Veteran major league pitcher Brad Penny announced his retirement this past week. Penny was a professional pitcher for 19 years and was quite a prospect when he was in the minors. Here's a retrospective.
Brad Penny was drafted in the fifth round in 1996, by the Arizona Diamondbacks, out of high school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He pitched well in rookie ball, posting a 2.36 ERA and 52/14 K/BB ratio in his first 50 pro innings. Early reports concentrated on arm strength and better-than-expected control, though he needed work with his secondary pitches.
Moved up to full-season South Bend in '97, Penny was one of the best pitchers in the Midwest League, going 10-5, 2.73 with a 116/43 K/BB in 119 innings. In my 1998 book, I gave him a Grade B and as a breakthrough candidate for '98, writing that Penny "impressed Midwest League observers with a solid low-90s fatball, a very good curve, and fine control. He still needs work on the changeup but he is a bright kid, has good mechanics for a youngster, and could pick up even more velocity as he grows into his body." (At the time he was 6-4, 190).
Break through he did in 1998, going 14-5, 2.96 in 28 starts at High Desert (yes, that High Desert), with a 207/35 K/BB ratio in 164 innings. He earned the coveted Grade A rating, making him the second-best pitching prospect in baseball behind Rick Ankiel, and the best right-hander overall. Penny's changeup improved dramatically compared to 1997 and his fastball velocity picked up a bit.
Penny began '99 in Double-A for El Paso, but struggled at times with a 2-7 record and 4.80 ERA in 17 starts. However, his K/BB was 100/25 in 90 innings, which was very strong. He was bothered by shoulder soreness at times, leading to injury worries. The D-backs shipped him to Florida in the mid-season Matt Mantei trade. Penny posted a 3.90 ERA in six starts for Portland after the trade, with a 35/14 K/BB in 30 innings. He did finish the season healthy, so I gave him a Grade A-, rating him as the number seven pitching prospect in baseball entering '00.
Penny went 8-7, 4.81 in 22 starts for the Marlins in 2000 then took a step forward in 2001. You should be familiar with the shape of his career from that point. He was a generally effective starting pitcher for the Marlins and later the Los Angeles Dodgers, running up five seasons of 3.0 WAR or higher from 2003 through 2007. He fell off a cliff in 2008 at age 30 when his body began to betray him, then held on as a below average inning-eater for a while longer.
His minor league record was marked by outstanding performance at the lower levels, particularly in the K/IP and K/BB departments, but he came to the majors with virtually no Triple-A experience, which may have inhibited his development to some extent early on. His body certainly changed over the years, the projectable 6-4, 190 pounder from the Midwest League ending up at 6-4, 230 by the end of his career.
Penny finished with a career record of 121-101, 4.29 in 1925 innings, with a WAR of 26.8. His top Sim Score comparables (retired pitchers only) are Charles Nagy, Pat Hentgten, Denny Neagle, Mark Portugal, Matt Morris, Doc Medich, Shane Reynolds, Vicente Padilla, and Esteban Loaiza. Among pitchers with a similar number of innings pitched, Penny's 26.8 fWAR puts him in territory with Dick Donovan (27.0), Jose De Leon (26.3), Medich (26.2), Dick Ruthven ( 26.2), Ted Lilly (26.1) and Ken Forsch (26.1).
While Penny didn't turn into the dominating ace that his 1999 Grade A ranking implied, he certainly enjoyed a long and generally successful career.