In the eighth inning, Pirates righthander Nick Burdi suffered an unfortunate arm injury after a promising start to the season.
There might not be any baseball axiom crueler than TINSTAPP, but it stings so much only because it’s so true. It’s been roughly two decades since the acronym was originally coined by one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus—there is no such thing as a pitching prospect—but it feels more real than it ever has. Pitching has never been so good, so rich, so eminently gif-able, and, as part of this package, has never been so tricky to consistently and healthily develop. Baseball has been blessed with an abundance of triple-digit fastballs, wipe-out sliders, and spin-loaded curves; the whole endeavor is literally and figuratively stretching the limits of the human arm. For any individual pitch, beauty and power can be quantified with astonishing precision.
And, yet, the rest of the equation can remain terrifyingly murky. Where do you draw lines around all the terrible dumb luck no one can predict? Whose crazy heat makes him a prospect versus an injury risk? Whose modest development looks reasonable versus disappointing? Who is a reliable pitching prospect? Does such a thing even exist anymore? Can it ever?
TINSTAPP is not particularly fun to embrace. How could it be? It’s fun to watch a guy embarrass every hitter he sees in Double-A. It’s fun to question the radar gun in a tiny old park, because how can a skinny kid you’ve never heard of throw this hard? It’s fun to go wish-casting. It’s not fun to look at any organizational depth chart and remind everyone that half of these pitchers will never make it and a third of them will probably end up with Tommy John surgery and maybe only two or three out of the remaining fraction will actually pitch how they’ve dreamed of pitching. It’s not fun to remind everyone that this whole thing can be fickle and cruel and brutally unyielding.
It’s easy to ignore, then. It’s easy to look at a guy and believe he simply has to be an exception—he has to be good enough to be a sure bet to make the whole thing work. It was easy to look at Nick Burdi in 2014, the powerful college closer picked in the second round of the draft, and think about all of this. It was easy to watch the insane slider and the flirting-with-triple-digits fastball and believe. You’d have watched him start his first full season in organized ball in Double-A: The Twins apparently believed in him this way, too. And, then, the foundation of faith began to feel a little less solid. TINSTAAP’s first creeping doubts began to poke through. Burdi couldn’t stop walking guys, earning him a demotion down to High-A, and the following year, he couldn’t stay healthy. It was one of the most common stories in baseball, maybe, lived out by dozens and dozens of pitchers each season, names on ranked lists fading out into anonymity, but this didn’t make it any less painful to watch. That slider, man! It was still there. It was all still there for Nick Burdi. And then it wasn’t: Tommy John in 2017, Rule 5 Draft a few months later, a shift to a new club, a recovery that stretched into the next season.
And then it was back. In 10 games in 2019, Burdi was everything he had once been projected to be. He faced 34 batters and struck out 17. (He walked just two.) It sounds ridiculous to declare a happy ending for a rookie, but it felt like one. It was all there. It felt like there was, finally, such thing as a pitching prospect.
And in Game 11, it seemed to disappear.
The Pirates have not announced anything definitive yet; maybe it is not as bad as it looks, though it certainly looks quite bad. But, beyond that, it feels—it feels like a reminder of the cruelest reality in baseball, of a sense of security so flimsy and cheap that it is not a house of cards so much as simply a hologram of one, of the game’s foundational truth that there can be no such thing as any sure thing.