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General : : Professional
Age of the Pitcher
Patrick Ebert        
Published: Thursday, March 17, 2011

Given the number of pitchers, young and old, that enjoyed big seasons a year ago at the Major League level, the season was labeled the year of pitching.  For a variety of reasons, from being a few years removed from perceived performance enhancement drug usage to a new wave of young hurlers, it looks as though pitching may be reversing a trend in excess of a decade in which the game has favored hitters.

Baseball has always been cyclical, but the most recent trend in increased runs scored is more easily associated with an obvious reason for that spike than any other similar time in the game’s history.  One year doesn’t make a trend, but the MLB-wide ERA of 4.07 was by far the lowest total from the last decade-plus.  Young players such as Ubaldo Jimenez, Jon Lester, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson, Yovani Gallardo, Clay Buchholz, Trevor Cahill, Madison Bumgarner, David Price and Justin Verlander are carrying the torch for a new age of pitchers.

In anticipation of the coming year, top prospect season has shown an influx of pitchers on top prospect lists from well known prospect publications.  Jeremy Hellickson, Aroldis Chapman, Michael Pineda and Kyle Drabek are all expected to make significant contributions to their big-league clubs this coming season.  Julio Teheran, Jameson Taillon, Jacob Turner, Shelby Miller, Zach Britton, Casey Kelly, Chris Archer, Jarrod Parker, Alex White, Jordan Lyles, Kyle Gibson, Zack Wheeler and many others represent the next wave of talent on its way to the big leagues.

Earlier this week David Rawnsley pointed out in his most recent feature the number of college arms that could go in the first round this coming June, a stable of horses that should break previous draft records.  What is so impressive about this class is that to this point in time, very few have been disappointing and/or injured, with almost all of the preseason favorites to go in the first round living up to their previous billing.  And there are a handful of others joining them in the same discussion.

We have all seen in previous draft years that when college pitching is available, teams usually take advantage of it early and often.  This will likely push some very talented high school pitchers down a little further than where they may usually be selected.  Teams that own selections in the 11-20 range likely will benefit by having the opportunity to select players that typically go among the top 10 picks in most years.

Among the more impressive prep arms that are available are Robert Stephenson, who tossed two consecutive no-hitters to open the season and reportedly has been up to 97.  Taylor Guerrieri has matched those radar gun readings with his fastball and possesses an equally nasty slider.  Dylan Bundy has been 94-96 so far this spring, while Daniel Norris just began his season by throwing 95-96.  Archie Bradley has been in the 92-94 range as he continues to impress, and Jose Fernandez’ stock has held steady since pitching in the 94-97 range last October in Jupiter.  Arguably the most projectable pitcher available this year, Michael Kelly, has been 90-93.

Some of these players may opt for college similar to Gerrit Cole, Matt Purke, Karsten Whitson and Dylan Covey in recent years, but usually players selected in the early rounds end up signing.  That means the wave of talented young pitchers will continue and likely will be reflected when top prospects lists are tabulated at this time next year.

And it doesn’t end with the 2011 draft class.  Looking ahead to 2012 and 2013, both lists at this point in time continue to be highlighted by arms.

Lance McCullers and Mark Appel currently sit atop the draft board for 2012, representing the best high school and college players.  Both have the ability to hit the high-90s, sitting comfortably in the 93-96 range over the course of a game.  Arizona State boasts a pair of pitchers with first-round potential in Jake Barrett and Brady Rodgers, and prized LSU freshman Kevin Gausman will be draft-eligible as a sophomore.

The 2013 class could be another in which college pitching defines the draft class, thanks to promising current college freshmen Karsten Whitson, Dylan Covey, Ryne Stanek, A.J. Vanegas, Austin Kubitza, John Simms, Kevin Ziomek and Scott Frazier.

Many of the top high school arms from both the 2012 and 2013 draft classes have been identified, and many more will emerge starting this spring and into the summer showcase season to help define those classes better.

While all young players have a lot of variables working against them as they begin their journey towards the ultimate goal of playing in the big-leagues, hitters are typically viewed as a safer bet.  Injuries are significantly more difficult for pitchers to overcome, with the expression, ‘there are two type of pitchers, those that have had Tommy John surgery and those that will,’ looming large over their heads.

Because of that, looking at two of the best drafts historically, 1985 and 2005, positional players typically end up making a draft class so successful.  1985 boasted Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark, three of whom would be no-brainer Hall of Famers if it weren’t for lingering questions about steroid use.  2005 offered Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Jay Bruce, and Andrew McCutchen, all of whom look as though they’re poised to enjoy long, fruitful MLB careers.

Even though pitching, particularly from the college level, will likely define this coming year’s draft, there are of course hitters such as Anthony Rendon, George Springer, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Jason Esposito and Alex Dickerson from the college level that are projected to go in the first round.  Brian Goodwin and Cory Spagenberg gives the draft a pair of prominent bats from the juco ranks, while Bubba Starling, Francisco Lindor, Blake Swihart, Joshua Bell, Derek Fisher and Javier Baez round out a respectable number of hitters that could be selected in the first round from the high school level.

And that is what makes the 2011 draft class so special.  There is both exceptional talent at the top and intriguing depth throughout.  But it all starts with the arms, and those arms may help continue a trend as baseball enters a new age of the pitcher.

The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA.  Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and 5 Tool Talk, and can be contacted via email at pebert@5tooltalk.com.



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