Late(r) Bloomers: Not so Young Pitchers Making Big Strides

garrett richards

Garrett Richards with the Los Angeles Angels.

Chris Moran is a second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also an assistant coach with the baseball team at Washington University. He graduated from Wheaton College, where he wore the tools of ignorance for the baseball team. Follow him on twitter @hangingslurves.

It’s no secret that a bevy of young pitchers have taken the major leagues by storm. Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole were all called up at various points in the season last year and experienced a high level of success from the get-go. And, lest we forget, Jose Fernandez quickly established himself as one of the best five pitchers in baseball after making his debut at the age of 20. Those talented young hurlers wrecked the expectation for their counterparts. However, there are a handful of former top prospects who have taken big strides this year after their initial shine wore off.

Garrett Richards, who recently turned 26, was selected by the Los Angeles Angels with the 42nd overall pick out of the University of Oklahoma in 2009. He reached the big leagues in 2011, and split time between the rotation and the bullpen in 2012 and 2013. While his power arm landed him placed him at #83 on Baseball America’s 2012 top prospect list, he got roughed around in his first three big league seasons. His mid-90s heat earned him just a 15.7 percent strikeout rate and 1.3 fWAR over the first 230 innings of his big league career. This year the hurler is averaging 95.8 miles per hour and striking out 23.3 percent of hitters. Hitters have a woeful 26.5 percent contact rate when they swing at his slider outside of the strike zone and nearly half of his strikeouts have come courtesy of the slider. Richards is basically a two-pitch guy who lives on a fastball and slider with a side order of curves and cutters, but with two pitches that good, he has more than enough to get by.

Nathan Eovaldi is only 24, but he made his major league debut back in 2011 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He spent one and a half seasons with the Dodgers before being swapped to the Miami Marlins for Randy Choate and Hanley Ramirez. A former 11th round pick in 2008, Eovaldi is equipped with a fantastic right arm, and he appeared one the lower end of the BA Top 100 prospect list prior to the 2012 season. Despite a fastball that lives in the mid and upper 90s, Eovaldi never posted impressive strikeout rates. In his first 260 major league innings he struck out a paltry 15.9 percent of hitters. This season things have been different. He boasts a strikeout rate just shy of 20 percent, and he’s cut his walk rate almost by half, to 4.5 percent. Eovaldi is pounding the strike zone with his mid-90s fastball, and only Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon have a higher zone rate. While he’s not garnering a lot of swing and misses, hitters have trouble putting his heat in play, and only Hughes has seen more pitches fouled off than Eovaldi. If his slider starts to get more whiffs or his changeup improves, he’ll be an ace. Right now he’s pretty good, thanks to one of the hardest fastballs in baseball and an ability to pour in strikes.

Tyler Skaggs, a 6’4 left-hander who was taken 40th overall by the Angels in 2009, made his major league debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012 at the tender age of 21. He got bounced around in six starts, registering a 5.83 ERA with peripherals to match. The lefty entered the 2013 season as Baseball America’s #13 prospect. His 2013 season featured seven big league starts in which he showed a good strikeout rate but was plagued by longballs and walks. In the offseason, the Diamondbacks sent him back to the Angels in a three team deal. While his 4.14 ERA might not look to impressive, he features an FIP and xFIP both better than the major league average. Interestingly enough, Skaggs has reinvented himself. His strikeouts are down, but so are his walks, and he’s inducing ground balls at a 51.6 percent rate. He’s utilizing his four-seam fastball more frequently which has helped him throw more strikes. In addition, his heater is up almost three miles per hour from last year. Right now the pitch to contact version of Skaggs is more than serviceable as a major league starter thanks to the high ground ball rate and still respectable strikeout rate. There’s still upside if he ramps up the strikeouts.

Trevor Bauer was the 3rd overall pick of the Diamondbacks after a very successful career at UCLA. He appeared on BA’s Top 100 at #9 the next season, and also made his major league debut at the age of 21. It wasn’t pretty, as he struggled with his control, walking 13 hitters in 16.1 innings. It didn’t take long for the Diamondbacks to give up on him, as they traded him to the Cleveland Indians before the 2013 season. The Indians called him up for four starts in 2013, but this time he was even worse, issuing 16 walks in 17 innings against just 11 strikeouts, and he struggled to throw strikes in the minor leagues as well. While BA dropped his prospect stock to #83 before this season, Bauer had his way with minor league hitters at Triple-A Columbus before earning a callup. With a four pitch arsenal that is headlined by a fastball that touches 99 and also features a slider, cutter and changeup, Bauer has struck out 30.5 percent of big league hitter in his first four starts this year, while getting the walks under control. Of course the sample is tiny, but after making some tweaks to his delivery he’s thrown significantly more strikes both at the minor league and major league level this year. Given his exceptional stuff, it’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon.

Sometimes, pitchers take time to develop. Eovaldi, Richards, Skaggs and Bauer struggled in their initial big league seasons. Now, they are seeing their results match up with their stuff. It’s just a thought, but perhaps the Diamondbacks would like Skaggs and Bauer back after selling low on both of them. Patience is a virtue, and these hurlers are rewarding the teams that believed in their potential.