Every year, about a dozen pitchers seemingly defy a mediocre career performance to become fantasy stars. For some, moving to the next level was just a matter of finding consistency. For others, it's more a matter of finding the right circumstances. Regardless, fantasy seasons are won more often by finding these guys first than by any other development or strategy. So here are a few guys who have gotten no respect but look like strong candidates for surprise years in 2002.
Roy Halladay had always been highly regarded by scouts due to his overpowering assortment of pitches - a mid-90s fastball with late movement, a hard breaking sinker, an above average curve and a splitter he uses as a change of speed. However, he was never high on the analysts' rankings because of a relatively low career strikeout rate. So when he posted one of the worst years in history in 2000, it seemed that the analysts were right to be skeptical. Last year, he went to the minors to work on his mechanics and came back to produce an exceptional second half last year, including a much improved strikeout rate (8.3 per 9 innings as a starter). Still many analysts this offseason remained unconvinced that last year was anything but a fluke. Big mistake. Pitchers with overpowering stuff who have shown the kind of one-year improvement in both control and strikeouts that Halladay showed last year include Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, JR Richard, John Smoltz, Dazzy Vance and Sam McDowell.
It has taken Paul Wilson nearly 6 years to recover from the excessive workloads and the subsequent injuries he endured as a Mets prospect. And while he may never have the same overpowering fastball he once had as the nation's top college player at Florida State, he can still reach the low 90s with it and still has an excellent slider and good command of a change and curve. He struggled out of the gate last year largely because he pitched tentatively, leaving his pitches up. In the second half, he pitched aggressively, consistently staying down in the zone and the results were very positive: he posted an ERA of 2.39 and WHIP of 1.165 and batters hit just .237 against him, striking out at a rate of 7.8 per 9 innings.
Dan Riechert's calling card is a slider that moves so much that many observers liken it to a Frisbee. He also has an above average fastball with heavy sink. His problem has been that his pitches have so much movement that it's difficult to throw them for strikes. Or at least the umps have a hard time calling them for strikes when they end up in the catcher's mitt so far away from the plate. Like Halladay, he has been unfairly judged due to a low strikeout rate, at least relative to his reputed talent. But that should change as Reichert has been more aggressive this spring, throwing his pitches over the middle of the plate and allowing his extraordinary late movement to carry the ball to the corners of the strikezone.
Hideki Irabu seems like an odd choice for this list, especially considering all the notoriety that has surrounded his career. However, what has been lost in all the uproar about his temperament and off-the-field issues is that he has pitched through a number of injuries. He's relatively healthy now and coming off an impressive stint in winter ball - 65 IP, 61 Ks, 2.34 ERA, 1.071 WHIP. Other than the injuries, the thing that has held his success in check is holding base runners. Because of his slow delivery, trying to prevent baserunners from stealing has been a considerable distraction. This year, though, he'll have Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, who shuts down the opposition running game better than any man in history not named Bench. Now Irabu can just concentrate on staying healthy and getting hitters out. The fact that he's on a team with lots of stars and some players with similar "issues" should also alleviate some of the stress of being in the spotlight as he was in Montreal and to some degree, New York.
Ryan Rupe has a nice assortment of pitches he can throw for strikes - an above average fastball, a good slider and a great change-up. He has decent control but consistency has been his bugaboo, largely due to shaky mechanics. It's because of this that he elevates his pitches, making him quite vulnerable to the long ball - 21of the 30 homers he gave up last year came in 9 starts. However, when he keeps his pitches down he can be very tough - in the 17 starts in which he gave up fewer than 2 homers, he posted an ERA of 4.50 and a WHIP of 1.281, with 83 Ks in 96 innings.
Matt Clement is a mix between Reichert and Rupe - he has crazy movement on his pitches yet inconsistency in his delivery. Unlike them, he still has managed to rack up some pretty impressive strikeout numbers despite his control troubles: his career rate is 7.2 per 9 innings. His combination of sinking fastball and slider has often been likened to that of Kevin Brown. Brown had better control at this point in his career, but he too was viewed as an underachiever because of his considerable stuff. Then, in 1997, Brown signed with the Marlins, where a highly regarded pitching coach named Larry Rothchild fiddled a little with his mechanics and his approach to pitching. Consequently, he unleashed the dominating pitcher that has terrorized NL batters for the past 6 years. After a fairly unsuccessful stint as a manager in Tampa, Rothchild is back to being a pitching coach, this time for the Cubs. Almost as if he was trying to follow in Brown's exact footsteps, Clement was traded to Rothchild's team this spring. If Clement is to unlock his considerable potential, this would seem to be the likely place for it to happen.
AJ Burnett is widely perceived as a free spirit because of several body piercings, tattoos and a beatnik goatee. But few free spirits have a 95-mph moving fastball and a knee-buckling curve. Unfortunately for Burnett, he hasn't been able to consistently throw them for strikes since A-ball. This spring, while just goofing around imitating Kevin Brown's delivery, he discovered he had better control with a more compact pitching motion. The improvement has been noticeable. Last season, he struck out more batters than innings pitched in just 4 starts. This spring, he's struck out at least as many batters as innings pitched in all but one outing, including his first regular season start in which he struck out 9 Expos in 7+ innings. Back in A-ball, Burnett wowed scouts and analysts alike: he went 10-4 with a 1.97 ERA, 1.000 WHIP and 186 Ks in just 119 innings. While he likely won't dominate major leaguers that dramatically, it does show what kind of upper limit he has.
Bruce Chen has been an enigma to both scouts and analysts. He has good command of above average stuff, has a nice strikeout rate - 7.7 per 9 innings - yet has been traded 4 times in 5 years before his 26th birthday. One of the complaints has been his lack of dedication to learning the batters or staying in particularly good shape. Lapses in concentration resulting in home runs have caused his ERA to be higher than what would be expected given how well he's pitched. That is likely to change. His new manager, Frank Robinson, is a commanding presence in the clubhouse and is not known to be overly tolerant of slackers. He also has a knack for getting players to maintain focus. One of the most noticeable improvements Frank Robby pitching staffs have made when he takes over is a decline in home run rate. The three previous times he took over management of a team, his pitchers have reduced the number of home runs they surrendered by a total of 15.7%. His aggressive, no-excuses style should help Chen maintain focus enough to realize his potential. Also in Chen's favor is his apparent preference for pitching in domes - a career 3.10 ERA, holding batters to a .206 average there.
Before he was traded for Ken Griffey Jr, Brett Tomko was a promising young starter with high-octane heat and a nice assortment of breaking pitches. After the trade, he was used largely in relief. However, this did not take advantage of his superior repertoire. Last year he shuttled back and forth from AAA Tacoma to Seattle. In Tacoma, he was primarily a starter, striking out 117 batters while walking just 25 in 127 innings. Back in Seattle, he split time between the rotation and the pen with limited success. While his ERA as a reliever was lower than it was as a starter, his strikeout and walk rates weren't noticeably different. And when you consider that 3 of his 4 starts came against Texas, the third most prolific offense in the AL last year… well, it becomes clear that his ERA as a starter might be a little misleading. His other start, a game at Anaheim, was a respectable 5-inning outing: 4 hits allowed, 1 earned run, two walks and 4 Ks, much more in line with his Tacoma performance. Tomko's numbers have generally been very good as a starter and the Padres are going to give him the chance to prove that is where he belongs.
There's not a lot of statistical background on Kip Wells, largely because the White Sox did such a shabby job of handling him. Their first mistake was rushing him to the majors after just one season split between A-ball and AA. Once they got him there, they made their second mistake by moving him directly into the rotation. He started out OK, but once the scouting reports got around, he got banged around a little bit, which inspired the Sox to make their third mistake, which was to start shuttling him back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation, and between AAA and the majors. Basically he was too busy traveling to learn how to pitch. Finally, the Sox made their fourth mistake, which was to trade him and a few other guys for a pitcher who's no better than Wells, at least talent-wise. Now Wells is a Pirate, a team that pretty much knows going into this season they're not going to compete and that this year will be one to let a lot of young players get better. Wells throws a low-90s fastball, a hard curve and a decent slider with good command and is just a decent change-up away from putting up numbers like his first year as a professional: 191 IP, 1.252 WHIP, 3.42 ERA, 168 Ks. The Pirates will give him that opportunity.
A wise man once said that once a player demonstrates a level of talent, it is his until injuries, age or management takes it away from him. One or more of those factors has slowed the development of most of these guys. All have a track record that suggests a higher level of ability than what they've shown recently. Every one of them is in a situation favorable to realize that level this year.
© 2002, All Rights Reserved