Tigers phenom faces long odds for success
The Tigers might believe Jeremy Bonderman will successfully make the jump from Class A to the majors, but history is not on their side.
This year, Jeremy Bonderman of the Tigers will join the team's rotation despite having played professionally for only a year. He's pitched but 156 innings of minor-league baseball, none in the "high minors" -- the Double-A or Triple-A classifications.
Bonderman's promotion is unusual. Even the best prospects drafted out of high school generally spend three to four years in the minors, while more advanced college draft picks may spend only a year or two. Players plucked from the minors with so little experience are almost always picked because their teams feel they have such immense talent that they'll be able to succeed without the experience and conditioning years in the minors can offer a player.
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According to the Detroit Tigers, the last pitcher to make the jump from Class A to the big leagues as a starter was Joe Sparma in 1964 even though his first start wasn't until June. Sparma went 5-6 with a 3.00 ERA that season.
The last Tiger reliever to begin the year in Detroit from A-ball was John Warden during the 1968 championship season. Wil Ledezma, a Rule 5 player, will join Warden on the list when he makes his first appearance this season for the Tigers.
One interesting note, Denny McLain came up from Class A at age 19 to make his major-league debut in September, 1963. He appeared in three games that season for Detroit.
The 20-year-old Bonderman is the youngest pitcher to start a game for the Tigers since Bruce Robbins did it at age 19 in 1979.
Some, however, are Rule 5 picks, drafted from other organizations on the condition that they spend the entire year on the major-league roster. For instance Luis Ugueto spent last year pinch-running for the Mariners.
These compose the majority of players who jump from Class A to the majors. For example:
What about players promoted not because of some strange draft, but because they were talented and their team needed them? Since 1990, has anyone come out of a situation like Bonderman's?
We searched for pitchers who took the mound for at least 50 innings in A-ball and then at least 50 innings in the majors the next year, and then painstakingly searched for guys who didn't have time at Double-A or Triple-A. We found none.
There are some who approach Bonderman's one year, 100 innings. The closest?
Mark Prior provides a hopeful counterpoint to that mixed sampling. Prior pitched only nine dominating games in the high minors -- 51 innings -- before tearing up the NL last year. But Prior had had an amazing college career, whereas Bonderman is one year away from pitching for Pasco High School.
Position players make the jump much more frequently and with better results. We did a nearly identical screen on position players, looking for players who had at least 200 at- bats in Single-A and then 200 at the major-league level without spending time at Double-A or Triple-A before their debut.
There was one, and he didn't do well. Jose Guillen moved from Lynchburg into the Pirates outfield in 1997 and hasn't done much since.
Some still-active notables who just missed: Rafael Furcal only stopped at Double-A for three games before starting his career with the Braves. Ken Griffey Jr., played 17 games in Double-A before he took over center field for the Mariners. Albert Pujols played three games in Triple-A before charging on the scene and winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2001 playing for the Cardinals.
And the ranks of no-longer active players includes some big names:
Barry Bonds doesn't fit the criteria exactly -- he played in 71 games in A-ball, then terrorized opposing pitchers for 44 games the next year in Hawaii, Pittsburgh's Triple-A affiliate, before reaching the majors for good.
The next question is whether or not players can come to the major leagues directly from the draft. Nineteen players have debuted in the majors after being drafted, never appearing in the minor leagues. Since 1980, in reverse chronological order:
The rest of the list contains a couple of former All-Stars: Bob Horner, Mike Morgan, Dick Ruthven, Burt Hooton and a Hall of Famer in Dave Winfield, who was a two-sport star at the University of Minnesota. Considering how high a team's opinion of a player must be for them to toss the player directly into The Show, it's surprising that so few of this class of 19 turned out to be the stars their organizations expected. The success stories, it's interesting to note, were all drafted after having excellent college seasons. Some consider college baseball as minor-league experience, even if it's almost impossible to assign a level of difficulty to, say, the Pac-10 competition Olerud faced.
Looking at the whole picture, it's clear that there are talents so great that they can survive playing in the major leagues without exposure to the competition in the high minors. Some may even be prepared to grow and thrive. But it is just as clear that no matter what a team's evaluation of a player's readiness, the odds are greatly against any player, especially one without college experience, being able to make that jump.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.
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