Too much, too soon for some
Felix Hernandez, the best pitching prospect in baseball today and (some say) since Dwight Gooden two decades ago, is making his debut Thursday afternoon for the Mariners against the Tigers. He is only 19 years, 4 months old.
You can insert the tired line here complaining that today's young pitchers are being rushed before they're ready. But in reality, they are not. Drastically fewer teenagers are pitching in the big leagues these days than in the past, in part due to different roster rules but also because teams are far more careful with their young arms than in the pitch-'em-till-they-drop old days. Would you believe that not one 19-year-old has thrown a pitch in the big leagues since Todd Van Poppel in 1991? And he was just three months from turning 20.
No matter how you look at it, when a pitcher comes up at 19 now, it's a very special event. Certainly more than it was in the past, when teenaged pitchers often would be brought up either as promotional stunts or as flyers for teams that were simply ghastly. Many of them quickly faded into obscurity, and remain examples of exactly why they're so rare today.
Here's a look at the 17 pitchers since the draft began in 1965 who were younger than Hernandez when they debuted:
Debut: June 27, 1973
Age: 18 years, 66 days
The patron saint of pitchers who were abused -- both physically and mentally -- Clyde was perhaps the best high school pitcher ever, going 18-0 with a prep-record 328 strikeouts for Houston's Westchester High in 1973. Just 19 days after graduating, he was starting for the sad-sack Rangers almost solely as a gate attraction. Texas drew huge crowds for the kid's starts -- he actually won a few -- but Clyde was totally unprepared for the major leagues, losing his confidence quickly and becoming an alcoholic. He was washed up at 26, retiring with a throbbing shoulder, an 18-33 record, a 4.63 ERA, and a cautionary tale for every phenom that followed.
Debut: June 23, 1978
Age: 18 years, 81 days
Never one to see a bad idea and not try to make it worse, A's owner Charlie Finley drafted two high school pitchers in the first round in 1978 -- Conroy and Mike Morgan -- and decided to start both in the majors at the same time, while his team was in contention. (His manager was a then middle-aged lifer named Jack McKeon.) Conroy made two starts in late June, walked nine in 4 2/3 innings, and was overmatched even after his quick dispatch to Triple-A. Control trouble plagued Conroy throughout his spotty major-league career, which ended soon after his 27th birthday in 1987.
Debut: Sept. 4, 1971
Age: 18 years, 172 days
The No. 2 overall pick in the amateur draft just three months before, Franklin struck out 17 batters in one game for Tri-Cities in the Northwest League and threw a no-hitter in another start to "earn" a quick callup to the floundering Padres. He posted a 6.35 ERA in three games (one start) for San Diego and was expected to earn a big-league job the following spring when he warmed up too fast one afternoon and hurt his elbow. Franklin never pitched in the majors again.
Debut: Sept. 28, 1965
Age: 18 years, 237 days
Coleman pitched horribly soon after becoming Washington's No. 3 overall pick in the 1965 draft -- he went 2-10 with a 4.56 ERA in the Class A Carolina League -- but the Senators called him up anyway. He actually delivered, throwing two complete-game wins. Coleman spent almost the entire 1966 season in the minors before embarking on a 15-year career that included two 20-win seasons for Detroit (1971 and '73).
Debut: June 11, 1978
Age: 18 years, 246 days
Morgan was drafted ahead of Conroy, No. 4 overall, and made his Finley-forced debut 12 days before. He started and lost three games before being sent to the minors. But he did resurface and wound up pitching parts of 22 seasons in the majors for 12 different teams.
Debut: April 7, 1982
Age: 18 years, 315 days
It's certainly fair to wonder today if Nunez was indeed only 18 when the Mariners broke camp with him in 1982, and he did have 2½ minor-league seasons under his belt, covering 363 innings. Poor control soon left him a nondescript middle reliever, and he bounced around the bigs until 1994.
Debut: April 15, 1967
Age: 18 years, 323 days
Signed the previous summer as the draft's No. 13 overall pick by Cincinnati, Nolan proved to be the real deal after making the Reds out of spring training the following April. He went 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA as a rookie and in one game struck out 15 Giants, including Willie Mays four times. Injuries set in thereafter, and while he had some success with the growing Big Red Machine -- he averaged 15 wins in his five reasonably healthy seasons from 1970-76 -- Nolan never truly regained his rookie form and retired in 1977, when he was still only 28. (Interesting tidbit: His full name is Gary Lynn Nolan, and a certain Texas fireballer is named Lynn Nolan Ryan. Weird.)
Debut: April 5, 1984
Age: 18 years, 327 days
Signed out of the Dominican Republic at only 15 -- this was before players had to be 16, and before modern birth-certificate verification -- Rijo was the Yankees' answer to Dwight Gooden, the crosstown 19-year-old making his much-ballyhooed debut at the same time. Rijo had torn up the Florida State League in 1983 (15-5, 1.68) but stumbled in New York, going 2-8 before Oakland insisted on getting him in the Rickey Henderson deal that offseason. Rijo won 13-15 games in the majors five times, all with Cincinnati, before persistent arm trouble led to his 2002 retirement.
Debut: Sept. 3, 1966
Age: 18 years, 332 days
The last 18-year-old on this list, Vaughan came up and won his one start in 1966 but went back to the minors for the next two years. He resurfaced in 1969 to pitch one inning for Atlanta and was never heard from again.
Debut: Sept. 27, 1967
Age: 19 years, 9 days
After going 30-3 in high school, Brett was the Red Sox's No. 4 overall pick in 1966 and pitched in just one game in September 1967 -- but made the postseason roster and threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings for Boston in the World Series. He became a decent starter (and one of the majors' best hitting pitchers) through the 1970s before retiring in 1981 with an 83-85 record.
Debut: Oct. 2, 1969
Age: 19 years, 33 days
On the final day of the season, the Braves -- presumably to save their starters for the impending championship series against the Mets -- gave McQueen the start. The left-hander, overhyped as a successor to Warren Spahn, gave up one run in three innings. McQueen could have been a good pitcher but was badly hurt in a car accident in 1972 and was never the same again.
Debut: Aug. 5, 1978
Age: 19 years, 58 days
Burns was Chicago's third-round pick in the 1978 draft, and after watching Charlie Finley turn the trick with Morgan and Conroy, fellow anything-for-attendance owner Bill Veeck decided to bring Burns up in August. (Burns had pitched six games in the Midwest League.) He lost both starts and returned to the minors, but won a career-high 15 games two years later and became a pretty good left-hander for several years before injuries knocked him out of baseball at only 26.
Debut: June 5, 1970
Age: 19 years, 60 days
A third-round pick in 1969, Blyleven came up from the minors after seven starts at Triple-A Evansville the following year and never rode buses again. Over 22 seasons he won 287 games, posted a 3.31 ERA, and is often considered the best pitcher not enshrined in Cooperstown.
Debut: April 11, 1971
Age: 19 years, 87 days
Less than a year after being the White Sox's second-round selection in 1970 -- and after just 10 minor-league appearances -- Forster made the majors to stay. But he did so as a reliever, one of the first young, hard throwers to be converted so early in his career. Another? Forster's fellow White Sox 1970 draft pick, Rich Gossage.
Debut: April 10, 1970
Age: 19 years, 94 days
Oh, but for injuries. Three years after watching Nolan have immediate success in Cincinnati, the Reds brought up Gullett following just 11 pro appearances after high school. He posted a 2.42 ERA in middle relief for the National League champions and went on to go 109-50 with a 3.11 ERA, but missed so many long periods with major arm trouble -- he threw across his body before advanced training techniques -- that he was out of the big leagues at age 27.
Debut: Sept. 1, 1969
Age: 19 years, 116 days
Typical scenario: Bad team (Angels) has terrible staff, brings up recent first-round draft pick (Allen), he pitches a few games (four) with little success and goes back to the minors. Allen returned to spend parts of six seasons with several teams as a middle reliever. Career stats: 8-25, 4.69 ERA.
Debut: May 21, 1970
Age: 19 years, 116 days
The Expos' first-ever draft pick, Moore -- a hard-throwing Texan -- was known at the time as a budding left-handed Nolan Ryan. He got called up the following spring for six games and then pitched decently in 1972 -- he threw 25 straight scoreless innings at one point -- but soon blew out his elbow and was never the same.
Debut: Aug. 4, 2005
Age: 19 years, 118 days
With an overpowering fastball and mature three-pitch mix, Hernandez looks like the kind of pitcher who could become something in between Rijo and Gooden. Given the history of guys like this, though, let's give him a year or two after today's start, huh?
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.
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