26 March 2014

Why the Last Cavalry Was Overrated but Not the Current

In January, Jon wrote about the sad history of Orioles pitching prospects over the past twenty years. For much of the past twenty years, we've hoped that a set of pitching prospects would help bring us back into contention. And for much of the past twenty years, we've been disappointed.

The last iteration, consisting of Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Radhames Liz, Jake Arrieta and Troy Patton definitely fell short of expectations.* Chris Tillman did have a successful year as a starter. With only one successful year to his credit it's too early to conclude that he in fact is a success. Brian Matusz had one successful year as a starter before getting hurt and never fully recovered. He is on the major league roster but is nothing more than a reliever. Zach Britton has failed to establish himself as a starter. It appears that he will start the year in the bullpen and is running out of chances to help the major league club. Radhames Liz last season pitched in Korea and is now in the Blue Jay organization, unable to help the Orioles.** Jake Arrieta failed to succeed as a starter for the Orioles and was traded to the Cubs with Pedro Strop in return for Scott Feldman. Troy Patton needed labrum surgery and never fully recovered. He is currently a reliever.

* - The use of cavalry in these articles is in reference to iterations of Baseball America's top 100 rankings.  It is not used exclusively to those who were mentioned under that umbrella during the MacPhail era.
** - Article was originally stating Liz' performance last year and was being confused as him still being in Korea.

It appears that the best case scenario of the previous iteration of pitching prospects will result in one starter and two relievers. The other iterations mentioned by Jon had even worse results. One could argue that the Orioles have only had four successful pitching prospects since 1990: Mussina, McDonald, Ponson and Bedard.

Now there is a new batch of pitching prospects consisting of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Eduardo Rodriguez and Hunter Harvey. The question that begs to be asked is whether there’s a difference between this set of pitching prospects and the last set.

In this article about prospects, I note how age impacts the success rate of pitching prospects ranked by Baseball America. Ranked college pitching prospects that don’t make it to the majors by the time they are 23 or ranked high school pitching prospects that don’t make it to the majors by the time they are 22 have lower success rates than those that do.

For the current set of prospects, this isn’t a concern. Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy both made it to the majors by the time they were 22. Eduardo Rodriguez and Hunter Harvey are on pace to do so as well. However, this wasn’t the case for the previous set of pitchers. Zach Britton didn’t make it to the majors until he was 23 despite not attending college while Jake Arrieta and Radhames Liz didn’t make it to the majors until after they were 24. According to my research, this is a warning sign because Baseball America simply had a worse track record with older pitching prospects than they do with younger pitching prospects.

It might be informative to look at other ranked pitchers that went to high school but didn’t make it to the majors until they were 23 as well as other ranked pitchers that didn’t make it to the majors until they were 24 so that we can see how Britton, Arrieta and Liz compare to their peers.

There are some necessary criteria. Britton, Arrieta and Liz were ranked by Baseball America right before they entered the majors so I wanted to make sure I compared them to similar pitchers. Therefore I didn't include a pitcher if he was ranked by Baseball America once when he was 20 but never again and didn’t make it to the majors until he was 23. In addition, I only ranked pitchers that were developed by a farm system. This means that pitchers like Yu Darvish, Arlodis Chapman and Jose Conteras are not included in these rankings. Like last time, I got information of which prospects went to college from the Lahman database.

Below is a table of the twenty-seven ranked prospects from 1998-2011 that made it to the majors when they were twenty-three, didn’t go to college and fulfilled the conditions above similar to Zach Britton.

Of those twenty-seven pitchers, four are average, ten are below average, twelve are very poor and one didn’t have a season in which he threw at least twenty-five innings. Obviously, some of the younger pitchers in that table may improve given playing time. The top pitchers in this grouping are Jarrod Washburn, Ted Lilly, Eric Gagne and Aaron Cook. Eric Gagne was an excellent reliever for three years until suffering elbow and back injuries. Jarrod Washburn, Ted Lilly and Aaron Cook were decent inning eaters but certainly not great pitchers. None of these guys are superstars.
Some of the recent prospects look more interesting. Zach Wheeler, Jarred Cosart, Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson have the potential to be successful. Hellickson is the only one of the four pitchers to be worth more than 1.5 WAR in a season. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been worth 1.5 WAR in two other full seasons.

Jeremy Hellickson does have a career ERA of 3.70 but also has a career FIP of 4.39 and has been worth 4 WAR over 3 years. He suffered an elbow injury earlier this offseason and is expected to miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season. He may become a successful pitcher but it will require considerable improvement.
Chris Archer’s career ERA is 3.47 but his FIP is 3.94 in 158 innings. Jarred Cosart had an ERA of 1.95 in sixty innings but also had an FIP of 4.35. Zack Wheeler has a career ERA of 3.42 but an FIP of 4.17 in one hundred major league innings. None of these three pitchers have had enough playing time to really prove themselves.
All four of these pitchers have better ERAs than FIPs and it will be interesting to see whether their performance more closely resembles their ERAs or their FIPs. ZIPs, Oliver and Steamer are not optimistic for any of these four pitchers for 2014.
It appears that high school pitchers that don’t make it to the majors by the time that they’re twenty-two do not do very well in the majors.

Next is a table of prospects from 1998-2013 that didn’t make it to the majors until they were 24 or older and fulfilled the conditions above.

There are successful pitchers in this grouping such as Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright. Jeremy Guthrie is a solid starting pitcher while Papelbon and Jenks were at one point successful relievers. 

The problem is that there really hasn’t been anyone particularly good since 2006. Adam Crow and Jake McGee look to be promising relievers although neither had a particularly good 2013. There is still hope that James Paxton will turn into a strong starting pitcher. Still of the 21 pitchers ranked from 2007-2014, the best one is arguably Jeff Niemann. Despite being ranked by Baseball America, it seems that we should not be surprised that Arrieta and Liz were also unimpressive. Certainly, there are plenty of other failed pitchers with similar profiles to keep them company.

If a pitching prospect is ranked by Baseball America then it is a sign that they may have what it takes to be a successful starter in the majors.  However, age is also an important sign. If a pitching prospect is old then chances are they are going to flop. When taking age into account it is clear that the previous iteration of pitching prospects were overrated. Pitchers like Britton, Arrieta and Liz shouldn’t have been expected to become successful starting pitchers even though they were ranked and probably shouldn’t have been ranked in the first place. Likewise, Patton was a top pitching prospect but once he suffered a labrum injury it was questionable whether he would ever be the same. In reality, the only pitching prospects with good chances to become starters were Tillman and Matusz. Tillman is our opening day starter while Matusz never fully recovered from an arm injury but has a chance at becoming a successful reliever. Injuries happen.

There are no promises when it comes to prospects. It is unlikely that all four will be successful. But it's good to know that there's a reason why these pitchers were disappointing and that it's probably not an organizational problem. I expect to see some genuinely talented homegrown pitching in our rotation in the near future.


gpolee said...

People mature at different rates. Rating Cliff Lee as 'good,' makes me wonder about the value of the factors that determine the rankings. I'd be interested to see how the success rate of 'top prospects' who first made the majors at 23 and 24 compares with those who first made it at 22, 21, 20, 19 and 18. And I really want to see the latter lists to compare pitchers deemed 'above average' and 'excellent' to Adam Wainwright and Lee. There are probably a few on the 25+ list, too, which would be interesting to see. I'm skeptical of the validity of this measurement, especially considering pitchers' injuries, years of team control changes in the recent past as well as changes in management philosphy regarding the expansion of bullpens and pitch counts limits, along with other variables. Predicting the success of pitching prospects has to be one of the hardest things to do in pro sports--even harder than hitting a baseball.:-)

Jon Shepherd said...

Some have asked about Liz (who is now with the Blue Jays after signing with them a couple weeks ago) being mentioned as a cavalry member while Bergeson has not.

Well, we have to go back to the original article and how I used the term. In that original article, we used the term in reference to being ranked as a Baseball America top 100 prospect. We went back all the way to Rocky Coppinger. No mention of cavalry was used back then, but we decided to use it in the way it was used during the MacPhail era.

Bergeson is not on the list because he was never a highly rated prospect.

Matt Perez said...

I used the criteria that I've used in earlier posts. I looked at the first six years that a player was in the majors. If a pitcher threw fewer than 25 innings in his first year, then I disregarded that year. If a pitcher threw fewer than 25 innings in his first and second year then I disregarded both of those years. My apologies for not making that clear.

A pitcher that averages 2.5-3.49 WAR per season is considered good.

Cliff Lee took some time to be good with the Indians. He was bad in 2007 and was merely decent in 2003, 2004 and 2006. He had great years in 2005 and 2008 but that's only two years out of the six measured.

Likewise, Adam Wainright was injured for all of 2011. While he was good in 2007 and 2008, he didn't really become a star until 2009. He had two excellent years out of the whole six.

There are 23 ranked pitchers that have been very good and excellent over the full sample starting in 1990. Some pitchers like Sale threaten to join that group. Regardless, we're talking slightly less than one a year.

I did write a post talking about the impact of age.

You can find it here:

You can find earlier posts on the subject here: