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Thoughts on Young Pitcher Development

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Thoughts on the Development of Young Pitching

A few weeks ago, someone asked me what I thought of how the Texas Rangers are developing young pitchers. I want to take that concept and talk about the development of young pitchers in general.

Here are some basic questions and my thoughts on them.

1) Is it better to draft pitchers out of high school or college?
     College guys, in theory anyway, are easier to project since they have played against a higher level of competition, are physically more developed, and likely more emotionally and mentally mature. On the other hand, many college pitchers are abused by coaches focused on the quick win. High school pitchers can be more difficult to project, especially physically, but many of them have higher upsides than the college pitchers. I don't think the separation between the two groups is as great as it once was. 20 years ago, the failure rate for high school pitchers was higher than it is now; things have changed, thanks to better scouting, the rise of the showcase circuits, and greater awareness on the part of coaches of all levels to manage workloads more rationally. That said, the failure rate of all pitching prospects from all sources is still high.
    If I were running an organization, I wouldn't ignore any source of talent. I'd be willing to draft both high school and college pitchers, leaning slightly to the college direction but not excessively. I think it is important to have diversity in a farm system, mix high school players with college players and people of all sorts of backgrounds.
     My ideology is to avoid ideology. I am a pragmatist.

2) How do we keep pitchers healthy?  
       I'm not sure anyone really has a good answe here. There are too many variables to account for. Pitchers get hurt for a variety of reasons: overwork over time, throwing too many pitches when tired in a specific game, mechanical flaws, simple genetics, bad luck. Any particular injury likely has multiple causes that interact. I'm not a physiologist and can't tell you what perfect mechanics look like, or what specific mechanical styles cause breakdowns, although I suspect that also varies from pitcher to pitcher, and that a delivery that helps one pitcher stay healthy might actually hurt another pitcher due to minor variations in their body and musculature.
      Obviously, working a pitcher too hard increases the risk. I do wonder if perhaps some teams have gone a bit too far restricting pitch counts. Building muscle memory and stamina requires the pitcher to actually pitch. But I'd rather err on the side of caution, and if I were running an organization, I would keep close track of pitch counts, especially for the younger arms, and would strongly emphasize to managers that a pitcher should be pulled at the first sign of fatigue or mechanical slippage during a game, no matter what his pitch count says. I would tailor workloads and pitch counts to the individual pitcher, based on his age, amount of athleticism, mechanical reliability and consistency, amateur workload history, and previous injury profile.
     Again, the plan would be focused on pragmatism and the needs, strengths, and weaknesses of the individual player, not on forcing each pitcher into an ideological or organizational pattern.

3) How rapidly should young pitchers be promoted?: 
     This is something that I do have strong feelings about.
    With few exceptions, I believe that most pitchers benefit from a full season at each level of the minor leagues, and that skipping levels or pushing pitchers too fast often backfires. For a high school pitcher, I would start them off in rookie ball after they sign. Depending on the specific pitcher and his background, for his first full season I would start him off in extended spring training, then send him either to Low-A or short-season A (depending on what affiliates my organization has) in late May or early June. They need a full year of Low-A and a full year of High-A, a full year of Double-A and at least a half year (preferably more) of Triple-A, before I would consider them for a large major league role. For a kid drafted at age 18, this would put them on the cusp of the majors at age 23 or so. Most Latin American prospects should be handled like the high school kids, perhaps even a bit more conservatively if they need time adjusting to North American language and culture.
    For a guy drafted out of a four year college, the timetable would depend on how good he was in college and what level of college ball he was at. Ideally I'd like him to get a full season of High-A and Double-A and at least a half year of Triple-A before being pushed into the majors. Even for the college guys I would rather advance them too slow than too quickly.
     There are exceptions, of course. If some kid is pitching like Dwight Gooden in 1983 and utterly blowing away the competition, the timetable can be moved up, at least at the A-ball levels. Highly advanced college arms could be moved more quickly. Clayton Kershaw didn't need much minor league time. But those would be the exceptions to the rule. Each level of baseball competition teaches different lessons than the last, and I strongly believe that most pitchers need a full exposure at each level before they are genuinely ready for the majors. I would rather have a pitcher spend too much time in the minors learning his craft than not enough.
     Basically, I think the Tampa Bay Rays have the right idea with how they handle their pitchers.