Almost 20 years ago, I remember having a beer with a friend and talking about the MLB draft. Specifically, we were there to celebrate his little brother getting drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers. His brother was there as well (but he wasn't drinking, of course) and the talk turned to the player the Cubs had drafted earlier that week -- Kerry Wood. But the conversation wasn't about Wood's fastball or wicked breaking ball. It was about how Wood's high school baseball coach pitched him in both ends of a double-header -- on a rainy day -- the day after the draft.
"What an idiot, " said my friend's little brother, referring to Wood's coach. "It wouldn't surprise me if that catches up to him later in his career."
That turned out to be very prescient as Wood did have all kinds of arm problems and while we don't know if it had anything specifically to do with that day, it illustrated what is becoming an increasing concern with both high school and college pitchers -- the combination of high velocity and high workload early in a young pitcher's development.
Tom Verducci recently wrote about the problem for SI, saying that the increasing workload with added showcases, tournaments, and workouts have made the problem even worse. Specifically, the risk factor seems greater for pitchers who threw 95 or more as high schoolers. The recent results give good reason for pause when taking a high school pitcher early,
"Over the next five drafts (2003-08), teams selected 26 high school pitchers among the first 30 picks. Eighteen of those 26 high picks have posted a career WAR below 3.0, including six who never have played a day in the big leagues. Only eight of those 28 first-round high schoolers ever won as few as three games for the team that drafted them."
I spoke to one scout who is frustrated with the development, saying he would focus on the kid's future and getting kids to college -- but even that can be a problem as college pitchers have been known to run up pitch counts for the sake of winning, as evidenced by Carlos Rodon's 134 pitch count last week. We also saw Mark Appel occasionally run up some high pitch counts when he was at Stanford.
I had another friend in high school who was drafted by the Houston Astros. At the time, minor league prospects in that organization were not allowed to throw sliders, which just so happened to be my friend's best pitch. He told me he was told to focus on throwing his fastballs for strikes and developing his change-up before they would let him bring back the slider.
A veteran scout told me he has similar thoughts on developing young pitchers,
Two big factors - 1. Rest and recovery needs to increase. 2. Throw the fastball first, then the change, then off-speed. Kids want to snap off off speed, after off speed and the focus should be on fastball command.
It remind me a bit of when I talked to Cubs Minor League pitching coordinator Derek Johnson last June and I asked him what young aspiring pitchers should do,
Just throw (laughs).... I know that sounds strange but you want him to develop his ability to throw first. You don't want him to lose athleticism. We tend to worry about skills too early. We can always teach them that later.
Such conversation brings us to the upcoming MLB Draft, where the Cubs are all but certain to take a pitcher. You have the 3 college pitchers: Carlos Rodon, Jeff Hoffman, and Tyler Beede.
Interestingly none threw 95 mph as high schoolers. They all threw in the high 80s with only Beede getting into the low 90s with any consistency. So they certainly fit the profile as far as lower velocity as high schoolers is concerned. All three developed that mid 90s velocity as they got older. Hoffman, in fact, just hit 96 97 in his last outing en route to 16 strikeouts -- a game, by the way, in which both Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer attended. Rodon hit similar velocities in his last start.
There's also the high schoolers. There's no doubt Tyler Kolek is in that high velocity range and he's had the added workload of showcases and tournaments. Is he at risk? What of Brady Aiken, who Law has seen hit 97, though I've heard that he's almost always in that 91-93 mph range.
On the other hand, Aiken has thrown a lot more breaking stuff while Kolek has been getting away with a very high percentage of fastballs. Whoever takes Kolek will likely have to develop those secondary pitches when he becomes a professional. So which is the greater risk?
That is something the Cubs may have to decide as they weigh the data and balance that with their own philosophies.
One thing we do know about the Cubs is that they've decided to attack the pitching void with volume and we can see how it may make sense on a couple of levels. We know the Cardinals succeed with lots of lower velocity pitchers in the lower rounds who develop and throw harder as they mature. We also saw them take a pitcher who hadn't yet developed his bfreaking pitch in Michael Wacha, and were able to develop him as well. Perhaps the Cubs can find that with lower round pitchers who aren't yet getting the hype because they haven't lit up radar guns -- or who haven't been snapping off great sliders since they were 12.
For me that brings Paul Blackburn to mind. Blackburn was mostly a high 80s pitcher in high school who demonstrated the ability to spin, but who had not yet developed his breaking pitches. For Blackburn the appeal was more about athleticism and a natural ability to repeat his delivery. His velocity jumped into the 91-94 range (touching 95) just last season. Rob Zastryzny also threw in the 80s in high school and didn't hit 95 until late in his college career, though he has yet to hit that since.
Another place to look is the international free agent market. In that article cited above, of the 20 pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery, only one was from Latin America. Perhaps that can become a market inefficiency in terms of finding healthy pitchers -- as long as you know how to develop them. it's not unusual to find kids who throw in the low to mid 80s only to see them develop 90+ velocity later. Daury Torrez, who took a perfect game into the 6th yesterday, is one such example. Verducci's article quotes one international scouting director stating something to that effect,
"Latin American pitchers are allowed to grow into their velocity. It's a common story to sign a guy throwing 84, 85 [mph] who eventually winds up throwing in the 90s. Michael Pineda is one. You're looking for someone with a good, athletic body who can throw the ball around the plate and has a feel for spinning the ball. The velocity comes in time, with training and better nutrition and physical growth. Here? The statistics don't lie. We need to look elsewhere around the world to learn a better way. It's time."
Perhaps it' s no coincidence the Cubs have turned to lower mileage Latin American arms in the past two IFA signing periods: Juan Paniagua, Jefferson Mejia, and Erling Moreno were three of their biggest signings the past two years. Torrez is an example of the kind of a lower profile signing you can find and develop at your own pace deep in your system.
Whatever the case, one thing seems pretty clear when it comes to pitchers. While young pitchers are trying to throw mid 90s fastballs or throw wipeout sliders in front of scouts -- many of whom pitch 10 months a year, and some for high school coaches trying to win now -- it seems possible that, in the long term, maybe less is more when it comes to early development. Or perhaps more to the point, maybe scouts are looking at the wrong attributes in young pitchers.
So while we all go gaga over the next prep guy who hits 97, maybe we should turn the focus on guys like Blackburn and Torres -- athletic guys who were able to repeat their delivery early and then developed velocity and skills as they matured physically. And given the way radar gun readings and nasty breaking balls garner early attention in the draft, the Cubs may be able to stock up on such pitchers beyond the first round.
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