Over the weekend the Astros promoted righthander Forrest Whitley to Double-A Corpus Christi. It was the second promotion of the season for the 2016 first-round pick, who is 5-4, 3.01 overall for the season in 77.2 innings, with 117 strikeouts and 30 walks.
There's little not to like about the 6-foot-7 pitcher's first full pro season. After going 2-3, 2.91 with low Class A Quad Cities, he posted a similar 3-1, 3.16 stat line with high Class A Buies Creek. He's missed bushels of bats (13.4 strikeouts per nine innings this season). He's walked a reasonable amount of batters for a young power pitcher (3.4 walks per nine). He's proven hard to drive the ball off of—opponents are slugging .340 against him this year. And he has dominated with plus stuff.
But now that's he's earned his way to Double-A, he's also put himself in a very rare club.
First-round pitchers picked out of high school are understandably thought of as a risky picks. But when a team gets it right, it can pay off into one of the best pitchers in the game. And early success or early failure is a strong indicator of what will happen with a first-round pitcher.
Using the past 20 years as a guide, the pitchers who are too advanced for low Class A in that first full pro year are usually going to have big league success. And pitchers such as Whitley who reach Double-A in their first season often end up being outstanding.
Only 20 of the 121 first-round prep pitchers finished their first full season in high Class A, but the success rate of those who did is quite impressive. Pitchers ready for high Class A in their first full pro season include C.C. Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, John Danks, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Phil Hughes. Kerry Wood and Jose Fernandez. More than half of those pitchers went on to have big league careers of some significance.
But the track record gets even better when you talk about the few who made it to Double-A in that first full year. Of the other four, none could be called a bust.
We don't yet know what will become of Dylan Bundy's career. He's just 24, but so far he's posted two seasons as an above-average major league starter and he should have many more ahead of him.
Chad Billingsley, the Dodgers' first-round pick in 2003, is the worst of the remaining three. He made eight starts with Double-A Jacksonville in 2004 as part of an 11-4, 2.55 season. Two years later he was in the big leagues, and he posted an 83-64, 3.72 mark in 1,212 big league innings. He made one all-star team and was a part of the Dodgers’ rotation from 2006-2012.
The only other two prep first-round pick pitchers to reach Double-A in their first full season in the past two decades are two of the best pitchers in the game. Clayton Kershaw made five starts with Double-A Jacksonville to wrap up the 2007 season. By mid-2008, he was pitching in the big leagues. Since then he's 141-62, 2.34 with three Cy Young awards.
Zack Greinke, the Royals' first-round pick in 2002, made nine starts with Double-A Wichita at the end of 2003. By mid-2004 he was in the Royals’ rotation. He's gone 168-105. 3.40 with a Cy Young award and three all-star appearances since.
None of this means Whitley will turn into another Greinke or Kershaw, but it is an indicator that he's on a very promising path.