Bonderman might not be out of his league

As the losses mount for Tigers rookie Jeremy Bonderman, the question should be: Is he making progress?

Originally Published: June 24, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I have to admit that I'm impressed with Jeremy Bonderman.

Sure, it's easy to look at his 5.10 ERA and think he ought to be in Toledo. Or maybe even Erie, considering that Bonderman jumped straight from Class A to the American League.

Then again, look at these two pitching lines, and score big points if you can identify even one of them ...

W-L	ERA	IP	BB	SO
7-17	4.56	195	63	84
6-14	5.61	156	74	101

Jeremy Bonderman

That first line represents Tom Glavine's first full season in the majors, and the second represents Greg Maddux's. As you can see, great pitchers don't necessarily pitch great when they're first asked to retire the best hitters in the world.

One difference between Bonderman and Gladdux, though, is their ages: Bonderman is 20, Maddux was 21, and Glavine was 22.

Another difference is that while Bonderman hasn't pitched even a single inning in Double-A or Triple-A, both Glavine and Maddux pitched well at both levels. Both Glavine and Maddux just didn't have much to prove in the minors; they forced their teams to promote them.

That said, I think it might make sense to skip somebody like Jeremy Bonderman from Class A to the majors if 1) there was evidence suggesting that a pitcher can develop his skills more quickly in the majors as the minors, or 2) he was needed to help a team contend for the postseason, or 3) one of the above two conditions applies, and the team isn't worried about starting the player's free-agency clock (after six years in the majors, he's a free man).

The Tigers obviously have payroll concerns, so they should be worried about Bonderman's free-agency clock. And they're not exactly contending for a postseason berth. So that leaves the first condition, the possibility that pitching in the majors so soon will actually help Bonderman become a quality major-league pitcher.

I'm not at all convinced that he couldn't learn just as much in Toledo, but on the other hand neither am I convinced that racking up a lousy record in Detroit is necessarily going to hurt him.

What might hurt him is a stressful workload. But with one notable exception, Bonderman's been babied. He threw 118 pitches on April 29, but otherwise he's had only three games with triple-digit pitches ... and those were low triple digits: 100, 102, and 102. In his last five starts, Bonderman's pitch counts read: 92, 81, 91, 90, 91.

Anybody else notice something of a pattern there?

Yes, he might wind up losing 18 games (the Tigers probably won't let him get to 20). But if they continue to limit Bonderman's pitches and he's getting quality instruction from Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck, he might be just as well off in the majors as the minors.

As it happens, I just picked up Cluck's latest book, Think Better Baseball. Under the heading Babying Prospects, Cluck writes,

Pitchers are now overprotected by every organization in baseball. They are on strict pitch counts and never throw without proper rest between starts ... With all the money involved now, ball clubs won't take any chances with their pitchers. Agents complain, threaten, and usually get their way when their clients are being used either too much or not enough in their opinions. Some of this protection is good and necessary, but much of it can be counterproductive; for example, a pitcher who has too many restrictions on pitch counts will not get the valuable experience of learning how to pitch out of jams by extending himself.

Something tells me that Cluck lost that particular argument this spring. And if he were here in my office, in addition to arguing that Bonderman should be babied because he's not physically mature, I would also argue that while he might not be learning to "pitch out of jams," he is (or should be) learning to pitch economically, which is at least as important.

And he's still got something to learn there. Last night, for example, Bonderman got only six innings out of those 91 pitches, even though he struck out only two hitters and didn't walk anybody. That's a minor quibble, though. In Bonderman's last three starts, he's totaled 19 innings (which isn't so impressive), struck out 12 hitters (also not so impressive), and walked nobody (very impressive).

In fact, if you believe that a pitcher's primary responsibilities are to strike out hitters while limiting home runs and walks, then you have to concede that Bonderman has pitched better than his 5.10 ERA. Further, you have to concede that if this kid doesn't get hurt, he's got a real good chance to be a real big star.

The Tigers are conducting an experiment, and experiments are good for baseball fans like you and me. Whether or not the experiment is good for Jeremy Bonderman, we'll know in a few years. All we know now is that history's not on his side.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.

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