Young pitchers can improve within a season, and it’s difficult to identify these cases by looking only at season totals. For example, Jeff Francis‘ 2003 season looks merely O.K. when you look at his aggregate performance; he went 12-9 with a 3.47 ERA as a 22-year-old in the California League. Those numbers don’t tell you the whole story, however. Francis struggled in the first half of the season but finished with a 10-1 record and 1.06 ERA during his final 13 starts of the year. He went on to dominate the Texas League during the first half of the next season and eventually earned a call-up to the major leagues.
A handful of pitching prospects regularly get off to slow starts and pitch much better during the final three quarters of a season. In some cases, young pitchers are simply unprepared at the beginning of the season and require more time to develop stamina and solidify their mechanics. Other pitchers simply need time to adjust to a new league’s hitters. Others learn to make significant changes to their game that lead to long-term improvements.
The following four pitchers were mediocre early in the 2006 season but have been throwing like top pitching prospects since then. Some of these pitchers will finish the season with cumulative numbers that do not accurately reflect their performance—I expect more eye-catching numbers from many of these pitchers next year.
Detroit Tigers | RHP | DOB: 11/29/1985
IP K BB ERA SEASON TOTAL 134.2 81 36 3.34
Trahern is only 20 years old and his overall numbers look pretty good, if you ignore his 4-10 record. The Florida State League is a pitcher-friendly context, but a 3.34 ERA is good enough to rank fifth among qualifying pitchers. He’s been even better recently:
IP K BB ERA BEFORE MAY 20 45.0 27 8 5.80 SINCE MAY 20 89.2 54 28 2.11
Trahern really suffered in two terrible early-season starts. He allowed 9 runs over 3 innings in his second start of the season, and later allowed 12 runs in a May start. Since that atrocious May start, Trahern has been outstanding. He doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, but Trahern has above-average command and knows how to keep the ball on the ground. He has only allowed one home run in his last eight starts.
Cleveland Indians | RHP | DOB: 05/16/1984
IP K BB ERA SEASON TOTAL 108.1 94 29 3.99
In mid-April, Jensen had back-to-back starts where he allowed seven runs and didn’t last past the seventh inning. He has pitched much better since then:
IP K BB ERA BEFORE MAY 15 32.1 21 11 5.01 SINCE MAY 15 76.0 73 18 3.55
Jensen’s walk rate is outstanding, and he was striking out nearly one batter per inning since his slow start for Kinston. Jensen was promoted to Cleveland’s Double-A affiliate, the Akron Aeros, earlier this month.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays | RHP | DOB: 09/02/1982
IP K BB ERA SEASON TOTAL 125.0 113 34 4.32
On the surface, Hammel’s season looks like a disappointment. He entered the season as one of the Devil Rays’ top prospects and, after an unimpressive stint in Tampa Bay, he only has a 5-9 record and 4.32 ERA with the Durham Bulls.
IP K BB ERA BEFORE MAY 20 35.1 24 13 4.59 SINCE MAY 20 89.2 89 21 4.22
Hammel had the shortest start of his career on May 18, when he allowed three runs in less than two innings. In retrospect, that may have been the turning point for his season. In each of his next five starts, Hammel pitched at least six innings and allowed three runs or less. Hammel is striking out a batter per inning since then and demonstrating his typical exceptional control. He will probably earn a starting role with the Devil Rays next year, and his performance for most of this season suggests he could be an effective mid-rotation starter in the big leagues.
Toronto Blue Jays | RHP | DOB: 01/08/1983
IP K BB ERA SEASON TOTAL 108.1 88 34 3.66
In April, Kyle Yates looked like just another finesse pitcher who would struggle against double-A hitters. The Blue Jays sent him to the Florida State League to work on mechanics for a couple weeks in May, and Yates has been a different pitcher since then:
IP K BB ERA BEFORE DEMOTION 24.0 16 9 7.13 SINCE DEMOTION 84.1 72 25 2.67
Yates struggled in his first start back in the Eastern League, but he did not allow more than two runs in any of his next six starts. He is striking out batters more often, walking fewer batters, and allowing fewer runs since his demotion. The Blue Jays named him their Organizational Pitcher of the Month in June, but Yates was moved to the bullpen last month. He could contend for a role in the Toronto bullpen as soon as next year.
Although some of these pitchers may be “slow starters”, it’s possible that their poor performances early in the seasons may not be be a good indicator of their future performance. It’s worth paying attention to these pitchers during the final month of the minor league season. If they continue their improved level of performance, their season totals might be misleading when assessing their abilities and future potential.