Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thoughts on the Giants Developing Pitchers

As you all know, I have expressed concern over Chris Stratton's placement and performance this year.  The feedback in the Comments tells me that most readers are less concerned about it than I.  With that in mind, I sought an outside opinion yesterday by posing the following question to Marc Hulett in his Fangraphs Prospect Chat:  How much trouble is Chris Stratton in as a prospect?  He started at a very low level for a first round draft pick from a major D1 college program and has put up mediocre numbers.

Hulett's answer:  His numbers haven't been terrible and SF knows how to develop pitching.  I also know they don't read too much into first year numbers.

Hulett is certainly a knowledgeable reporter/analyst and I respect his opinion, else I would not have posed the question to him in the first place.  I will concede that Stratton's numbers have not been terrible.  I will also concede that the Giants probably do not read much into first year numbers.  The part of his answer that interests me is the "SF knows how to develop pitching."

It struck me that this has become an almost stock answer that I see around the internet when a question about almost any Giants pitching prospect comes up.  "Oh, don't you worry, everything will be alright.  The Giants know how to develop pitching."  Now, the Giants have had a great deal of success with "homegrown" pitching in the last 10 years or so, but is it really because the are better at developing pitchers or is it more that they are good at finding pitchers?

It kind of harks back to the old Nature vs Nurture debate regarding human behavior.  Can the Giants really turn a proverbial sow's ear into a silk purse when it comes to pitching, or are they just good at finding silk purses?  Let's break down the history of the Giants and their pitching over the last 10+ years to see if we can find some answers.

First, we will look at the pitchers who the Giants have successfully developed.  For sake of brevity, I will use ERA's as a rough approximation of effectiveness with the stipulation that we all know it is not a perfect measure.  I will also refer to the player's first FULL pro season as Pro Season #1.

Noah Lowry- Drafted out of college(Pepperdine) 2001 first round.  Pro Season #1:  High A, ERA= 2.15.  Pro Season #2:  AA  ERA= 4.72, AAA  ERA= 2.37, MLB ERA 0.00 in 6.1 IP.  Pros Season #3  AAA  ERA= 4.13.  MLB  ERA= 3.82.  Lowry showed up in the majors with an average fastball and a devastating changeup that baffled MLB hitters.  Whether hitters figured out the changeup or his injury issues started long before we became aware of them, he gradually became less effective and his career sadly ended prematurely due to injury.

Brad Hennessey- Drafted out of college(Youngstown St) 2001 first round.  The start to Hennessey's pro career was delayed and interrupted by 2 surgeries for a tumor on his spine.  Pro Season #1(2003 after missing all of 2002):  Low A ERA- 4.20.  Pro Season #2:  AA  ERA= 3.56, AAA  ERA= 2.02, MLB  ERA= 4.98.  Hennessey went on to have modest success for several seasons in the majors.  He showed up in 2008 mysteriously underweight and was out of baseball in 2 years.

Matt Cain- Drafted out of HS, 2002, first round.  Pro Season #1 Low A  ERA= 2.55.  Pro Season #2 High A  ERA= 1.86, AA  ERA= 3.35.  Pro Season #3:  AAA  ERA= 4.39, MLB  ERA= 2.33.  Pro Season #4  MLB  ERA= 4.15.  Cain's first pro season in Low A was extremely successful but cut short by a stress reaction in his elbow.  He fast-tracked after that and has had a very successful MLB career.

Kevin Correia- Drafted out of College 2002, 4'th round(Cal Poly).  Pro Season #1  AA  ERA= 3.65, AAA  ERA= 2.84, MLB  ERA= 3.66.  Correia did not sustain his initial success and bounced back and forth between the majors and minors until his 4'th pro season.  He has enjoyed modest success in his MLB career but has earned a surprising $22 M as a result.

Brian Wilson- Drafted out of college(LSU) 2003 late round(had TJ surgery prior to the draft).  Pro Season #1:  Low A  ERA= 5.34.  Pro Season #2:  Low A  ERA= 0.82, AA  ERA= 0.57, AAA  ERA= 3.97.  Pro Season #3  AAA  ERA= 2.89, MLB ERA= 5.52.  Pro Season #4 AAA  ERA= 2.10, MLB ERA= 2.28.  We all know his story.

Sergio Romo- Drafted out of college(Mesa St) 2005  late round.  Pro Season #1:  Low A  ERA= 2.53.  Pro Season #2  High A  ERA= 1.36.  Pro Season #3  AA  ERA= 4.00, MLB  ERA= 2.12.

Tim Lincecum- Drafted out of college(Washington), 2006 First Round #10 overall.  Pro Season #1  AAA  ERA= 0.29(5 games),  MLB  ERA= 4.00.  Pro Season #2:  MLB  ERA= 2.62(Cy Young Award).  We all know HIS story too!

Madison Bumgarner- Drafted out of HS, 2007 #10 overall.  Pro Season #1:  Low A  ERA= 1.46.  Pro Season #2  High A  ERA= 1.93, AA  ERA= 1.93, MLB  ERA= 1.80(10 IP).  Pro Season #3 AAA  ERA= 3.16, MLB ERA= 3.00.  Bumgarner's story is also well known.

That is every "homegrown" Giants pitcher in the last 10+ years I can think of who could reasonably be considered successfully "developed" by the organization.  As you can see, almost every one was placed and promoted aggressively and had early and sustained success.  It could reasonably be inferred that these pitchers' success had more to do with innate ability than any "development" on the Giants part.  In at least one case, Lincecum, we know that the minor league coaches were instructed by Dick Tidrow to leave his mechanics alone.  In another case, Bumgarner, there is evidence that the Giants tried to change his mechanics with harmful results and he quickly went back to his old mechanics.  Overall, it is an impressive track record of success with "homegrown" pitchers and we can at least say the Giants probably did nothing to hinder their progress and may have helped.

In our exuberance over the Giants success with "homegrown" pitchers, let us not forget that they have had their share of failures too.  We won't go into the monumental collapse of Ainsworth, Foppert and Williams(AFW), which I do not fault the Giants for, as they were all drafted more than 12 years ago and their failure had more to do with innate injury proneness(A and F) and character issues(W).

David Aardsma- drafted in the first round out of college(Rice) 2003, Pro Season #1 AAA  ERA= 3.09 MLB  6.75.  The Giants tried to convert him to a SP in Pro Season #2 at AA, where he had a good ERA of 2.93, but was traded mid-season out of the organization.  He ultimately had 2 successful seasons as a reliever with Seattle, but 6 years after being drafted. He may or may not have been harmed by being rushed to the majors by the Giants.

Roger Craig "Humm-Baby" Whitaker- Also drafted in 2003 out of HS late first round.  His pro career never got untracked due to nagging injuries and lack of development of secondary pitches.  He never pitched at the MLB level.

Tim Alderson- Drafted in the first round out of HS 2007 #22 overall.  Pro Season #1  High A  ERA= 2.79.  Pro Season #2  High A  ERA= 4.15, AA(Giants)  ERA= 3.47, AA(Pirates)- ERA= 4.66.  After Alderson was traded, he complained about the lack of instruction he had received from the Giants and had praise for the Pirates system.  Of course, he has never made it to the majors and the Pirates have an atrocious history of failed pitching prospects, so what do you make of that?  We do know that Alderson pitched exclusively out of the stretch in HS and the Giants had him winding up, so we know they did SOME work with him.

Dan Runzler- Runzler is a hard throwing LHP who seemed like he was destined to be a LH version of Brian Wilson, but has never been able to solve his command problems and appears to be nearing the end of his tenure in the Giants organization.

Zack Wheeler was a high draft pick(#5 overall) who has been discussed ad-nauseum.  He was moving up the Giants ladder on schedule and continued that progression with the Mets.  He has had a successful MLB debut.

Recent drafts have focused more on hitters in the first round and we have not had enough time elapse to judge the success or failure of prospects such as Stratton, Agosta and Kyle Crick.

So, what can we take away from all this history?  1. The Giants have indeed been successful, more than most organizations, at bringing "homegrown" pitchers to the majors.  2.  While development may have played in important role, it appears that scouting may be the bigger factor at work here.  We will never know if these same pitchers would have fared worse in another organization once they were drafted.  3.  There are plenty of examples of pitchers who failed to develop in the organization.  4.  It is probably not valid to dismiss concerns about a specific Giants pitching prospect by saying "the Giants know how to develop pitchers."


  1. All four of your "takeaways" are valid, IMO. I'd be a bit stronger on #4 though. Stating "the Giants know how to develop pitchers," is simply a lazy man's answer, or an ignorant one's. The flip side of it are those who state that every position player the Giants draft is trash because "the Giants don't develop position players". I've already seen dismissals of Christian Arroyo's AFL MVP achievement simply because he was an "overdraft".


    1. Just to be clear here, the Giants know how to develop pitching was only 1 of 3 points that Hulett made about Stratton. The other two I accept as being valid, although I would probably modify his 3'rd point to say that the Giants depend more on scouting and coaching evaluations than on statistical results in evaluating their pitching prospects. Most of the successful ones have performed well, though.

    2. I take his 'The Giants know how develop pitchers,' not a reason for you to be less concerned than others (you have valid reasons to be) but perhaps, as a something along the line of, let's wait and see what he does next year.

    3. Yeah, my post was more a general comment rather than calling out Hulet specifically for being lazy or ignorant. Still, I don't think Hulet brought any new information to the table about Chris Stratton. It's true his numbers themselves aren't terrible, especially for a pitcher willing to work on fundamentals at the expense of results. But they don't look like the numbers you'd expect from a relatively mature and talented top prospect from a D1 school. I think at the lower levels we all have a prejudice for pure talent, and Chris Stratton seems to fit the mold, as the meme goes, of a pitcher not a thrower. That said, if he's got enough stuff, I wouldn't be surprised to see him skip a level during his progression.


  2. Great research and thought provoking questions.

    You forgot Johnny Sanchez! He fits the agressive promotion profile.

    I'd say that scouting and the player being ready for competition will win out most of the time over the nurture part of it.

    I'd also note that just because we don't beat up on prospects in these parts that doesn't mean we aren't aware of the enormous odds against making the show.

    And I'd agree with Peter that its a lazy comp. How many more home grown hitters do the Gints need before that rep goes out the window? Three more? Three more.

    And one more... We might get knocked for not throwing criticisms of the Braintrust up all the time, but Chris Stratton might have been a bad call, and we have been watching that one closely.

    1. Good point about Sanchez. He's kind of an anomaly but he also showed very strong numbers in his Pro Season #1, from what I remember.

  3. I think scouting and developing is more an art than a science. There will be areas (pitching, types of pitching, starting, relieving, certain pitches; hitting, types of hitting; defense, etc.) that they are good at and in those areas they will hit more often and they miss. And there will be areas that they are not as strong at and they will miss often than they hit.

    Specifically with respect to pitching, I would imagine a pitcher's development includes more than just tweaking his mechanics, but encompass perhaps also pitching philosophy (spotting your fastball, don't give in, minimizing being victimized by the long ball, among other things), converting a shortstop to pitching, a reliever to starting, or the other way around, etc.

    Looking at the numbers, perhaps one can hope that Stratton is starting his career, ERA-wise (not health-wise, though he did have that case of being hit on the head last year), like Hennessey in his first healthy season (second year, as he missed, as mentioned above, his first year).

    But one is different and must follow his own path. So, we will have to wait till next year to have a better idea.

  4. One thing not mentioned. Wheeler stated he also went back to his old mechanics after he was traded to the Mets and was not happy with the changes the Giants were pushing him to make. I have always thought you can tweak the mechanics a bit but the pitcher should be comfortable with his arm slot or you are asking for trouble

    1. Not sure what to make of comments made by players who were just traded. Is it a real concern or are they just PO'd at being traded and taking a shot?

    2. I look at Harvey and wonder if that is Wheeler in the near future. I had that thought of future injury when the trade was made and it came out that he changed back to his old mechanics for success with the Mets.

  5. I mostly agree with what DrB noted. Clearly, I think, the Giants KNOWS pitching. Sabean, with Tidrow, in their post draft day interview said unreservedly that they expect Bumgarner to make the majors in two years, and they called it. You cannot do that without having good scouting, and we all know Sabeans reluctance to make statements unless he is sure of it.

    Plus, we all know of Madison's struggles, and Tidrow comes in and Frank Viloa, he is fixed and ready to rock.

    But there is also development too. Most of the pitchers have their story of how they learned a new pitch while with the Giants, making them even better. That is Rags and Gardy, and I would bet some Bochy as well.

    Just because not all their students did not learn and develop mean that they are not good at development. The odds of success is so low that it would be hard to discern. I think the best way right now is to look at their success in putting together a good pitching staff, with both home grown and judicious additions. Cadillac was a cast off but added a pitch and he was a top reliever, oops, Casilla.. On that point the Giants have been great for years.

    1. I didn't really address the whole dumpster diving thing here, and yes, the Giants track record with pitching reclamation projects is nothing short of remarkable.

      I agree that the scouting and development probably go hand-in-hand. The scouts find pitchers who will develop well. My main point, though, was that when it comes to "homegrown" pitchers, in virtually all cases you can see that they were destined for success right from the get-go, making me think that the scouting may deserve more credit than the development.

  6. Maybe having a "pitching guru" like Dick Tidrow in the org has helped them find good young pitchers in the draft too. Baggs book had some interesting passages on Tidrow. He went to Seattle to scout Timmy in College and was so impressed he told Sabean not to come because he didn't want other teams to know the Giants were on to him. I agree, we could all see that Timmy had the stuff and polish for future success. Since a game at Ohio St was rained out, he went to see Johny Sanchez pitch in a small college game in Ohio. A Giants scout wrote him up earlier, and Tidrow liked what he saw. The Giants drafted Sanchez in the 27th round which qualifies as a late round gem. Tidrow wanted to draft CC Sabathia but was told there was no $$ to buy him out from his college commit. They drafted Tony Torcato instead. He's also known to visit different minor league affilliates to watch the pitchers from all different angles at the game so he could offer his advice. I wonder if the Giants would continue to be successful in developing home grown pitchers, if Dick Tidrow were to leave the Organization.


    1. I believe individual scouts/coaches can make a huge difference in an organization. Not saying there is no one else who can scout or coach pitchers or that there aren't other great people in the organization, but from everything I've read, Tidrow deserves a huge amount of credit for the 2 rings.