How Do No. 1 Overall Picks Pitch in Their Hyped MLB Debuts?

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How Do No. 1 Overall Picks Pitch in Their Hyped MLB Debuts?
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg's 2010 major league debut is the gold standard for pitchers who go No. 1.

Heads up, baseball fans—something pretty rare is going to happen on Tuesday.

In case you haven't heard yet, Gerrit Cole will be making his major league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday against the San Francisco Giants. The 22-year-old righty flamethrower is the No. 8 prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft.

That's where the whole rare occurrence thing comes into play. 

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Ah, memories from...well, two years ago.

Since the draft was implemented in 1965, there have been 16 pitchers selected No. 1 overall. That includes Cole, 2013 No. 1 pick Mark Appel and 1991 No. 1 pick Brien Taylor, who never made it to the major leagues.

That makes 13 pitchers who have gone No. 1 overall to pitch in the major leagues. Of those, you may be surprised to hear that only six actually started in their major league debuts: David Clyde, Mike Moore, Andy Benes, Paul Wilson, Kris Benson and Stephen Strasburg.

Not exactly a star-studded list, nor does it make for an adequate sample size of starts from which to draw conclusions. But what the heck—let's take a look anyway. 

With assistance from Baseball-Reference, here's how those six guys fared in their major league debuts:

Pitcher Draft Year Debut  IP H BB K R ER Game Score
 David Clyde 1973  6/27/73 5.0  8 58 
 Mike Moore 1981  4/11/82 6.1  3 44 
 Andy Benes 1988  8/11/89 6.0  7 39 
 Paul Wilson 1994  4/4/96* 6.0  6 52 
 Kris Benson 1996  4/9/99 6.0  3 64 
 Stephen Strasburg 2009  6/8/10 7.0  14 75 

Fun fact: The opposing pitcher on the mound for Paul Wilson's debut was Alan Benes, Andy Benes' younger brother.

 

On the whole, not too shabby. Add it all up, and you get an average of roughly six innings with an ERA of 4.24 and a 55.3 game score—so, a quality start, according to this advanced stat. 

Only Clyde lasted fewer than six innings in his debut, and he did so while allowing only one hit and striking out eight. He walked seven, but he can be forgiven for that seeing as how it was his first start at any level other than high school. The Texas Rangers rushed him to the majors a wee bit early (translation: way too early).

The only one of the six who got bombed in his major league debut was Benes in 1989 against the Atlanta Braves. He didn't help himself by giving up homers to Darrell Evans, Dale Murphy and Oddibe McDowell, and he threw only 61 of his 116 pitches for strikes.

The best debut ever for a pitcher chosen No. 1 overall?

Heck, you knew the answer to that question as soon as you clicked on this article.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that we're never going to see another major league debut quite like Strasburg's. The hype for his debut was enormous, but he managed to live up to it and then some.

Video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

Strasburg has made 56 starts since his debut in 2010. He still hasn't matched his strikeout high of 14, and his game score of 75 is one that he's surpassed just five times.

But in case you're wondering, the 75 game score that Strasburg earned in his major league debut is not the best game score achieved by a No. 1 pick in his first career start. That honor belongs to Ben McDonald, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1989 draft.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
McDonald was forced into an early retirement due to injuries.

After making a few relief appearances in '89 and starting the next season in the Baltimore Orioles bullpen, McDonald made his first major league start on July 21, 1990, and pitched a complete-game shutout against future AL Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell and the Chicago White Sox.

McDonald allowed only four hits and a walk in that outing, striking out five and throwing only 85 pitches. His game score came out to 83.

Pitcher Draft Year 1st Start IP H BB K R ER Game Score
 Floyd Bannister 1976 4/23/77 3.2  6 45 
 Tim Belcher 1983 9/9/87 5.0  2 47 
 Ben McDonald 1989  7/21/90 9.0  5 83 
 Bryan Bullington 2002 9/6/07 3.0  1 24 
 Luke Hochevar 2006 9/30/07 3.0  1 44 
 David Price 2007 9/22/08 5.1  3 54

Another fun fact: Among the six No. 1 picks to make their first career starts—for the record, Matt Anderson was drafted as a reliever in 1997 and never made a start in the majors—sometime after making their debuts, McDonald was the only one who lasted longer than six innings.

 

The average game score for the first group came out to 55.3. The average game score for this second group comes out to 49.5.

How Cole win his MLB debut?

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You have to take that for what it's worth, seeing as how we're talking about two small sample sizes, but it makes sense that the first group would have the advantage. Starting in the minors and moving up to the majors is an easier transition than the jump from being a starter in the minors, reliever in the majors and then starter in the majors.

In other words: Go ahead and be optimistic, Pirates fans. We know Cole has talent, and history tells us there's a decent chance he'll deliver a winner of a debut on Tuesday.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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