[Web Special] Baseball: You Can't Pick a Pitcher

Thursday, June 11, 2009 - 05:59 AM

However it turns out – and these things have a way of getting weird when the Washington Nationals are involved – Stephen Strasburg is in for one hell of a ride. He became the number one pick in the major league draft, the first Must Pick guy in its 43-year history. He’s the Lew Alcindor and LeBron James, the O.J. Simpson and Payton Manning, the Guy Lafleur and Sidney Crosby of his sport, the guy a GM has to draft unless he’s interested in explaining to his team’s owner why the fans are burning him in effigy.

What those guys have in common is that these theoretical no-brainer picks by the Bucks, Cavs, Bills, Colts, Canadiens and Penguins turned out to be no-brainers in practice, too: they all became superstars.

Everyone’s excited about Strasburg. (See a detailed description of why in my earlier blog post.) He throws in the 100s, with a breaking ball in the high 80s. He’s whipsmart, tall and athletic and he’s still filling out. There’s never been a complete package quite like him, but does that mean the Nationals are going to make the World Series in five years? That Strasburg can start dusting his shelves right now so he has a nice, tidy place for his multiple Cy Youngs? ...(continue reading)

Not so much. There’ll probably be a statue of Barack Obama in Washington before the dysfunctional Nats win the World Series, and Strasburg himself is no sure thing. Why? TINSTAAPP, of course.

That’s stat speak for There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, a phrase that Baseball Prospectus says was coined on rec.sport.baseball – remember Usenet?– by stat guru Gary Huckabay in the late ‘90s. The idea is that the development of a pitcher is so unpredictable that investing an inordinate amount of time and money in any one of them – exactly what the Nationals are about to do with Strasburg; $50 million if Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras has his way – is insane. The history of pitching draft picks and minor league baseball is littered with failure, flameouts, heartbreak and hubris.

Pitching is an unnatural act, the argument goes. There is no way to know which 18- to 21-year-old arms, backs, hips and legs will stand up to the mechanical stress of it and which won’t. And that’s just the physical side. Every 18- to 21-year-old kid good enough to get drafted by a major league baseball team has spent his life playing two to four times a week, a superstar in whatever league he’s in. He’s had a life full of honors, attention, cheap trophies and expensive girlfriends. Pro baseball is another beast entirely. It’s an everyday grind against guys who are all about as good as you are. Not only do they whack that flat little curveball that the kids at Cal Poly couldn’t touch, but if you don’t locate your best fastball just right, they brutalize that, too. Failure becomes part of your daily life. Learning to accept and then learn from failure, adapting on the fly, is a critical skill in pro baseball, and again, it's a mystery who will master this skill and who won't."

But take hope, Nats fans. There is such a thing as a pitching prospect, it turns out. The term should probably be “There’s No Such Thing as a Sure Thing Kid Pitcher” (TNSTAASTKP, copyright The Takeaway, all rights reserved). Baseball scouts and teams have become fairly adept at identifying a group of guys who at least have a shot at the big time.

I took apart the MLB draft from 1990-99 (that’s to give us a chance to have some perspective on who made it and who didn’t), and what I found is that pitchers drafted in the first round have about a one in three chance to have a successful major league career, which I defined as being on an active major league roster for at least half of five different seasons. It means that Strasburg and his first round hurling confrères aren’t sure things, but a fair number of them are going to be guys who have a real impact for somebody.

What was astonishing, though, is that after the first round, TINSTAAPP is real: finding pitchers is a crapshoot, not much different from shooting darts blindfolded.

Major League Draft, 1990-99

  • First round*: 147 pitchers drafted, 53 with major league careers
  • Second round*: 136 pitchers drafted, 12** with major league careers
  • Fifth round: 152 pitchers drafted, 3*** with major league careers
  • Tenth round: 125 pitchers drafted, 5 with major league careers

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*Does not include supplemental picks, the number of which varies from year to year.
**Does not include Rick Ankiel, who will not meet the standard as a pitcher.
***Does not include Nate Robertson, Seth McClung and Joe Saunders, who do not yet but probably will meet our definition of having a major league career.

Victor Wang, writing for the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) newsletter, went at the same drafts from a slightly different perspective and found an eight-to-one “bust”-to-“star” ratio for top ten-rated pitching prospects for each year in the ‘90s.

Baseball is full of plucky tales of late draftees making the majors: the most famous is probably Mike Piazza, a 62nd round pick for the Dodgers in ’88 now counting his money in retirement and awaiting a sure-thing election to the Hall of Fame. What most of those stories have in common is that they’re about hitters, not pitchers. There may not be anything riskier in sports then opening your checkbook for a kid pitcher. It’s going to give the Nationals nightmares for years to come.

And for more...read an earlier Takeaway blog post by Jeff Beresford-Howe that details Stephen Strasburg's pitching career so far.

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