The Dodgers called up 20 year old phenom Clayton Kershaw from Double-A to start on Sunday because they found themselves in a bind since Esteban Loaiza forgot how to pitch. The gamble paid off. He didn’t get the decision, but he pitched well and the team won.
His start raises a couple of interesting issues. First of all, it will be fun to see if Kershaw is one of those pitchers who hits the ground running and puts together a good year, or if he will struggle and take some time before he sticks for good. It also raises an issue of how we should deal with these phenom pitchers. The obvious answer would probably be to pass the games because we don’t know what the pitchers have to offer in their debut start, but where’s the fun in that. Instead, it might be interesting to look back on some of the recent phenoms that have come on the scene to see what they did in their first starts – maybe we’ll learn something.
Here’s a very incomplete list of 15 young pitchers including Kershaw and the result their team enjoyed in their first start. The criteria were simple – the pitchers all had to debut within the last three years, and they all had to have a good deal of buzz surrounding their debuts.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers – Team won – He was drafted two years ago out of high school, and was rushed along because of the composure he was showing in Double-A. His first start lasted six innings and featured seven strikeouts and just one walk. Nothing wrong with that.
Cole Hamels, Phillies – Team won – Hamels was drafted in the first round in 2002. He didn’t make the roster out of spring training in 2006, but he was called up almost immediately. His first start was May 12. He won, and has never really looked back. He’s the clearest success on this list.
Phil Hughes, Yankees – Team lost – Phil Franchise was tabbed as the number two prospect in the minor leagues at the start of the 2007 season, but he didn’t have a chance to prove it – he was called up in April. He didn’t make it out of the fifth in his first start.
Andrew Miller, Tigers (now Marlins) – Team won – Miller was the college player of the year in 2006, and was the sixth pick in the draft that year. He was the first player in that draft to make the majors. His first start was a gem – six shutout innings against St. Louis. He obviously didn’t make enough of an impression, though – he was sent the other way in the Dontrelle Willis deal.
Max Scherzer, Diamondbacks – Team lost – Scherzer was a first round pick in 2006. He drove bettors into a frenzy with his first relief appearance – four and a third perfect innings. He was immediately pressed into starting duty as Doug Davis got treated for cancer. It was a disaster. He pitched poorly and was beat by Jamie Moyer and the Phillies.
Homer Bailey, Reds – Team won – A first round pick in 2004, Bailey’s debut was much anticipated in June of 2007. He won that first game against the Indians, but he has struggled to find a spot with the big team since then. He’s currently in AAA.
Tim Lincecum, Giants – Team lost – Lincecum is a heck of a pitcher, but he doesn’t look the part – he’s not very tall and he’s scrawny. That didn’t stop him from winning the Golden Spikes Award in 2006 – given to the best amateur player in the country. He didn’t make the team in 2007, but was called up right away because Russ Ortiz was injured. He was fine in his first outing, but the lousy Giants didn’t help him out and the team lost.
Jair Jurrjens, Tigers (now Braves) – Team lost – Unlike most of the rest of the players on this list, Jurrjens is not a blue-blooded prospect. He was an undrafted free agent, but he fought his way up through the Tigers’ system. He was added to the 40 man roster in 2007 and debuted in August. He went seven and was okay, but the Tigers weren’t very good that night and they lost.
Clay Buchholz, Red Sox – Team won – Buchholz was a late first round pick in 2005 (a compensatory pick for Pedro Martinez). He won his first start with a decent six inning outing, but was sent right back down to the minors for a couple of weeks. It worked. He came up and threw a no-hitter in his second start.
Matt Garza, Twins (now Rays) – Team lost – Garza showed tremendous promise early in his career. In his first pro year, 2006, he worked up from A ball to the pros by August. He was called up to replace the injured Francisco Liriano. His first start, against Toronto, was an absolute disaster – seven runs in less than three innings. He rebounded and progressed nicely, but was sent to Tampa for Delmon Young.
Jered Weaver, Angels – Team won – Weaver’s story is one of the sadly entertaining of all time – to make room for him on the big league roster when he was called up the second time the Angels cut his brother, Jeff. He was national college player of the year in 2004. His first start was spectacular – seven shutout innings. He won four in a row, but was sent down to the minors when Bartolo Colon returned to action.
Adam Loewen, Orioles – Team lost – Loewen took longer to develop than some. He was the fourth pick in the 2002 draft, and the Orioles top prospect by 2004, but he didn’t debut until 2006. He gained some attention in the World Baseball Classic when he got the win for Canada over the U.S. team. He lost his first game, but he can’t really be blamed – his first four starts were all against Cy Young winners – Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine and Roy Halladay two different times. Ouch.
Johnny Cueto, Reds – Team won – This tiny Dominican is nasty. In his first start this April he was perfect through five innings, allowed just one baserunner – a home run – and struck out ten in seven innings. Incredible. He has struggled to find that form since, but he still shows tremendous promise.
Luke Hochevar, Royals – Team lost – This guy is a case study in how to work the draft. He was drafted in 39th round in 2002. He didn’t sign. In 2005 he was picked late in the first round. The contract negotiations were a mess and he went back into the draft again in 2006. This time he went first overall. His first start came as a 40-man roster call up in September of last year. He lost, but then again he plays for the Royals so what did you expect.
Ian Kennedy, Yankees – Team won – A 2006 first round pick, Kennedy made the bigs in September of 2007 because the Yankees continue to show a total inability to establish a major league rotation. He allowed one earned run in seven innings to get the win first time out.
So what does it all mean? Not much. This list of 15 phenoms won eight games and lost seven. Betting on them all to win would have lost money, but not much. Betting on all of them to lose would likely not have made much, if any, money. As expected, you just have to do your homework for each game by itself because there doesn’t appear to be any shortcuts among first-timers. Sorry.