News Flash: Rookie Pitchers Are Fickle

Quick note – Frankie Piliere couldn’t make his regularly scheduled chat this week, but we’re making it up to you with our first ever NotGraphs chat at 2 pm eastern, featuring Carson Cistulli and Dayn Perry. You won’t want to miss that.

The newest awesome feature rolled out here on FanGraphs this morning – the ability to sort the leaderboards by rookie qualification, which opens up the door for a lot of exploration. Now you can easily check and see whether a Rookie Of The Year deserved his trophy, which seasons had the best crops of rookies (yes, last year was ridiculous, and now we can prove it), or compare rookie seasons from different years side by side.  That was one of the first things I did.

Using the split multi-season feature as well, it was a snap to generate a list of the best rookie position players from 2000 to 2010. Pujols and Ichiro top the list with their insane 2001 seasons, and then you start to get into the who’s who of great young players in baseball right now – Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, Jason Heyward, Ryan Zimmerman, Hanley Ramirez, Joey Votto, Buster Posey, etc… Sure, there are some guys in there who peaked early and never lived up to the hype – hello, Austin Kearns! – but by and large, the guys who had great rookie years generally have gone on to become perennial All-Stars and MVP candidates.

Then you click on the pitching tab at the top to see the same list, but focused on the guys on the mound. With Brandon Webb and Roy Oswalt, we’re off to a pretty good start, as both developed into elite pitchers. Francisco Liriano got sidetracked by injuries, but his 2010 showed that he wasn’t just a one year wonder. And then… it get’s a little disheartening.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Scott Kazmir, Chris Young, Gustavo Chacin, Dontrelle Willis, Chuck Smith (!)… sure, these guys have had a variety of problems so there’s not one underlying issue that took all of them out, but that’s a lot of guys who peaked in their first or second years in the big leagues all bundled together. And it doesn’t end there – for nearly every pitcher who turned into something, there’s a guy who had an equivalent rookie season who never got any better.

Seriously, look at 2006 Justin Verlander and 2009 Jeff Niemann and try to tell them apart. Same innings total, same K/9, same BB/9, same GB% – both were early first round picks who were good but not amazing as rookies. Verlander has since become much better, while Niemann has regressed. Tim Lincecum was great as a rookie, but was basically matched by Rick Ankiel, and we know what happened there. Randy Wells, meet Jae Seo.

The hitters have Kearns, Eric Hinske, and Lew Ford, but for pitchers, that kind of career almost seems to be the norm. You have to hunt and peck to find guys who actually developed into more than what they were their first season. A big part of that is injuries, of course, and I’m not breaking any ground by noting that pitchers get hurt with great frequency, but even setting aside the health problems, there are quite a few pitchers who came up, were good once, and then got worse in a hurry.

The old adage is that there’s no more valuable property in baseball than good young pitching, but really, the evidence suggests that there’s no more fickle a property in baseball. The Giants have had success building around a group of talented young arms, but as these lists show, that’s not normal. If you get five good rookie pitchers, odds are about two of them are going to have good, long careers in the big leagues.

For hitters, guys who come up and do well and then turn into busts are the exception. On the pitching side of things, they’re the norm. It’s yet another reminder that we should temper our enthusiasm about the future of good young pitchers – they could blow up at any moment.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


40 Responses to “News Flash: Rookie Pitchers Are Fickle”

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  1. Telo says:

    “The old adage is that there’s no more valuable property in baseball than good young pitching, but really, the evidence suggests that there’s no more fickle a property in baseball.”

    When you create an adage, then refute it with qualitative observations aka “evidence”, anything is possible!

    Pitchers are

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  2. Ryan says:

    So you’re saying the Pirates should take Rendon over Cole.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Not necessarily. The moral of the story can’t be, “don’t waste draft picks on pitchers, and don’t waste free agency money on pitchers.” A team still needs to get pitchers from *somewhere*, and the draft is more cost effective and less risky than free agency.

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      • lexomatic says:

        You left out one way of acquiring pitchers: trade.
        Therefore, you CAN have the moral be to not waste money on pitchers both in the draft and in free agency.

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      • quincy0191 says:

        There’s also a difference between wasting a draft pick and using a draft pick. I’d say in the Rendon/Cole situation, the players’ upside is so similar that the security of Rendon makes him a better choice, but sometimes the best pick left is a pitcher. And that leaves out what I would do, which is go for position players early and take a bunch of fliers on pitchers in the middle rounds. Grab a bunch of arms in rounds 4-10 and see what sticks.

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  3. Yirmiyahu says:

    Wasn’t there a study done showing that (even accounting for injuries), young pitchers don’t actually improve at all as they mature/age. Unlike young hitters.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Yep – pitcher aging curves are actually pretty flat. Velocity declines almost as soon as a pitcher appears in the big league (for most, not all, but it’s true for the population as a whole), and it seems like the things that can be learned about pitching just offset the loss of pure stuff.

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  4. Norm says:

    Cool…just need to throw in some selections boxes for age range!

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  5. dusters says:

    Why do you not include Ryan braun or Prince Fielder on your list of great young players?

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  6. JDSussman says:

    “The old adage is that there’s no more valuable property in baseball than good young pitching, but really, the evidence suggests that there’s no more fickle a property in baseball.”

    IMHO, the evidence suggests that young pitchers are fickle, not that *good* young pitchers are fickle.

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    • steex says:

      It takes hindsight to tell the difference, though. The point of the article is that all of these young pitchers looked good initially. Immediately following their full rookie campaigns, how would we have known to consider Niemann a regular young pitcher and Verlander a *good* young pitcher?

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      • JDSussman says:

        Steex, could you not say that about every rookie?

        Player’s performances ebb and flow, period. Just off the top of my head I can think of several position players who after their rookie year people thought they would be good, and turned out not to be (Jeff Francouer, Terrance Long, Angel Berroa,Bobby Crosby).

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        JD, the point of the article is that that happens with pitchers much more often than with position players.

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      • JDSussman says:

        Yirmiyahu, I get that. I was responding to Steex’s hindsight concern. Also, I don’t think Dave was treating this as a conclusive study, just a neat observation.

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      • steex says:

        When I see that statement “the evidence suggests that there’s no more fickle a property in baseball [than good young pitching],” I read that to mean young pitching that is good at the time, not young pitching that would be looked upon as good in retrospect. So if we’re going to disagree and attempt to say that young pitching is fickle, but *good* young pitching is not, it seems like we can only come to that conclusion relying on hindsight.

        Obviously looking at a sample of only pitchers who had sustained good careers is not going to yield any pitchers who flamed out after their rookie seasons – only people who were good as rookies or potentially less than stellar and improved. The same selection bias would of course exist for position players if you only take successful players are your baseline.

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  7. ltdm206 says:

    Great article! :) Thanks Dave!

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  8. Mike says:

    Austin Kearns actually continued to be a productive player: in his highest season he had 4.2 WAR compared to his rookie 5.0 and in his three best years after his rookie year, he accumulated 9.8 WAR. So even though he’s barely making it now, he also had years that could be predicted from his great rookie year. It looks like injuries took him down.

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  9. Preston says:

    “The old adage is that there’s no more valuable property in baseball than good young pitching, but really, the evidence suggests that there’s no more fickle a property in baseball.”

    That’s why the adage is true. If you find a great young position player he’s going to be there for six years, and if you sign him to an extension it’s likely he can man that spot into his 30’s. No pressing need to develop a new one. But because teams constantly need to recycle pitchers, pitching prospects become more valuable. Free agency is expensive and risky, trading for proven starting pitchers usually mortgages your teams future. So the best, most cost affective way to get good pitchers is by having a lot of young talent from the draft and amateur signings. Although easier said than done (unless you’re the Rays).

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  10. urchman says:

    Since WAR is dependent upon playing time and many rookie pitchers (for example Felix) get called up later in the year, I found it interesting to sort the list by FIP rather than WAR, with a reasonable minimum number of innings piched, say 50.

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    • AlanSP says:

      That was exactly the same thought I had. A guy like Gustavo Chacin ends up high on the WAR list basically by being slightly above average for over 200 innings. Ditto with Daisuke.

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  11. AlanSP says:

    I think there’s a key point you’re missing in this analysis, which is that, if WAR is your measuring stick, the top rookie pitchers aren’t nearly as good as the top rookie hitters, even as rookies.

    That star-studded cast of rookie hitters all had WARs of at least 4, and the few pitchers in that area look pretty good as well (Webb, Oswalt, Liriano).

    The pitchers you’re bringing up as examples of rookie pitchers being fickle are all in the 3-4 WAR range. Here are the hitters in the same range:

    Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Dustin Pedroia, Austin Jackson, Lew Ford, Rafael Furcal, Scott Podsednik, Marlon Byrd, Joe Mauer, Ike Davis, Jody Geirut, Andrew McCutchen, Kenji Johjima, Freddy Sanchez, Tadahito Iguchi, Elvis Andrus, Khalil Green, Jeff Francoeur.

    There are handful of stars in that group, along with a few players who are too young to judge yet and a bunch of guys who had fairly little success afterward. That’s pretty similar to what you see with the pitchers in the same range.

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  12. 81 says:

    When does the “pitchers are fickle” line end and the “how we scout and project pitchers is flawed” line begin?

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