Joba injury makes Yankees latest team to see best-laid plans fail
The 2007 Yankees gave almost half their starts to pitchers 35 and older, struck out fewer batters than all but two other AL teams and lost the Division Series to Cleveland in four games. On the night of their ouster, New York GM Brian Cashman stood in the clubhouse and acknowledged the team needed younger arms with swing and miss stuff to usher in a new era of winning championships. The answers, he hoped, already were on hand: righthanders Phil Hughes, 21, Joba Chamberlain, 21, and Ian Kennedy, 22, each of whom debuted that year.
Today, none of them are pitching for the Yankees, who rank 10th in strikeouts and have had only 14 starts by pitchers in their 20s. New York learned yesterday that Chamberlain, already a failed starter, has a torn ligament in his pitching elbow. Meanwhile, Hughes remains unable to pitch because of arm problems and Kennedy, traded to Arizona after the 2009 season, just might pitch in the All-Star Game against Curtis Granderson, the centerfielder the Yankees acquired in that three-way trade.
Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy still haven't thrown 200 innings in a season for the Yankees. New York did everything it could to protect the young arms of Hughes and Chamberlain, and still they broke down. It's just one more reason why the next time you hear about some team counting on a group of young starters all making it big at the same time, be very, very skeptical. The failure rate on pitchers is way too high to count on such serendipity.
Go ask Oakland, which counted on Brett Anderson to be the fulcrum of a young rotation for years to come. The lefthander faces his own Tommy John surgery -- and rotation mate Dallas Braden is out for the year with an injured shoulder. Going back further, and you will find:
• The "Four Aces" of Oakland from the 1990 draft: Todd Van Poppel, Dave Zancanaro, Kirk Dressendorfer and Don Peters: Total games they won for the Athletics: 21.
• "Generation K" of the mid-90s Mets. Total games won for New York by Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen: 29.
• The Big Three of the 2003 Cubs. Mark Prior, 22, Kerry Wood, 26, and Carlos Zambrano, 22, combined for 45 wins and 636 1/3 innings for a team that came within five outs of the World Series. Prior and Wood began breaking down the next year and the franchise hasn't won a postseason game since.
• The DVD Rotation of the 2006 Texas Rangers system. John Danks, Edinson Volquez and Thomas Diamond won three games combined for the franchise (two of the pitchers -- Danks and Volquez -- were traded).
So good luck to the Royals, who already have John Lamb facing Tommy John surgery, and to the Pirates, who have No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole about to join 2010 first-rounders Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. Maybe, just maybe, they can be among the rare teams that actually see a pitching blueprint come to fruition -- just like the 2010 World Series champion Giants.
Just how hard is it to build a homegrown rotation?
If you followed the draft this week it doesn't sound so hard. Nineteen pitchers were taken with the 33 first-round picks, including the first-ever run of four pitchers at the top of the draft. Based on radar gun readings, scouting reports and universal glee from 30 scouting departments, it's the time of year when it's easy to imagine future aces, or at least rotation stalwarts.
The truth is that the numbers working against first-round pitchers are staggering. A huge failure rate reinforces the theory that the baseball draft is the most risky of any sport and that pitching -- largely because of the injury factor - is the most difficult skill to project in the game.
Here's one exercise to help you understand the fragile nature of counting on even the very best amateur pitchers. I decided to go back about a decade to find out what happens to first-round pitchers -- figuring that should be enough time to measure what kind of footprint a pitcher established in the big leagues. Then I looked at a three-year window to increase the sample size. In this case I used the drafts from 2000 through 2002.
From 2000-02 there were 83 pitchers selected in the first round (including supplemental picks) -- 51 out of college and 32 out of high school. Here is what happened with those 83 top pitching prospects:
• 38 never made it to the major leagues. That means 46 percent of first-round picks from 2000 through 2002 never threw a pitch in the big leagues.
• First-round pitchers out of college were virtually just as likely never to make the big leagues (45 percent) as high school pitchers (47 percent).
• 21 pitchers managed to win even as few as 10 major league games in their careers, or just 25 percent of those first-round picks.
• Only eight of the 83 pitchers have won 10 games and posted a winning record -- just a 9.6 percent success rate.
(You could run the same exercise over many more years, but the further you go back the more you run into different environments of scouting, drafting and development, and the more recent you look the more incomplete the development arc of the pitcher.)
Those 2000-02 numbers caught me by surprise, even with an appreciation of how hard it is to develop pitching. In summary, the 2000-02 drafts suggest almost half the first-round pitchers will never make the big leagues, only one in four will win as few as 10 games, and only one in 10 will become winning pitchers with at least 10 wins.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled optimism.
For all of its front-office intellect, Oakland has not fared well in picking managers -- the A's fired Bob Geren on Thursday morning -- or keeping its players healthy. There are few indicators more impactful than the number of starting pitchers a club uses. Seattle, for instance, is the only team this year to use only five starters.
On the other hand, over the past three seasons only one team, Arizona, has burned through more starting pitchers than the Athletics.
Here are the teams that have used the most and the fewest starting pitchers from 2009-11 -- as well as where they rank in combined winning percentage over those seasons: