Young Pitchers Making Their Mark

Across the sport, the majors are in the midst of a renaissance of incredible young starting pitching. To merely name Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg as elite under-26 talents is to neglect the work of Madison Bumgarner, Shelby Miller, Matt Moore, Chris Sale and so many outstanding others.

But those are the big names, the ones who win awards and headline highlight packages. Everyone knows them. While the attention is mostly given to those top-line pitchers, there’s an impressive crop of young arms behind them who may not be future aces in the sense that Fernandez and Harvey might be, yet are still making names for themselves at the beginning of what could be very productive careers. Let’s shine a spotlight on four under-the-radar pitchers who are excelling this season.

Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets
While all of the pitching press in Flushing these days goes to Harvey and Zack Wheeler, the Mets do have a pitcher younger than Harvey who was in the big leagues before he or Wheeler were even in the organization. Mejia was rushed to the show as a reliever in 2010 at just 20 years old by the previous administration, perhaps trying to generate some excitement while fearing (correctly) that their tenure was ending. Mejia had been a starter in the minors and a nicely regarded prospect, but struggled with his command out of the bullpen that season while throwing nearly 80 percent fastballs — which did little for the development of his secondary pitches. He then blew out his elbow early the next season and missed most of 2011 and 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Once again healthy, Mejia — still just 23 — has returned to the Mets and has been very impressive in doing so. He shut out the Nationals in Washington over seven innings in his season debut in July and in his first four starts he’s managed a 22/3 K/BB mark in 24.1 innings. He’s also brought with him a brand-new slider, one that he’s thrown about a quarter of the time this season. That’s allowed him to use his naturally cutting fastball less often and keep hitters off guard. While there’s still a chance that a somewhat undersized righty with an injury history ends up in the bullpen, the thought of Mejia joining with Harvey and Wheeler to form a young powerful rotation trio for years to come has to give Mets fans some hope.

Tony Cingrani, Cincinnati Reds
A third-round pick in 2011, the 24-year-old Rice product has done nothing but pile up absurd strikeout numbers during his professional career. In 228 minor league innings over parts of the last three seasons, he whiffed 301, then made his big league debut last September just over a year after being drafted.

Cingrani relies almost exclusively on his fastball, leading many to believe that his future is in the bullpen, but 14 of his 19 appearances for Cincinnati this season have been starts, and he’s looked excellent in them. In seven starts since a brief trip to the bullpen in June, Cingrani has allowed just a .164/.265/.250 line while striking out 45 in 40 innings. A particular highlight came on July 28, when he struck out 11 otherwise unstoppable Dodgers over seven shutout one-hit innings.

Despite the reliance on his main pitch — the fastball that succeeds in part because of his deceptive delivery — Cingrani has shown no problem with missing bats so far. His swinging strike percentage of 9.6 percent not only ranks him in the top 40 of all starters, but it puts him slightly ahead of young stars like Fernandez and Miller. Still, he’ll need to increase his offerings if he plans to stay in the rotation long term, and he’s begun to do that by introducing a new sweeping curveball this season. While it’s more of a “show-me” pitch at this point designed more to keep batters thinking than anything else, he’s also yet to allow a hit off it on any of the 68 times he’s thrown it.

Nate Eovaldi, Miami Marlins
Acquired from Los Angeles in the deal that sent Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers last year, the 23-year-old Eovaldi is perhaps best known for being a product of the same Texas high school that Nolan Ryan attended. That’s beginning to change, however. Eovaldi is now hitting triple digits on the radar gun and showing flashes of the talent that made him so appealing to the Marlins when they were shopping Ramirez.

Eovaldi’s career numbers may look underwhelming, but it’s important to remember that he was just 21 when the Dodgers skipped him past Triple-A to help reinforce a tattered rotation in 2011. He flashed potential in 16 starts with Los Angeles over 2011-12 before being traded, though he generally struggled with his control. Still, a FIP of 4.18 through 154 innings over his first two seasons put him at only slightly below league average, which was 4.01 last season. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an average major leaguer before your 23rd birthday.

A bout with shoulder soreness delayed his 2013 debut until June. But in the 10 starts since, he’s allowed more than three runs just once. While his 3.83 FIP doesn’t quite back up his 2.82 ERA, it does continue his trend of improvement each year. As with many young pitchers, Eovaldi needs to improve his secondary pitches, though his slider is showing promise. Eovaldi’s ceiling is short of an “ace,” but with fellow young pitching talents like Fernandez and Jacob Turner in the Miami rotation, it doesn’t need to be.

Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
This could have just as easily been 25-year-old Alex Cobb or 24-year-old Alex Colome, because the Rays are just overflowing with young pitching. (Even Moore, in the Cy Young conversation until he was sidelined by a sore elbow, only just turned 24.) The twice-traded Archer is the proud owner of one of the most impressive outings from any pitcher this season: a two-hit, 1-0 shutout of the Yankees in New York in late July.

Armed with a solid fastball and an excellent slider, Archer still needs to master his consistency, since he’s allowed four or more earned runs three times in 14 starts and left early with an injury in another. Still, he’s also capable of doing things like allowing only three earned runs in five July starts. He is part of the young core that makes the possibility of trading David Price a palatable option.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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