I had an interesting question in the comments the other day from jalcorn427. I started to respond, then thought about the topic some more, and decided to expand on it with an article. The comment can be seen in its original form here, and the text of the comment is blow, with my thoughts to follow.
Tim, could you comment on the value of slow tracking elite SP prospects? In another organization (Toronto, Miami, etc) [Glasnow] would have been in AA in June and MLB this fall. It seems that some teams promote rapidly almost in fear of future injury. There is also less benefit of gaming team control with pitchers due to high attrition/injury rate. Do you think the patient approach pays off, I imagine command is the big difference. I’m not saying I think he should be in the pen next month, just thinking about how differently other teams do things.
I don’t know the motivation for other teams when they’re moving guys through the system, so I can’t really speak to the theory that teams move guys in fear of an injury. I will say that when I think of organizations that move their pitchers quickly, I think of the Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins. In each case, the results aren’t good.
The big success story here is Jose Fernandez. He was drafted out of high school in 2011, and spent his first full season in 2012 between Low-A and High-A. He started in the majors in 2013, jumping over Double-A and Triple-A, and immediately looked like an ace. In these cases, it’s popular to say that the Pirates would still have Fernandez in Triple-A. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. They definitely take a slower approach, but then again we don’t know how they’d react with a guy like Fernandez, because they’ve never had a guy like Fernandez. He was a first round prep pitcher. Their only experience in this area (under the current management group) has been with Jameson Taillon. Taillon has struggled with his stuff being too easy to hit — a problem Fernandez never had. They could have moved Taillon up on a rapid pace, but it would have been a disaster.
Speaking of disasters, that’s where the rest of the examples come in. Jacob Turner, who was once one of the top pitching prospects in the game, was brought to the majors by Detroit in 2011. That was two years after he was drafted out of high school. Miami traded for him in 2012, and kept him in the majors. He has struggled, and now has a career 4.73 ERA in 266.1 innings. He’s out of options, and Miami was forced to get rid of him, with the Cubs now trying him in relief.
Chris Volstad was rushed to the majors at the age of 21. He had early success, but quickly went downhill, with a career 4.94 ERA in 703.2 innings. Alex Sanabia came up at age 21, had early success, and has struggled since. Then there’s the most popular example, Dontrelle Willis, who looked amazing from ages 21-24, then lost it after that.
Switching over to Detroit gets more examples. Andy Oliver was rushed to the majors one year after he was drafted out of college, with very little time in the minors. He has dealt with horrible control issues that he might be starting to overcome this year with the Pirates, just in time to become a minor league free agent. Rick Porcello was brought up at the age of 20, and struggled over a four year span before having success this season. Unfortunately, he also only has one year of control remaining beyond the 2014 season. Perhaps he should have spent more than one full season in the minors, and some time above A-ball.
Then there’s a case where a guy didn’t have minor league success after being rushed through the lower levels. Casey Crosby was one of the top prospects for the Tigers for a few years. He skipped High-A, and developed some horrible control problems in the upper levels. He’s never gotten over those issues, and is now a struggling reliever in Triple-A. Ryan Perry was a first rounder out of college in 2008, and Detroit sent him directly to Triple-A in 2009, along with a trip to the majors. He hasn’t stuck in the majors, and has been struggling in the minors for the last two seasons.
There are also two recent situations where Miami has benefitted by other teams rushing pitchers. Henderson Alvarez came up at the age of 21 with Toronto, then posted a 4.85 ERA in 187 innings at the age of 22. The Marlins added him as one of the players in the huge salary dump that sent Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle to Toronto in 2013. Obviously Alvarez had some value still, but not enough for Toronto to be content with him as a starter, even though he probably shouldn’t have been up so early.
Nathan Eovaldi is a similar case, coming up at the age of 21 with the Dodgers, pitching a full season at 22 with struggling numbers, and getting traded to Miami. This time it was for Hanley Ramirez, so again, Eovaldi had value. In both of these cases, the players didn’t break out in their first two years, and waited until ages 23-24 to start having consistent success in the majors. And that’s two years burned off their team controlled years.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what would have happened under alternate timelines. Would Chris Volstad be a horrible pitcher if he spends a few more years in the minors? Were guys like Andy Oliver and Ryan Perry destined to have horrible control issues, even if they spent time in the lower levels? Would Eovaldi and Alvarez have struggled for two years even if they came up at age 23?
We also don’t really know the benefits of the Pirates’ approach, or if there are any. To this point, we really haven’t seen any examples of guys who have had lasting success after being developed by the Pirates. Gerrit Cole is one of the first guys who has been drafted and fully developed by this group, under the “slow” approach. And he didn’t even move through the system at a slow pace, since he spent one and a half years in the minors. You could count Jeff Locke as a guy who moved through the system, although we haven’t seen consistent production yet.
That’s to be expected. Most of the guys I mentioned for Miami and Detroit were drafted around 2007, then rushed through the minors. That leaves years of data to give us a good read on their careers. Meanwhile, the Pirates examples were drafted several years later, and are moving slower through the system. If they have reached the majors, we don’t have any long-term data like we do with Perry or Porcello.
I will say that I don’t think the slow approach hurts the Pirates. You look at some trends above, and a lot of guys see similar problems. Skip over A-ball, then develop control issues in the upper levels. The Pirates stress command of the fastball in the lower levels. Tyler Glasnow will be a huge test of whether this approach works. If he ends up having the same control issues in the upper levels, then the slow approach might have been for nothing. If he can seriously cut down on the control problems, then the slow approach would be everything.
Or there’s the guys who get to the majors, have quick success, see the league adjust to them, and never adjust back. I’d think that’s due to the fact that they never really developed their game in the minors. They had good stuff — good enough for limited success in the minors — but that stuff wasn’t developed enough to allow for long-term success. Most guys need that development. Guys like Jose Fernandez are the exception.
The problem here is that people see this quick success, then call for every pitching prospect to be rushed, while ignoring all of the struggles that come later. Glasnow could probably come up now and have a lot of immediate success in a smaller role because other teams don’t know him, and because he’s got great stuff. But the league would quickly figure him out, and he’d have to find a way to get outs with more than just good raw stuff. He’d have to develop a changeup, learn to command his fastball, learn when to mix in the off-speed stuff, and all of the other things he is working on in A-ball right now.
Another problem with the desire to see people moved up quickly is that it only shows success on the surface. People equate a promotion with good development, and that’s not always the case when you’re aggressively pushing a guy through the minors. A guy gets promoted and it is seen as a good step for his career, and a step closer to the majors. But if that player hasn’t developed the tools needed to play in the majors, then the quick promotion is actually a bad thing.
The desire to see people moved through the minors at a fast pace is an interesting one. I know when I post this article, with this title, I’m going to get immediate “YES!” answers on Twitter and Facebook from people who have only read the title. There’s probably a huge case study there on why fans want to see guys moved up so fast while having such an automatic response. Maybe it’s the lack of understanding of what a player is working on, or the lack of having actually seen a player in person to realize his flaws. Maybe it’s just what I said before, where a promotion equals success and a step closer to the majors, without regard to whether the player is actually having success and a step closer to being ready for the majors.
If the slow approach means that the Pirates miss out on a stud pitcher going in the majors at age 21-22, then they’re probably eventually getting that same quality, just starting at ages 23-24. The flip side is avoiding the Eovaldi/Alvarez situation, where a guy doesn’t have the best stuff his first two years, then figures it out, but burns 1.5-2 years of service time. The former situation, with a phenom like Fernandez, is rare. The latter situation, with guys not reaching their potential until 23-24, is much more common. It would be better for the Pirates to start the career of a phenom a year or two later, rather than wasting a year or two on a guy who isn’t ready for the majors yet.
For Glasnow, we’ll see how this approach pays off. It’s a question that won’t be answered for a few years, at the least. And it might never be truly answered, since we will never know what an aggressive approach would have led to. The only thing that matters is developing a quality MLB pitcher, and getting the player as close to his ceiling as possible. The Pirates seem to take a more thorough approach to developing pitchers, with the goal that they’re fully ready when they reach the majors. That’s not a bad approach to take, even if it does mean that they might never see a guy coming up to the majors at the age of 21.
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