07 April 2008

Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto: Quite-O Debut!

*Attention Orioles' Fans: Read my analysis of Chris Waters' debut HERE.

Not that Rob Neyer's ego needs any more massaging, but his blog entry today about the Reds' young phenom, Johnny Cueto is spot-on.

When I did my preview of the 2008 Reds this spring I intended to give Cueto more ink, but I figured that unless they were desperate, the Reds would start him in AAA, so I didn't bother. Good thing they were so desperate.

With regards to Cueto's MLB debut game last week (7 innings, one-hit, no walks, 10 strikeouts), Neyer refers to Bill James and some research the guys at Baseball Prospectus may did last year, indicating that the fact that a pitcher had a really good start like that does not necessarily mean that he is, or will be, a great pitcher. It just means that everything went right for him on that day, pretty much. Don Larson is a perfect example of this, of course, a guy who had a pretty lackluster career record who just happened to pitch a perfect game in the World Series one time.

But then Neyer appropriately points out that this was not just any start, it was the kid's major league debut, and at just 22 years old, it's hardly fair to compare him with 29-year olds or 34-year olds who have some major league experience.

So I didn't.

Instead, I looked up everyone who pitched at least seven innings and struck out at least ten batters in his major league debut. This brought the list down to just 14 pitchers, including Cueto.

The others are:

Pitcher      Yrs  Wins     IP     ERA+   Notes
Tiant 19 229 3486 114 Won 20+ 4X, 3X All-Star
Marichal 16 243 3507 123 HoF, 9X All-Star
Wakefield 16 168 2627 108 Still going at 41...
Astacio 15 129 2197 97 Won 17 in COL in 1999
May 16 152 2622 102 Won 10 or more 8 times
Aase 13 66 1109 103 Good RP for 10+ years
Richard 10 107 1606 108 Stroke at 30 ended career
Shirley 11 67 1432 96 1st round pick, only spot starter after rookie season
McDevitt 6 21 456 94 Beat Bucs in last game in Brooklyn MLB history
Morehead 8 40 819 89 Pitched in '67 WS
Woodard 7 32 667 91 Hurt a lot; Mitchell Report alleges he bought HGH
Harang 7 63 1006 108 Current Reds' ace
Matsuzaka 2 16 216 110 Won Game 3 of 2007 WS
Average 11 101 1689 107
Non-Dice Avg 12 108 1802 107
That's an interesting list. Among the 14 pitchers, we've got one Hall of Famer, a borderline guy in Luis Tiant, and a bonafide star in J.R. Richard whose career ended early because of a stroke. We've also got Tim Wakefield, who's no all-star, but has been eating innings and winning a dozen or more games per year for more than a decade (whenever he's predominantly a starter, that is). Pedro Astacio was probably better than you think, but didn't look like anything special because he spent half his career toiling in the worst run environment (Colorado in the late 90's) in history. Don Aase was a relief ace for a few years, and Rudy May was useful if not spectacular.

On average, I think most pitchers would love to hear that they'll probably stick around the majors for 11 or 12 years, win 100 or more games with a better than average ERA, don't you think? I took Dice-K out of the second set of averages because this is only his second year, which consists of exactly one start at this point. Harang has at least been around long enough to establish himself, pitching every fifth day of the Cincinnati Reds schedule for the last several years. Those accomplishments alone would put him in pretty rarefied air, though it will take us a decade to know whether it happens or not.

One thing that bodes well for him is the fact that he struck out so many batters in his MLB debut. Cueto's Game Score of 81 is very good, of course, but it's hardly anything all that exciting, even for a debut performance. Looking at others who have debuted since 1956, which is as far back as the searchable archives at Baseball-reference.com can go, there have been 29 pitchers with a game score of at least 80, including Marichal, Woodard, Tiant, Morehead, May and Astacio.

Also, we see...

* Jeff Russell, eventual relief ace and two-time All-Star,
* Dave McNally, 4-time 20 game winner and three-time All-Star,
* 2002 NL Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings,
* Mike Norris, who should have won the 1980 AL Cy Young Award (though he was never anywhere near that good either before or after that season),
* 14-year veteran Mike Remlinger,
* 13-year veteran Kirk Reuter,
* 12-year veteran Lew Krausse, and
* 11-year veteran Danny Cox

Hard to complain about any of those guys' careers, though only Russell and McNally were very good for any length of time.

However, with those guys, we also get nobodies like Jim Cosman, Mark Brownson, Jeff Pico, Billy Rohr, Dick Rusteck, Kevin Morton, and Charlie Beamon, none of whom lasted more than three seasons in the majors, and many of those were not full seasons. A few others on the list burned out in 4-8 years and never did much while they were still around.

But because game scores depend on runs and hits allowed, not just strikeouts, there could have been more luck or coincidence involved in those guys' MLB debuts. Cueto, on the other hand, retired almost half of the batters he faced on strikes, meaning that he wasn't relying on his defense, or the weather, or the ballpark configuration to get his outs for him.

So what does all this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that Johnny Cueto's expectations are that much greater now. Sure, he was awesome in Spring Training, but some of those guys are back bagging groceries for a living now, so we shouldn't take those spring numbers too seriously. But the Arizona Diamondbacks won the NL West last season, and though their offense is nothing special in and of itself, it is still a major-league offense, and given its youth, it should only be getting better.

Cueto's dominance of them in his first major league game last year bodes very, very well for his career.

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