MLB Rookie Pitchers Making Debuts
by Trevor Whenham - 5/18/2010
We're in the part of the baseball schedule where teams start to throw real puzzles at MLB handicappers. Rookie pitchers who weren't quite ready to join their teams out of training camp are now making their debuts. There are few things tougher than determining how a pitcher is going to do the first time he faces major league talent because he has never done it before. Accurate reports of Triple-A performance can be tough to find, and teams are always going to be nothing but positive and optimistic about their new talent, so you are really left to just guess what the pitcher really brings to the table. Here are six things to consider as you try to make that guess a profitable one:
How did he do in the minor leagues? - if you rely on major league reporters and media outlets to tell you how a pitcher did in the minor leagues then you are going to get an incomplete, often second hand report. That's not very useful. Thankfully, the Internet makes it easy to find more meaningful reports. A couple of minutes on Google can lead you to reports from papers in the towns where the minor league teams are based, along with the stats he compiled in that time. Minor league stats aren't transferable to the major leagues because of the difference in the talent of the hitters that pitchers are facing, but there are indicators that you can look at to give a clue of how he will handle the step up in class. The simplest of those is the control that the pitcher has had - his ability to put the pitch where he needs it to be. Strikeout-to-walk ratio is a good indicator of that - if it's worse than 2-to-1 then there could be reasons for concern. You should also look for signs of consistency and composure - does he generally follow one good performance with another one, and how well does he bounce back from a sub-par performance?
What are the circumstances? - Stephen Strasburg is a very good example of a pitcher who is being carefully managed. We got a sense very early in the spring that he wasn't going to make the Nationals out of training camp. Instead, he was sent to Double-A, give a couple of starts to get comfortable, elevated to Triple-A, and is now being aimed for a major league debut in early June. He's been handled with significant patience, so there is a good chance that he'll be ready for his first start, and that the team will pick a spot that suits him well for that debut. A pitcher who has been carefully managed like that could very easily be an attractive choice. He's certainly going to be more attractive than a rookie that has been rushed up to the major leagues because of injuries or problems with the starters.
Who did he replace? - You can get some clues to the potential of a pitcher in his first start by looking at the pitcher who has made way for the rookie's start. If the pitcher is replacing a another player that has been effective or one who has led his team to more wins than losses then you can be more optimistic about the rookie than you would if the pitcher who lost the roster spot was a bad pitcher. In other words, the incentive to start a rookie would be lower the better the current pitching staff is, so the rookie needs to be good enough to make the change worthwhile.
Where's the start? - Analyzing the location of the start is important. It's generally easier for a pitcher to start at home than it is to do so on the road, so your handicapping should reflect that. It can be possible to overcompensate for the effect of home field advantage with a rookie pitcher, though - the pitcher is new to the team, so playing at home is no more comfortable than any other stadium because he has never been in any of them. Teams may even choose to start a pitcher on the road to minimize pressure. It would be far less intense for a new pitcher for the Mets to start for the first time in Pittsburgh on a Tuesday night than at home on a Saturday afternoon, for example.
Who's the opposing starter? - Too often people make decisions in these cases based just on the rookie pitcher and what they bring to the game. In most cases it's even more important to look at the opposing starter. What I like to do when I am handicapping a game like this is to handicap the game as if a perfectly average player was starting in place of the rookie. By doing that you can concentrate on the opposing starter, and see how he matches up to the team he will be facing in this situation. By doing that you can determine if the opposing pitcher is a good matchup, and if that pitcher has an edge against the team he is facing. You can then determine whether that edge still exists with the rookie making the start. It's a good way to avoid getting blinded by the hype of young starters.
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