This isn’t a fantasy baseball article, but sometimes paying attention to fantasy ball opens your eyes to some things that you might otherwise miss, especially when coming to a judgment of young players. Starting pitchers in particular are players that most of us look at and come to a fairly snap decision as to how good their stuff is and how much they can develop and then we pigeonhole them as a number one, two, three or tail end starter.
That may really be an old fashioned idea - almost as old fashioned as the prevailing thought just a couple of decades ago that a player required a year or two of experience at the AAA level instead of going straight to the bigs out of college or AA. This came to my attention while doing a little research for a fantasy article on Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey.
Pelfrey is 24 years old and like many pitchers his age he has already been judged as to the quality of his arm. In fact this spring the opinion of many experts is that Pelfrey was both a fantasy and Major League non-entity who was at best a number four or five starter. But if that was the case I wondered why the Mets were so reluctant to part with him in order to get Johan Santana.
So, I looked a little deeper at the numbers. Pelfrey, unlike many pitchers of bygone eras, didn’t get a lot of minor league seasoning. In fact he pitched only 12 games at AA and 16 games at AAA before being thrown into the fire of the Majors. Compare that with future Hall of Famer John Smoltz who had 43 games at those levels and you can only conclude that teams are bringing pitchers along faster than ever before.
Now comparing a pitcher like Pelfrey to Smoltz isn’t really fair to Pelfrey - after all Smoltz developed into a very special talent and entered MLB at a younger age. However it is interesting to look at some of the similarities and differences. Including the fact that Smoltz didn’t really bloom until he’d had about thirty Major League starts and he didn’t see .500 until his fourth season in the Majors after he had approximately 75 starts at the top level under his belt.
Then you look at a kid like Pelfrey. Pelfrey, like many rookie pitchers, is older than Smoltz was, but you realize he only has a grand total of 19 starts in the bigs and only 45 starts above A in total. So, how can you judge him by the same standards? The answer is that you can’t.
And that’s a trend in Major League Baseball today. Pitchers aren’t being seasoned so much at AAA, and many times they skip that step entirely, unless the team has pitching depth at the big league level, or lots of big free agent money to spend. While I used Mike Pelfrey as an example you don’t need to look very far to see that this is an emerging trend all around baseball; especially for small market teams when they are trying to put a winning season together.
For those teams the writing is on the wall, when their pitchers reach free agency they’ll fly the coop and follow the money. So if you have a team who is missing a critical piece or two, especially in the pitching department, the strategy must be to move them along quickly and hope they grow up fast.
But it’s not just small market teams such as Tampa Bay or Florida among others. This trend is occurring in big market teams like the Yankees (Ian Kennedy 15 games above A), Red Sox (Clay Buchholz 8 games at AAA), Dodgers (Chad Billingsley 13 starts at AAA) and middle market teams like Arizona (Micah Owings 16 starts at AAA and 12 at AA), Phillies (Kyle Kendricks no games at AAA, and just 12 at AA), Giants (Matt Cain - 26 games at AAA, Tim Lincecum 5 games at AAA) who are doing the same thing.
These are just examples - it’s happening on every team across MLB. Some like Johnny Cueto (4 games at AAA) or Felix Hernandez (14 games at AAA) are thrust into the fire with special talents that make everyone think they can’t miss. But some do. Look at what happened to can’t miss guys like Cliff Lee who won 18 in 2005 or Dontrelle Willis who dominated then suddenly fell off a cliff. And look at the guys who after years of service became good pitchers like Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, Javier Vazquez to name a few.
No, judging pitchers has changed. It has changed a lot in the decades. No longer can you look at a young pitcher and see the whole story after just a few games of Major league experience. Each rough outing is a learning experience and condemning or labeling a young pitcher as a four or five starter without looking a lot deeper is a foolish way of evaluating talent today. If you really want to see what a pitcher has to offer then look at the scouting reports, look at the minor league numbers, look at their limited experience, then take your best guess and watch them for a few years.
Are guys like Mike Pelfrey or James Shields going to be great? Damned if I know and I doubt their teams do either, but it ought to be fun to watch.