Todd Van Poppel: What Went Wrong?
Texas high school phenom Todd Van Poppel was drafted in the first round in 1990, 14th overall, by the Oakland Athletics. Most teams and experts thought he was the best talent in the draft, but worries about his perceived bonus demands dropped him down at least ten slots. But he did sign, and his career got off to a good start at Southern Oregon in the Northwest League: 1.12 ERA in five starts, with a 32/9 K/BB in 24 innings. He then made three starts in the Midwest League for Madison, going 2-1, 3.95 with a 17/10 K/BB in 14 innings. His stuff was terrific, and he only needed to improve his command to emerge as an outstanding pitcher. At least that was the theory. A retrospective prospect grade would be A-, and he would have ranked among the Top Ten pitching prospects in the game even by my conservative standards.
Promoted to Double-A in 1991, Van Poppel went just 6-13 in 24 starts for Huntsville, though he did post a decent 3.47 ERA. In 132 innings, he allowed 118 hits with a 115/90 K/BB ratio. His stuff was obviously excellent, but his command was disappointing, as shown by the 90 walks. He made one Major League start for Oakland, going 4.2 innings, allowing seven hits and five runs, though he did strike out six. Due to his command troubles, I might have dropped his grade a notch to B+, but he would still have ranked among the elite given his age and level of competition. I might possibly have kept him at A-; it is hard to know from this distance in time.
The injury bug struck in 1992, a sore shoulder limiting Van Poppel to just nine starts at Triple-A Tacoma. Although he went 4-2, 3.97, his K/BB was poor at 29/35 in 45 innings. Control was becoming a serious problem. Due to the walks and the injury, I would probably have dropped him at least to Grade B and possibly B-.
He came back healthy in 1993, and split the season between Tacoma and Oakland, pitching quite poorly at both stops with ERAs well over 5.00 and poor command numbers. He was out of options and forced onto the Major League roster full time in 1994, an unfortunate byproduct of having signed a Major League contract out of high school. You know the outline of his career from that point: he's had occasional flashes of effectiveness as a reliever, but for the most part he's just another replacement-level pitcher.
What went wrong? Well, he's a pitcher. Even the best pitching prospects run high risks under ideal conditions. In Van Poppel's case, conditions were not ideal, because his contract status forced Oakland to rush him to the Majors before he was ready. He essentially jumped from high school to Double-A in one season, then into Triple-A before having established his command even at the Double-A level. A more rational development path (Low-A, High-A, Double-A, Triple-A) may or may not have helped him, but it certainly would not have hurt, and it would have given him more time to learn to pitch rather than just throw.
Comparable Pitchers to Todd Van Poppel, not including actives.
Russ Van Atta
Replacement level guys.