Sunday, March 14, 2004

Hold Your Horses

Recently, I checked to see how the great young players of baseball (specifically, those 24 and under, who have played something near a full season) compared to those players of years gone by. I did this by going directly to baseballreference.com, which can give you comparable players for every player at every age for all of time. This was the list I came up with, and the players they could be most closely compared to:

Albert Pujols = Joe DiMaggio
Rocco Baldelli = Tris Speaker
Hank Blalock = Scott Rolen
Corey Patterson = Jimmy Wynn
Adrian Beltre = Ron Santo
Mark Teixeira = Bob Robertson
Austin Kearns = Rondell White
Sean Burroughs = Red Smith
Adam Dunn = Pete Incaviglia
Carl Crawford = Jake Gettman

So this week I thought I'd do the same thing for pitchers. The ten pitchers I chose are Mark Prior, Josh Beckett, Brandon Webb, Carlos Zambrano, CC Sabathia, Horacio Ramirez, Jake Peavy, Dontrelle Willis, Jerome Williams, and Brett Myers. You can certainly argue about the merits of half of the people on this list. Rich Harden I didn't take because he hadn't thrown enough innings, same with KRod. Mark Buerhle and Johan Santana just missed the cut, turning 25 this month. Regardless, it's a pretty damn good group of young arms, isn't it? Would you trade them straight up for the ten young everyday players? I know the opinions on that question would never be unanimous, but I figure many of us would take the pitchers, if only because Prior and Beckett are already stars, and if only one more continues to develop, you've got yourself a World Series contender every year.

Or do you?

We all know the risk of drafting pitchers. High School pitchers are considered the largest draft gambles of any kind. College pitchers are much safer, but anyone can get hurt. But this group of ten I have here, they've already made it, haven't they? They're all in the Show, and they've all shown great promise (Willis, Williams) or true dominance (Prior and Beckett). These guys are safe, right?

Well, not quite. Here's the list of the ten young pitchers, and the most comparable players to them at the same age:

Prior - Vic Willis. A good start.
Beckett - Mark Baldwin.
Zambrano - Dennis Blair.
Webb - Ken Forsch
Sabathia - Ray Sadecki.
Ramirez - Kirk Rueter.
Willis - John Henry Johnson
Williams - Ramon Martinez
Peavy and Myers - each other. Next on the list for both of them is Jose Rosado (Peavy) and Pete Redfern (Myers).

What?! Outside of Vic Willis, this group is not only not outstanding, it's downright mediocre! There can be two reasons for this:

1. Even young successful pitchers are bad bets, or
2. We're overrating this group of young pitchers.

In order to figure out which it is, I figured out I would run the same test for current superstar pitchers, and budding superstar pitchers. The results are blurred.

Roger Clemens was comparable to Jim Palmer at the ages of 23 and 24.

Pedro Martinez didn't become comparable to anyone of consequence until the age of 26, when the most comparable player was Clemens.

Greg Maddux was even with Dennis Eckersley at 26, and a slew of Hall of Famers after that.

Curt Schilling? The best comparable is Bret Saberhagen, at 35.

Mike Mussina? Dwight Gooden at 34.

How about the younger guys?

Barry Zito, at 25, is best compared to Juan Marichal.
Mark Mulder, at 24, was comparable to Andy Pettite.
Roy Halladay, Tim Hudson, and Kerry Wood haven't compared well to anyone special yet.
Johan Santana's most comparable player is Hall of Famer Herb Pennock.

Some of the conclusions here are obvious. First of all, injuries can curtail any career, and pitchers are more prone to that than hitters. Second, we all know pitchers take longer to develop. I guess what is surprising though is how unremarkable, historically speaking, the careers of our best young pitchers have been. You would think that Brandon Webb's rookie season would count for something more than Ken Forsch, but it doesn't.

The final lesson? If you're about to enter a fantasy league with protected rosters, proceed with great caution with the young pitchers.

Dave's Email

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