Oh geez, another Trevor Cahill (Mazzaro/Anderson/Ynoa) post. Did that really have to happen? I would say so. This is actually not as much about Trevor Cahill, but it is about the ability of young pitchers to overcome K/BB ratios as bad as Trevor Cahill's this season (1.25).
The general argument when it comes to Trevor Cahill is that his detractors will point to his inability to strike anyone out and his propensity to issue free passes as a reason that he is no more than a #4 starter. Trevor Cahill's supporters will make the rebuttle that he hasn't been using his most effective swing and miss pitch this season and control can be taught. Basically it is the "development argument"--Cahill has the ability to develop into a very good pitcher.
Knowing how highly I thought of Cahill coming into the season, I thought it might be a good idea to look into the likelihood of progression into the future ace/#2 starter most people thought he would develop into coming into the season. Looking at Cahill's season, it is easy to see why he has had such a rough time in the major leagues--those who argue against Cahill are right. He has a very low K/9, a high BB/9 and a subsequently very bad K/BB. Now pitchers have been able to develop one side of the equation or the other, but most successful pitchers enter the league at least somewhat proficient in one of these categories. Either they have very good control (they throw a lot of strikes) and cannot strike anyone out (ala Rick Porcello this year) or they send plenty of batters back to the dugout ok strikes and have a hard time hitting the zone (ala Clayton Kershaw). As these pitchers move foward, there is a slew of evidence that they at least have the opportunity to improve as there is a track record of pitchers who have done the same (Dan Haren, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, etc). But are there pitchers who have had problems in both categories--to the same extent that Cahill has them--who have gone on to be successful starters in Major League Baseball?
This is what I sought to find out. My criteria was this:
1) Pitchers who had a K/BB ratio under 1.30 with more than 100 IP
2) Who later went on to post an above average FIP for 3 years
3) They must not have exceeded 200 IP before their 1.30 K/BB season. We are looking at the ability of players to develop a good K/BB ratio not someone who is trying to bounce back from a bad season (Kenny Rogers, I'm looking at you)
For my purposes, I went searched back only to 1990. However, as I was looking through I found a couple pitchers who fit the bill going back into their careers. (Mike Moore was one of them)
All told, the results were slim. Here's what I found.
1982 Mike Moore (.092 K/BB)--immediately had 3 straight seasons under 3.60 FIP and 3 more out of the next 6 seasons above average--all told 6 out of his next 9 seasons were above average
Jose Mesa--I'm not even going to put down the years and K/BB ratios. From 1987-1992 (4 seasons), he was downright awful. However, in 1993, he began to put it together and put a string of 4 very good seasons together. He scattered a couple more very good seasons in over the rest of his career, but still came out with a career FIP of 4.31.
1991 Darryl Kile (1.19 K/BB)--Actually posted a solid 3.69 ERA in his rookie year, but had a FIP of 4.66 to back it up. Went on to post very good FIPs in 5 of the next 6 years. Wasn't quite the same after his year-29 season and ended up with a 4.24 career FIP. Solid and certainly over those 6 years he was a #3 starter.
1993 Tim Wakefield (0.79 K/BB)--Walked a LOT and Ked almost no one in his second season in the league. Went on to learn how to strikeout more and brought his BBs a little more under control scattering a few above average seasons throughout a very long career. Career FIP of 4.72 suggests that he is no more than a 4th starter.
1999 Roy Halladay (1.04 K/BB)--Now here is the first really interesting one. The others were pitchers who had moderate success but no real aces among the bunch. This is the first one to have prolonged success. After his rookie campaign (again with a a very good ERA that did not show the tale of the terrible FIP), Halladay's ERA combusted and he was sent down the minors to rework his mechanics. He came back to the majors and hasn't looked back since. His career FIP is 3.47--a true ace.
2000 Mark Mulder (1.28 K/BB)--Here is another interesting one. Mark Mulder came up from the minors in a hurry and had a very bad season his rookie year. After this, however, Mulder showed true ace potential putting up three straight seasons among the top pitchers in FIP. Injuries derailed his career and he was never same after 2003. All things equal, after his rookie season Mulder was an ace almost to the level of Halladay when he was healthy.
Apart from this handful of outliers, most other pitchers who put up K/BB ratios in the realm of Trevor Cahill faded into oblivion. The reason that I point out Mark Mulder is because so many people from the Athletics organization continue to point to Mark Mulder as a reason for keeping the A's rookies in the major leagues while they were struggling. Billy Beane specifically pointed to Mark Mulder as a guy who learned by taking some shots and then grew as a result of it. When Beane pointed to Mulder as a model, I didn't realize quite how closely Cahill's performance resembled Mulder's. For everyone's sake, Cahill had better hope that Beane was right to compare him to Mark Mulder because there are very few young pitchers who have struggled to the extent that Cahill has and gone on to be successful.
I would take it further and say that if Cahill's career follows the path of Moore, Mesa or Wakefield, he would rightly be considered a bust--or at least a disappointment. Coming into the league, Cahill was expected to be a frontline starter. Anything less than Mulder's performance (minus injury) would seem to be failure.
Better yet, Beane should hope that Cahill defies all odds and reaches for the furthest outlier--Roy Halladay. The odds are certainly against him, but Cahill has the track record and minor league scouting report to back it up.