Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Young Guys Getting it Done
John Williams

I just can’t remember a time when there were so many rookies putting up dominant numbers at one time in the American League. There has been some mention of this being a strong class but I don’t think it’s been done enough justice. Just 3 years ago Angel Berroa won the AL Rookie of the Year with a pedestrian .789 OPS for the Royals and 100 strikeouts compared to only 29 walks. The much more talented Bobby Crosby followed by winning the 2004 award with a .239 AVG and .745 OPS. How times have changed. There are also a bunch of second year players having great seasons (like Chris Ray in Baltimore or Bobby Jenks in Chicago) but this list will be limited to guys still classified in MLB as rookies starting the 2006 season.

Francisco Liriano: Better stuff than Santana? I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but that was before I saw him pitch. Finally being inserted in the rotation, he’s 6-1 in just over 58 innings, with a 2.16 ERA and .216 BAA, along with 67 strikeouts. And he’s not walking many guys either. He may not be able to save the Twin’s playoff hopes this season all by himself, but Minnesota has the makings of an absurdly dominant 1/2 punch for the coming years.

Justin Verlander: The hardest throwing starting pitching prospect since well Felix Hernandez. But King Felix has shown that a high 90s fastball over 8 innings doesn’t necessarily guarantee immediate MLB success. Then again Verlander does in fact throw even harder than that. His lack of strikeouts so far is troubling, but only a little bit, because there is no question his stuff is overpowering. He’s a little similar to Rich Harden in that manner (though with many less K), players are almost able to time his fastball, but it’s so hard they just can’t square up to it, so he gets a lot of weakly hit balls. He’s 8-4 with a 3.21 ERA so far for the Tigers, and definitely is making up for some other underwhelming pitchers in their rotation.

Jered Weaver: Remember when the Phillies couldn’t find a spot for 50 homer threat Ryan Howard the last few years? There should be an adage in baseball that says “unless you’re already running away with your division, make sure all your best players get playing time.” Just like Howard could have helped the Phillies make the playoffs in the early 2000s, Weaver could be replacing his brother right now and making the Angels contenders. Instead Jeff is busy being below average while Jered is stuck in AAA again with these numbers having been compiled in his brief 2006 MLB stint: 4 starts, 4 wins, 0.76 WHIP, .170 BAA, 1.37 ERA. I guess maybe with 4 consecutive no-hitters they would have found a spot for him?

Joel Zumaya: With respect to all the previous pitchers on this list, Zumaya makes them look like soft-tossers. Sporting the first consistently 102 MPH fastball since Randy Johnson, he’s got a .160 BAA in 34 2/3 innings so far this year, and his 2.34 ERA would probably be much lower if not for walking one batter every two innings. Faster than 100 MPH relievers have about a coin-flip’s chance of succeeding over the long haul it seems in recent MLB history, so good luck to the guy. What is encouraging is that he never seems to be muscling the ball up there, his motion is free and easy, which bodes well for at least maintaining the movement on his pitches for the future.

Ian Kinsler: And now for one hitter, here’s a guy putting up very impressive numbers in his first year in the big leagues. Despite his injury problems so far, he’s hit to the tune of a .381 OBP and .571 SLG in his first 91 atbats. He’s got a long way to go though to catch up to what the rest of these guys have already accomplished.

Jonathan Papelbon: Saving the best for last, Papelbon has so far in 2006 pitched 36 of nearly perfect relief innings to the tune of a 0.64 WHIP, .153 BAA, and an eye-popping 0.25 ERA. He has worked very hard to improve his offspeed stuff but is still mainly a fastball pitcher (77% of all pitches thrown in 2006). Compare that his fastball throwing-teammate Curt Schilling (63%). The numbers just prove what is easily perceived by the naked eye, major league hitters have not figured out his fastball yet. He’ll always be a very good pitcher due to his outstanding command of all his pitches, but it remains to be seen how dominant his main pitch remains for the near future. Sometimes guys have their pitches figured out, and sometimes they become Mariano Rivera.

Quite a list from just the American League. The National League also has a very strong rookie class this season, albeit not as star-studded as their counterpart. Leading the way is Prince Fielder (.545 SLG) with Ryan Zimmerman (.477 SLG from 3rd base) and Adam Wainwright (0.83 WHIP in relief) right behind, while a slew of rookie Marlins (Uggla, Ramirez, Johnson, Hermidia, Willingham) are also having good years. And not even mentioned so far are two guys considered pre-season favorites for the ROY awards in their respective leagues, Jason Kubel (Minnesota), and Conor Jackson (Arizona).

There certainly are a greater number than usual of talented rookies arriving this year, but the numbers could also be helped because of some changing ideas. More pitchers now are molded to be relievers based on one dominant pitch at the minor league level, and then moved up rapidly through the system to give the major league help very quickly (like last year’s AL ROY Huston Street). Drafting a guy with a 100 MPH fastball and keeping him a reliever means he only needs one other pitch to be halfway decent in order to make it to the majors, so it’s a fast return on your investment. The guy who best fits this description, Craig Hansen, has barely even pitched for the Red Sox in relief this season so far, but could yet make a big mark on the season.

As for the other pitchers on this list, their place could be the result of a change of thinking for the development of minor league pitchers. Speaking generally of pitchers, teams are becoming less and less reluctant to put young guys on the staff who have put up big numbers in the minors, even if they are very inexperienced. It’s partly a result of the sabrmetrics trend showing minor league numbers do translate partially to the majors as a rule, and also that there just isn’t enough pitching around to always be going out of the organization for improvements.



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