July 29, 2007


No Such Thing (Joe Sheehan, August 12, 2003, Baseball Prospectus)

There's no such thing as a pitching prospect.

I probably use that phrase a couple of times a week. It comes up a lot around trade-deadline time, as teams swap known quantities for unknowns in Double-A or lower and make a big deal about how those guys will be throwing 200 innings and saving 30 games in a few years' time. It doesn't happen that way.

What does it mean, though? Clearly, hundreds of young men pitch for baseball teams below the level of the major leagues, and many of them have the chance to become major-league pitchers. They're prospective ones, so literally, the phrase is untrue. Pithy, but untrue.

"There's no such thing as a pitching prospect" (TNSTAAPP, for short) is actually a shorthand way of expressing the idea that minor-league pitchers are an unpredictable, unreliable subset of baseball players. The concept isn't mine, although I'm probably the most dogmatic BPer on the subject. Gary Huckabay was the first to use the phrase; some Googling turned up credit to him in the late 1990s on rec.sport.baseball.

The principles behind TNSTAAPP are pretty simple. Pitchers are unpredictable. They're asked to perform an unnatural act--throw baseballs overhand--under great stress, thousands of times a year. They get hurt with stunning frequency, sometimes enough to cost them a career, more often just enough to hinder their effectiveness. (Modern medicine has dramatically changed what a pitcher can do to his arm and still have a career.) Even the better ones--Andy Pettitte, for instance--have wide year-to-year variations in their performance. It's only the very top 0.1% of pitchers who are consistently good year-in and year-out over substantial careers.

That's major-league pitchers, who have proven themselves to be the best in the world at what they do, and are physically mature. Minor-league pitchers have all of the inconsistencies of the class, and are still developing in significant ways: physically, mentally and emotionally. If you can't predict where most major-league pitchers will be two years out, it's quite a conceit to think you can predict where any minor-league pitcher will be even one year out.

Within the baseball industry, placing outsized expectations on boys too young to buy a drink after their game is a time-honored tradition. Every night in small towns across America, scouts get worked up over the physical attributes and ability shown by 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds. What they don't see, however, is the stress and strain placed on developing shoulder muscles and elbow joints. They don't see the third pitch so essential to major-league success, because that third pitch often doesn't exist. They certainly don't see that dominating a game in the Eastern League or the Florida State League is absolutely nothing like doing so in even the high minors, much less the major leagues.

TNSTAAPP, to a certain extent, means throwing up your hands and admitting that there's no way of knowing which pitchers are going to come through that wringer intact. The irrational exuberance that develops over teenagers who can propel horsehide at high velocity is one of those inside-baseball things that, as an outsider, I just don't get and don't want to. The path from dominating teenagers in states with two-word names to being a successful major-league pitcher is long and difficult. One-hundred forty years into the baseball industry, how to navigate that path is still an open question, and while there's been progress, I see no one turning teenagers into rotation starters on a regular basis.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 29, 2007 6:21 AM
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