One of the most influential people for me in my baseball fandom is Bill James. Now an employee of the Boston Red Sox, James started out as a guy who wanted to find out the answers to questions. Is baseball 80 percent pitching? Is a walk as good as a hit? Does a pulled-in infield make a .200 hitter a .300 hitter? If you were a fan, you heard these things repeated all of the time. James was the one who sat down with pen and paper and tried his best to answer them.
James had three things in his favor. First, he was a naturally inquisitive guy. Second, he was a really, really good writer. Finally, not many people were doing what he was doing. It was a perfect confluence of events and James rode his talents to go from a third-shift worker in a warehouse to best-selling author and finally to a respected position within the baseball establishment.
Meanwhile, James doesn’t hold the same magical position he once did because a lot of his stuff is proprietary and, as he would be the first to admit, he does not keep up with the latest advancements in the field. Nowadays, when James publishes something for everyone to read, people still flock to read it but it typically does not contain the ground-breaking work of his stuff from the 20th Century.
To use a baseball expression, James may not have the bat speed he once did.
Regardless, it made me take notice when I saw a “Mailbag Column” of his posted at Baseball Think Factory – especially because it contained a question about Matt Harvey. Here is the relevant Q&A:
Matt Harvey debuted this year and struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings and put up a 2.72 ERA in 60 innings. How likely is a pitcher with a debut like that at the age of 23 to become a great pitcher?
It’s fairly long odds. I identified all pitchers since 1900 who were 22-24 years old, made 5 to 15 starts and less than 25 appearances, had no previous major league history or very limited major league history, and who were at least +10 vs. the league in strikeouts (10 more strikeouts than a league-average pitcher) and positive overall performance. There are only 29 such pitchers in major league history before Harvey (I had expected it to be more) but none of the 29 became a great pitcher. The ten best pitchers in the group were Danny Darwin, Bill Doak, Barry Zito, Schoolboy Rowe, Whitlow Wyatt, Stu Miller, Bob Turley, Denny Lemaster, Eric Hanson, Arthur Rhodes and Dave Righetti (OK, that’s 11)…
Most young pitchers get hurt. Most young pitchers who look like they might be great, aren’t great. Ten starts isn’t enough to get real excited about.
But a commenter named bobm went over to Baseball-Reference and did a search with similar parameters. Only he did it using the first 10 starts of a career. He looked for the most matching games with SO>7 and a Game Score>= 58.
In this age-based comparison, Harvey is tied for second-best with Lynn McGlothen with six performances matching the criteria in his first 10 starts. Only 25 pitchers have done it three or more times, with Jose DeLeon leading the way with seven. But the list is a little more impressive than James’ list, as it includes Michael Pineda, Tim Hudson, Luis Tiant, Tim Lincecum and Johnny Cueto.
The age filter is the big problem as bobm found that if you switch the ages to 20-21, you get Kerry Wood, Herb Score, Stephen Strasburg, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton. If you make it 19 and under, you get Dwight Gooden, Felix Hernandez, Bert Blyleven and Bob Feller.
Mets fans are understandably excited about Harvey. I still get a bit giddy thinking we finally have a starting pitcher who can consistently throw 95-97 mph. But James’ list is a bucket of cold water and shows that the old refrain – there’s nothing that disappoints like young pitchers – is one to keep in mind. Here’s hoping that Harvey’s first full year is more like 2008 Lincecum than 1954 Turley.