06 August 2008

Chris Waters Orioles Debut: As Good As It Gets

The Baltimore Orioles and their fans have not had much to be excited about in the last ten years or so. Sure, they had Cal Ripken brekaing Lou Gehrig's record, but that was a long time ago, and anyway the team was lousy by then. They've had a losing record every year since their Division title in 1997, and have finished higher than 4th place once in that span, and are on a pace to finish last this year.

But last night, they felt they had a little reason to hope. Lefty pitcher Chris Waters made his major league debut, and one-hit the AL West leading LAnahfornia Angels for eight innings before giving way to George Sherrill fo rthe save. He allowed no runs and three walks while striking out three.

Some Orioles fans have found my site this morning because one of them linked to my study of rookie pitchers' debuts, which I did back in April when the Reds' Johnny Cueto so impressed us with his dismantling of the Diamondbacks. Unfortunataly, Cueto (currently 7-11 with a 5.00 ERA) has not been nearly as good since, at least not consistenly, which is not unusual for such a young pitcher.

Waters' performance last night gave him a game score of 80, which is of course very good, in the top 30 debut scores of all time, but does it bode well for his career? Well, in some measure, it certainly does, if only because it means that in his next appearance he'll be starting against the Indians in Cleveland instead of the Mud Hens in Toledo.

That debut is also the best game score for anyone who has debuted in the majors at 26 years of age or older (Waters is 27), at least so far as the archives at baseballreference.com can tell me. And that's the distressing part.

When I looked at Cueto's stats, I found that there had been 13 other pitchers with similar stats in their debut, and many of them went on to significant success, at least for a time, and one even went to the Hall of Fame (Juan Marichal). But Waters, because he's so "old" is a different story. Sure, he one-hit the Angels over eight innings, but he also allowed three walks, and only whiffed three. based on game score and age alone, there have been 16 pitchers to make a debut at age 26 or later with a Game Score of at least 70. These are:

Paul Edmondson - Pitched reasonably well in 14 games in 1969, but with bad luck went 1-6. Killed in a car crash en route to Spring Training in 1970.

Wally Burnette - Knuckleballer went 14-21 over parts of three seasons with the kansas City A's and was done at age 29.

Brian Tollberg - Went 15-16 as a spot starter with the Padres for parts of four seasons, the last in 2003 when he was 30. Retired from organized baseball at age 32.

Masato Yoshii - Debuted in US at age 33 after a 13-year career in the Japanese league. Went 32-47 over parts of 5 years here, then went back to japan at age 37, where he finally retired after the 2007 season, at age 42.

Gordie Richardson - Only made 6 other starts in MLB career, plus 62 relief appearances over three years. Already washed up at age 27.

Roberto Hernandez - Only made two more starts...but over 100 relief appearances, with 326 Saves over a 17-year career that ended after last year.

Kazuhisa Ishii - Won 14 games as a rookie in 2002, but only pitched enough innings toqualify for the ERA title once in his four seasons here. He posted a 5.14 ERA in 91 innings in 2005 and then returned to Japan, where he has won a total of 20 games in the past two seasons.

Geraldo Guzman - Posted a 5.04 ERA in about 70 innings in the majors in 2000-01. Got hurt at age 27 and hasn't pitched since.

Ramon Ortiz - LAIM at best, but won some games for the Angels back in the early 2000's. FInished his career with an 84-80 record in nine years with an adjusted ERA about 9% worse than average.

Hiroki Kuroda - Another Japanese veteran who debuted here at age 33 after a long, successful career in Japan. Has shown flashes of brilliance, like his 11-K, 4-hitter against the mighty Cubs in June and his 1-hit shutout of the Braves (after seven perfect innings) in July, but he probably won't be worth the three-year, $35 million contract he signed before the season.

Osvaldo Fernandez - Cuban refugee who bounced back and forth between the majors, minors and the Disabled list from 1996 to 2002, when he reired at age 33, with a major league record of 19-26 and a 4.93 ERA.

Jim Archer - The best pitcher on the woeful 1961 Kansas City A's, posting a 3.20 ERA in 205 innings, even though he only went 9-15. Tossed just 28 more innnings in the majors before an injury forced him to retire at age 30.

Daisuke Matsuzaka - Won 15 games as a rookie last year after seven very succesful seasons in Japan, and could win 20 this year. Probably still not worth the $100M+ the red Sox paid for him, but then, who is?

Brian Sikorski - After a short stint with Texas in 2000, right after he turned 26, Sikorski wasn't seen in the majors again until 2006, when he made brief appearances with the Padres and Indians. He's been back and forth between the American minors and the Japanese major leagues, and is currently 34 and pitching for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Rick Anderson - Had a handfull of appearances with the Mets and Royals in the mid-80's, but won only four games in the majors and retired from playing at age 31. Has been a pitching coach for the twins since 1989, in the majors since 2002.

So there you have them: The 16 players who have had an impressive MLB pitching debut in their late twenties (or later). Among these, it's a little unfair to include the four Japanese guys, since they would have been in the majors at a much younger age if not for the presence of a separate league in Japan, and that likely applies to Ozzie Fernandez, too.

That leaves Roberto Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, seven guys who washed out by age 31, and one fluke death.

Sorry, O's fans, but this is not a good sign.

Waters was drafted out of South Florida Community College by the Braves in the 5th round of the 2000 amatuer draft, and though he showed impressive work in the low minors at first, he struggled in Double-A and with left shoulder tendonitis that cost him about half of 2003, almost all of 2004 and some of 2005. After 2006, the Braves let him go as a minor league free agent, whereupon the desperate-for-pitching Orioles picked him up.

Still somewhat lackluster as a 26-year old in Double-A last year (8-9, 4.49), he did OK in one start at AAA at the end of the year, but was back in Bowie to start 2008. He doesn't even appear in any of the normal pre-season prospect publications, like Baseball Prospectus, as 27-year olds who have yet to dominate even Double-A rarely do. However, against the odds, he was excellent in AA this year, going 5-0 with a 1.59 ERA in six starts. Then, at AAA, well, notsomuch (3-6, 5.70). before the O's called him up last night.

He's a lefty with a good curveball, an 86-88 mph fastball, a changeup that sits in the low 80's and not much else. The modest difference between his fastball and changeup means that when he loses a little bit of velocity, there won't be much difference at all, and his lack of a true out pitch will hurt him in the majors. He's a crafty lefty with nine years of experience, but his stuff won't likely be good enough to get him past major league hitters, once the players and scouts have all had a look at him.

Additionally, he's got to be able to throw strikes to keep hitters honest, and with that 87-mph "fast"ball, unless you have the control of a Greg Maddux or Mike Mussina, there's just no way to make that work up here. He averaged more than 4 walks per nine innings in the minors and he threw only 61 of 104 pitches for strikes last night. For that matter, he was lucky to get that many, as the Angels swung at a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. Put him in there against a patient team like the Red Sox and he's doomed.

Being left handed should get him a few extra chances, at a bullpen role if not much else. According to his player bio page on MLB.com, he had almost a 100-point L/R platoon split in 2005, and I would guess that that was no fluke, given his repetoire. He's in good shape and works quickly, but his prospects for any kind of long-term success are very, very slim, unless a 3-year stretch as a LOOGy is your idea of "success".

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