<
>

Rookie aims for best year by Rockies starter

8/13/2002

Sometimes they sneak up on you.

Last night I had the Rockies-Marlins game on the tube, but I was working on something else and just glanced at the screen when something "exciting" happened. And since the game included only nine hits and one run -- the Rockies came out on top -- there weren't a lot of glances.

Which was a shame, because one of the best young pitchers in the National League pitched. Actually, two of the best young pitchers in the National League were going, because Florida's A.J. Burnett is impressive, too. But I'm talking about a big kid named Jason Jennings, who now sports a 17-6 record in the major leagues.

Jennings made something of a splash in his major-league debut last summer. On August 23 at Shea Stadium, he became the first player in major-league history to throw a shutout and hit a home run in his first game. His bat -- the ever-popular Juan Uribe model -- wound up in Cooperstown.

Jennings went on to win his first three starts. Not that that's any guarantee of future success. Since 1993, five other pitchers had done that, and it's not the most impressive list you'll ever see: Rene Arocha, Vaughn Eshelman, Bryan Rekar (with the Rockies), Marty Janzen and Randy Wolf.

Still, you'd rather win your first three than lose them.

You know, despite Jennings having been a first-round draft pick, his success has to be considered something of a surprise. He throws hard but not hard, and his minor-league track record is very good but not outstanding. Due to Jennings' unimpressive strikeouts- and hits-per-game ratios in the minors, John Sickels considered him just a B- prospect before this season. Baseball America rated Jennings as the No. 8 prospect in Colorado's organization.

But sometimes they do sneak up on you. And at this moment, I don't see a better Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League. It's easy to look at Jennings' 4.17 ERA and dismiss him, but let's remember where he does half his pitching. No man who starts for the Colorado Rockies is going to lead the league in ERA. What's important is pitching well enough to stay in games, and let the Rockies hitters do their stuff. You do that, you'll win.

And Jennings is winning. The list of pitchers with the five best winning percentages in the National League includes the No. 1 Cy Young candidate (Schilling), three future Hall of Famers (Johnson, Maddux, Glavine), and ... a kid named Jason Jennings.

Here are the best rookie pitchers in the NL:

IP W-L ERA
Jennings 138 13-5 4.17
Prior 94 6-3 3.26
Moss 127 7-4 3.25
Ishii 133 12-7 4.19
Fogg 144 11-7 4.05
Simontacchi 96 8-4 4.50

It's been a fine year for rookie pitchers, but hasn't Jennings been the best of them? Granted, if you could have your pick of these young hurlers, you'd choose Mark Prior. But MVPs and Cy Youngs and Rookies of the Year aren't the guys with the bestest. They're the guys with the mostest, and Jason Jennings has the mostest.

That's not to say he's the Rookie of the Year, necessarily. Austin Kearns and Brad Wilkerson will certainly have something to say about that. But Jennings absolutely has to be considered among the top three candidates, and yet nobody seems to even be talking about him.

Whether or not Jennings should be Rookie of the Year is one question. Here's another ... Is he enjoying the best season ever by a Rockies starter?

This is the Rockies' 10th season -- yes, time does fly -- and they've essentially been gifted with one good season by a starting pitcher per season.

Ar. Reynoso 1993 12-11, 4.00
Ma. Freeman 1994 10- 2, 2.80
Ke. Ritz 1995 11-11, 4.21
Ke. Ritz 1996 17-11, 5.28
Ro. Bailey 1997 9-10, 4.29
Da. Kile 1998 13-17, 5.20
Pe. Astacio 1999 17-11, 5.04
Br. Bohanon 2000 12-10, 4.68
Mi. Hampton 2001 14-13, 5.41
Ja. Jennings 2002 18- 7, 4.17

Jennings' numbers are projected through the end of this season. That's not really fair, of course, but if Jennings does continue to pitch well, there's little doubt that his season will be the best for any Rockies starter. His only competition would be Marvin Freeman in 1994, but Freeman pitched only 113 innings that season.

And finally, one more question ... Is Jennings already the best pitcher the Rockies have ever developed?

The best pitcher signed and developed by the Rockies is probably John Thomson. He's not a bad pitcher and he's certainly had more than his fair share of bad luck, but the fact remains that he's won 27 games and lost 44. And considering that Jennings has only 10 fewer wins but 38 fewer losses than Thomson, it looks like Jennings has a real good shot of passing Thomson any day now.

I just hope that Jennings gets the attention for what he's done that he deserves. I fear that he won't, though. Because, frankly, he ain't much to look at, at least not by the standards of the opinion-makers. How can I put this charitably ... Jennings weighs something close to 252 pounds, and there's significantly more of him below the belt than above.

Don't let his body fool you, though; Jennings is plenty athletic. His junior season at Baylor, he not only went 13-2 with a 2.58 ERA, but he also batted .382 with 17 homers and 68 RBI. And in 60 major-league at-bats, Jennings has hit .300 on the nose.

And of course, he can pitch. As Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said today, "What's been something of a surprise is that he's showed us, on a consistent basis, an above-average fastball, 91 to 93 with heavy sink and good life. He changes speeds on his slider, and his changeup has come a long ways."

Is Jennings' size an issue, down the road? "We're not that worried about him, because he's always carried that weight. He fields his position well, holds runners well, and of course he's a real good hitter," O'Dowd says.

Like me, O'Dowd wonders why nobody's talking about Jennings as the Rookie of the Year. And more to the point, O'Dowd thinks that he might have discovered a key ingredient in the Rockies' future success. "He's a strike thrower. In our ballpark, you need to be able to command your fastball on a consistent basis. Jennings has that good late life on his fastball, and that plays well even in Coors Field."

Topic for further discussion: Do you realize that Roy Oswalt now has a 28-9 record in the major leagues?