Danny Hultzen and Pitching Prospects

Dave · July 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


11 Responses to “Danny Hultzen and Pitching Prospects”

  1. SenegalMsFan on July 3rd, 2013 1:46 pm

    The study that you reference includes top 100 prospects at all levels of the minors. Wouldn’t the fact that each of the top 5 M’s pitching prospects has already reached AAA (and beyond in the case of Erasmo and, briefly, Maurer) reduce the risk to a fraction of the 75% drop out rate that the study shows? Some top prospects never make it to AAA because of injury or poor performance. All of the M’s top 5 have already reached that level, at least, so I would expect more than 1 to have a positive impact. It would require another study to see what portion of top prospects who make it to AAA or AAA + cup of coffee end up succeeding, but it’s going to be more than 25%.

  2. shortbus on July 3rd, 2013 1:47 pm

    Thanks, Davey Downer. You should have included a link to a picture of your puppy to make us all feel better.

  3. PackBob on July 3rd, 2013 2:11 pm

    And even if they make it to the ML level, there is no guarantee they stay, as with Erasmo last year. It’s a real gamble, because not only can it break a team, it can make a team. Any team with pitching prospects like the M’s have that can buck the odds and have most of their prospects make it have a big leg up on other teams. The mistake is to expect it to happen.

    Erasmo has at least shown he can pitch at the ML level, so if he can stay injury free, just one of the other prospects making It would be big for the Mariners.

  4. Klatz on July 3rd, 2013 2:22 pm

    Back of the envelope data gathering would suggest teams have gotten better at protecting prized hurlers. My guess is the frequency of severe injuries has gone down in the last 10 years.

  5. Will on July 3rd, 2013 2:23 pm

    I do think that if he can overcome his injuries, he can be a very solid #4 starter for us in the rotation, especially in our ballpark. I’m not huge on Paxton or Maurer, but we should have the best rotation in baseball three years down the road.

  6. don52656 on July 3rd, 2013 2:37 pm

    First, the linked article about the history of prospect success does indeed say that pitchers are more of a crap shoot than position players. However, there is nothing in that article which says that injuries are the reason. While it intuitively makes sense that injuries are a primary reason, it would be nice to see some data to support your conclusion before making it.

    Second, pitchers ranked in the top 20 have almost double the success rate you cite, close to 40%. Hultzen and Walker are certainly in this group, I don’t think any of the others are. But, this would seem to favor the Mariners striking gold on more than 1 of the 5 listed. It happens, Seaver/Koosman/Ryan and Hudson/Mulder/Zito are a couple of examples which come to mind.

    Third, I wonder whether using 13 years of data is representative of an overall trend, or if this is a relatively small sample size.

    Finally, let’s hope Hultzen is eventually okay. And really, the Davey Downer comment above seems appropriate. I know the Mariners have been a frustrating team to be a fan of for the past decade, but would it really be so difficult to write a positive article every now and then?

  7. GLS on July 3rd, 2013 2:53 pm

    In the Mariners’ case, these prospects are already at AAA and their performances at that level (sans Paxton so far) are strong enough that we can reasonably project each of them as major league contributors. Injuries are a concern, but we’re not dealing with 5 pitchers spread throughout the minor league system at different stages of development. These guys are all nearing the finish line (again sans Paxton who may need another year+). While injuries will almost certainly be an issue, given that these guys are all at Triple-A, we’ll likely do better than just one of them making it and having any sort of substantive career. The odds are better than that.

  8. outfieldgrass24 on July 3rd, 2013 5:38 pm

    Normally I appreciate your realism. Today is no different. Keep ’em comin’ Dave.

  9. taylor.mariner on July 3rd, 2013 7:42 pm

    And that was a Coors frost brewed cold reality check!

  10. henryv on July 3rd, 2013 11:56 pm

    Jeez… How many accounts does Geoff Baker have on this site anyways?

  11. raul_podzednick on July 4th, 2013 11:32 am

    Felix could also blow out his elbow and Jack Z could trade Kuma for a 4th OF, a couple of relievers and a 3B prospect, yes bad things can and do happen

    I don’t think Felix, Kuma, Erasmo, Walker, Hultzen is at all unrealistic for 2014

    Kuma may not be as hot as he was at the start of this season and Hultzen may still be figuring some things out at the big league level but there is a good chance that that will be the rotation if not breaking camp at least part way through the year when Jacks latest veteran reclamation project flames out.

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