In theory, pitching prospects should be infinitely more valuable than any minor league hitter. Whereas evaluating hitting prospects requires subjective analysis of a kid’s swing or body type, the prime components of a pitching prospect are more tangible. A 100 MPH fastball is a 100 MPH fastball regardless of which scout is watching, same for a major league quality change up, same most every pitch. A young amateur batter may rocket every pitch up the middle or out of the ballpark, but he leaves open debate over his command of the strike zone. A prep pitcher painting the black on every offering provides no room for such an argument. It would seem as if pitchers are easier to project than hitters and therefore are safer bets and by consequence, more valuable.
What bridges the gap and allows for a relatively even amount of pitchers and hitters on BA’s annual top 100, is that every pitcher, regardless of age or physique, has one fatal flaw. It is the same fatal flaw that accounts for the fact that of the 32 100-million dollar contracts ever given out, only 7 have been handed to pitchers. Every pitcher, especially the young ones at the amateur or minor league level, or just breaking into the majors, is an injury waiting to happen.
Take Casey Kelly of the San Diego Padres for example. In 2010, Kelly, along with first baseman Anthony Rizzo headlined a deal that brought perenial MVP candidate Adrian Gonzalez to Boston. 20 at the time, Kelly had everything going for him – youth, pure athleticism, and a fastball, curve, and slider that all rated as above-average or better. Anyone could see that he would succeed big leagues.
Rizzo was a different case. His swing was elegant and he could spray troves of line drives across the field, even knocking one out every few games, but he had missed time due to injury and scouts were divided over whether or not he would be able to catch up to a big league fastball. With him you saw a chance at a bright future, but weren’t too disappointed when he never made it out of AAA.
Today, Anthony Rizzo is the starting first baseman of the Chicago Cubs and has posted a WAR of 2.3 or above each of the last two seasons. Casey Kelly, on the other hand has only made 14 professional starts since 2012 and only 6 in the majors (over which he has an egregious 6.21 ERA), having suffered from a pair of elbow injuries, one of which led to Tommy John Surgery. His return date is unclear, his future as a big league starter is in jeopardy.
Kelly’s situation is not unique to the Padres. In fact, they should be very adept at handling it as they have two other promising young starters also on the macadam road to recovery from Tommy John Surgery – Cory Leubke and Joe Wieland. Leubke, a former first round pick, worked his way into the rotation in 2011 and was brilliant in that capacity, posting a 3.31 ERA and striking out 111 batters in just 100.2 innings. Since the end of that season, when he seemed poised to become and integral part of San Diego’s future, Leubke has had numerous setbacks in his rehab and has made just five starts (all of which came right before the surgery). After shutting down the minor leagues in 2011, Wieland looked to help the big league club out of the gate in 2012. He made it five starts before going under the knife, and hasn’t returned since. All of a sudden a Padres organization that had been declared by Keith Law of ESPN to have more depth than any other team in baseball, was deemed by MLBtraderumors.com to not have enough prospects to lure Mark Trumbo, a first baseman with a career .299 OBP, from the Los Angeles Angels, a team so desperate for pitching that they trotted out Joe Blanton and his 6.04 ERA for 20 starts last season.
This problem is certainly not isolated to San Diego. Of the 29 different pitchers declared by Baseball America to be among the top 10 prospects in baseball since 2004 – i.e. the players deemed by the game’s top scouts to have the best stuff, makeup and durability in baseball – 11 of them have missed massive amounts of time due to arm injuries. 2004 #8 overall prospect Greg Miller had his entire career derailed due to shoulder injuries and he never made the majors. Dylan Bundy was arguably the most talked about pitching prospect in baseball in 2012 but hasn’t thrown a pitch this season. 2006 #6 overall, Francisco Liriano had his breakout 2006 season cut short by Tommy John Surgery and didn’t return to form until this past season. Granted, some pitchers miss time and are then successful upon return – names such as Stephen Strasburg, Clay Bucholz, and Chad Billingsley. On the flipside, however, are guys like 2009 #7 Brett Anderson who has failed to put together a full season since his rookie year and Scott Kazmir, who took five seasons to get his career back on track after missing time in 2008. Dozens of top 10 hitters have busted in the last decade, but they rarely if ever fail in the same spectacular collapse of ligaments and tendons that is the downfall of pitchers.
This is why Keith Law ranked the Mets Noah Syndergaard, a right hander with a good fastball and change but an iffy breaking ball as the 34th prospect in baseball this past July, and why he said in October that he ranks even higher now, above pitchers with much better stuff. “He has to be as low a risk for an arm injury as any major starter prospect in baseball,” Law wrote of Syndergaard in an online mailbag on October 17th. Durability isn’t as flashy as a 100 MPH fastball. Pitching at a slightly above average level every fifth doesn’t induce the same vicarious dreams and cause the same drool to drop from the mouth as a Strasburg slider does, but its a lot safer, and therefore even more valuable.