Tigers Like To Hurry Up
The Giants drafted Tim Lincecum 10th overall in 2006; he made his major league debut on May 6 2007, less than a year after signing.
They were a bit more deliberate with '07 first-rounder Madison Bumgarner, a high school draftee who debuted last year and in 2010, at age 21, helped secure a World Series championship with eight shutout innings in a Game Four victory.
Their quick big league success came after short apprenticeships in the minors. Lincecum threw just 63 minor league innings, similar to that of Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Making his debut at the ripe age of 22, Verlander has been one of the biggest success stories of the franchise. Now through his sixth big league season, the Tigers' ace had one glimpse of the majors after just 119 minor league innings, all in 2005, and never looked back. The next season, he was the No. 1 starter on Detroit's pennant-winning club.
The Tigers have tried to repeat Verlander's rapid path to the majors, with varied success. Rick Porcello, a 2007 first-round pick out of a New Jersey high school, joined the big league club in 2009 at only 20 years of age, after 125 minor league innings. He did well (14-9, 3.96) as a rookie, but found limited success in 2010, going just 10-12, 4.92. In the midst of his struggles he was sent down to Triple-A Toledo, causing some to wonder whether he came up through the system too quickly.
Ryan Perry, a 2008 first-rounder out of Arizona, made his debut at the age of 22, only one day before Porcello made his first appearance. Perry's tenure has included short trips back to the minors for rehab, but he has generally stuck around Detroit as an effective middle reliever.
The Tigers tried the quick route again in 2010 with lefthander Andy Oliver, their 2009 second-round pick. Oliver started the season at Double-A Erie, then was jumped to the majors at age 22. In the five games he started, he found himself with four losses and an inflated 7.36 ERA.
Detroit hired its current pitching coach, Rick Knapp, after the 2008 season. Before joining the Tigers he spent 12 years as the minor league pitching coordinator for the Twins, and before that he spent another nine seasons as a pitching coach in the minors.
Though his experience might be best suited for a team with an especially young pitching staff that hasn't spent much time in professional baseball, he doesn't think that Detroit has necessarily been bringing up their pitchers too quickly.
"Rushing a guy to the major leagues is only rushing him if he can't perform," Knapp said. "Even if he doesn't perform that doesn't mean that he's not quite ready. But I understand that we have taken some fire for that."
The lack of a follow-up performance from Porcello after his successful first year with the Tigers might have been cause to think that maybe he wasn't ready, but Knapp wasn't surprised by what happened and is content with the way his young pitchers have played.
"Porcello and Perry," Knapp said, "those two guys have stepped up and they did what they were supposed to do. Porcello tripped a little bit last year, but I think that's got to be expected a little bit."
The expectations set for Porcello might have had something to do with his age, or the fact that he came through the system a little bit too fast, but Knapp doesn't think that was the case.
"I don't think it was a result of rushing him," Knapp said. "I think it was just a result of things that kind of got out of whack, and he had a hard time fixing them at the major league level. It helped him to go back for a short while and figure it out. But there are lots of players that do that.
"There are a lot of pitchers that have to do that. Halladay was one of them."
The Blue Jays drafted Roy Halladay, now one of the game's best pitchers, out of Arvada (Colo.) High in 1995, and he hit the major leagues at age 21, after 377 minor league innings. He had success immediately, coming within one out of a no-hitter against Detroit in just his second start. But he fell just as quickly as he rose.
The Phillies ace still holds the record for the worst ERA for any pitcher having thrown at least 50 innings in a season, one he set in Toronto in 2000, with a 10.64. The Blue Jays sent him back down to the farm, which was apparently just what the Doc had ordered.
Halladay spent time with Mel Queen, the Jays' pitching guru, and he was a changed man when he came back to the majors. In the two seasons that followed, he went 41-14 and won the Cy Young award in 2003, and he's never looked back.
Was Halladay rushed to the majors? Evidently, he needed the extra time to grow as a pitcher and to mature before returning as one of the game's most dominant forces, but not all teams have the luxury of patience. As Knapp pointed out, some organizations have to use the best they have when it is available to them.
"In a perfect world we wouldn't have had Rick Porcello in the major leagues," Knapp said. "But he was better than the guys that were chasing him."
Though a perfect world might include letting players move through each of the various levels in the minor leagues, getting pitch counts and experience along the way, teams like the Tigers like to take their talent and use it, trying to contend in competitive American League Central races year after year.
Sometimes it just doesn't work out.
"Andy Oliver, was he rushed?" Knapp said. "Yeah I think he was rushed, but I think it was good for him to see what the level's all about. He's not a kid. His stuff was pretty good and he was the guy that got the call."
Scouts have noted that some of the Tigers current prospects, such as lefthander Matt Hoffman, are also being pushed aggressively up the ladder. Hoffman started the 2010 season at high Class A and performed well enough (1.59 ERA, 2 BB in 23 IP) to earn a promotion.
He took one step up, to Double-A, but only for two weeks before he jumped to Triple-A Toledo, where he struggled in three outings. He then was sent back to Erie, and in 31 innings overall between Double-A and Triple-A, he posted a 24-26 walk-strikeout ratio and 7.84 ERA, and he pitched just 54 innings total. Though all of his innings this season were in relief, one scout who saw him in Erie said Hoffman had an exciting arm, with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, but "needs to be in A-ball getting innings as a starter."
Though Hoffman is not alone in the category of quick to rise and fast to fall, he is also not alone when it comes to pitching prospects feeling the rush to the majors. He was in the Arizona Fall League in November, gaining more experience for a possible callup in 2011.
Knapp understands that immediate success isn't bred in everyone, and some guys just need more time than others before they can be major league stars.
"It'd be great if everybody could just come up right away and they're good, bang, and you don't have to worry about them, but a lot of times it isn't that way."