A look at adjustment periods
How will Stephen Strasburg be affected from this point forward?
Quite a first impression, wasn't it?
Stephen Strasburg enjoyed a major league debut for the ages Tuesday, striking out the third most hitters in any big league debut in history (14), hitting 100 mph on the radar gun, flashing his knee-buckling curveball and suffering only one blemish: a two-run home run by Delwyn Young that only barely cleared the fence.
Now, of course, the question becomes: Where does he go from here?
With a pitcher as talented as Strasburg, history often can't tell us much. After all, he's essentially making history, setting the bar at such great heights that future hype machines might someday be compared to him. When you throw as hard as he does with as many plus offerings as he has, chances are you're going to be the rare example of a pitcher who bucks any of the historical trends.
Strasburg fantasy ownership
Stephen Strasburg is owned in 100 percent of ESPN.com standard, mixed and NL-only leagues. The following chart shows the distribution of his ownership by team rank in the standings, and the percentage of his owners who had him active for his Major League debut.
That said, if Felix Hernandez and Tommy Hanson were the two closest comparable debuts (in terms of hype) to Strasburg in the past decade, then history is not necessarily on the Washington Nationals phenom's side.
Even Hernandez and Hanson endured an adjustment period.
But what exactly is an "adjustment period"? You'll hear us mention that phrase from time to time on these pages when discussing a young pitcher, especially one who is struggling, and if you talk to Strasburg's fantasy critics -- amazingly, there are some out there -- it'll surely be the first words out of their mouths today.
Not to suggest that adjustment periods are one and the same for every pitcher who breaks into the majors. Every pitcher is different -- velocity differs; pitch type differs; command differs; and command, velocity and quality of those pitch types differ. Not to mention a pitcher's physical build, work ethic and personality, which all go into the equation of how successful his career will be.
Still, statistics can help illustrate just what this so-called "adjustment period" is. How long does it typically last? When is it time to trust a young pitcher? Is there any reason at all to worry that Strasburg might not remain as sharp as he was Tuesday?
To find those answers, I collected the start-by-start data of each of the top 25 pitching prospects as judged by Baseball America from 1990 to 2009, a healthy 20-year sample size. The list accounted for 343 pitchers -- remember that many pitchers made multi-year appearances -- and surprisingly enough, only 28 of them made such a list before 2005 yet failed to reach the majors. (In other words, those 28 pitchers became what we describe as "flat-out busts.")
Some interesting facts about these prospects:
• Ninety-nine of them made at least one major league start, fell short of 90 career starts and are either 30 or older, retired, and/or out of baseball.
• Fifty-eight of them have made at least one major league start but remain under 30 years old, meaning they theoretically have time to carve out a career. This part of the data group is excluded from my analysis; their careers aren't technically "done."
• Forty-seven of them wound up career relievers, meaning at least 200 games relieved and more than two-thirds of their career appearances coming in relief. This group is also excluded; there's no shame in a decent career as a reliever.
• Exactly 100 have made 90 or more career starts in the big leagues, and that's the part of the data group we'll focus on, because that's effectively three years' worth of big league starts, plenty from which to draw analysis.
Also curious: Exactly 300 of these pitchers made the majors, and only 100 have made 90 or more career big league starts, or exactly one-third. Incidentally, the last time I ran this analysis, in 2008, that number was about 38.3 percent. In other words -- and this is a valuable point to those of you in long-term keeper/dynasty formats -- your chances of striking gold with a starting pitching prospect before he ever gets his feet wet in the majors is only slightly better than 1-in-3. That's not exactly a glowing success rate, which is why it's generally silly to hoard minor league prospects if you can trade them for more proven commodities.
The following chart illustrates what those 100 pitchers with 90-plus career starts did, broken down by order of starts in their careers. "QS%" represents quality start percentage, while "OS%" is a concept I call "outstanding start" percentage, which operates like a quality start, except that it demands at least eight innings and no greater than one earned run allowed.
As was the case back in 2008, it's curious to find that big league debuts, as a whole, were noticeably more successful than any of those in the following three groups, meaning that if you're playing the odds, you want a rookie making his major league debut, but then you want to trade or cut him and try to get him back about a year later when he has about a season's experience under his belt.
It's the elevated strikeout and walk rates that are most curious, and I can offer two potential explanations: One is the "unknown" factor, that opposing hitters are least familiar with a rookie pitcher's arsenal the very first time they ever face him, mainly because they're going completely off a scout's reports. The other is, perhaps, that the "rookie jitters" pitchers are said often to experience in their debuts might manifest themselves in more adrenaline, meaning the pitchers occasionally overthrow, increasing their strikeout potential at the expense of command.
But it's that bump up around the 40-career-start range that's most valuable to fantasy owners, as the chart above demonstrates that young pitchers tend to experience significant jumps in terms of innings per start, walks per nine, ERA and WHIP right around the point of their 41st career turn.
That shouldn't come as any great surprise to fantasy owners, considering Clay Buchholz (45 career starts), Gio Gonzalez (36), Phil Hughes (39), Jeff Niemann (44), David Price (35), Clayton Richard (46) and Anibal Sanchez (60) are all right around that stage of their careers and have made significant advances in 2010.
Among the group nearing the 40-career-start plateau, meaning a surge later in the year might be coming: Brett Cecil (26), Tommy Hanson (33), Justin Masterson (36), Brandon Morrow (27) and Felipe Paulino (31).
As for Strasburg, he now heads into the rough patch in the chart, at least in terms of typical prospects the past two decades. Still, I'm not about to classify him as a pitcher set to suffer a significant decline in performance due to a lengthy adjustment period, especially since with those aforementioned comparables, Hernandez mainly struggled as a sophomore because the Seattle Mariners reined in his slider, one of his more effective pitches, while Hanson's adjustment period has been barely noticeable; after all, he does have a 3.18 career ERA. These are adjustment periods, yes, but neither one should send Strasburg owners running and screaming.
In other words, Strasburg might be "history-free," but if you're looking ahead to the next big thing, don't let his example get you overzealous. After all, he's the exception, not the rule and if he does fall prey to history, boy, wouldn't that just be the most damning adjustment period example of them all?
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox: If his fantasy owners want to nitpick his strikeout rate, which at 6.2 per nine innings represents easily his lowest at any stage of his professional career, then they don't truly appreciate how valuable a commodity Buchholz is. His hot start can be attributed to improvements to his two-seam and cut fastballs; Inside Edge reveals that he has limited opposing hitters to .259/.351/.358 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers on all fastballs, down from .303/.386/.431 in 2009. It's those pitches that have helped Buchholz maintain a 52.6 percent ground-ball rate, right in line with his 53.8 number in 2009, and if you're looking to declare him lucky, understand that neither his BABIP (.282) nor his strand rate (76.3 percent) has changed significantly from a year ago (.289 and 76.7). This youngster has really learned how to pitch the past year-plus, not that it should be surprising, as he resides right in that 41-50 career start range. (He has 45.)
Cliff Lee, Mariners: Anything I -- or a slew of fantasy experts -- might have said in defense of Zack Greinke's "inability to win games" this season now no longer applies as well to the Kansas City Royals right-hander as it does to Lee. In eight starts since returning from an abdominal strain, Lee has six quality starts, a 2.77 ERA, a 0.92 WHIP and five instances of a game score greater than 70 (which is pretty darned good). What's more, he has only four walks. That's not in one start, or one week, or one month; that's for the season, and it compares favorably to his 57 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings. You'll notice this week that Lee joins my top 10 and Greinke drops out. The rationale is simple: Greinke's performance has tailed off, but Lee's has been so good that it's silly to sweat his lack of run support.
Carlos Silva, Chicago Cubs: He ranks second in the majors in wins (8), 26th in ERA (2.93) and 10th in WHIP (1.06) with more than one-third of the season in the books, so at this point if you're unwilling to admit Silva has some value in fantasy, then you're clinging too much to the past. I'm as much of a skeptic as anyone, having watched Silva serve as arguably the worst pitcher in baseball from 2008 to '09 combined, during which time he had a 6.81 ERA and 1.62 WHIP, but this is a hot streak you need to enjoy for as long as it lasts. Considering his ground-ball rate is still a respectable 48.1 percent, not a far cry from his 52.2 percent career number, and he has been terrorizing opposing hitters with his changeup (.181/.204/.223 rates allowed). Perhaps he might yet have a few more good starts in his arm?
Javier Vazquez, New York Yankees: Another pitcher in whom I'm not ready to fully invest, after how poorly he pitched in the season's early weeks, but his improvement in his past five starts shouldn't go unnoticed. He has a 2.73 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 32 K's in 33 innings during that span, greatly improving his command, particularly of his fastball and changeup. In fact, ESPN Stats & Information notes that in his most recent start Sunday, Vazquez generated a season-high 16 swings and misses, 10 of them on changeups, and a miss percentage of 76.9 on the pitch. It seems that whatever work the Yankees did with him when they bumped him from the rotation in early May at least has him back to being a fantasy option.
Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics: So much for him being "fixed." One day after being given the thumbs-up in this column a week ago, Anderson departed his start after two innings with an aggravation of the elbow injury that previously cost him a five-week stay on the disabled list. He's back on the DL, the only bright spot being that an MRI revealed only tendinitis, according to the Athletics' official website. But with Anderson experiencing continued elbow trouble, expect the team to approach his rehabilitation more conservatively this time, meaning a stay much longer than five weeks. He might attempt throwing in a week or two, but in the event of another setback then, it's possible he'll undergo season-ending surgery.
Joe Blanton, Philadelphia Phillies: What made him a somewhat underrated preseason pick was that his lackluster 2009 postseason masked the fact that he greatly improved his strikeout rate during the regular season, turning in a career-high 7.5 per nine innings. Unfortunately, while that was a plus for Blanton, his regression in the category this year is comparably troubling, as his 4.6 K's per nine would represent a career worst. Opposing hitters are having no trouble hitting any of his pitches, and he has turned in quality starts in only two of his seven turns to date. Nine home runs in seven starts -- even for a pitcher who calls Citizens Bank Park his home -- is also way too much. Be concerned.
Dallas Braden, Athletics: Why does it feel as though when a pitcher tosses a perfect game, he seems to take it easy the next few turns? At least that was how it seemed with 2009's perfect-game artist, Mark Buehrle, who has been terrible since, and if you look at Braden's numbers since his perfecto, he's 0-3 with a 4.45 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in five starts. Those stats could be worse, yes, but Braden's strikeout rate continues to languish beneath six per nine, and if it drops any further, he'll be at risk to implode in the ratio categories. If you're looking to trust any of the three most recent perfect-game pitchers, it's Roy Halladay you want. Buehrle and Braden? They're nowhere near Halladay's class.
Wade Davis, Tampa Bay Rays: He got pummeled in his most recent outing, allowing eight runs on nine hits, two of them home runs, in 3 1/3 innings of a start at Rangers Ballpark. Naturally that's a challenging matchup, and if you look at his career numbers, he's 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA in six career starts versus sub-.500 teams, and 2-6 with a 6.83 ERA in 11 turns versus teams above .500. Unfortunately, while that helps explain Davis' problems, facts are facts, and they say that the Rays play in a competitive division chock full of challenging matchups, and their playoff aspirations mean they can't afford to be patient with struggling starters. Davis' demotion isn't necessarily imminent, but this is a team with enough prospects (Jeremy Hellickson?) to make a switch if it soon becomes necessary.
Upgrade your roster
Add: Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays
Drop: Joel Pineiro, Los Angeles Angels
Cecil has always been considered a solid prospect, cracking Baseball America's top 100 list in his rookie year of 2009, but his command was spotty at best during his first season as a big leaguer. As a sophomore this year, however, he has made great strides in that department, averaging 3.5 strikeouts for every walk, which is largely behind his 1.01 WHIP in nine starts. Cecil's changeup is what makes him so successful; Inside Edge reveals that he has allowed the fourth-lowest batting average on the pitch of any pitcher to have thrown 200 or more (.151). He's even giving right-handers fits (.236/.282/.369 rates allowed), which provides plenty of evidence that his hot streak might be legit. In comparison, Pineiro seems to get less and less sharp the further removed he is from former pitching coach Dave Duncan's tutelage. Pineiro has a 2-5 record, 6.54 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in his past nine starts; his walk rate (2.4 per nine) has more than doubled from 2009's stellar number (1.1); and his fastball hasn't been fooling anyone.
Also consider adding
Armando Galarraga, Detroit Tigers: He did throw a perfect game in the past week, right? Wait, what?! OK, no matter; Galarraga is the kind of pitcher who lives and dies with his command, and that one-hitter of his sure demonstrates how sharp he has been in that area of late. Ride this streak.
Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves: Tuesday's so-so outing aside, Medlen has been rather productive since stepping in for Jair Jurrjens in the rotation. Medlen is 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in his past five starts.
Dontrelle Willis, Arizona Diamondbacks: You simply never know with a pitcher like this, but given a change of scenery, might Willis not warrant at least an NL-only pickup to stash just in case? He's obviously pumped up by the fresh opportunity, especially since he recently bought a house in the area, and in his first start for the Diamondbacks, he tossed six shutout innings.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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