WTNYMarch 11, 2005
Ups and Downs
By Bryan Smith

TINSTAPP. This is the idea that pitching prospects are always overrated, that their volatility is too large to be able to closely predict future greatness. The term has been overused over the last few years, has been taken out of context, and also has been dismissed by yours truly.

Do I completely reject the theories it presents? No, there is undoubtedly some validity to the idea. But at the same time, any prospect evaluator would be remiss to claim weakness in a player just for throwing off a mound.

This week, the Cleveland Indians discovered that my second ranked pitching prospect, Adam Miller, would be sidelined until June with an elbow injury. Luckily, Adam is avoiding Tommy John surgery, though he's hardly assured that he won't go under the knife at some point. Injuries are the most unfortunate of event for a player like this, a kid that touched triple digits and then spotted a change twenty miles per hour slower.

The aforementioned volatility causes pitching prospects to go in all sorts of directions. Baseball America released a really fun feature this week, looking at their various top 100 prospect lists since 1990. This allows us to go back to, say 1996, and see that the top five pitching prospects were Paul Wilson, Alan Benes, Livan Hernandez, Jason Schmidt and Matt Drews, respectively. Talk about a wide range of results, huh?

Today, I want to look at three players that have each been top five pitching prospects in their career, and try to evaluate their future going forward. All of these players were expected to don their organizations Major League uniform this season, one as early as Opening Day, one from the bullpen, and one at some point to a hero's welcome.

Zack Greinke, Rick Ankiel, Felix Hernandez. Talk about a wide range.

  • Wednesday, it was learned that Rick Ankiel, BA's top pitching prospect in 1999, would give up pitching to become an outfielder. After a successful but erratic winter in Puerto Rico, Ankiel said that, "The whole time, the frustration that was built up, it seems like it was really eroding my spirit."

    Ankiel's past is well-documented, he came to the Majors at 19 in 1999, as St. Louis' prized jewel. His 2000 season was fantastic, 175 innings with an ERA+ of 133. And then the 2000 playoffs, Steve Blass struck, and Ankiel could not find the strike zone. 2001 was a disaster, as a clouded mind and damaged arm forced a fall from grace that no one would have predicted.

    But, Rick Ankiel's mind was not as weak as some made it out to be. Last September, Ankiel re-emerged as I called it "one of the best baseball stories of the year." Rich watched his first game, and said of it, "you didn't have to be a Cardinal fan to get caught up in the moment." Back was that mid-90s fastball, the Zito-esque curveball. Most importantly, back was the called strike. No more.

    Now the only called strike in Ankiel's future will be a bad thing, he'll be hoping for balls to end up at backstops. Ankiel will be in the batter's box, a place where he's not quite as bad as you'd expect. In the last thirty years, 19 players have had between 50 and 100 at-bats at the age of 20. Ankiel did so in 2000, hitting .250/.292/.282. That just so happens to be the 10th best of those 19 players, smack dab in between Dale Murphy and Jim Thome.

    OK, ok, I know I just lost some credibility throwing those two names out there. He's not that good by any means, but that isn't to say he's bad. In 2001, when he was in the Appy League trying to figure out how to pitch again, the club let him hit on his days off. Would you believe that in 105 at-bats he hit .286/.357/.638? John Manuel of Baseball America points out that had he had enough at-bats, he would have led the league in slugging.

    This past Appy League season, only one player had a slugging that high. Mitch Einertson. His slugging was .692, and he was named by BA as the league's best prospect. But, remember, all this was in 2001. This season, Ankiel will be 25, normally a little too old for the Appy and Midwest Leagues, the two most likely destinations for Ankiel this season.

    I'm going to miss that Ankiel curveball, the kind that makes hitters duck in fear only to realize the pitch was a strike. But I am not convinced that we have heard the last of Ankiel, something I wouldn't have believed in 2002. This kid is just full of surprises.

  • "The Mariners will be sure not to mistake ability for readiness, not here, not this year."

    "Frank Cashen is known in baseball circles as an uncommonly conservative man who frowns on rushing youngsters into the big leagues."

    The first quote is from the Seattle Times on March 4, on Felix Hernandez. The second from a New York newspaper during the 1984 Spring Training. Dwight Gooden was in camp, and the team swore they wouldn't bring Doc up north, right up until they announced he had made the team.

    He pitched 16 innings that spring, he had a 3.37 ERA, with 13 hits, 8 strikeouts and 3 walks. Nothing spectacular, except that the Mets vice president said, "Dwight Gooden throws four different pitches, and has command of everything."

    Cashen the promised to be careful with him, saying, "We won't do what we did with Leary in that ill-fated game in Chicago when it was so cold and windy. At least early on, I hate to use the word 'coddle,' but we'll coddle him a bit."

    Except that on April 13, Dwight Gooden started in Chicago against the Cubs. He didn't last long, throwing just 3.1 innings before Davey Johnson took him out down 6-0. Between that and the 218 innings that Gooden logged that year, not sure "coddle" was the word that Cashen was looking for.

    Through the Mariners study of young pitching prospects, Mike Goff (director of instruction) said that, "there is no set pattern." That's the nice way of saying the track record for 19 year old pitchers is disastrous.

    Eleven pitchers have thrown 50 innings at 19 in the last forty years. You've heard of some, Gooden and Blyleven, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Jose Rijo. But all eleven had their careers shortened in some way, whether it be by one lost season, or in Gary Nolan's case, out of the Majors before 30.

    The best way to go, in my mind, is to break Felix in through the bullpen. Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter and Jose Rijo all spent significant time there at 19, and through this probably set the standard at pitcher. Few people have arms like Blyleven did, throwing 25 starts at 19 and never looking back.

    Wednesday, in a spot start, Felix Hernandez allowed four runs in just over an inning. Hopefully, this will be reason enough for Seattle brass to start the right-hander in AAA. When he pushes the envelope in June, bring him to the bullpen. Work him into the rotation by August.

    There is no recipe to avoid pitching injuries. There are cautionary measures. With a kid like this, the Mariners need to be making a list of them, and checking it twice.

  • We have the failure, the hopeful, and now the success story. That was what Zack Greinke's 2004 season was, one of the most successful for a 20 year old in recent memory.

    In this article at the Hardball Times, I gave a list of twenty players that at 20, played for the first time and would go on to make 20 starts. Those, I think, are the players that Greinke should first be compared to.

    By ERA+, Greinke is tied for sixth on this list with Mike Witt, behind Dennis Eckersley, Dave Rozema, Chet Nichols, Dennis Blair, and Bret Saberhagen. What's really interesting is that only two players before Greinke, Rozema and Saberhagen, had a K/BB ratio of 2.0 or more. Rozema was best at 2.71, which shows the dominance that Greinke (3.85) has in that category. And as I've said before, just the simple task of keeping his K/BB where it is for the duration of his career would put Zack fourth all-time in that category.

    That stat helps show the incredible poise Greinke has in the mound, changing the movement on his fastball and the speed on his breaking pitch. One worry that was originally expressed with Zack was his strikeout ratio, which stood at just 3.82 after five starts. But after closing at 6.21, the only problem is that home run ratio. 26 in 145 innings is not OK, and really the only flaw that currently stands in Zack's way.

    I think, similar to comparison Rozema, you will see Greinke face more struggles this season did than he did in 2004. His walk ratio should raise a bit, his strikeouts down a little. He's not a player that I would particularly reach for in fantasy baseball, unless I was in a keeper league. Because in those leagues, few players will have more value than Zack in the next 15 years.


    You ask me, and I'd rather predict greatness for Jason Schmidt and Matt Drews and be wrong on one than tossing both aside.

    There is such thing as a pitching prospect. Never is one can't miss, and even a talent as great as King Felix is hardly future Win Shares in the bank. Sometimes they get injured, sometimes they can't find the strike zone, and sometimes they succeed. You have to coddle, you have to teach well, and you have to pray.