Big Debuts And a Difference in Philosophies

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IApril 12, 2010

Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman made their heralded debuts in the minors today, and Mike Leake also pitched in his first professional, for-the-money game with the Reds.  These debuts highlight very different strategies for developing young pitchers.

Let’s open with Strasburg.  He pitched five innings for Harrisburg in the AA Eastern League, allowing four runs, only one of them earned, on four hits and two walks, and he struck out eight.  A fine first effort.

Meanwhile, the Nationals have obviously decided that they are going to bring along their top young arms slowly and deliberately.  Even more than Strasburg starting at the AA level (it was his first professional game after all), what caught my attention was that the pitcher who saved the game was Drew Storen.

Storen was the Nats’ second pick in the first round of the 2009 Draft (10th overall).  Storen’s selection with the tenth pick was generally considered to be higher than his talent merited.  Instead, he was chosen 10th because he would cost the Nats relatively less than taking the top player still available and he was expected to sign fast, both in contrast with Strasburg, who everyone knew before hand was going to set the signing bonus record and would likely do so in August at the last possible minute.

However, once Storen hit the minors in 2009, he was terrific, posting a 1.95 ERA in 28 appearances and 37 innings pitched with equally great ratios at the A, A+ and AA levels.  Storen reasonably could have started the 2010 at the AAA.  The fact that the Nats are starting him at AA this year suggests they don’t want to rush him and risk bruising his confidence.

Meanwhile, the Reds apparently have a completely different mindset.  They did send Chapman to the minors, but to the very highest level.

I personally thought that the Reds would be better served starting Chapman at the AA level, where he’d face players more like himself (highly talented but less experienced than at the AAA level).

In his first start for the Louisville Bats, however, Chapman looked awfully good.  In five innings pitched he allowed one unearned run on five hits and walk, and he struck out nine.  Another great first start.

Meanwhile, the Reds decided that Mike Leake didn’t need to pitch in the minors at all and sent him in for his first start today against the Cubs.  Leake was effectively wild, allowing only a single earned run in 6.2 innings pitched on four hits and seven walks.  He also struck out five.

In my mind, that is not a particularly surprising first start for a pitcher of Leake’s obvious talent.  Leake’s obviously got “stuff” or the Reds wouldn’t have selected him with the 8th pick of last year’s Draft, not to mention his terrific college stats.  The major league hitters have never seen him before, which makes him awfully tough to hit.

However, as you would expect from a pitcher coming straight out of college, his first start does not suggest he’s got major league command yet.  The real test for Leake will be later this season, once National League hitters have seen enough of him to lay off his pitches that break out of the strike zone.  Then we’ll find out if he really has the command necessary to get major league hitters out consistently.

I’m definitely in the camp that says don’t rush your young pitchers too fast.  You only get to control them for so long once they hit the majors, so make sure that they are really ready when you start the clock running.

In the particular cases of the Nationals and Reds, I’m sure that each team’s expectations going into the season has a great deal to do with their decisions.  The Nationals appear to realize that they’ve got a ways to go playing in the NL East with the Phillies, Braves, Mets and Marlins, so there may be no reason to rush Strasburg and Storen in 2010.

I doubt that the Reds will be right in the thick of the NL Central race come August, but I suspect that Reds’ management likes their chances better than I do.  Otherwise, their efforts to rush Leake and Chapman up to the majors as quickly as possible don’t make a whole lot of sense to me.