Monday, September 18, 2006

young pitching progress report

a season is truly lost when minutiae like not being skunked in the complete game department becomes an event of some kind -- especially when it gets offset by reaching a new low in games shut out in the same weekend. but such is the dearth of positive news in this year that rich hill's spectacular two-hitter was given this added significance.

fulfilling and exceeding every long-held expectation of this page has become hill's business as he marches toward establishing himself not just as a candidate for the 2007 rotation but as the hoped-for payoff of the process that this page has been advocating since june 1. with a second-half line that ranks with those of the best rookie pitchers in baseball, the cubs have answered at least one question for next year: rich hill will be a quality starting pitcher for this club.

one wishes the news were so encouraging on other fronts. as hill has sparkled, so have others among the five primary prospects seeing work shown that they have much left to prove. most discouraging has been the performance of angel guzman to this point. at 0-6 in ten starts, guzman has allowed 61 hits and 29 walks in just 42.2 innings as a starter -- a whip of 2.11 and .451 obpa which makes his 9.28 era seem reasonable by comparison. guzman, despite his devastating injury history, has long been considered the cubs' most talented prospect. and it isn't hard to see why, as he has delivered 46 strikeouts in those innings and 58 in 53 innings overall. as was the case with hill, patience is here still a virtue -- these are, after all, his first handful of big league appearances and very little about his likely level can be discerned from them. guzman has pitched virtually his entire career to this point with far better control that he has demonstrated in 2006. but it is unnerving, to say the least, to see guzman hand in the worst performance of any of the five primary cub pitching prospects to see work in 2006.

sean marshall, having broken with the club out of camp, was automatically presumed to be the best cub pitching prospect by a great many fans for that reason. but the truth of the matter seems to be somewhat different, as marshall has been shown in 22 starts to have some material weaknesses. though a groundball pitcher featuring a presentable curve to compliment a mediocre fastball, marshall seems to lack the dominant pitch and/or general quality of pitches to get better major league hitters to miss when they know what's coming. and that is a problem for marshall because he has so often worked behind in the count -- his 54 walks in 116.1 innings is a rate almost as great as that of major-league walks leader carlos zambrano. marshall's most promising work in the minors in terms of hits/9 and k/9 was always accompanied by a walk rate of less than 3 bb/9 -- it is as important for him to get ahead as it is for any pitcher on the team. and, as with guzman, working ahead is a capacity that he has demonstrated before. but only he can go out and actually do it on a major league mound. until he does, also as with guzman, this page would expect him to be little more than a marginal pitcher in the majors.

a young pitcher who has not generally demonstrated good control at any point in his career is carlos marmol -- and his major league debut has been no different, as he has walks an ungodly 59 in 77 innings. marmol's recent move to the bullpen is seen here to be a good one. while marmol is hard to hit, there is simply little way for a pitcher with so little control to work deeply into games and therefore hold down a starting spot -- indeed, such has been the extent of the problem that marmol will have to show far better ability to avoid walks just to remain in the majors in any capacity.

finally there is juan mateo, whose first 39 innings have also been hazardous. mateo has here been called among the most promising of all cub pitching prospects, and this page still believes that to be so -- indeed, his performance this season in the majors has been every bit the equal or better of marshall's (though in fewer innings). he too is a natural groundball pitcher who, it is here believed, needs simply to trust his stuff and throw strikes as he has in the past in the minors to experience a modicum of major league success.

the consistency of the problem facing these young men -- namely, throwing strikes -- leads one to question the coaching they are receiving at the major league level, particularly in light of their past propensity to get the ball over. this page has undertaken no quantitative study of pitching coach larry rothschild as of yet, but there have been a number of anecdotal instances which seem to affirm rothschild's favoring the "low-and-outside" philosophy most famously espoused by leo mazzone. it would seem here that that philosophy works better with tom glavine than it does with most, but that point is perhaps debatable.

what is not is that throwing strikes and pitching ahead in the count dramatically increases a pitcher's effectiveness and efficiency -- lessons both on brilliant display in hill's saturday masterpiece. one hopes that the lessons were not lost on these young pitchers who are trying to follow in hill's footsteps and become cornerstones of an invigoration of this moribund franchise.

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