There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect: The Story of Generation K

They were supposed to be stars, to save the Mets from the doldrums of the post-Strawberry-Gooden-years. Three pitching prospects all in Baseball America’s top 35 prospects. Paul Wilson, the first pick in the 1994 major league draft. Bill Pulsipher, in Triple AAA Norfolk by age 21. Jason Isringhausen, the man with the power fastball and killer curve. And they had a good nickname too: Generation K. 

But by 1996 they were all on the disabled list. Pulsipher, overworked at a young age, tore an elbow ligament and missed most of the 1996 and 1997 season. Wilson missed the entire 1996 season for various arm ailments and was soon traded. And from 1996-1998 Isringhausen missed many games to various ailments and arm injuries and was eventually traded and converted to closer. The three of them had a combined ERA near 5 in their brief times with the Mets and a Win-Lose record well below .500.

I bring this up not to taunt Mets fans but to remind baseball fans of that tried-and-true sabermetric principle TINSTAAPP, or in long-form, there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. This concept isn’t literally true of course, as many young pitchers are highly touted and actually become great pitchers (see Roger Clemens and Clayton Kershaw).

What TINSTAAPP refers to is unpredictability of pitchers. As Joe Sheehan puts it, ” (Pitchers are) asked to perform an unnatural act–throw baseballs overhand–under great stress, thousands of times a year. They get hurt with stunning frequency, sometimes enough to cost them a career, more often just enough to hinder their effectiveness. (Modern medicine has dramatically changed what a pitcher can do to his arm and still have a career.) Even the better ones–Andy Pettitte, for instance–have wide year-to-year variations in their performance. It’s only the very top 0.1% of pitchers who are consistently good year-in and year-out over substantial careers.”

The list of highly touted pitchers whose careers turn to mediocrity is sort of sickening to read but serves as a cautionary tale to the truth of TINSTAAPP. Brien Taylor, the Yankees great hope, never pitched an inning in the majors. Mark Prior, who brought to the NLCS in his first full year in the majors, out of baseball now, his bright career derailed by arm injuries. Todd Van Poppel, everyone’s no.1 prospect in baseball in 1991, finishing his career with a 5.58 ERA. And the list can go on and on…

The 2012 New York Mets are destined to finish in last place. The Phillies, Braves and Nationals all are clearly better than than the Mets. And they lost their best player to their division rival, the Miami Marlins, who as a result of stealing the Mets best player and signing two other big name free agents, Mark Buerhle and Heath Bell, have surpassed the Mets.

But there is hope for the Mets future. They currently have three of the better pitching prospects in baseball in the minors, Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, and Jeurys Familia. Fellow DUFL blogger Mike and I have had many excited conversations about Harvey, Wheeler, and Familia leading the Mets to the playoffs by 2014.

But if we look to TINSTAAPP and to Generation K as a cautionary tale, this will likely never happen. One is bound to get hurt. And Mets fans would be lucky if just one of them turned out to be a very good pitcher. This may sound pretty pessimistic. But unfortunately for us Mets fans, history is not on our side.


7 Comments on “There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect: The Story of Generation K”

  1. Mike says:

    It’s like they learned nothing from having Gooden pitch 276 innings as a 20-year-old.

    (Granted, those 276 innings led to a 24-4 record, a 1.53 ERA, 268 Ks and a WHIP below 1.00)

  2. Diana says:

    I’m in a particularly TINSTAAPP-y mood given Joba’s potentially career-ending injury and the fact that Phil Hughes is fighting for a rotation spot.

  3. Ha Diana, I never knew you were such an insane Yankees fan! I think we should all hit up Yankee Stadium this year when they play my beloved A’s.

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