Young Guns: 2015’s Top Eleven Rookie Pitchers

The 2015 season featured the emergence of a whole passel of top-flight young arms. And these pitchers weren’t just appearing on rubble-clearing franchises like the Phillies. Five of the top 11 rookie pitchers (by bWAR) are on playoff teams. Let’s go to the list (thanks to Baseball Reference’s Play Index):

1. Lance McCullers   2.5 WAR     121 IP     80 ERA-     Age: 22

McCullers has been a key engine in the Astros relaunch, turning in 11 quality starts in 21 attempts since his arrival in the majors on May 18. He’s been the third most valuable pitcher on the ‘Stros, behind Cy Young contender Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh. While his innings load has been a concern, McCullers has thrown over 100 pitches in just 8 of his starts, and went over 110 just once. He throws the hardest curve in the charted universe, which probably accounts for his astronomical strikeout and walk rates in the minors.

_________     K/9         BB/9

Minor Lance     10.7           4.5

Major Lance       9.2           3.1

McCullers shaved 1.4 walks per 9 after his promotion, at the cost of 1.5 strikeouts, a trade probably worth making given the success he’s had so far.  Major-league starting pitchers with a walk rate of at least 4.5/9 are rare, and mercifully so. By FanGraphs’ count, there have been 58 such pitchers since the beginning of divisional play in 1969. As you can see, these are generally the guys you’ll find in your grocery’s frozen-rope section. McCullers may yet revert to his minor-league form, in which case he can still be a bullpen force (where his many doubters thought he would end up), but right now he looks like a top-of-the-rotation starter.

2. Eduardo Rodriguez     2.5 WAR     122 IP     91 ERA-     Age: 22

Acquired by the Sawx from Baltimore in July 2014 in exchange for reliever Andrew Miller … well, let’s stop there. How good would E-Rod look in the Fighting Showalters rotation? Hey, that’s a question that can be answered with research!

Orioles Starters            WAR          ERA-

Wei-Yin Chen               3.5             81

Ubaldo Jiminez           2.5             94

Kevin Gausman           1.3             97

Miguel Gonzalez         0.6           119

Chris Tillman               0.6           123

Orioles fans are unlikely to curse Andrew Miller in the same way Cubs’ old-timers curse Ernie Broglio, but this trade left a bruise. Chen is likely to depart in free agency this winter, and putative rotation saviors Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey will need maps to find their way back to the mound after spending years exploring the further reaches of America’s medical-industrial complex. It’s unclear whether even he can save the Birds from dropping in 2016.

3. Cody Anderson     2.5 WAR     91 IP     76 ERA-     Age: 24

It’s been a forgettable year in Cleveland, but the Indians have quietly assembled a decent pitching staff. Anderson is their 4th best pitcher by bWAR, and something of a surprise. Drafted in the 17th round by the Rays in 2010, Anderson did not sign, instead returning to Feather River College in Quincy, California. The move paid off, as the Spiders drafted him the next year all the way up … in the 14th round.

It’s hard to believe the kind of run suppression Anderson displayed this year can last. The only qualifying starter this season with fewer strikeouts per 9 than Anderson’s 4.3 is Mark Buehrle (4.1). But if Anderson can find a way to edge his strikeouts up to the 6.8/9 he displayed in the minors, he could carve out a solid career as a back-end starter. He’s already accumulated more WAR than anyone else from Feather River College.

4. Carson Smith     2.1 WAR     69 IP     61 ERA-      Age: 25

Carson Smith was 12th in the majors this year in K/9 (11.83). Carson Smith was 109th in the majors this year in average fastball velocity. There is only one possible conclusion: the velo thing is hype. You heard it here first.

5. Nate Karns     2.1 WAR     147 IP     95 ERA-     Age: 27

In another questionable trade of a young starter, the supposedly pitching-rich Nationals sent Karns to the Warehouse by the Bay in exchange for Felipe Rivero, Jose Lobaton, and former first-round RF Drew Vettleson, whose on-base skills were last seen floating down the Schuylkill. Karns has trouble keeping the ball in the yard but his other rate stats are solid. At age 27, there’s probably not a lot of upside here, but Karns will remain a useful rotation piece as long he’s still cost-controlled. At just 5.65 IP/start, he puts pressure on his bullpen; more efficiency would help.

6. Noah Syndergaard     2.0 WAR     143 IP     90 ERA-     Age: 22

Syndergaard’s 5.2 K/BB would put him 8th in the majors if he qualified. Yet another traded prospect, Thor came to the Mets from the Blue Jays in exchange for R.A. Dickey and a crate of Jerry Grote bobbleheads. The Jays are steamrolling toward the World Series, and Alex Anthopolous’ hyperkinetic roster manipulations have a lot to do with that, but you have to believe this is one he’d like to have back.

(And no, I don’t really believe Karns is better than Syndergaard – for purposes of this post I’m just taking the bWAR list as it stands.)

7. Aaron Nola     1.9 WAR     78 IP     91 ERA-     Age: 22

Doug Melvin and Ruben Amaro, Jr. sailed away from GM Middle Earth this year, but they each left their respective teams at least 2/5 of a good young starting rotation. The Phillies moved Nola to the majors quickly, but he was an advanced prospect when drafted and faced no serious resistance at any minor league level.

There are some signs of danger: lurking menacingly behind Nola’s 3.59 ERA is a 4.04 FIP, mainly the product of a high HR/9 rate of 1.3. Nola kept the ball in the minor-league yards, so there’s reason to believe he’ll figure it out in the majors, but Citizen’s Bandbox is notoriously unforgiving of hanging curves. The one down side of Nola’s quick ascent to the majors is that he didn’t have time to develop a changeup. The good news is that, given the Phillies dilapidated state, his next 150 innings will be low leverage.

8. Jerad Eickhoff    1.9 WAR     51 IP     67 ERA-     Age: 24

Not nearly as prospect-y as Nola, Eickhoff is former 15th rounder acquired by the Phillies in the Cole Hamels trade. (So that makes 4 guys on this list who were obtained by trade. Perhaps reports of the death of the prospect trade have been somewhat exaggerated.) Like McCullers and Anderson, Eickhoff is beating his minor league rate stats in the majors, but, as with Anderson, some of this may simply be fruits of the dreaded small sample size.

It may be reasonable to expect strikeout regression, but at least Eickhoff gives some hope to Phillies fans who wake up with night sweats after witnessing serial arsonists like Jerome Williams, David Buchanan, and Sean O’Sullivan. Nola and Eickhoff are the only two current Phillies starters with a bWAR over 1.0.

9. Roberto Osuna     1.9 WAR     69 IP     57 ERA-     Age: 20

Selected K/9 rates from pitchers in Toronto’s minor-league system by the end of 2011:

Noah Syndergaard          10.37

Drew Hutchison          10.31

Nestor Molina              10.22

Aaron Sanchez               9.28

Deck McGuire                8.90

Roberto Osuna                   5.49

Okay, Osuna was only 16, so maybe this isn’t entirely fair – he threw just 19 2/3 innings in the Mexican League in 2011 before being acquired by the Blue Jays in August. But it’s highly unlikely that you would have predicted in 2011 that of the pitchers on this list, Roberto Osuna would make the most significant contribution to the Blue Jays in 2015 unless you are a close relative of Roberto Osuna.  No Carson Smith he, Osuna cooks with 95.5 mph gas, and has never struck out fewer than 9 per 9 at any level since 2011. And he’s only 20.

10. Luis Severino     1.8 WAR     55 IP     68 ERA-     Age: 21

A tough case of an obviously talented pitcher badly needed on a contending team, but who also probably could have used a bit more work in the minors. His ERA (2.89) is shiny, but his FIP (4.37) is less impressive. This mainly stems from the relatively high walk rate (3.2 – the AL average is 2.6), and a slightly high homer rate (1.3 – the AL average is 1.1). On the bright side, eight of his eleven starts were quality, with only one being of the faux (6 IP, 3 R) variety. That start came against the deadly Jays lineup, who incinerated him the next time he faced them, but did little against him the third and final time. In short, he fought the best lineup since vitamin B-12 to a draw; a mighty impressive accomplishment for someone who has yet to log 100 innings at any one level.

Still only 21, Severino has a better chance than anyone on this list of developing into a #1 starter (with the possible exception of McCullers) but Yankees fans should probably temper their expectations slightly for the immediate future. Girardi deserves credit for careful usage (just two starts over 100 pitches, none over 107), and this plan should probably continue until Severino can more consistently minimize the Two Bad Outcomes.

11. Andrew Heaney     1.8 WAR     106 IP     92 ERA-     Age: 24

Acquired in a trade … what, that’s like 5 now, right? … from the Dodgers in exchange for Howie Kendrick, Heaney righted the ship this year after an ugly 2013 in Loria Land, largely the product of bad home-run luck. His 8.9 K/9 in the minors has shriveled to just 6.5 in the majors, and he’s been a fly-ball pitcher this year, so there could be some risk here that the homer bug will return. Heaney has the amazing Mike Trout in center, so as long as the flies stay in the yard, a lot of them will be outs.

I'm a recovering lawyer and unrecovered Cubs fan who writes about baseball from time to time.

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Joe Ross
6 years ago

I had a nice little rookie Campaign too: 76 innings, 13 starts, 8.1 K/9 and 2.47 BB/9 w/ a 3.64/3.42/3.62 ERA/FIP/xFIP and 1.4 WAR