Playing Around with Comps

A couple of days ago I decided to put my thoughts regarding the Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero deal down on paper and I got a lot of excellent feedback in the comment section. Originally I had no intention to do a follow-up post but an interesting exchange with a commenter, MJ Recanati, left me feeling as though I had not entirely justified my position.

To sum up this exchange: In defending the wisdom of dealing a 1B/DH bat for a more proven starting pitcher, I stated that it was “difficult to imagine this deal going poorly” while “easy to imagine it going well.” MJ (rightfully) called me out on this. After all, it’s easy to imagine such a devastating scenario as could make this trade look foolish from one perspective or another. We don’t have to look too far back to find a top of the rotation starter who’s career was destroyed early on by the injury bug. I restated my position as follows:

I think it’s easy to imagine a situation in which it goes bad yet hard to imagine this bad scenario aside from some significant and unforeseeable development (a major injury or major regression).

And yet still I probably failed to justify my position thoroughly. As MJ pointed out Pineda’s 2011 season was fairly rare. It has always been my observation that pitchers of that skill level who have that kind of success at that young an age rarely fizzle out. But I had taken this as a given. I hadn’t bothered to justify it. In a sport built on broken promises, continued success should never be taken for granted.

The question then is whether my re-stated point above can be justified. Is it true that young pitchers with the kind of Major League season Michael Pineda had in 2011 rarely fail to turn into front of the rotation starter? Or is that something that simply can’t be determined from the data? Of course one would not want to read too much into a single season but if what Pineda did is rare enough and if we accept that he has the raw talent to justify the realistic nature of those statistics, does that then tell us anything?

Let’s take a look at the comps. Before we get started, we need to build some criteria for what a “Michael Pineda 2011″-like season is. If we’re too specific, the sample will be of no use. If we aren’t specific enough, the conclusions we draw will be equally invalid. I decided to look for seasons that fit the following criteria:

  • The pitcher was less than 24 years old. The exact age doesn’t matter so much as the distinction between a pitcher who is in the early developmental stages of his career and a pitcher who is entering his prime.
  •  The pitcher qualified for the ERA title. We don’t want a bunch of relief pitchers and September callups.
  • The pitcher struck out more than eight batters per nine innings. This is a big part of who Michael Pineda is. He misses bats. Eight as the minimum should put his bat-missing skill right in the middle of the group.
  • The pitcher walked fewer than three and a half batters per nine innings. Again, Pineda’s above average control is a big part of his success. A cutoff of 3.5 should put him right in the middle of the pack.

And that’s it. Because we are looking at single seasons, we don’t want to put too much stock in ERA or similar performance measures. We also don’t want to add too many qualifications. Allowing for a large sample of somewhat comparable pitchers, a sample in which Pineda falls somewhere in the middle or towards the high end, should ultimately put my hypothesis to the test. If that sample does tend to produce, at a very high rate, very successful starting pitchers we can at least say that what Pineda did last season makes him a substantially safer bet than he would otherwise be.

We also need a way to classify these pitchers in relation to their success or failure in developing into that top of the rotation starter we want to see Pineda become. As far as I see it, there are three categories.

  1. A pitcher who succeeded in developing into a top of the rotation starter (a number one or number two) for a reasonable period of time (let’s say 4-5 years).
  2. A pitcher who, it seems, would likely fit into category 1 had an unforeseeable and flukey event (major injury) not cut their career or effectiveness severely short.
  3. A pitcher who fizzled out early and simply was never able to put together a stretch of dominance.

Before we get into the list, one final note. While this is a primarily quantitive analysis of Pineda’s statistics, it would be unwise not to consider more qualitative descriptors. In this regard we are quite lucky. The sample we have chosen is very qualitatively self-selective. Most of these pitchers are big, right handed power pitchers with excellent stuff and solid to above average control. Essentially, most of the pitchers who have done what Pineda did were like Michael Pineda. This is to be expected. Big power pitchers are generally the only ones who put up 8+ K/9 seasons. Righties develop earlier on then lefties. We’re also filtering out older players and those without complete skill sets.

These players all debuted since 1959, most since 1980, and many since 2000. This is to be expected. Pre-expansion pitchers generally relied heavily on finesse and control. Few were anything like Michael Pineda. Over the past few decades, though, we’ve seen hard throwing strikeout pitchers dominate the game of baseball. We’ll touch on the examples from the 1960s and 70s of course, but this self-restricting sample allows us to get a better picture of what Michael Pineda’s early success looks like in the context of today’s game. That’s a good thing.

Now, on to the list.

Don Drysdale (1959, 1960) - Drysdale broke into the big league’s as a teenager with the Dodgers and promptly finished second in the league in ERA in 1957. It was his ’59 and ’60 season, at 22 and 23, that land him on the list. He led the league in strikeouts both seasons, and demonstrated a degree of control rare for a strikeout pitcher of that era. Drysdale of course won 209 games an was elected to the Hall of Fame, though his career ended in his early 30s. Category 1. 

Jim Maloney (1963) - Never known for his control, Maloney makes our list for his age-23 season in ’63, in which he struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings and walked 3.2. Maloney’s career was cut short at 31, but he probably falls into the first category. He finished in the top-10 in adjusted ERA four times and won 117 games over a period if seven seasons. Can’t consider that anything but a success. Category 1.

Dave Boswell (1966) - A trend seems to be developing here. Boswell broke into the big leagues at 19 and had several successful seasons in the late 60s, mostly as a result of his big strikeout rate. He never had great control and barely makes this list in 1966 (only 169 innings and a 3.5 BB/9 rate). but was a fairly successful pitcher while in the big leagues. His career was cut short, like that of Drysdale and Maloney, early on. He was just 26 in his final season. Category 2. 

Don Sutton (1966) - Drysdale’s rotation mate on those late-60s Dodgers teams, Don Sutton was smaller than Drysdale and a less imposing bat-misser. In fact, after his rookie year of 1966 in which the 21-year-old struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings, he never came close to reaching that figure again. Still, he possessed an outstanding combination of stuff and command and it was likely his more restrained repertoire that allowed him to win 324 games over a 22-year career. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. Category 1. 

Gary Nolan (1967) - A first round pick in the first ever amateur draft, Nolan made his big league debut within a year of being drafted and at 19, in 1967, led the league in strikeout rate and finished the year with a 2.58 ERA. Nolan would go on receive Cy Young votes in both 1970 and 1972 and was among the hardest throwing pitchers in the Major League’s during his career. He missed much of the 1973 and 1974 seasons with arm injuries and retried before the age of 30. Category 2. 

Bob Moose (1969) - Smaller in stature than the other players thus far mentioned, Moose was not really a strikeout pitcher for much of his career. His 1969 season, in which he went 14-3 with a 2.91 ERA, makes the list, and he had several other impressive seasons but does not so much fit the profile we are going for here. He was killed in a car accident on his 29th birthday. Category 2. 

So let’s stop and look at the first few players on our list. For the most part, these players fit our profile perfectly. All righties, all strikeout pitchers aside from Moose, varying degrees of control but certainly decent control for power pitchers. With the exception of Sutton, all had early ends to their careers though, and thus aside from Sutton, Drysdale, and perhaps Maloney, all of these players fall between the first and second categories. This is understandable. The game simply wasn’t ready for hard throwers and bat missers and these guys were generally overworked. Still, Drysdale and Sutton made the Hall of Fame. The rest were All-Stars and for a time top of the rotation starters. Generally, these players did not fizzle out.

Frank Tanana (1975, 1976) - Like Don Sutton, Frank Tanana had a very long and successful Major League career, winning 240 games and planting himself firmly in the first category. Unlike Sutton, though, he is known far more for his fantastic prime than his longevity. Said to have thrown a fastball in excess of 100 MPH, Tanana dominated American League hitters from the age of 19 to the age of 23. Like many of the above pitchers he was probably overworked and his ability to miss bats wained after the 1977 season. Category 1.  

Fernando Valenzuela (1981) - Valenzuela was a unique pitcher. At 20, in his first full season in the big leagues, he won the Cy Young award leading the league in strikeouts in a shortened seasons. He would finish in the top-5 in three of the next five seasons. By his late-20s though, his career had stalled. Still, a great pitcher nonetheless. Category 1.  

Dwight Gooden (1984, 1985) - Gooden was in ’84 to New York what Valenzuela was in ’81 to Los Angeles. Hewas unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball for a time and continued to pitch very well for much of the rest of the 1980s but his career fizzled around 1994. Good resume, but what could have been? Category 1. 

Jose Rijo (1984) - Called up in 1984 as the youngest player in baseball and the Yankees answer to Doc Gooden, Rijo did not find nearly as much early success. He wasn’t ready. But at 23-year-old everything clicked. Rijo finished seventh in the league in ERA, and over the next six years, dominated the National Leagues with the Cincinnati Reds. Arm trouble changed the course of his career as he approached his 30th birthday, however, and by the late-90s he was out of baseball. Category 2. 

As we moved on to the 1970s and 1980s, we started to see the return of the phenom. A new generation of Bob Fellers and Herb Scores who took the league by storm but who’s primes burned as fast as they did bright. Whether do tue overwork or overexposure or simply an inability for pitchers of the time to throw so hard and hurl such devastating stuff, the 1975 to 1985 period gave us four examples of great young pitchers, power pitchers with control, who made a name for themselves and just as quickly became afterthoughts.

Up to about 1985, it would have been completely reasonable for a fan presented with a young strikeout machine to be highly skeptical. After all, these guys just were not working out as expected. Those pitchers who had patiently bided their time in the minor leagues or who’s careers took longer to develop  were generally those who lasted into their mid-30s at the levels of the mid-20s. The young phenoms were very, very risky. That was about to change.

Roger Clemens (1986) – Roger freaking Clemens. Rocket. Seven time Cy Young award winner. Burst onto the scene with power/command combination in the mid-80s, winning a Cy Young award and MVP at just 22 years old. The rest is history. Category 1.

Ramon Martinez (1990) – Overshadowed by his better younger brother, one must not forget that Ramon was one of the best pitchers in baseball throughout the early 1990s. A 8.6 strikeout rate and 2.6 walk rate in his third season, 1990, was a sign of things to come as he won 118 games with a 3.45 ERA for the Dodgers and Red Sox during the decade. Category 1.

Pedro Martinez (1994, 1995) - Four years later, Ramon’s little brother Pedro, a recent acquisition of the Montreal Expos, broke out in a big way. The 22-year-old struck out 142 and walked just 45 in ’94. After two near repeat performances, Pedro won his first Cy Young in 1997. He would finish first, second, or third in six of the next seven seasons. Category 1. 

Kevin Millwood (1998) – An interesting case. Millwood has had a very up and down career in the big leagues. At times, he’s looked like a clear cut second starter. Since his 1998 season he’s led the league in ERA once, and on a separate occasion finished third in Cy Young voting. He’s not a failure but he also hasn’t exactly had a long stretch of top of the rotation seasons. Category 1-point-something. 

Barry Zito (2001) – That bad contract with San Francisco may overshadow the great pitcher Zito was for the A’s in the early part of this past decade, but there’s a reason the Giants shelled out that kind of cash. Zito broke out at 23-year-old in 2001 and by 2002 he had a Cy Young under his belt. Six or seven good top or mid rotation years in Oakland before a terrible stretch with the Giants. Category 1.

Mark Prior (2003) – Prior’s health demonstrates the downside of any pitcher, any player really, but there’s essentially no question he would have continued to pitch at a high level had he stayed healthy. His 2003 season was among the best in recent memory. Category 2.

Jake Peavy (2004) – Peavy has run into his own problems the past couple of years but few were better from his breakout season in 2004 (when he led the league in ERA) to his final season with the Padres in 2009. If his solid peripherals are any indication, there could be a bounce back coming. He just has to stay healthy. Category 1.

Carlos Zambrano (2004) - Say what you will about Carlos Zambrano, but from his debut to the 2010 season, he made 258 starts with an ERA of 3.50. The third Cubs phenom after Wood and Prior, Zambrano never reached those highs, but his time as a number two starter was substantial. Category 1.

Felix Hernandez (2006, 2009) – Pineda’s former teammate, King Felix’s 2006 season was by some measures a disappointment but it makes our list, as does his outstanding 2009. Little has to be said about his status as one of the best pitchers in baseball, except to note that going into his age-23 season, Felix had never matched Pineda’s 2011 FIP of 3.42. Category 1.

Jerremy Bonderman (2006) – The only absolute failure on this list. Bonderman is a bit of a throwback. He was a big time prospect, a hard thrower and bat misser who was rushed through the Tigers system in the early part of the last decade. He struggled to establish himself in the big leagues but his 2006 season, at 23-years-old, looked like a big step in the right direction. It wasn’t. Bonderman’s season would be towards the back of this pack in almost all regards anyway, but he can’t be completely dismissed. Category 3.

Cole Hamels (2007) – It’s still a little early with Hamels – he’s only had four seasons at the first our second starter level – but it’s hard to imagine any way in which he does not become a clear cut category one pitcher. His second season in 2007 was a sign of things to come for the Phillies lefty. He led the Phillies to a 2008 World Series title and had his best season in 2011. Category 1. 

Clayton Kershaw (2011) – In the same boat as Hamels. We don’t know if he’s going to keep this up but seeing as one could legitimately call Kershaw the best pitcher in baseball right now, and given his age, it’s tough to imagine he doesn’t become an massive success in the long run. Category 1.

Mat Latos (2010, 2011) and Madison Bumgarner (2011)  – Two guys who did it last season. The early results are encouraging but they are, for the most part, in the same boat as Pineda. I like Latos and Pineda, on a pure talent level, more than Bugmarner, though he was probably the best of the group last season. If history, especially recent history, is any indication, this will be a great trio of starting pitchers.

So, what does this all tell us?

It tells us first off that what Pineda did last season was fairly rare, though in an age of better player development, of more strikeouts, of a better understanding of prospecting, it’s not quite so rare. There are comparisons and they are mostly quite flattering.

It tells us also that very rarely do these kind of players just fizzle out, or regress in their next seasons, or bust. There are guys who don’t have the longest careers, guys who’s primes are fairly short, but with the exception of Bonderman, each was for a time a top of the rotation starter.

We also see an encouraging trend throughout time. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, and even into the 80s teams simply did not know how to manage these young pitchers. They were overworked. They had great early stretches but flamed out. While mixed feelings exist as to innings limits and pitch counts, we have to recognize that in todays Major League Baseball, it seems like it might be working. These guys are pitching longer. They don’t all maintain their skill sets into their 30s. Zito and Zambrano and Ramon Martinez were not the same pitchers after a certain time. But it seems to be getting better.

One might argue with my various characterizations and categorizations  but I think it would be hard to argue the fundamental point. That is that while certainly some young pitchers with great stuff and solid control who have good seasons at 20, or 21, or 22, or 23 don’t end up as aces, or Hall of Famers, or have their careers changed for the worse at 29 or 30, almost all of them develop into, for at least four or five or six seasons, top of the rotation starters.

That bodes well for Pineda, and for the Yankees.

7 thoughts on “Playing Around with Comps

  1. T.O. Chris

    Nice research. I would tend to shy away from comparisons to 60’s pitchers, just because Pineda will never be asked to throw 300 innings in a season like Drysdale did 4 separate times.

    I tend to agree with the overall message, even before you backed it up with this data. Unless Pineda has a freak injury end his career I have a hard time seeing him being any worse than a number 3 starter for the next 5-6 years. Which honestly has enough value in and of itself for me to be OK with trading Montero, even if he becomes the best DH in baseball for the next 10 years. When you add in the potential for Pineda to become a number 2 or even ace quality pitcher and I think it’s a deal the Yankees absolutely had no choice but to make.

  2. Jim P

    I don’t know which I enjoyed more: the content of the article or your devotion in working out a reasonable perspective on our new pitcher. Great work. Thanks, and here’s hoping we do have a true top-of-the-line performer for the next few years to add to CC.

    Which makes me wonder: what does Nova project as?

    • T.O. Chris

      Before the addition of the slider Nova profiled as no more than a 4th or 5th starter. Doesn’t strike many out, walks a lot, generates ground balls but not at the same rate as a Wang. However if you believe in his numbers from July and August with the addition of the slider that takes his projections up to more of a 3/4. Generates more swings and misses and walks less batters to go along with his ground balls. He’ll never be an ace, or a number 2 in a strong rotation, but he could be a strong number 3 in any rotation if he continues his work with the slider. Which would fit in nicely with CC, Pineda, and hopefully Banuelos if he can harness his control.

  3. David in Cal

    Very nice study!

  4. DirtyWater

    “…Pineda’s 2011 season was fairly rare. It has always been my observation that pitchers of that skill level who have that kind of success at that young an age rarely fizzle out.”

    Didn’t he fizzle out by the end of 2011 already?

    • Alex Geshwind

      No. The ERA was misleading. FIP/xFIP staid fairly constant all season.

      Even if he had I wouldn’t be terribly concerned. He was dealing with a new level and new workload and he had a very good full season.

  5. @Alex Geshwind: Thanks for the mention in this column! I definitely enjoyed batting it back and forth with you last week.

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