Our Expectations for Baby Rockets

April twenty-fifth, twenty twelve is no doubt a date which shall live in infamy within the Yankees Universe. Early that afternoon, news broke that Michael Pineda had suffered a labrum tear and would miss the rest of the season. The situation could have been worse – rotator cuff damage has effectively ended careers and Pineda’s rotator cuff is clean – but the prognosis is the nonetheless shaky. Hours later Phil Hughes failed to get out of the third inning against the Texas Rangers, surrendering four earned runs and picking up his third loss of the season. Nearly five years after losing a no-hit bid to injury in Dallas, Hughes is a shell of his “Baby Rocket” self. David Phelps came on in relief and promptly surrendered three earned runs in two and a third innings, marking the worst outing of his short career.

In short, things went to hell on Wednesday, and they haven’t gotten any better since. Hughes’ time as a starting pitcher may be nearing an end. With Andy Pettitte on the way back and Phelps, Wednesday’s outing notwithstanding, looking strong so far this season, Phil could be pushed to the bullpen. Off the field things are not that much better. Joba Chamberlain is still recovering from a gruesome spring injury that has sidelined the big righty for the rest of the season. In minor league news, top prospect Manny Banuelos has pitched just five and a third innings this season and is sidelined with injury yet again. Dellin Betances has surrendered nearly as many earned runs as he has pitched innings, his control still holding back top of the rotation stuff that may never see big league success.

The bottom line is that, as EJ Fagan outlined yesterday, the Yankees are not very good at developing, signing, trading for, or otherwise possessing top of the line starting pitching. This is despite a decade-long quest to outspend, out scout, out draft, and out sign the competition, to compete with a behemoth in Boston, and teams like Tampa Bay that have succeeded ten-fold in developing this kind of pitching. Whenever this point is made though, there is a common contention. The Yankees aren’t very good at developing pitchers, but nobody really is, right? Of course there are outliers like Tampa, and like the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants. But pitchers are lottery tickets. They get hurt, they burn out, they’re figured out and that’s that. How, then, is the league doing in their quest to develop top of the line starting pitching?

Of the above mentioned pitchers, Hughes was probably the best prospect, followed closely by Chamberlain, and then Pineda who in a bigger market may very well have received similar hype. Hughes peaked at fourth on the 2007 Baseball America top prospect list. Chamberlain peaked at third in 2008. Pineda only made on appearance, as the sixteenth prospect in baseball heading into last season. All were comfortably within the top-20 prospects in Major League Baseball. While Pineda cannot yet be considered anything resembling a failure, and while there are differing positions on the possibility of success with Hughes and Chamberlain, none have yet returned the kind of value the Yankees had hoped.

Between 2005 and 2011, Baseball America published seven lists and ranked 40 pitchers within the top-20 prospects in baseball. Four pitchers appeared twice, by my count, meaning the average list had between six and seven such pitchers mentioned. These pitchers have succeeded or failed to varying degrees. Some have been unmitigated success or seem almost certainly headed for that fate. Some pitchers have had stretches of brilliance but faced adversity. Then there are the unmitigated failures, or simply those who have done little to meet expectations, and finally the pitchers for whom today is far too early to pass judgement. Here they are, categorized.

Too Early to Call (13 pitchers) – Neftali Feliz, Brian Matusz, Martin Perez, Jeremy Hellickson, Julio Teheran, Aroldis Champan, Jameson Taillon, Shelby Miller, Matt Moore, Michael Pineda, John Lamb, Mike MontgomeryChris Sale.

These pitchers appeared on the 2010 or 2011 lists and have had too little, if any, Major League experience to be evaluated at this date. They are not included in the below success rates. Of these pitchers, Feliz, Chapman, and Sale have had promising starts to their careers in the bullpen, but little starting experience. Pineda and Hellickson have had promising starts to their careers in the rotation, but Hellickson still has much to prove and Pineda is of course a big question mark going forward. Brian Matusz could very well make the list of failures in a year, but given the strength of his rookie season and his lack of experience I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

This leaves us with 27 pitchers to evaluate on Major League track-records.

Unmitigated Success (10 of 27, or 37%) – Justin Verlander, Tim LincecumClayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Yovani Gallardo, Tommy Hanson, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner.

This list reads like a who’s who of Major League top line starters and Cy Young contenders. I don’t imagine I’ll receive a bit of argument on the first five or six names and I think most would consider Hanson and Price fairly established big league pitchers at this point in their respective careers. Stephen Strasburg has faced a bit of adversity but is, at the moment, one of the best pitchers in baseball. Finally the Bumgarner, 22, has quietly made 56 big league starts and sports a 3.09 career ERA.

Mixed Bag (7 of 27, or 26%) – Chad Billingsley, Scott Kazmir, Francisco Liriano, Brett Anderson, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Trevor Cahill.

Essentially, these are pitchers who for a year or two looked almost certain to reach a level of stardom as a starting pitcher but have since suffered some degree of adversity that has either completely or partially derailed their careers. Anderson, Cahill, and Matsuzaka are tough to categorize, though Matsuzaka and Cahill, along with Billingsley, Kazmir, Buchholz, and Liriano were all serious Cy Young contenders at one point or another. All have had better and longer stretches of success than the pitchers in our final group.

Failures (10 of 27, or 37%) – Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Adam Miller, Franklin Morales, Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Homer Bailey, Jeff Nieman, Andrew Miller.

It’s tough to call most of these guys unmitigated failures. All of them are young and with the exception of Adam Miller and McGee all have had some success in the Major Leagues. Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, and Joba Chamberlain have been third or fourth starters. In the case of Hughes and Chamberlain, there has been even more success in relief. But these were top-20 prospects, future aces, and none of them have come close for any extended time to living up to that billing.

The first thing you notice about the above list is that yes, prospects are really hard to evaluate. Pitchers can be especially hard. But when you hit with a top of the line pitching prospect, you hit it big. You have a nearly two in three chance of coming out with a pitcher who will contend for at least one Cy Young award, a greater than one in three chance of developing a consistent top of the rotation starter. But with the exception of Cahill, and potentially Buchholz and Matsuzaka and Niemann, there isn’t much true middle ground. There aren’t many third starters on that list. Those who fail will do so in spectacular fashion.

The Yankees right now are oh-for-two with this kind of talent. Considering that Hughes and Chamberlain were truly the best of the best, it’s even more egregious. If Pineda is unable to return to form, if Banuelos does not develop the way we think he can, we will have to wonder whether the Yankees are doing something terribly wrong with their top pitching talent. The Yankees have struggled and look poised to continue to struggle in this department. But it’s not like most teams are perfect. The Rays, for example, have had three pitchers fall into the final category. The difference is that the Rays had seven chances, and hit on Price, for a time on Kazmir, and seem poised to hit on Hellickson and Moore. The Red Sox, who have their own pitching woes, were able to develop Jon Lester and trade for Josh Beckett. The Blue Jays have developed a string of lesser pitching prospects over the past few seasons. And so on, and so forth.

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t expect the front office to be perfect when it comes to developing this kind of pitching talent. No one is, no one will be. But we can expect more. The rest of the league does decidedly better than the Yankees nearly 70% of the time when it comes to top-20 pitching talent. 17 of 25 pitchers with unquestionably more valuable careers than the Yankees’ Hughes and Chamberlain since 2005. There’s still hope for Pineda, and for Banuelos, but this kind of talent comes along rarely. The Yankees have been lucky and persistent in acquiring said talent. They’ve simply failed to deliver. That failure needs to be corrected, or a competitive team with a payroll under $189 million will be pipe dream.

15 thoughts on “Our Expectations for Baby Rockets

  1. I appreciate that you are trying to be more scientific in your analysis. Look at the guys who are in your unmitigated success category though:

    Justin Verlander – 2nd overall pick
    Tim Linecum – 10th overall pick
    Clayton Kershaw – 7th overall pick
    Felix Hernandez – International Free Agent
    Matt Cain – 25th overall pick
    Yovani Gallardo – 2nd round pick
    Tommy Hanson – 22nd round pick
    David Price – 1st overall pick
    Madison Bumgarner – 10th overall pick
    Stephen Strasberg – 1st overall pick

    So with the exception of Hernandez, Gallardo, Cain and Hanson, none of these guys are ones that the Yankees could have ever hoped to add to their system. I don’t remember whether Hernandez was a huge international signing or not, but I think he predated the Yankees really investing in player development and international scouting. And 2 of the 3 pitchers who were drafted outside the top 10 picks were developed by the Braves and the Giants – two of the top 3 organizations at developing pitchers. I think people are too tough on the Yankees. One thing that probably also deserves mentioned is that Yankees prospects “benefit” from more hype than most. It’s quite possible to me that many Yankee prospects get ranked higher than they really deserve to be.

    • Draft position doesn’t really tell the whole story here. The Yankees signed Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and even Andrew Brackman to top-5 type contracts. Those guys fell because of signing demands and because at the time Chamberlain and Brackman were injured. Not because they were lesser prospects. Hernandez was a bit international signing, but the Yankees have always been active in that market.

      Anyway, I will agree with you that the Yankees get to little credit in the draft. They draft well and the minor league system has developed plenty of top tier prospects. My point is simply that when you have a pitcher in the high minor leagues performing with top quality stuff and when that pitcher is a top-5 or top-10 or top-20 prospect and fails to deliver, that’s pretty rare. Our expectations here are not out of whack. Hughes and Chamberlain should have succeeded to a greater degree and Pineda should succeed and may not. The problem is the Yankees inability to take the final step with pitching prospects. The rate of success in baseball is quite high where that is concerned.

      • Brackman and Joba had similar ceilings to players drafted much higher but they also came with much more risk which is why they fell to the Yankees so you have to take it into account that they were more likely to fail than someone like Verlander, Linecum, Price, etc. They paid them as much as they did because someone with their talent/ceiling rarely fell to them. That doesn’t mean that they were equivalent prospects. They weren’t.

        • But once you have the third or fourth best prospect in baseball, who cares where that player was drafted? Joba was considered a better prospect heading into 2008 than many of the players on the above list. So either everyone was wrong or the Yankees made some mistakes. I believe a combination of the two factors were at fault.

          Bottom line, the conversion rate with top prospects is high in baseball. Not perfect. But well over 50%. The Yankees are getting shutout.

          • I’m not saying that the Yankees did a good job of developing Joba. He only got what 90 innings in the minors? And he didn’t so much fail as a starter as have the Yankees decide that they didn’t want to continue to develop him as one. He was pretty good as a starter in 2008 and was again pretty good in 2009 at least until August.

            Once it was decided that Hughes and Joba would compete for one starting spot and that the loser wouldn’t ping pong back and forth in roles, Joba’s destiny was decided. I would have liked Joba to get a longer look but I still recognize that with the Yankees, short term competiveness is going to weigh more heavily in their decisions than long term player development at least compared to teams that we consider good at developing pitchers. It is really hard to be patient with multiple young starters when you have the Yankees’ payroll and are expected to be a WS contender year in, year out.

            Hughes seems to be more of a clear cut failure but I don’t know how you can know where to assign the blame.

            I do think they learned from the experience. They aren’t rushing pitchers now. Even if Banuelos and Betances start pitching well, Cashman has said their development time won’t be dictated by team needs.

    • King Felix was a very big deal when he signed. The Yanks even outbid the Mariners, but he spurned them. Good point about where the Yankees draft. If they get a big talent like Joba, there are often serious concerns that cause the player to drop. Hughes was the only Yankee draftee who seemed a serious top-tier with no problems potential ace at the time. Pretty much every other pitching prospect in the organization came in later rounds or was an international signee. I doubt even they could’ve ruined Strasberg.

  2. I don’t know the specifics, but is it legitimate to ignore how high in the draft these respective players were selected, when it comes to evaluating a team’s “proficiency” at developing starting pitching. For instance, Tampa was so poor for so long, they had several chances to select the best of the best, whereas teams that pick at the end of the round have to try and spot the hidden gems.

  3. Let’s talk about how well the Yankees develop 20+ draft position pitchers compared to other team. I literally quit reading after I saw Verlander and Strasberg listed as successfully developed pitchers. Maybe the Yankees should be a sub-.500 team for a few years so we can get some good draft picks?

    • They draft well and they spend a lot of money. No one said they didn’t.

      But what does it matter? If you can’t turn the third and fourth best prospects in baseball into top of the rotation starters – if you fail twice, and are on the verge of a third failure despite barely touching a fully developed 22-year-old – then there is a pattern worth considering. And frankly other teams are pretty good at this. Other teams succeed 70% of the time. I’ll buy luck only to a certain point. Hughes may have been drafted lower than Chad Billinsgley or Matt Cain but he was far, far better prospect. Any talent evaluator at the time would have said so. Same with Joba. And where did that get us? Looking back and saying “Well maybe those guys weren’t so good because they weren’t top-10 picks” ignores the enormous amount of talent that was wasted.

      There’s a failure here and ignoring it will do nothing. Give the front office credit where credit is due, with the bullpen and position prospects. With starting pitching there has been consistent failure.

      • We don’t have a large enough sample of top pitching prospects to draw any conclusions. You can’t site a statistically significant trend based on a handful of guys. I never said Hughes wasn’t so good a prospect because he wasn’t a top ten pick. I did say Joba and Brackman fell in the draft for reasons though and I stand by that. They had high ceilings but were also viewed as high risk, high reward picks so the odds of them becoming a top of the rotation starter should have been viewed as less likely. Also, Wang, Nova and Kennedy have turned out pretty well even if they never were considered as good prospects as Joba and Hughes. I don’t get why Pineda (assuming he’s your third failure) would even merit a mention here as he isn’t a developmental failure. I don’t see how you can realistically chalk Pineda up to anything but bad luck.

        • No, we don’t have a statistically signficant sample size of top-20 prospect. I only claim that developing top pitching prospects is doable and that the league as a whole has a strong track-record in that regard. So the failure of the Yankees to do so cannot be viewed as normal. I’d argue that many fans see it as normal because they are so accustomed to the Yankees failures with starting pitching over the past decade. Pitching prospects, in truth, have a better rate of actualization than hitting prospects. If a guy throws hard, has good breaking balls, and can throw strikes he’s almost always going to succeed. Hitting is much more nuanced.

          I think I’m right there. I think if you look through the top prospect lists of Baseball American, Baseball Prospectus, etc. you’ll see a similar pattern and I tried to demonstrated that. I don’t agree with the theory that young pitching is so risky that a high percentage of failure should be seen as normal or acceptable. Draft position really doesn’t matter a couple of years out. Joba and Hughes were just as good prospects as almost anyone on that list. They were and should have been viewed as fairly safe bets and that view has turned out to be faulty. That’s somewhat abnormal.

          • What am I missing here? You say that “the league as a whole has a strong track record” but your original post found as many failures as unmitigated successes.

            I would argue Hughes’ talents and pitching arsenal has never been in the same league as Kershaw, Verlander, Strasberg, Linecum, Hernandez or Price. Those six are over half of your unmitigated successes so I disagree that he was every bit the prospect as almost anyone. Maybe I’m quibbling here but I just never bought that much into the Hughes hype. I think he could have been a successful starter but I’d never call his not becoming an ace a developmental failure.

            They didn’t rush Hughes. They’ve been patient with him and given him many chances, even demoting Nova last year to open up a spot for him. Maybe he would have been better off if they didn’t use him in the bullpen in 2009 but I have a hard time thinking that is to blame for how bad he’s been for the past year +.

            You have a much better case with Joba as his pure stuff was more elite, he was rushed and he never really got an extended chance to grow as a starter. Asking the Yankees to be patient with multiple young starters when they are always in a pennant race is probably unreasonable though. Also, He did fall to the Yankees in the draft due to questions about injury history/risk and poor conditioning, issues that have continued to be a problem for him.

            To the extent that the Yankees screwed up on Joba, I don’t really think you can say it’s part of a trend. I don’t think you’ll ever see them rush someone throw the system like that again.

      • I’m totally unconvinced by this piece. Seems to be missing a major point here. Injuries were a factor with both Joba and Hughes. Joba had been superb as both reliever and starter until he left the mound that awful nite Pudge caught him with his arm hanging at his side. He was never quite the same after that. So his “failure to develop” had everything to do with the reason the Yanks were able to get him in the first place.
        The situation is less clear with Hughes. But the argument can still be made that Hughes lost his curve ball after his hammy went that nite in Texas. He then changed his delivery to put less stress on the groin — but that doesn’t make for a first-rate curveball.
        Really, I think it’s a bogus argument that the Yankees have failed to develop pitchers. The real issue is their execrable judgment in trading for pitchers and in signing free agents. Vazquez, Weaver, Brown, Wright, Feliciano, Karsay, Gabe White — the list goes on an on.
        I also think there is another story that is being misshed here — Yanks do seem to meddle too much with mechanics. I don’t think this was an issue with Joba and Hughes. But I do think it may be an issue with Manny and Betances. This may be where to look for clues on the issue of developing starters. There have been some guys going back years — Ryan Bradley and Cullen Hartzog come to mind — who seem to fall into this category. But what’s clear and really it seems to me beyond dispute is Cashman’s poor record in trading for pitchers.

      • #1 Yankee prospects are over-hyped
        #2 How 25+ drafted players in the MLB actually become elite top of the rotation starters?
        #3 You bring up Hughes and Joba as failures, but you forget that they were rushed to the majors. Neither one of them saw a full season in AAA.So yeah the only fault I can give the Yankees is that they rushed those prospects.
        #4 We have the best bullpen in baseball, so we are doing something right.
        #5 Is it the Yankees fault that Hughes only has two pitches?
        #6 Just enjoy the season instead of complaining. This is Mo’s last season and A-Rod is going to pass Mays in career hr.

  4. Yankee prospects are over-hyped? Not by the Yankees.
    It was Baseball America (which has sometimes been cited for anti-Yankee bias) that ranked Joba and Hughes among the best two or three pitching prospects in the game. Same now, when publications have identified Banuelos and Betances as Top 50 prospects. This is certainly not the result of the Yankees whispering seet nothings at Jim Callis.
    Total canard IMO that Yankees hype prospects. Or let me restate that: it’s a canard that Yankee prospects are rated highly because of anything the Yankees say. If anything, there are enough Yankee haters around that such “hyping” wpould actually be counter-productive.