Danny Hultzen and Pitching Prospects
You may have heard that Danny Hultzen was scratched from his start last night, right before the start of the game, because he couldn’t get loose. This comes after making just one start after returning from a two month absence due to shoulder soreness. This is not exactly how the Mariners were hoping this would go, obviously.
Now, it could turn out to be nothing. Remember back a few years ago when Felix walked off the mound holding his elbow? He took a few weeks off and has been healthy ever since. Two years ago, Hisashi Iwakuma saw his free agent stock tumble due to diminished velocity because of shoulder issues; he’s doing just fine now, I’d say. Pitchers have problems that aren’t the end of their careers too.
But our initial reaction is always to prepare for the worst, because pitching prospects flame out at an absurdly high rate. There have been a lot of studies on this, and this isn’t a new idea, but here’s an article from a few years back that looked at the performance of Top 100 prospects from 1990 to 2003. Over that stretch, his analysis concluded that 77.4% of pitchers who rated as Top 100 prospects (according to Baseball America) ended up as busts. More than 3/4ths of all pitching prospects went on to produce little or no major league value, and the primary reason was injuries.
Position players go bust a decent amount too, of course — 62.9% of the time per this study — but don’t have the same health issues because swinging a bat is not as physically harmful as throwing a baseball. There’s more to prospect evaluation than just figuring out who is going to stay healthy, but pitchers come with an extra variable that no one has really figured out how to predict. Even if you get the talent part right, and you find a kid who works hard, and he understands how to adjust to higher level competition, it can all mean nothing if his elbow or shoulder give out.
That’s why the axiom is that if you want to find a good pitcher, start with 10 pitching prospects. It’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s not that far off, honestly. The success rate of even the best young minor league arms is just very, very low.
That’s why winning teams are generally built around position players, not pitchers. The flameout rate for hurlers is so high that you can have it all fall apart even if you collect the best arms anyone can find. Years of hard work and organization building can go up in smoke simply because of the natural risks that come from throwing a baseball. Pitchers are just not trustworthy. Yes, you love having Felix on the mound, but Felix is the exception that proves the rule. He’s great because he hasn’t had to have surgery and he figured out how to pitch at 89-93 instead of 95-99.
I hope Danny Hultzen is okay. I hope he doesn’t need surgery, and that this all just blows over, and he’s pitching in Seattle by the end of the year. But I’m not counting on it. I’m not counting on any of these young arms. With Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, James Paxton, and Erasmo Ramirez, you can look at the talent and imagine a dominating rotation. History shows that, more likely, four of them never amount to much of anything and you get one good starter from that mix.
I know it’s tempting to imagine a 2014 rotation of Felix, Iwakuma, Walker, Hultzen, and Ramirez, with Maurer and Paxton waiting in the wings in case anyone gets hurt. You’ll probably never see that rotation, just like we never saw Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro, Clint Nageotte, and Jeff Heaverlo pitching together.
Stocking up on pitching prospects is a good thing, because you need a lot of them to build a rotation from within. Counting on a high percentage of those pitching prospects to turn into big league pitchers, though, is not a good thing, because you’re just going to be left wondering what if.
Danny Hultzen might be just fine. This might be nothing. This might also be the beginnings of the kinds of problems that have wrecked a huge percentage of Danny Hultzens that have come before him. I hope it’s not, but this is a reminder to not get your hopes up. Most of these kids are not going to make it. The Mariners are not going to ride the backs of these pitching prospects to a World Series title. That’s just not how it works.