MT. LEBO – The consensus top pitching prospect in baseball, Orioles’ right-hander Dylan Bundy, went to see Dr. James Andrews on Tuesday.
Other than “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” the words “I’m going to see Dr. Andrews” might invoke the most fear of any phrase in the English language.
In case you’re a casual fan, Andrews is one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country. He specializes in an elbow-ligament-replacement surgery called Tommy John surgery, that while often effective, still requires a year of rehab and in some cases pitchers are never quite the same (See: Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez).
Bundy was the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, but was the top talent on some team’s draft boards. The Pirates drafted Gerrit Cole No. 1 that year, and according a Yahoo! report, Bundy’s camp suggested the Pirates not draft him because they were not on board with his throwing program.
(One GM told Baseball Prospectus that if a team ‘had any guts’ they’d take Bundy No. 1 overall in 2011. It does take guts as high-school arms are volatile and a prep righty has never gone 1st overall)
Now, Bundy might be fine. Hopefully his discomfort is related solely to a muscular issue and does not involve a ligament. But his visit speaks to the inherent danger of pitching prospects.
There’s this Catch-22 with pitching prospects, especially for small-market clubs like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. You can’t win, and certainly can’t win in the postseason, without quality, front-of-the-rotation arms. But small-market clubs can’t afford to sign C.C. Sabathia and Zach Grienke as free agents so they have to draft and develop such arms. Most of these types of arms are only found early in the draft.
Here’s the catch: according to a study of Baseball America top 100 lists from 1990 to 2003, only 26.5 percent of pitchers ranked as top 10 prospects became elite, top-of-the-rotation arms…… 59.2 percent became busts.
How’s that for attrition?
How’s that for a risky investment?
Jameson Taillon and Cole have both been ranked as top 10 overall prospects. Not exactly comforting, is it?
Now maybe teams will become smarter and better understand the science behind pitching attrition to reduce the attrition rate in future years. Tampa Bay has a remarkable track record in developing young arms and keeping them healthy. Maybe they are lucky but they should at least be a case study. (I’ve read that Tampa uses PitchFx to monitor release points and identify changes to pitchers’ deliveries that might preempt injury).
I’m not suggesting that the Pirates erred in drafting Cole or Taillon or in giving Luis Heredia a record signing bonus. Quite the contrary. Small-market teams need young, cost-controlled aces. I think the Pirates would be wise to spend at least one of their two first-round picks on arms this in this coming draft.
But you can’t count on just one arm to turn fortunes around. Any one arm can bust. In fact you should expect a pitching prospect to bust.
When it comes to young pitching, quality comes from quantity. A quantity of quality. That is how you overcome the vicious Catch-22 conundrum.