I've seen a lot of people look at the statistical lines of young minor league pitchers and try to draw some kind of conclusion about their chances in the majors. There are many problems with that approach.
First, young hitters have poor plate discipline and so will more likely swing at pitches out of the zone. Second, lots of young hitters have to learn to hit good changes ups and other breaking pitches. In short, pitches that get minor leaguers out won't necessary get major league hitters out. It's the same issue that comes up when Brian Cashman is trying to gauge a pitcher in the National League. How will that same pitcher fair against the American League and especially the American League East, where there are better hitters and a lot more of them up and down many of the lineups?
The other factor in this equation is that young pitchers evolve. Sometimes the guy with the 92 mile an hour fast ball gains a few extra ticks. That's what happened to Manny Banuelos, for example. He was already a projectable starter because of his control and his breaking balls. Add a few miles an hour to his fastball, and, boom, he's a top of the rotation candidate. Of course, add velocity to his fastball and his command wasn't quite as good with that fastball last year, but before you get down on him, remember that most scouts think that control issue will not be a long term problem.
Not that many pitchers gain velocity like that. But many learn how to throw a change up or a slider or a 12 to 6 curve ball. Their command improves and so on. And suddenly, a guy who walks a lot of batters and has a high ERA or he get slapped around is suddenly light out.
Let's look at a couple of classic examples after the jump.
The first is one of my favorite Yankees from days of yore, Ron Guidry. Guidry was 26 years old before he stuck in the bigs for good (he had had a couple of cups of coffee before that). He went a crisp 16-7 that year, with a 2.82 ERA. Those were the days that pitchers pitched a lot of innings. And that's what happened to "Gator." 210 innings that first year (after not pitching more than 100 innings in the minors). The next year was arguably the greatest year ever by a Yankee pitcher. Guidry went 25-3 with a 1.76 ERA, winning the Cy Young and helping the Yankees to beat the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. And you wince at the inning total (273) and wonder if the Yankees had built his arm strength more gradually if he wouldn't have had more 20 win seasons.
But why did it take the guy with that kind of stuff so long to make it to the show for good? In a word, control. In his second year in the minors, at the age of 21, he walked 50 batters in 66 innings in single A ball. The next year, at 22, he walked 70 in 101 innings.
He finally made it to AA the next year, at 23, but he still walked 53 in 77 innings. There weren't any blogs back then. Heck, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs hadn't even popularized being a geek yet. But if there were blogs, I'm sure fans would have written Guidry off and scoffed at anyone who said he had top of the rotation stuff. After all, just look at his walk to strikeout ratio, they'd say.
So here are his minor league stats before he arrived in the majors, from baseball-reference.com:
And here are his major league stats:
But Guidry is just one example. Perhaps the greatest lefty of all time had similar challenges. In fact, he got so discouraged at one point he almost quit the game of baseball. In the case of Sandy Koufax, however, he was what was known as a "bonus baby" and so went straight to the majors at the age of 19. He had a respectable 3.02 ERA that first year. But he walked 28 batters in just 42 innings.
After that, Koufax went four years without pitching 200 innings or having an ERA under 4. The next year, at the age of 24, his ERA finally dipped barely below 4 but he went just 8-13. Then, just like that, things started looking up for the lefty. And from the ages of 27-30, when he retired, Koufax put together four of the most dominant seasons in the history of baseball, winning an MVP and three Cy Youngs and coming in third the other time in the Cy Young race. (He also finished second in the MVP race two of those years, fueling hot debates about whether pitchers could be MVPs. For batters facing him, I'm guessing there wasn't that much of a debate. He had a lot of them look feeble.
So, for all you stats geeks, I love stats, too. But, with young players, they really don't tell the whole story. And when you look at the wealth of pitchers the Yankees have at AAA and even in the lower minors, you should be very grateful. I know I am.
PS - Don't forget to tell everyone what a great post this was. :-)