The Problem with Pitching Prospects

Much has been written recently regarding the value of evaluating pitching prospects.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest that no pitcher should ever be considered a top prospect and that hitting prospects are always better; that there's simply too much risk involved with pitchers.  While there is some truth in this - forecasting pitchers is harder than it is for hitters - it's untrue that it is not a rewarding enterprise and that finding quality pitching prospects is not worth the risk.  If you can say "yes" to the question "can a pitcher be the best player in baseball", then a pitcher can be the best prospect.  The real problem is how to find them.

The Numbers

Forecasting hitters is easy.  Find the guys who draw the most walks and hit the most extra base hits and generally you have found the best prospects.  Measuring a hitter is almost entirely about measuring physical ability and the answer is almost always found in their numbers.

This is not true with pitchers.  If you look at the top pitchers in baseball and look at their minor league record, you'd be hard pressed to find many common distinctions.  What did Randy Johnson's minor league numbers have in common with those of Roger Clemens?

PITCHERS          W-L     ERA    G  GS  CG   IP    H    R    ER   BB   SO   WHIP   K/BB  K/IP
Johnson          28-26   3.49   83  81   2  420   316  191  163  327  450  1.531  1.377  1.07
Clemens           9-5    1.41   21  20   7  140    94   24   22   35  165  0.921  4.714  1.18

Both pitchers have ended up in pretty much the same place, but they took wildly divergent paths to get there.  On the opposite end, what distinguished Greg Maddux from Jeff Suppan?

PITCHERS          W-L     ERA    G  GS  CG   IP    H    R    ER   BB   SO   WHIP   K/BB  K/IP
Maddux           36-15   2.86   71  69  19  491   432  195  156  150  309  1.185  2.060  0.63
Suppan           44-25   3.24  103 101  16  649   597  279  234  158  601  1.163  3.804  0.93

Why did Mike Mussina become a star but Bobby Jones didn't?

PITCHERS          W-L     ERA    G  GS  CG   IP    H    R    ER   BB   SO   WHIP   K/BB  K/IP
Mussina          14-4    2.42   30  30   5  186   155   56   50   43  172  1.065  4.000  0.92
B. Jones         30-17   2.74   58  58  10  371   309  125  113   86  324  1.065  3.767  0.87

The answer is not apparent in their numbers.

It's just not clear that we have an adequate handle on measuring the mental side of pitching to accurately evaluate whether one pitching prospect will be more successful than another.  So if we can't rank the pitchers amongst themselves, how are we supposed to rank them against hitters?  And it's not as though star pitchers are generally less valuable than star hitters.  Name the top 10 players in the game over the last 5 years and half of them will likely be pitchers.  If they weren't the top prospects, then there must be a flaw in the way we evaluate them.

Perhaps the two best performance clues are ERA and strikeouts per inning.  Like most pitching stats they are age-dependent (a 23-year old striking out 150 batters in A-ball doesn't tell us as much as a 21-year old doing it), but they do seem to have the best carryover to the majors.  A good ERA tells us that regardless of how many baserunners the pitcher allows, he's smart or talented enough to work his way out of jams.  And the strikeout rate generally tells us the quality of the pitches he's throwing.  Even if he doesn't throw hard, if he's getting Ks, it's likely he has a pitch - a change-up or a curve usually - that can get major league hitters out.  Even armed with this, though, there's still no guarantee of success:

PITCHERS          W-L     ERA    G  GS  CG   IP    H    R    ER   BB   SO   WHIP   K/BB  K/IP
Coppinger        40-20   3.03   90  87   5  523   415  205  176  243  509  1.258  2.095  0.97


The problem of injury risk is a real one.  It's not that teams spend too much drafting high school pitchers.  That may not be a problem at all.  The real problem is that teams would rather spend a million dollars signing a high school pitcher, but won't spend $100,000 studying how to best keep him, or their sizable collection of high school pitchers, healthy.

Several studies have shown that drafting college pitchers is much less risky than drafting high school pitchers.  What the studies don't show you is that college pitchers are 3 and 4 years older than high school pitchers, thus their level of health risk is lower because their bodies are more fully developed.  But what if research showed how to keep a young arm healthy?  What if there was a method to strengthen the arm and prevent injury?  Wouldn't it be more advantageous to select the player with the most growth potential?  If you have an 18-year old throwing 90 mph and a 22-year old throwing the same and health was not an issue, wouldn't it be better to select the guy who's gonna continue to grow?

Not long ago, all ballplayers were told that weight-lifting was bad for them because that kind of training tightened the muscle mass, which would lead to more injuries.  However, the benefit of weight-lifting was that the tightening of the muscle mass led to more explosiveness, more power.  It took tens of thousands of hours of research but people finally figured out how to increase the muscle mass without risking the injuries once associated with developing it.  Now weight-lifting and supplements to gain muscle mass are almost a requirement for hitters to stay in the big leagues.

The reason so much time was devoted to those innovations is because that kind of training applies to almost every sport.  It was simply a matter of sheer numbers that produced the desired results.  Lots of people were looking for more injury-free explosiveness and with the combined resources of numerous entities working on the same problem, they eventually found it.  More to the point, there was big money from a number of sports in finding solutions to increase short burst explosiveness and that attracted more people to research it.

Unfortunately for baseball's pitchers, the kinds of repetitive throwing stresses they endure are fairly unique.  So there's fewer people interested in the results, thus less money and fewer people working to find solutions.  However, that doesn't lessen the importance of what pitchers do in the game.  It could be argued that because pitching is so unique and so integral to the game, that baseball should try to make up the difference in resources devoted to the study on it's own.  And given the amount of money that teams have been spending on signing bonuses to players who will never see a day in the big leagues, it might even make long-term financial sense.

If they can find a way to make hitters bigger, stronger and faster without increasing injury, they should be able to find a way to strengthen all the muscles involved in and around the throwing motion to not only strengthen the apparatus, but to insure it's continued health.  Once that problem is solved, then finding better statistical evaluating tools for pitching prospects will be much more practical.