Last week, Mets phenom Zack Wheeler made his major league debut and throttled the Atlanta Braves. Despite a rocky first inning, the obviously nervous hurler settled in and kept the Braves on their heels. He’s not the first hyped rookie to start well. From Michael Wacha to Shelby Miller to Jose Fernandez, we have already seen several promising rookie starters debut in the bigs in 2013. Most of the rookies came out blazing, with few exceptions (Chris Archer).
So I wondered: Are rookie starters at the advantage, at least in or near their debut outings? I Scratched the Surface to find out.
I sorted rookie starting pitchers who started at least 10 games and logged at least 50 innings since 2000 giving me over 400 names. Then I took the Top 15 in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to determine if the best of the rookies were able to keep major league hitters off balance.
I noted their season-long ERA and then looked at their first three starts in that rookie season. (That’s not to say these are their first-ever starts, as many appeared in a few games in previous seasons, but I wanted to compare their stats within the same season).
Here is what I came up with for those 15 pitchers. Their season-long ERA is on the top line for each player; the ERA in the first three starts is listed just below that.
[table “292” not found /]
Nine of the outstanding rookies had better ERAs in their initial three outings than over the entire season. It seemed common to have one subpar outing among the first three starts, often in the first game. I also noticed that pitchers whose first starts came in the middle of a season tended to fare better than those who started the season in the rotation.
It should be noted that Alexi Ogando pitched almost 50 innings out of the bullpen in 2010, so he’s not a “true” example of what we are searching here, but this was his rookie season and he was predominantly a starter all season.
But I wanted a little more perspective. So here are the bottom 15 starters in terms of WAR. Warning to Yankee fans: a Kei Igawa reference to follow.
[table “293” not found /]
Studying the worst of the rookies seems a bit silly; who cares if a 7.00 ERA was initially better or worse? But we do see that 11 of the 15 pitchers were better ERA-wise in their first three starts. (And then the bottom fell out on many of these pitchers).
It was interesting to be reminded that Eric Gagne’s career began as a failed starter and that David Hernandez – one of the better set-up men in the game – also wasn’t successful at the start. Most of the other pitchers were out of the sport within two seasons.
What Did We Learn and How Can You Use This on Your Fantasy Team(s)
Rookie pitchers are enticing possibilities on your Fantasy staff. Do we really want to try to win with Wandy Rodriquez (again) when we could ride Chris Archer and his potential?
Here’s what we are learning:
- Rookies can look good early and then bottom out (or be sent back down to the minors or the bullpen).
- They tend to pitch a bit better in their first starts and then perhaps the league catches up with them and their increasingly familiar repertoires.
- If you’re in a keeper league and/or you stream pitchers you should take a chance on newcomers. While they may not be outstanding for the entire season, their hype and early success might be attractive to another owner. So if you grab these pitchers and they have a Zack Wheeler start in their first outing, you can get a closer or a base stealer from another owner who was not quick enough on the waiver wire.
- In our small sample, it seemed that pitchers from Japan fared a bit better in these initial starts. With little to no information on these arms, major league hitters need to learn quickly about a pitcher they’ve never faced in spring training.
- If a rookie is shelled in his first outing, keep your eyes on him. He could bring sneaky value due to an inflated ERA if he pitches well thereafter.
Rookies are a risky Fantasy perspective. I never advocate drafting a rookie, but the decision about a waiver wire rookie depends on so many factors. Keeper and dynasty leagues are obviously a different story, but when you are playing for this year, rookies are just as likely to hurt your squad as help it. But you can use rookie pitchers strategically to gain a Fantasy advantage.