Rookies in the rotationby Harry Pavlidis
April 21, 2010
Time for a review of the rookies who left the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues in big league rotations. For each of the seven, their current team, draft year, draft round, age and throwing hand are noted. If the player was drafted and signed by a different club, that is also noted. Each pitcher's repertoire is listed, along with average speed (mph).
Mitch Talbot - Indians - 2002/2 Astros - 26 - RHP
Talbot has been traded twice in his career—first by the Astros to the Rays with Ben Zobrist for Aubrey Huff in 2006. Talbot saw a little action for Tampa in 2008 and entered Spring Training competing for a 2009 roster spot. He didn't make the cut, and an elbow strain limited Talbot to 15 starts (only 10 in Triple-A). He was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and be The Player to be Named Later in the Kelly Shoppach trade. Talbot has been stretched out to 170 innings, but didn't crack 80 in 2009, even with the AFL work.
So far in 2010, Tablot has had a stunningly low K rate but a suddenly impressive ability to throw strikes and get ground balls. Wow, two games—but he did throw less off-speed stuff and more sinkers, so there's something to it. He has produced a complete game already, so I suspect the Indians will ask for more of the same approach.
Brian Matusz - Orioles - 2008/1 - 23 - LHP
The Orioles made Matusz 2008's fourth pick overall out of the University of San Diego. Matusz waited until the deadline to sign and made his professional debut in the 2008 Arizona Fall League. He started his first full year in Advanced-A, where his 2.16 ERA turned into a 1.55 when promoted to Double-A. Summoned to the majors in early August, Matusz made eight turns in the Orioles' rotation before maxing out his innings for the season at 156. The Orioles will probably need to manage his workload or shut him down early once again.
It's a little bit of a stretch to ball Matusz's two-seam fastball a sinker, as he's an extreme fly ball pitcher with all four offerings. Despite that, I like him in a Ted Lilly kind of way. Matusz throws strikes with all four pitches, his change-up and slider miss a lot of bats (whiff rates > 30 percent) and his fastballs provide a nice combination of whiffs, foul balls and pop-ups. His slider varies from generic looking slider to sweeper to curveball and is starting to look like one of the better pitches in baseball.
Wade Davis - Rays - 2004/3 - 24 - RHP
Davis wasn't quite born a Ray, but he was born and raised in Lake Wales, Fla., and was drafted by Tampa Bay out of high school. He's worked his way through every level, from Rookie on up. Along they way he's built up his workload, from 86 innings as a 19-year-old to 194 as a 23-year-old. Of those 194 innings in 2009, Davis recorded 36 in the majors during six turns in the Tampa rotation. He's ready for a full season of work.
Having made his mark during a September call-up with a complete game shutout, Davis entered 2010 as the Rays fifth starter. So far, he's been plain old wild and then somewhat effectively wild. Despite the rough start to the campaign, I think he'll be just fine. The wildness won't last long. Davis' eight major league starts have produced average strike rates, whiff rates and ground ball rates. Average is good for a starter in the AL East, especially for a rookie. On the other hand, a little more balance in pitch selection may be in order. Davis throws fastballs on six out of 10 pitches, backed-up by sinkers and curveballs. His change-up and slider account for less than 15 percent of his pitches combined.
Jaime Garcia - Cardinals - 2005/22 - 23 - LHP
If you have a good memory, you'll recall Garcia's time with the Cardinals in 2008. I didn't. I'm pretty sure Cardinals fans remember, and that it's not a good memory. Garcia's 2008 season was cut short when he required Tommy John surgery. Amazingly, he made it back to pitch nearly 40 innings in the minor leagues in 2009. He had around 120 the previous year before the injury, and 100 innings during 2007. As exciting as his debut has been, expectations should be tempered accordingly—workload will be an issue.
This season has been kind to Garcia to date, which won't last forever. Still, Garcia looks like a legitimate starter, and not just a beneficiary of competing against the likes of Rich Hill for the job. While his curveball may catch the eye, it's the slider that has been his wicked pitch. It's a pitch he added after the elbow reconstruction, but has fallen in love with already—left-handed batters have seen it on 45 percent of the pitches Garcia has thrown to them this year.
Michael Leake - Reds - 2009/1 - 22 - RHP
The Arizona State product is a fairly well-known entity at this point. He's made news by skipping minor league ball and making his full season debut in the major leagues. It's important to remember his stop in the Arizona Fall League, where he demonstrated his ability to handle top prospects in a hitter's league. Leake completed 161 innings between ASU and the AFL last year, so something approaching 30 starts isn't out of the question.
Leake has been covered here at The Hardball Times at least twice. I recently reminded folks that Leake had some professional experience after his debut. A closer look at Leake's stuff, and various arm angles, was produced based on his AFL experience.
Jonathon Niese - Mets - 2005/7 - 23 - LHP
Niese is still a rookie, despite having his service time start in 2008. He's in the Mets rotation this season, fully recovered from a nasty hamstring tendon injury. The injury obviously cost him a lot of playing time, but he did complete 120 total innings between Buffalo and New York in 2009. Niese had racked up 180 in 2008, so it's tough to peg how much he'll have him in for 2010. Niese's most important development over the past two years has been a cut fastball, which could augment his status from a moderate ground ball pitcher.
Niese's most recent start was against an all right-handed line-up put out by Cubs manager Lou Piniella. The outing underscored his new reliance on the cutter, as he threw an even mix of cutters, sinkers (two-seam fastballs) and heaters (four-seam fastballs, "heater" used loosely in Niese's case). Had he faced some lefties, there would've been more heaters, but he's gone from mostly heaters to a balanced mix of three hard pitches along with the occasional change-up or curveball. The mix of movement will offset is underwhelming velocity.
Daniel McCutchen - Pirates - 2006/13 Yankees - 27 - RHP
The Yankees signed him after the Rays (2004, 29) and Cardinals (2005, 13) could not. New York had called his name once before (2003, 47)—second time's the charm. McCutchen ended up with four years in NCAA and two summers in the Cape Cod League, where he seemed to handle wood bats quite well. After two years in the Yankees' system, he was sent to the Pirates in the Xavier Nady trade. McCutchen was called up to Pittsburgh the day before rosters expanded in 2009 and made six starts. McCutchen has worked around 180 innings for two straight seasons, so a full season in 2010 isn't out of reach by any means—especially in light of his relatively advanced age.
I'm a little surprised McCutchen has only thrown a handful if curveballs out of the 713 of his pitches available in PITCH f/x. It's apparently supplanted his curveball, which doesn't differ too much from his slider, beyond velocity and a little bit of "drop". I'm pretty sure he's throwing a four-seam fastball only, but the jury's still out on that one. In any case, he's a two-pitch guy against lefties (with not a single curve and 3 percent sliders) but a little more balanced against righties by adding the slider to their mix. Still, it's not unreasonable to go to the park and expect him to throw mostly fastballs and change-ups—and that just sounds like a relief pitcher to me.
References and Resources
PITCH f/x data from MLBAM and Sportvision. Pitch classifications by the author.
Harry Pavlidis admits he has a baseball problem. He is the founder of Pitch Info LLC, His pitch classifications power the player cards at Brooksbaseball.net. Feedback, questions and comments are appreciated - Email firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @harrypav