Young and talented

Felix Hernandez was in the majors at 19; what happened to similar phenoms?

Updated: June 26, 2009, 12:31 PM ET
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Bret SaberhagenUS PresswireBret Saberhagen made his major league debut at 19 and went on to win two Cy Young Awards.

Felix Hernandez was only four months past his 19th birthday when he made his major league debut for the Mariners on Aug. 4, 2005. He allowed just two runs in five innings against the White Sox but took the loss. In his second start, he pitched eight shutout innings against the Twins. In his next start, he pitched eight innings against the Royals, allowing one run and striking out 11. In his fourth start, he pitched eight innings against the Twins, giving up two runs and fanning nine.

King Felix had arrived. Not since Dwight Gooden in 1984 had such a dynamic teenage pitcher stoked our baseball jones.

Hernandez was unable to rise to Gooden's stratospheric level in his sophomore campaign: Doc went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, Hernandez 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA. However, unlike Gooden, Hernandez has continued to improve:

Gooden, of course, carried a heavier workload; perhaps he paid a price for that (and for the substance abuse that resulted in a positive cocaine test in spring training 1987). He suffered some shoulder problems in 1989 and was essentially a league-average pitcher from '89 through '93. More injuries and another positive cocaine test in 1994 derailed his career from there.

Hernandez has been handled carefully by the Mariners, but he's still a talented young pitcher who has pitched a lot of innings in the major leagues at a young age. What happens to talents like him? We went back to Gooden's rookie season to find other starting pitchers who threw at least 50 innings before turning 21. It perhaps goes without saying that all these guys had big fastballs and immense talent. Of course, with that talent comes the injury risk a precocious pitcher faces by reaching the majors so quickly.

Bret Saberhagen, Royals, 1984

A week from his 20th birthday when he pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in his major league debut on April 4, Saberhagen helped the Royals win the AL West in '84 and in '85 won the Cy Young Award (20-6, 2.87 ERA) and pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series. Relying on pinpoint control and a moving fastball, he won another Cy Young in 1989, but battled injuries the rest of his career and never again topped 200 innings. He had a final burst of excellence with the Red Sox in 1998-'99, going 25-14 with a 3.55 ERA.

Jose Rijo, Yankees, 1984

George Steinbrenner's answer to Gooden, Rijo debuted in the majors when he was 18. Not surprisingly, he struggled, posting a 4.76 ERA in 62 innings. The next year, he was the top prospect in the trade that brought Rickey Henderson over from the A's. After three lukewarm seasons in Oakland (17-22, 4.74) he was traded to Cincinnati for Dave Parker. There, he perfected his fastball-slider combo and became one of baseball's top pitchers, posting ERAs of 2.39, 2.84, 2.70, 2.51, 2.56, 2.48 and 3.08 and memorably beating the A's twice in the 1990 World Series. His elbow gave out in 1995.

Mark Grant, Giants, 1984

The team's first-round pick in 1981, from an Illinois high school, Grant was rushed to the majors and made 10 starts for the Giants as a 20-year-old. He was ineffective (1-4, 6.37), got returned to the minors and eventually was traded to the Padres in a seven-player swap that brought Kevin Mitchell and Dave Dravecky to San Francisco. Grant undoubtedly had a good arm, but it's worth noting he threw 198 innings in the Midwest League at age 18 (striking out 243), something you would never see happen today.

Joel Davis, White Sox, 1985

Chicago drafted the big (6-foot-5) right-hander in the first round in 1983, and he was in the White Sox rotation two years later despite allowing 61 hits and 35 walks in 56 1/3 innings at Triple-A Buffalo. Davis would win eight games in the majors and was out of baseball after posting a 6.99 ERA at Colorado Springs in 1989.

Edwin Correa, Rangers, 1986

Correa debuted as a teenager with the White Sox in 1985 but was traded to Texas in the offseason. As a 20-year-old with a good fastball and excellent changeup, delivered from a "herky-jerky motion" (according to the "Scouting Report: 1987"), Correa went 12-14 with a 4.23 ERA and just 167 hits allowed in 202 1/3 innings. Alas, he also walked 126 batters. Considering some of the pitch counts he must have run up, it is perhaps not surprising that Correa blew out his shoulder in 1987 and never made it back to the majors.

Steve Avery
Getty ImagesSteve Avery's last good season came when he was 23 years old.

Steve Avery, Braves, 1990

The third overall pick in the 1998 draft, Avery blazed through the minors to reach Atlanta at age 20. He didn't let his rookie problems (3-11, 5.64) bother him, going 47-25, 3.15 the next three seasons as the Braves won three division titles and reached two World Series. He was never as effective again, going 44-47, 4.85 from 1994 to '99 (he also had a brief return in 2003). It's easy to blame the heavy workload when he was 21-23, but in Avery's case, it's not that cut-and-dried. (1) Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone handled him very carefully; he had just seven starts of 120-plus pitches over those three seasons and just one of more than 130 (134 in 1991). In 1993, he had just one 120-plus start (125 pitches in his final start of the season, when Atlanta was battling San Francisco for the division title). In fact, that season he had just eight starts of even 100 pitches. Although he did throw 667 innings over those three seasons (plus another 62 in the postseason), it certainly seems unfair to suggest he was abused. (2) He was never a big strikeout pitcher anyway. His strikeout rate had declined from 6.8 per nine innings as a rookie to 5.0 in 1992-'93. His strikeout rate actually increased in 1994-'95 (7.2 per nine), but it came at the expense of more walks. (3) He suffered a pulled rib-cage muscle in 1996 that sidelined him for two months. (4) The steroids era kicked in; it wasn't the best time to be a pitcher anyway.

Jeff D'Amico, Brewers, 1996

A huge right-hander (6-7, 250 pounds) the Brewers drafted from a Florida high school in the first round in 1993, D'Amico was in the majors after just 33 minor league starts. D'Amico was handled very carefully (no starts of more than 100 pitchers as a rookie, none of more than 120 as a sophomore). He got hurt anyway, missing all of 1998 and most of 1999 as he had multiple shoulder surgeries. He returned to go 12-7, 2.66 in 2000 but finished with a career mark of 45-52.

Kerry Wood, Cubs, 1998

Wood, the first pitcher taken in the 1995 draft, began the 1998 season as a 20-year-old and memorably struck out 20 Astros before turning 21. With a high-90s fastball and big breaking curve/slider, he was unhittable at times; he was also wild and threw a lot of pitches. He started 26 games before heading to the disabled list in September (returning for an ill-fated start in the playoffs) and topped 100 pitches 21 times, including counts of 122, 129, 121, 121, 122, 128, 123, 133. Was the damage done? He underwent Tommy John surgery in spring training 1999.

Gil Meche, Mariners, 2000

Another first-round pick -- notice a trend here? -- Meche reached the majors with a high-octane fastball but not much else. After two decent seasons, he missed all of 2001 and 2002 with shoulder problems but did return to the Seattle rotation, later signed a $55 million free-agent contract with Kansas City and even co-led the American League in starts the past two seasons.

Jon Garland, White Sox, 2000

The 10th pick by the Cubs in 1997, Garland was traded to the White Sox as a minor leaguer. He made 13 starts as a rookie, pitched 117 innings in a starter/reliever role as a 21-year-old and has made 30-plus starts every season since, making a living as a league-average innings-eater.

Rick Ankiel, Cardinals, 2000

Ankiel turned 21 more than halfway through his rookie season, so he qualifies for this list. His story, of course, has been told often, so suffice it to say, he could have been a great one.

CC Sabathia, Indians, 2001

He went 17-5, 4.39 as a rookie (he turned 21 in July that season) and has proved durable and effective despite (or because of?) his girth. Sabathia was handled similarly to Hernandez, topping 200 innings just once in his first six seasons and reaching 120 pitches just six times over his first three seasons. (Oh … yes, Sabathia was a first-round pick.)

Oliver Perez, Padres, 2002

Perez meets our standard by pitching 61 innings before reaching 21 years of age. He looked like a future star after striking out 239 batters with Pittsburgh in 2004, but he's been inconsistent since because of control problems.

Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers. 2003

Bonderman, a No. 1 pick by the A's, spent the entire 2003 season as a 20-year-old; he jumped from Class A and endured a nightmarish campaign that saw him lose 19 games on a horrid Tigers squad that lost 119. Bonderman has battled injuries the past two seasons -- a blood clot in 2008 and shoulder problems this season.

Zack Greinke, Royals, 2004

The feel-good story of 2009, Greinke went 8-11, 3.97 in 24 starts as a rookie. He went 5-17 the next season before missing almost all of 2006 with well-documented anxiety issues. In the long run, his shortened 2006 and 2007 (122 innings) might benefit his long-term health.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, 2008

The seventh pick in 2006 (think the Royals wish they had drafted him first overall instead of Luke Hochevar?), Kershaw has limited batters to a .213 average this season. He also leads the National League in walks. If he stays healthy, the future is bright.

Rick Porcello, Tigers, 2009

Porcello will spend the entire 2009 season as a 20-year-old. Kid gloves: He has yet to throw 100 pitches in a game. Let's hope his future is also bright.

Pitch-count data from Baseball-Reference.com.

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