No matter what anyone argues, there is no sure-fire method for developing a raw pitching prospect into an ace. In fact, some may even argue that there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect due to their extreme rate of failure.
As a result, for every Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and David Price—top draft picks who have grown into their original projection as front-of-the-rotation starters—there’s an endless list of Todd Van Poppels, Mark Priors and Paul Wilsons.
However, there are general principles that should be considered when developing a potentially elite young pitcher.
Draft a high-ceiling arm; gamble on upside and athleticism
When targeting a pitcher in MLB’s First-Year Player Draft in June, I’m a strong advocate for selecting the arm with the highest ceiling. Basically, with a first-round pick, a team should target the player with the potential for the greatest impact in the major leagues.
Target young pitchers with little mileage; don’t shy away from lack of experience
More often than not, this idea lends to the ultimate selection of a young, athletic arm with perceived untapped potential. Equally important is the emphasis on a player’s athleticism, which is a strong indicator of how they should, in theory, be able to make physical adjustments (typically mechanical) and hold up over the years.
An arsenal loaded with above-average-to-plus pitches
Based upon basic scouting philosophy, a true No. 1 starter should boast two plus pitches, an above-average third offering and plus overall command. However, relative to a player’s status at the time they were drafted, a vast gap may exist between present ability and future potential until experience is gained in the minor leagues.
This is where things start to become sketchy. From my time as a player, coach and scout, I’ve come to learn that different pitching mechanics may work for certain players, regardless of the health risks they might portend.
However, different organizations subscribe to different philosophies, which may not be conducive or applicable to every pitcher in the system (just ask Trevor Bauer). If that is the case, though, then the preferred mechanics and corresponding philosophy must be implemented at the start of the player's professional career.
No need to rush, but don’t be afraid to challenge
When developing a promising young arm, there’s rarely a need to rush him through the minor leagues. Obviously, this sentiment can vary.
For example, after opening his professional debut at Low-A Delmarva last season, the Baltimore Orioles issued right-hander Dylan Bundy, the game’s top pitching prospect (19 years old at the time), a well-deserved promotion to High-A before a late-season promotion to Double-A. However, the organization’s aggressive handling of Bundy didn’t end there, as they ultimately promoted him to the major leagues in mid-September.
Obviously Bundy is not the norm; he’s a freak with a mature, polished arsenal and overall feel for pitching that bellies his age and experience. Typically, teams would rather see their prized pitching prospect make gradual, year-to-year adjustments in their ascent towards the major leagues.
However, that doesn’t mean that the player should be babied or unchallenged along the way. To give a pitcher the best chance of reaching his ceiling, it’s necessary to challenge him at appropriate times—although the results may leave something to be desired, enduring and overcoming adversity on the mound is instrumental in a young pitcher’s overall development.
An example of an aggressive, but constructive, development path can be seen with the Mariners’ Taijuan Walker—who possesses one of the highest ceilings among all pitching prospects—over the last two seasons.
After he excelled in the rookie-level Arizona League during his professional debut in 2010, the Mariners offered Walker an aggressive promotion to Low-A Clinton for his full-season debut the following year. Playing the entire season as an 18-year-old, Walker exceeded expectations as he registered a 2.89 ERA with 113/39 K/BB in 96.2 innings.
His overwhelming success in the low minors warranted a jump directly to Double-A Jackson last season, where the 6'4" right-hander was understandably challenged for the first time in his career. Therefore, despite the fact that he posted a 4.69 ERA with 118/50 K/BB in 126.2 innings in the Southern League, there was an obvious silver lining that, as a 19-year-old, he still missed a favorable amount of bats without sacrificing his control and command.
Basically, Walker’s up-and-down season at Double-A was a necessary and instrumental component in his overall development.
Acclimation; Spring Training
Over the last several years, it feels as though there’s been a steadily increasing number of prospects invited to major league spring training. Big league camp offers an opportunity for the organization to gauge a player’s present ability relative to that his peers in the majors. But perhaps more importantly, for an emerging prospect, an invitation to major league camp is a legitimate vote of confidence from the organization.
In theory, such an invitation means that the prospect is officially on the periphery of the major leagues and is expected to debut within a few years. Although many of these younger players are only around for a few Cactus or Grapefruit League games—a majority of prospects are typically re-assigned to minor league camp as the spring unfolds—the overall experience and brief glimpse of life in the Show is invaluable towards their overall development.
Eradication of mechanical flaws and inefficiencies
Sadly, Tommy John surgery has become a rite of passage for many of the game’s top pitching prospects. Stephen Strasburg’s phenomenal rookie campaign in 2010 was cut short due to a torn UCL and subsequent reconstructive surgery. Since returning to the mound, however, the right-hander has established himself as one of the top arms in the major leagues.
Along those same lines, Lucas Giolito, the Nationals’ first-round draft pick in 2012, was widely regarded as the top amateur arm in the class headed into the spring season, not to mention an early favorite to be selected first overall. However, the tall, hard-throwing right-hander injured his elbow in one of his first starts and was forced to miss the remainder of his high school season.
Still, presumably under the impression that he would eventually need elbow surgery, the Nationals selected Giolito with the 16th overall pick. And sure enough, in his first professional start, he re-aggravated the injury and underwent Tommy John surgery shortly thereafter.
Although both Strasburg and Giolito’s mechanics are rooted in sheer arm strength and may always be less than ideal, a major alteration (such as the implementation of a later foot strike or lower arm angle) has the potential to create a more serious injury (shoulder, knee).
While both of the aforementioned power pitchers are unique examples, elbow injuries and Tommy John surgery have been cropping up more and more in the major leagues. Over the last two years, a host of young-ish pitchers, relatively speaking, have missed significant time due to reconstructive elbow surgery, including Adam Wainwright, Daniel Hudson, Brandon Beachy, Brett Anderson and Rubby De La Rosa, as well as relievers Brian Wilson, Ryan Madson and Neftali Feliz.
But what should be attributed to the growing number of elbow-related injuries across all levels of the game. Well, according to a very old but still highly relevant study conducted by Will Carroll (now with Bleacher Report) and Nate Silver (now accurately predicting presidential elections) for Baseball Prospectus, poor mechanics may be at fault:
Finally, a pitcher with poor mechanics, fatigued or not, is at increased risk of injury. Although the lack of readily available data makes it difficult to discuss biomechanical efficiency with the same precision that we do pitch counts, there is no doubt that the makeup of a pitcher's delivery can separate those pitchers that can withstand high levels of use from those that cannot.
It is the final factor--mechanics--that may be responsible for the high incidence of injuries among very young pitchers. It is likely that pitchers with inherently poor mechanics are weeded out very early in their careers. Our attrition rate data suggest that injury risk is very high even for 21- and 22- year-olds who have pitched successfully in the major leagues. One can imagine that it is higher still for pitchers who have not yet turned professional, and for pitchers whose mechanics are sufficiently poor that they do not develop the command necessary to reach the major leagues at all.
Challenge them when they’re still on the right side of the age curve
The response of teams to the recent Tommy John boom covers both sides of the spectrum: most organizations prefer to manage their young pitching prospects’ individual workloads and ease them through the low minors.
However, other teams, such as the Nationals, are seemingly unopposed to letting their top pitching prospects throw until they blow—implying that the organization believes Tommy John surgery is inevitable. At the same time, such a mentality also casts the surgery in a positive light, as it suggests that a player’s ceiling and ultimate long-term projection is unaffected by the injury.
Since there’s no Nate Silver-inspired formula or suggested guidelines for how to effectively move a pitching prospect up the minor-league ladder, the decision about when to offer an aggressive promotion is one that’s specific to each organization. While a portion of that decision is rooted in the player’s statistical performance, naturally, it’s more so based on whether their mechanics, arsenal and command will translate at a more advanced level.
Controlling the environment
In case you’ve never noticed, very few impact prospects open the season in the major leagues. Beyond the service-time issue and potential to become a Super-Two player, most organizations are genuinely opposed to thrusting a high-ceiling prospect into such a potentially unforgiving situation.
Instead, most teams assign their top prospects—more specifically, those expected to reach the major leagues during the upcoming season—to either Double- or Triple-A to open the year, which is usually a familiar and comfortable scene for many players. Essentially, they try their best to control the environment surrounding a big-league call-up, often holding out for nothing less than ideal circumstances.
Allow for final adjustments to be made in the major leagues
One of the greatest misconceptions regarding top-flight pitching prospects is that a promotion to the major leagues indicates that the player is big-league ready. Rarely is a young pitcher ready for the Show at the time of their promotion—which is actually a good thing. While a rapid and uncontested ascent through the minor leagues will always garner loads of hype, it can also mean that the player is forced to bypass several crucial years of development.
Each player has a distinct learning curve that’s repeatedly challenged and adjusted throughout his time in the minor leagues. But, despite the player’s perceived ceiling and potential impact, the ability to make both in-game and ongoing adjustments in the major leagues is the final, and arguably most important, developmental phase.