Looking at pitchers when they have their first crack at the rotation
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in the endless quest to find the right time to latch onto a pitcher


Without finishing my last statistical analysis on comparing Isolated Power or SlgA-BA to HR/9 innings as a preferred compliment to K:BB in evaluating the expected performance of pitchers, I’ve started a new statistical analysis.


When is the optimal time to acquire a protectable pitcher? The chart I’ve made so far, doesn’t really go that far, but it does take an interesting picture of a pitcher’s minor league stats, his earliest trials as a major league starter, and his resulting career stats. I have codes lifted from the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers indicating which pitches they throw. I record how old they were when they were given a decent shot (8 starts), and I have a wide free form column full of my own abbreviations indicating innings pitched at which ages, injuries, role changes, and miscellaneous notes. My aged stained copies of Baseball America provided whatever pitch descriptions the Neyer/James book does not.


To be semi-scientific about it, I included only pitchers who had their first season of 8 starts in 1991. Charles Nagy and Joe Grahe had 8 starts in 1990, so they were not included. I did include Cal Eldred, but he should only be looked at when I continue the list for 1992. 1991 was chosen because it was the year my oldest perpetual league began and there has been time to fully assess how that class of pitchers has developed. Eight starts was chosen as the cut-off because it seems any fewer is just filling in for someone else or a September call-up. Eight starts is a significant, although brief, trial. There is one other entry which should be saved for years later: Paul Abbott. I didn’t know what to do about a guy who had 6 or 7 Major League starts for about five years in a row before disappearing into the minors, returning years later as a reliever, had a few more starts, then finally having his first 8 starts all in one season at the age of 32 – when he began to start full-time.


With only the 22 players assessed so far (24 including Eldred and Abbott), I am excited to notice a few things already. (Caution: some of my findings are very very preliminary. Act on them at your own risk.)


1.                  The Yankees were terrible around this time. I remember they had a dry spell with the Tigers, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Red Sox shutting them out from division titles, but I didn’t remember they had become a terrible team. They actually had losing records four years in a row from 1989 to 1992. Don Mattingly was the team leader / Derek Jeter of those times. He was a consistent .300 hitter. Fortunately for Don, few fans measured players by OBA plus SlgA back then, because over those four years, it would have been about .335 + .410: not even .750! Steve Sax was the expensive free agent purchase who had a similar hitting style of high average, low walks, and little power. Alvaro Espinoza may have been one of the worse shortstops of my lifetime to hold a full time job for three years (then a half-time job for another four years after that thanks to the Indians). His OBA+SlgA was generally around .600 with consistently one of the worse shortstop ranges in the league. Perhaps, third base was an even bigger hole. Mike Pagliarulo flopped there hitting .197 with only 19 walks. They tried catcher Jim Leyritz, and utility middle infielder Pat Kelly. Meanwhile, Randy Velarde was buried on their bench since 1988 and remained there until he finally signed with the Angels for 1996. Neither Lou Piniella, Billy Martin, Dallas Green, Bucky Dent, Stump Merrill, nor Buck Showalter saw fit to give Velarde a full time position. Al Leiter was traded for Jessie Barfield to go with Roberto Kelly and Mel Hall as the Yankees’ less than stellar outfield. Far more futile were the aging Steve Balboni and the never really blossomed Kevin Maas as the DHs during that era. Don Slaught didn’t work out at catcher, so they re-purchased free agent Rick Cerone who was now old and injured. Bob Geren filled in until the Yankees traded for Matt Nokes. Then there was the pitching. Oi, the pitching! Was Steinbrenner trying to save a few bucks by signing in succession to be their ace: Andy Hawkins, Tim Leary,  and Scott Sanderson or was George suspended or in jail during this time? I could name more names, but you probably won’t remember them, because they were so forgettable. They did resign Tommy John who was now 46 in 1989! Dave Righetti in the autumn of his career was about their only respectable pitching presence at the turn of the decade. Finally, in 1992 the Yankees purchased a good hitter: Danny Tartabull and traded for a good pitcher: Melido Perez. However, even those players brought with them enough annoying baggage to make their stays in New York more of a headache than they were worth.


2.                  We all know it wasn’t the Athletics famed trio of pitching prospects Van Poppell, Dessendorpher, and Slusarski who became stars. The Orioles quietly had Mike Mussina, Arthur Rhodes, and Jose Mesa to give their first shots at starting at the same time. Although, it would be awhile before Rhodes and Mesa established themselves as the outstanding relievers they became, Mussina was an instant and long lasting success. Considering the up and down and deferred excellence of the group, the only other pitcher of the 22 in the study who would have been worth owning on a standard perpetual Scoresheet team was Juan Guzman who put in three good seasons. Those were followed by two lousy seasons before he returned to form again. In his 30s, which came next, he was rarely better than mediocre and often on the DL. Kenny Rogers was not a big success the year he first had 9 starts in the Majors. However, he was an fine reliever and became a fine starter two years later.


3.                  Most Major League pitchers have a different repertoire than most others, but the most common arsenal is primarily a four seam rising fastball with a large breaking curve and a standard change-up. It seems that because this is such a common grouping, a pitcher has to be really outstanding in one of them to be any good at all. Having your fastball as your primary pitch is best. Being average in all three will not be sufficient to stay in the Majors. Comparing Scott Lewis (Angels) to Arthur Rhodes would be the best example. Lewis was average with all three pitches. He had an average slider, too. Rhodes had less control, but he had (has?) a nearly un-hittable fastball and eventually gained enough control to be effective. It’s easier to gain control than speed. Virtually all of the starting pitchers from the class of ’91 who made a nice career for themselves in the majors (Mussina, Rogers, Mesa, Rhodes, Guzman, and even the more mediocre Mark Leiter, Willie Blair, and Scott Kamieniencki) had either a four seam or two seam fastball as their primary pitch. Mussina has command over more fantastic pitches than anyone in the last I-don’t-know-how-many decades, but his primary pitch is a two seam fastball. Brian Bohanon might be the exception to this rule. (A 5.19 ERA isn’t so bad when you consider his best years were with Colorado.) His best pitch was a change-up, but he still mixed it up with a generous number of four-seamers.


4.                  There is no discernable correlation with ERA, walks, or length of service in the minors to success in the majors. For example, three of the five pitchers in the study with the most minor league innings (Abbott – if you include him, Mesa, and Kamieniecki) had decent careers, while three of the four pitchers with the least time in the minors (Gerald Alexander, Jeff Johnson, and Mark Gardner) did not help out significantly in the majors. The best pitcher of the group, however, did spend the least number of innings in the minors: Mike Mussina. Of the stats I tracked, only strikeout rate had some discernable correlation. Pitchers with less than seven and a half strikeouts per 9 innings in the minors appear quite less likely to cut it. A pitcher’s chances seem to rise from there. In the study six out of eight pitchers with a 7.5 minor league K/9 or higher “made it”, while only four of the remaining 14 could say the same.


5.                  There is far more of a correlation with the ERA of a pitcher in his first year’s tryout as a starter than there is with all his time in the minors. For example, Denis Boucher, Wade Taylor, and Jeff Johnson each had low minor league ERAs around 3.00. When they got their shot in the majors, their ERAs doubled. Juan Guzman, Mark Leiter, and Kenny Rogers each had ERAs over 4.00 in the minors, but reproduced that or better when they had their chance in the show.


6.                  Some pitchers have a little bad luck, then nobody wants them. If they have a little fortune, teams will stick with them much longer than they should. Using those badly managed 1991 Yankees as an example, Jeff Johnson and Scott Kamieniecki were two pitching prospects who came up at the same time. If anything, Johnson was the superior prospect. He had superior minor league stats, he was younger, and he had a better scouting report. Kamieniecki didn’t even make Baseaball America’s top 10 Yankee prospects. In the majors, Kamieniecki gave up fewer runs. He walked more batters, but more of Johnson’s balls in play fell for hits than Kamienecki’s. Using the formula (H-HR)/(Ing.*3+H-HR-SO) Kamieniecki had a beautiful 26% rate his first year. Johnson’s was 31%. He was returned to Columbus where he blew away AAA batters, recalled but was, perhaps, so shaken by his earlier stint in the Bronx, he fared even worse. Neither the Yankees nor any other team gave Johnson another chance.


Some of these conclusions need further study. I’ll do my best to follow-up with more pitcher profiles as time permits. There are many other ways to tackle these issues, and I’m interested in hearing about them. Please, write


Other sources not mentioned above:

The Sports Encyclopedia Baseball (Neft, Cohen, & Neft)

Who’s Who in Baseball (various issues, but mostly 1993 for this report)

John Carter