April 11, 2013
Should We Start Pitchers Making Their Major-League Debuts?
Sometimes things that we take for granted as gospel are worth investigating. The latest example of this came in the wake of Jose Fernandez’s incredible debut for the Marlins this past Sunday. It’s not often that we see something that we can say has never been done before, but the 2011 draftee accomplished a truly unique feat. Jose Fernandez was the first-ever 20-year-old to strike out at least eight batters and walk one or fewer in his major-league debut. Yes, the first in major-league history.
So, of course, just over two hours before Fernandez threw his first major-league pitch, I took to Twitter and offered the right-hander’s owners this “advice.”
My intention there was to be the voice of reason. After all, there have only been two other pitchers in the last 25 years to skip straight from A-ball to the majors at the tender age of 20—and Fernandez’s game score of 64 on Sunday was more than the cumulative debut game scores of fellow club members Rick Porcello (36) and Jeremy Bonderman (24).
This led to reexamining a simple question that I thought I knew the answer to: Is it a good idea to start a pitcher in his major-league debut? To try and get to the bottom of this, I examined every debut of pitchers 25 and younger between 2003 and 2012 to see what the results were, and whether any additional factors made it more or less likely that they would be successful. Some of the results were pretty surprising, and we’ll examine them in three different sections.
The Overall Results
We’re going to lead off with the least surprising result of anything in this post. We all tend to think of starting a pitcher in his major-league debut as something to shy away from when possible—and the raw numbers bear that out. Over the last 10 seasons, 297 pitchers age 25 or younger have made their major-league debuts as starters, and their average start has looked like this:
5.2 innings, 2.9 earned runs, 5.3 hits, 2.4 walks and 3.6 strikeouts
Overall, that’s a 5.05 ERA, 1.49 WHIP and 1.50 K:BB, which seems about right given the unpredictability and inexperience of rookie pitchers. But, what happens when you start tinkering with the control group? I began thinking about tangible identifiers I would use to potentially decide who to sit and who to start among all 297 possible pitchers, and the two that made the most sense logically were age and prospect status. But neither one bore out quite the way I would have thought.
Debut Starts by Prospect Status
Based on what we know about prospect lists, this is admittedly a relatively rough sketch, as it’s based on snapshots. But it does provide some insight into pedigree. Out of the 297 debuts, 85 were made by pitchers who ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 at the time. Here’s how they stacked up in the simplest of groups:
Again, the difference between the two groups makes sense, but it’s the quality level of the Top 100 prospects that was a little surprising—especially when you consider that this group collectively had an ERA, WHIP and K/9 above league average over that time period. And, speaking of quality, here are the only debuts from that group in which the pitchers topped Fernandez’s game score (64) from Sunday:
As you can tell, there are some interesting names sprinkled among the bona fide stars, and soon-to-be stars. I actually remember watching how dominant Johnny Cueto was in his debut—the incredible stat line doesn’t even do it justice. But the next logical question is whether better prospects yield better results:
The answer? Not so much. Surprisingly, the quality of the debut is almost inversely related to the quality of the prospect. Of course, the difference is not great, so the best takeaway from this chart is that just because a pitcher is an elite prospect doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a better option to start than merely a very good prospect.
Debut Starts by Age
One of the most impressive things about Fernandez’s debut was that it came at such a young age. In fact, over the last 10 years, only 15 starting pitchers have made their major-league debuts in a start before they were old enough to drink (Felix Hernandez was the only 19-year-old to do so). Should the fact that Fernandez was only 20 years old have been a deterring factor in whether or not he should have entered fantasy lineups? The following chart says no:
In fact, not only does it say that it should not be a strike against a pitcher, but maybe it should actually be a positive. Some of this likely has to do with the fact that some better pitchers reach the majors at a younger age than ones who take a little longer to develop, but if you peruse the list of underage debuts, it’s not exactly a replica of a future Hall of Fame ballot:
I honestly have not thought about the name Hayden Penn in around four or five years, but he was a guy I liked quite a bit (at least comparatively) when he was a prospect. Unfortunately, a career ERA+ of 46 in 82 1/3 career innings didn’t exactly do his mild prospect status justice.
After really sitting down to examine the numbers, I’m ready to come out and say that if I had done this research proactively rather than reactively, I might have plugged Fernandez into my active lineup on the teams where I’m fortunate enough to own him. At the very least, I would have made him my #streameroftheday pick* over Lucas Harrell, who was lit up that same day.
But the best part about looking at these numbers is that there’s always another train coming. And this means that when Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler make their debuts later this season, they will likely be active in all leagues in which I own them. And it also means that the same may very well go for Allen Webster and Kyle Gibson—given the lack of difference between the various ranges of prospect status involved. Maybe they should be in yours, too.
*For those of you who are not aware, I post a #streameroftheday pick every day of the season on Twitter (@dynastyguru) with more stringent requirements than your typical streamer lists. Only pitchers who are owned in fewer than 10 percent of leagues are eligible.