- FanGraphs Fantasy Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy -

The Recent History Of Baseball’s Best Pitching Prospect

Now that Matt Garza has been shipped to Chicago’s north side, we know for (almost) certain that Jeremy Hellickson will start the season in Tampa’s five-man rotation. The 23-year-old (24 in April) made four spot starts and six relief appearances for the big league team last year, pitching to a 3.88 FIP (3.47 ERA) with 8.17 K/9 and 1.49 uIBB/9 in 36.1 IP. He was a little homer prone, giving up five in those innings (1.24 HR/9), but that’s to be expected from a rookie in the AL East.

Fan projections are pretty optimistic about Hellickson in 2011. They have him posting a 3.50 FIP (8.64 K/9, 2.32 BB/9) in 151 IP, a projection more favorable than those of Wandy Rodriguez and Josh Beckett. By all accounts, Hellickson is the top pitching prospect in baseball, though a case can be made for Aroldis Chapman. Since the Reds appear to be keeping the latter in the bullpen for the time being, I suspect the one they call Hellboy will get the nod.

Let’s take a look back at last five guys to be named the best pitching prospect in the game according to Baseball America, and see how they fared in their rookie season…

Pre-2010: Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg started the season in the minors before coming up in early June, famously striking out 14 Pirates in his first big league outing. His overall body of work was brilliant before the elbow ligament gave out, a 2.91 ERA (2.08 FIP) with 12.18 K/9 and 2.25 uIBB/9 in 68 IP (a dozen starts).

Pre-2009: David Price
Following a fantastic debut late in the 2008 season and continuing on into the playoffs, Price started the 2009 season back in the minors before resurfacing in late-May. He made 23 starts the rest of the way, pitching to a 4.42 ERA (4.59 FIP) with 7.15 K/9 and 3.79 uIBB/9 in 128.1 IP. Price struggled with high pitch counts and homers (1.19 HR/9), two things he corrected en route to being a Cy Young Award candidate in his sophomore campaign.

Pre-2008: Joba Chamberlain
Like Price, Joba was brilliant in a late season cameo (as a reliever) the year before being named the best pitching prospect in the game. The Yankees had him start the 2008 season in the bullpen before making a somewhat arduous transition to the rotation in late-May. The process was worth it, because Chamberlain posted a 2.76 ERA (~2.88 FIP) with 10.19 K/9, 3.17 uIBB/9, and 0.55 HR/9 in a dozen starts (65.1 IP) before hitting the disabled list for a month with shoulder fatigue. He finished the season back in the bullpen.

Right behind Joba on BA’s ranking was another AL East right-hander, Clay Buchholz. He did the reverse Price, starting the season in the majors before being demoted back to the minors. In 15 starts and one relief appearance (76 IP), Buchholz had a 6.75 ERA (4.82 FIP) with 8.53 K/9 and 4.74 uIBB/9.

Pre-2007: Phil Hughes
The youngest of the group, Hughes was just 20-year-old when BA dubbed him the game’s best mound prospect. He started the year in Triple-A before coming up in late-April. Hughes blew out his hamstring in his second start, keeping him on the shelf for almost three months. Overall, his rookie season featured a 4.46 ERA (4.35 FIP) with 7.18 K/9, 3.59 BB/9, and 0.99 HR/9 in 72.2 IP (13 starts).

Homer Bailey was right behind Hughes on BA’s list, and he made nine generally poor starts with the Reds that year (45.1 IP, 5.76 ERA, 4.92 FIP, 5.56 K/9, 5.36 uIBB/9). And just FYI, I’m not counting Daisuke Matsuzaka here. He was BA’s top prospect that year, but I don’t think anyone really considered him a rookie.

Pre-2006: Francisco Liriano
Liriano was the Strasburg of the mid-aughts. He made a few appearances in 2005 before really breaking out in 2006, when he started the season as a reliever before forcing his way into the rotation. His 121 IP were split between 16 starts and a dozen relief appearances, featuring a 2.16 ERA (2.55 FIP) with 10.71 K/9, 2.38 uIBB/9, and 0.67 HR/9. Like Strasburg, a tore elbow ligament ended the honeymoon prematurely.

* * *

The performances of the last five number one pitching prospects (and two runners up) is a bit of a mixed bag, some were great and others simply weren’t. If we take a completely unscientific approach and combine the rookie performances of everyone mentioned above, we get a 3.90 ERA (~3.60 FIP) with 9.03 K/9, 3.46 uIBB/9, 0.85 HR/9, and a 1.29 WHIP, a fine overall body of work. Almost 200 IP of Strasburg and Liriano really skew the data, though.

I’ve already pledged to not draft an AL East rookie starter this year, but if you’re going to take one, grab Hellickson. Just remember that his greatness is far from a sure thing, so don’t reach too much on draft day.

Submit your fan projection for Hellickson here.