Not a Rookie: Dustin McGowan
Dustin McGowan was drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2000 draft, 33rd overall, out of high school in Ludowici, Georgia. He was your basic high school pitching prospect, an athletic kid who threw hard but needed polish. He posted a 6.48 ERA in 25 innings with an ugly 19/25 K/BB ratio in his pro debut for Medicine Hat in the Pioneer League. I would give a similar raw pitcher drafted that high a Grade C or C+ nowadays.
McGowan moved up to Auburn in the New York-Penn League in 2001 and did much better, with a 3.76 ERA and a 80/49 K/BB in 67 innings. His walk rate was still too high, but the dramatic improvement in K/IP stood out, and scouts were impressed with his 92-94 MPH fastball. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2002 book, writing that he had good stuff but that his career could take any number of directions.
The Jays sent McGowan to Charleston in the Sally League in 2002 and left him there all year. He went 11-10, 4.19 with a 163/59 K/BB in 148 innings. Again an impressive K/IP and this time combined with better control. He gained a tick on his fastball, now at 93-95 MPH, and his curveball was a plus pitch. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2003 book and ranked him as the Number 38 pitching prospect in baseball.
McGowan split 2003 between Dunedin in the Florida State League and Double-A New Haven, pitching very well at both levels. He went 7-0, 3.17 with a 72/19 K/BB in 77 innings in Double-A, very impressive. His fastball was now up to 94-95 consistently, his curveball and slider continued to improve, and he was mixing in a better changeup now. I gave him a Grade A- and ranked him as the Number Seven pitching prospect in the game. I noted his steady strong development, but also warned that, like any pitching prospect, injuries were a risk, though he'd been remarkably healthy thus far.
Injuries finally hit him in 2004: he blew out his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery after six starts in Double-A. I reduced his rating to Grade B- in the 2005 book, pending injury recovery.
McGowan's surgery went well and when he retook the mound in 2005 he had his fastball back, hitting 94-95 MPH again. However his breaking stuff and command regressed, completely understandable given the circumstances. He was adequate in 11 minor league starts but was hit hard in 45 innings for the major league team, giving up a 6.35 ERA. I rated him at Grade B in the '06 book, still intrigued with him long-term and notingthat he just needed to get his command and confidence back.
That didn't happen in 2006: he was mediocre in Triple-A and was hit hard in the majors again. But in 2007 he got things back in gear, going 12-10, 4.08 with a 144/61 K/BB in 170 innings for the Blue Jays.
I really like McGowan and as long as he stays healthy, he's got a chance to become an excellent pitcher. I like his development curve, how he made steady improvement each year until interrupted by Tommy John. He's not far off right now, and in my opinion just slight improvement in his command could put him in the elite category.
Will that happen in 2008? PECOTA doesn't really agree with this, forecasting some regression and giving him a weighted mean ERA of 4.60 this year. Ron Shandler is more optimistic with a 3.98 projected ERA. Bill James is closer to Shandler at 4.04. ZIPS has him at 3.97, which makes PECOTA the outlier among these projection systems. We will see who comes closest, but I lean to the optimists.
In long-run terms, comps through age 25 aren't especially optimistic: Sim Score comps include Robinson Tejeda, Russ Kemmerer, Boof Bonser, Jason Davis, Bill Pulsipher, Rich Robertson, Geremi Gonzalez, Tom Hume, Cliff Lee, and Jerry Janeski, hardly distinguished company. PECOTA comps look much better with Dock Ellis, Roger Pavlik, Freddy Garcia, Dick Ruthven, Scott Sanders, Kirk McCaskill, Aaron Sele, Steve Busby, Mike Moore and Jack Morris as notable comps. PECOTA is more sophisticated than simple Sim Scores and I think that list of comps is more accurate. So while PECOTA isn't overly bullish on McGowan this year, it does find him comparable to several guys who had productive careers.
There is just something about this guy that strikes me that even those positive comps could be underdoing it. So I'll throw this out there now. Assuming McGowan starts the year healthy and makes 30+ starts, I think he'll go 15-10, 3.50, with a 185/59 K/BB in 205 innings. I also pick him as a candidate to throw a no-hitter.