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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.