Although he was pitching for the Chicago Cubs of manager Leo Durocher at the time of his last appearance in a major league uniform, everyone knows Robbie as the quintessential Whiz Kid of the Philadelphia Phillies. Twenty-three years old and in his third major league season in the summer of 1950, Roberts led the Whiz Kids to the Phillies' first National League pennant in 35 years by defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-1 in 10 innings in the final game of the year, in the process also winning 20 games for the first of six consecutive seasons. Robin Roberts was, quite simply, the finest pitcher to ever come out of the Phillies' farm system.
Roberts also has another distinction. Out of the 46 pitchers who have won 200 or more games in the majors since the end of World War II, he is one of very few who did not struggle at some point early in his career. While it may be a matter of "common knowledge" that "young pitchers will break your heart," this is one nugget of wisdom that is actually true. Even the great starting pitchers, and winning 200 in the post WW2 Era qualifies as at least very good, usually struggle at some point early in their careers. In addition to Roberts, just four other 200-game winners can be said to have NOT had a hard time in their first three seasons. And it's quite a list…
Name (Rookie Age) Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Tom Seaver (22) 122 137 166 Steve Carlton (22) 110 97 164 Whitey Ford (21) 153 123 121 Frank Tanana (20) 111 136 137 Robin Roberts (21) 124 107 135
As their Adjusted ERAs indicate, these guys were all good from the start. (Although Carlton was slightly above the league average ERA in his second year – 1968 – his peripheral stats were excellent.) Seaver, Carlton, Ford and Roberts won't come as a shock… they're all in the Hall of Fame… although some may forget just how good Frank Tanana was before he blew his arm out during the 1978 season at the ripe old age of 24. What may be a shock are some of the pitchers from this time frame who weren't great right from the start.
Roger Clemens (21) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 1984 9-4 133 146 29 126 4.32
A case could be made for qualifying Clemens as the sixth man to the group listed above, but he did give up a lot of hits. Adjusted ERA was 96.
Nolan Ryan (21) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 1968 6-9 134 93 75 133 3.09
Looks pretty good, right? Compare him to Carlton's 1968. Lefty was better… note the K/W ratio. Ryan's reputation for wildness was justified.
Year W-L IP H W K ERA 1968 13-11 232 214 61 162 2.99 Gaylord Perry (23) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 1962 3-1 43 54 14 20 5.23 1963 1-6 76 84 29 52 4.03
Of course, this was before he learned to throw the spitball.
Bob Gibson (24) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 1960 3-6 87 97 48 69 5.61
This was actually Gibson's second year. He'd gone 3-5 with a 3.33 ERA in 76 innings in 1959.
Jim Bunning (23) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 1955 3-5 51 59 32 37 6.35
That's an Adjusted ERA of 60.
These are just a few examples. Don Sutton's Adjusted ERAs in his first three years (ages 21-23) were 110, 79 and 107. Jack Morris' were 115, 90 and 133 from ages 22 to 24. And then there are the much-remarked upon careers of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Maddux went 74, 77, 114 from age 20 to 22, and Glavine went 79, 81, 99 from age 21 to age 23.
Although there's lots of room to argue what constitutes a "great" pitcher and what constitutes "struggling," the point is that, to one degree or another, practically all young (let's say age 25 and younger) starting pitchers are going to go through some difficult patches at some point early in their major league careers.
Which brings us to the 2006 season, and one of the major on-going stories of the current campaign… the plethora of hot young arms. And, not only does there seem to be a potentially great young pitcher on practically every major league staff, but a bunch of young guns are also leading the respective staffs towards the post season – Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano come immediately to mind. Knowing what we know about even great pitchers struggling, and with an eye towards both the immediate future (the next six weeks of the regular season) and the more distant future (the next couple of years), it may be instructive to look at the records of some of the young pitchers who have been much-ballyhooed over the past couple of years.
Possibly the most interesting of this lot is Bonderman. For those with a short memory, recall that he was used for batting practice by the American League during the Tigers' fabled 43-119 campaign of 2003. As a 20-year old rookie during that memorable year, Bonderman came very close to losing 20 games. In fact, he only avoided the stigma that was attached to teammate Mike Maroth because then-manager Alan Trammell pulled him from the starting rotation for a while in September. Here then is the now-23 year old Bonderman's record up to the present…
Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2003 6-19 162 193 58 108 5.56 2004 11-13 184 168 73 168 4.89 2005 14-13 189 199 57 145 4.57 2006 11-5 166 149 46 159 3.69
Bonderman's progression is clear and obvious… he's pretty much gotten better every year, and, more importantly, the beating he took in 2003 didn't ruin him. Another Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine? Possibly.
However, Bonderman's fairly linear progress is not the norm. Indeed, among the current young guns, only the Devil Rays' Scott Kazmir can show a similar progressive track. Although he was cruelly treated (most due to his own wildness) in 33 innings as a 20-year old first-time major leaguer in 2004, he has also come around nicely, making the Mets squirm almost every time he goes to the mound.
Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2004 2-3 33 33 21 41 5.67 2005 10-9 186 172 100 174 3.77 2006 10-8 139 128 51 155 3.37
Although he still had some control issues in 2005, Kazmir has dramatically improved his K/W ratio this year, as well as successively lowering his ERA. An whatever happened to Victor Zambrano, anyway?
While Bonderman and Kazmir may no longer be as green as they once were, there's a good chance that the Pittsburgh Pirates are green over their success. Remember just last year? For that matter, remember during Spring Training of this year? Everyone was talking about the Buccos' young pitchers. Zack Duke, Paul Maholm, Oliver Perez, Ian Snell. Well, a lot of people are still talking… but for the wrong reason.
Zach Duke (23) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2005 8-2 86 79 23 58 1.81 2006 8-10 159 193 55 89 4.99 Paul Maholm (24) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2005 3-1 41 31 17 26 2.18 2006 5-10 141 167 65 91 4.58 Oliver Perez (24) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2002 4-5 90 71 48 94 3.50 2003 4-10 128 129 77 141 5.47 2004 12-10 196 145 81 239 2.99 2005 7-5 103 102 70 97 5.85 2006 2-10 76 88 51 61 6.63 Ian Snell (24) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2004 0-1 12 14 9 9 7.50 2005 1-2 42 43 24 34 5.14 2006 10-8 139 152 52 122 4.67
If anyone would have predicted prior to the start of the current season that Ian Snell would become the Pirates' de facto ace by August, and that Oliver Perez would be sent to the minors and then unceremoniously shipped off to the Mets… well, no one would have predicted that, even given the realization that young pitchers are erratic and unpredictable. Although the odds would seem to be against four young pitchers all struggle at once, the fact that they have struggled isn't a shock. Now that's not to say that Duke, who has shown some signs of coming around, won't become a long-term good pitcher. Or that Perez will make the Mets look good, and the Pirates look bad for getting tired of his roller coaster approach to pitching and giving up on him.
This may seem like picking on the Pirates, but they're just the most notable example of this phenomenon during 2006. At least four more young pitchers who had some noted success in the past have also had a hard time this year.
Dontrelle Willis (24) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2003 14-6 162 148 58 142 3.31 2004 10-11 197 210 61 139 4.02 2005 22-10 236 213 55 170 2.63 2006 7-10 165 185 63 114 4.14
For all the fuss that was raised almost from the start of the 2006 season regarding whether or nor Willis was on the trading block, the fact is that he's been just like most young pitchers, erratic, throughout his three plus years in the majors. Maybe it's good that some other team didn't give up the farm to the Marlins for him. And maybe it isn't.
Jake Peavy (25) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2002 6-7 98 106 33 90 4.52 2003 12-11 195 173 82 156 4.12 2004 15-6 166 146 53 173 2.27 2005 13-7 203 162 50 216 2.88 2006 6-12 150 144 46 162 4.55
After a two-year learning curve, it looked like Peavy was on his way to becoming one of the National League's aces in 2004 and 2005, to say nothing of being the Padres' ace. Oops! His hits per inning has gone up in 2006, and he's already given up more home runs (19-18) than he did all of last year.
Zack Greinke (22) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2004 8-11 145 143 26 100 3.97 2005 5-17 183 233 53 114 5.80
A fine rookie year, followed by a disaster of a second year. A disaster that may have affected him a lot more than Jeremy Bonderman's rough first year. After going on the DL for psychological reasons in Spring Training, Greinke has yet to return to the Royals. He's currently 7-2 with a 4.36 ERA (82:21 K/W ratio) with the Double A Wichita Linemen (or whatever the Royals' Texas League team is called). As to when he'll be back in the majors., it's hard to say since the Royals were apparently desperate enough for starters to resort to signing Adam Bernero.
Felix Hernandez (20) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2005 4-4 84 61 23 77 2.67 2006 10-10 142 143 51 130 4.50
Last season, everyone knew this kid was going to be the next great pitcher. And maybe he is. But, he's still got some learning to do. Let's see… his hits per inning has gone way up, his strikeout/walk ratio has gone down, and his ERA is almost two runs per game higher. Sounds like a 20-year old pitcher… which actually is one of his best points. Anyone who can pitch that well in the majors at the age of 19 should have a pretty good future, if he stays healthy (always a concern for young pitchers).
There are at least a half dozen team in the majors for whom these tales should stand as a caveat emptor, those being the Tigers, Twins, Angels, Cardinals, Marlins and Phillies. All six have young starting pitchers who have basically not pitched in the majors before this year, and who have shown signs of greatness. Most remarked upon of these are the Tigers' Justin Verlander and the Twins Francisco Liriano.
Justin Verlander (23) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2006 14-6 146 138 45 98 3.14
Although his stats don't position him as a dominating pitcher, he has been very effective. However, the Tigers also felt it necessary to rest him earlier this month for a "fatigued "shoulder." Not a good sign. The Tigers also have another young pitcher who could be mentioned in this discussion, 24-year old Zach Miner (7-3, 4.25 ERA in his first major league season.)
Francisco Liriano (22) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2006 12-3 119 88 32 142 2.19
Liriano is the 2006 version of Felix Hernandez. Except that he's currently on the DL with a muscular inflammation of his elbow, and the Twins don't know if he'll be back to pitch at all this year… although they sure hope so. (This is sometimes called "whistling through the graveyard.") Verlander's and Liriano's problems are indicative of one of the pitfalls of depending on young starters… the attrition rate is very high.
Josh Johnson (22) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2006 11-6 127 105 59 111 2.84
To the surprise of almost everyone but his mother, Johnson is not only pitching better than the aforementioned Dontrelle Willis, but is also leading the National League in ERA. Of course, he only has to look across his own lockeroom to be cautioned on the fragility of such early success.
Anthony Reyes (24) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2006 4-6 65 58 27 44 4.73
Although Reyes has struggled some, and didn't actually start the year with St. Louis, Brian Walton of The Birdhouse (http://stlcardinals.scout.com) files this report on how the year has gone for another young pitcher whose team is depending on his for the postseason.
"One prevailing theory was that he could dominate with a four-seamer in the minors, but not in the majors. So, La Russa and Duncan insist he also uses a two-seamer to keep the ball down. That was supposedly why Reyes didn't make the team out of spring training - to go back to Triple-A to master the two-seamer. That and the big tub of goo also known as Sidney Ponson."
Walton is, if you haven't guessed, your classic proponent of advocacy journalism.
There are also two "pure" rookie starters, who had not appeared in the majors prior to 2006, who are worth mentioning.
Jered Weaver (23) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2006 8-0 71 50 19 58 2.14
Thus far, he looks like the greatest thing since sliced bread, having, among other things, sent his brother Jeff packing to St. Louis (another indication of the Cardinals' need for a good performance out of Reyes.) The main question at this point is, why in the world did the Angels send him back to the minors after he won his first five starts?
Cole Hamels (22) Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2006 5-6 84 71 32 96 4.50
We've come full circle, back to Robin Roberts. Because Cole Hamels is the best pitching prospect to come out of the Phillies' farm system since Robin Roberts. And, no, he's not the only pitching prospect to come out of said system since 1948. He's a better prospect than were… Curt Simmons, Jack Sanford, Art Mahaffey, Chris Short, Rick Wise, Dave Downs, Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven, Tom Underwood, Bob Walk, Marty Bystrom, Tony Ghelfi, Kevin Gross, Bruce Ruffin, Marvin Freeman, Pat Combs, Andy Ashby, Tyler Green, Randy Wolf or Gavin Floyd. (A lot of prospects… not many of them panned out.) Note the strikeouts per inning. Only Liriano and the early version of Oliver Perez among all of the other young pitchers under discussion can match it.
His minor league record, stretching back to 2003 when he was 19, is so good that he could have been declared illegal. (And what you can't see from this line is that he gave up exactly two home runs in those 201 innings.)
Year W-L IP H W K ERA 03-06 14-4 201 117 74 276 1.44
The three games he pitched for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year in Triple A had the International League petitioning the Phillies to get him out of the league.
Year W-L IP H W K ERA 2006 2-0 23 10 1 36 0.39
So what's the story? Why wasn't he in the majors at 19 like Felix Hernandez? Why isn't he as acclaimed as Liriano and Verlander? Injuries. Some baseball related (elbow), some non-baseball-related (back, upper arm, hand). In fact, the Phillies put him on the DL earlier this year after he felt a pop in his shoulder while long-tossing between starts. Prior to the 2006 season, the most innings he had thrown in a single season as a professional was 101, back in 2003. With three stops in the minors in 2006, he's now thrown 133 innings so far this year. And the Phillies will have to continue to be careful with him… something that may be difficult to do, given the Phillies' pitching shorts, and his record in his last four starts.
IP H R ER W K ERA 28 18 5 5 5 34 1.61
And that's not taking into account the 25 he struck out in the 16 innings in his three starts prior to that.
Hamels, a young left-hander who already has good control and who throws a low-90s fastball, a good and improving curve that he's making better use of, and one of the most devastating change-ups seen in many a year (he struck out Ken Griffey, Jr., looking with it in his first game), went through some rough times in June 2006. And, he's very likely to go through some rough times in the future. However, if he stays healthy, given his minor league record and his ability to make batters miss, he could well be the best since Robin Roberts.
A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, John Shiffert's background includes serving as a sportswriter, as sports information director for Earlham College and Drexel University, and as publisher of the Philadelphia Baseball File. He's been director of University Relations at Clayton State University since August 1995.