Baseball America’s annual Top 100 Prospects List between 2002 and 2011. Then, I compiled their numbers during their first major league season in which they threw 50+ innings as a starter. Fifty is an admittedly arbitrary cutoff, but it gives us a list of pitchers who saw extensive time in the big leagues.
In all, we have a list of 43 starting pitching prospects who tossed a combined 5,165.2 innings pitched. Here’s a look at how these uber-starting prospects fared in terms of strikeouts, walks and home runs per nine innings pitched, as well as ERA- and FIP-:
Performance of Top 25 Starting Pitching Prospects During First 50+ IP Season, 2002-2011
Over the past decade, the average K/9 rate for starting pitchers has increased (from 6.2 in 2002 to 6.75 last season), and the averages for BB/9 (3.17 in ’02, 2.85 in ’11) and HR/9 (1.1 in ’02, 0.98 in ’11) have decreased. But in general, we can say that top-shelf starting prospects getting their first extended trial in the majors strike out plenty of batters, show below-average control and serve up homers at around a league average rate. That makes for a slightly better than average starter overall, as the adjusted ERA and FIP numbers attest.
To put these numbers in less abstract terms, the average top-25 starting pitching prospect (as ranked by Baseball America) tends to resemble an Edwin Jackson or Chad Billingsley-type during their first season logging more than a handful of starts in the majors. That’s certainly useful, but it might give you pause before you spend a high pick on a young arm, expecting that he’ll be an ace from the get-go.
By no means should you ignore the likes of Matt Moore, Julio Teheran, Jacob Turner, Manny Banuelos and other top-shelf starting prospects who have a chance to crack their respective teams’ rotations early in 2012. But if you’re drafting these guys over more established, elite starters, you might be disappointed.
Here’s the full list of top-25 BA starting prospects from 2002-2011. Expect to see a post looking at the performance of top-25 hitting prospects either later this week or the middle of next week.
* Liriano and Chamberlain also pitched a significant number of innings in relief; only their innings as starters are included on this list
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.