It’s Starting Pitchers Week, so let’s celebrate Yusmeiro Petit’s improbable night. A decent, strike-throwing prospect many moons ago, Petit pitched poorly for the Marlins and Diamondbacks, then disappeared from the big leagues after the 2009 season. After two years away, he made it back for one start with the Giants, in which he put 11 men on base in 4⅔ innings. Coming into Friday’s game against Arizona, Petit had thrown a grand total of 22 innings in the majors since ’09.
You’ve probably heard what happened next: 8⅔ perfect innings, broken up with one strike to go on a clean, line-drive single by Eric Chavez. It might seem cruel for a pitcher to go through so much just to get back to the Show, come that close to perfection, and fall short. But read Grant Brisbee’s account of Friday night’s magic, then consider the 28-year-old Petit’s reaction after the final out was recorded: Arm outstretched, finger pointing skyward, celebrating the first shutout of his career.
Becoming good enough and staying healthy enough to pitch even a single inning in the majors is an extreme long shot. Making it back after two years away is a small miracle. Coming that close to perfection after all that, even if it didn’t quite happen? That’s a story for the ages.
It’s Week 23 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
5. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
At the start of the season, the Cardinals seemed to have more starting pitching depth than any other team. Then, one by one, those starters faded out of the picture:
• Over the winter Jaime Garcia had four surgeons look at his ailing left shoulder. The only one of the four who didn’t recommend surgery was Dr. James Andrews. That was enough for Garcia to forgo going under the knife. He lasted nine starts this season, and that was that.
• Jake Westbrook also started the season in the rotation. The feeble strikeout rates that had reduced him to fifth-starter status evaporated even further, making him an untenable starter for a contending team. A back injury then pushed Westbrook to the disabled list. He made it back on Friday and got hammered, ceding five runs in 1⅓ relief innings against the Pirates. The rotation’s depth has evaporated at this point, but if Westbrook starts any meaningful games between now and the end of the season, something will have gone horribly wrong.
• Tyler Lyons started his rotation stint (and his major league career) in fine form, tossing seven innings in each of his first two starts and allowing just one run in each of those outings. His next four starts were disastrous, resulting in an 8.68 ERA and a demotion back to the minors. He’s back on the big league roster and is pitching in relief, offering insurance should one of the current starting five falter.
• John Gast made three starts, got hurt in the third, and underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
• Highly touted prospect Carlos Martinez made 12 appearances in his first go-round with the Cards (including one start) and posted a 6.00 ERA. As bright as Martinez’s future might be, he’s a poor bet to give St. Louis the six-plus quality innings per start they’d need in September or October. He’s an emergency starter at best for the rest of this season.
• The Cardinals kept pushing back Chris Carpenter’s return date, and now we’re at the point where he’s almost certainly not pitching again this season.
Now, as the Cards try to prevail in the toughest divisional race in baseball this year, the starting rotation is down to its current five. Four of the five carry question marks.
Lance Lynn, who pitched very well in the first half both last year and this season, has likewise stumbled badly in the second half both times. In his past five starts, he’s posted a 7.57 ERA, with opponents hitting .368/.420/.615 against him. The hope here is that you can chalk this up to batted-ball luck (.411 batting average on balls in play over those five starts), and that Lynn’s ability to maintain his fastball velocity and the fact that he started twice in the last League Championship Series bode well for him bouncing back.
Shelby Miller hasn’t been nearly as bad as Lynn recently. But he has certainly faded in his first full season as a starter in the majors. Over his past 10 starts, Miller has made it through seven innings just once. He has put up a 7.20 ERA in his past two starts, and the Cards have to be at least a little concerned over his innings count, with Miller’s 149⅔ innings pitched already matching his career high.
Then you’ve got two pitchers who’ve pitched extremely and surprisingly well lately.
Michael Wacha has flipped back and forth between relief and the rotation this season, delivering a 2.72 ERA, 3.20 FIP, and a strikeout-to-walk rate of better than three-to-one over 46⅓ innings pitched. Pushed back into starting duty on September 3, he’s been nearly unhittable in his two starts since: 13 innings, five hits, no runs. As with Miller, there are stamina questions here. Like Miller, Wacha is a 22-year-old rookie who is entering uncharted territory when it comes to innings pitched, leaving you to wonder if he can withstand the rigors of a possible deep Cardinals playoff run. But in the here and now, as St. Louis tries to hold off the Pirates and Reds and win the Central, you’ll have to get excited the next time Wacha’s turn comes up in the rotation.
Joe Kelly has proven invaluable to the Cardinals’ cause. A swingman with seemingly fifth-starter upside at best, Kelly has been incredibly stingy since rejoining the rotation on July 6. In 11 starts since, he has allowed zero or one run eight times, two runs once, and four runs twice. It all adds up to a microscopic 2.10 ERA.1 Still, Kelly’s performance feels like a house of cards. His 51 percent ground ball rate fits well with his suppression of extra-base hits (just nine home runs and 14 doubles allowed in 394 opposition at-bats) and his broader ability to induce weak contact. But what has really fueled Kelly’s success is his spectacular, and spectacularly fluky, numbers with runners in scoring position. He has held opponents to a .159/.242/.193 line in those spots, while getting smacked at a .288/.370/.394 line the rest of the time. Just as the Pirates’ Jeff Locke was destined to have his smoke-and-mirrors RISP numbers regress toward the mean in a violent way, Kelly is on that same path. The Cardinals just need to hope it happens sometime next year, not as they’re fighting for this year’s division title or battling in the playoffs.
That leaves the team’s ace, Adam Wainwright. Even Wainwright’s status seemed tenuous, for a short time anyway. The Cards recently went through a stretch in which they dropped five out of six games, falling to two games back in the NL Central. Wainwright got demolished in two of those losses, surrendering 15 runs over just eight innings. The combination of the Cards seemingly losing their grip on the division and Wainwright’s implosion even prompted a few panicky fans to suggest Kelly over Wainwright as the best choice in a potential one-game wild-card playoff. But Wainwright turned the tide on Saturday, firing seven scoreless innings and striking out eight in a big win over Pittsburgh.
St. Louis will need Wainwright and friends to come through, salvaging what’s left of a rotation that has bent but hasn’t broken. If the starters can deliver, the Cardinals just might get a chance to duplicate the single best moment in the franchise’s history.2
30. HOUSTON ASTROS
The Astros don’t have to worry much about starting pitching for the rest of this year, not in the last lap of a season in which they’ll lose 100-plus games. What matters here is the future. And while pitching is a ludicrously volatile commodity, Houston has quietly built the foundation for a potentially intriguing rotation.
The best of the bunch is Mark Appel. The first overall pick of this year’s amateur draft, Appel became an Astro only after the Stanford right-hander declined to sign with the Pirates a year earlier. Pittsburgh’s loss was Houston’s gain, and it might mean a legitimate ace for the Astros staff by 2016, with his debut likely sooner than that. Appel offers the rare combination of knockout stuff and polish for a pitching prospect, wielding a mid-90s fastball that touches 98, a plus slider, a plus changeup, and excellent command. Scouts tab his delivery as loose, athletic, and repeatable. He maintains his stuff deep into games. This is what no. 1 starters look like.
Another high-ceiling righty is 19-year-old Lance McCullers. Taken with the 41st overall pick in the 2012 draft, McCullers has a strong baseball pedigree, with his father spending seven years pitching in the big leagues. Lance Jr. is a flamethrower like Appel, dialing his fastball into the mid-90s. He owns a hammer of a curveball that he can and does use as a put-away pitch. Unless we’re talking about Randy Johnson, starting pitchers require a third pitch to have success at the big league level, and McCullers’s changeup is a work in progress. Still, when the lesser possibility (barring injury — it’s always barring injury for pitching prospects) is a potentially dominant big league reliever, that’s not bad at all.
The Astros system is stuffed with athletic, high-upside pitchers who could be special if they can harness their stuff and/or add a third workable pitch.
Mike Foltynewicz, a first-round pick three years ago, breathes absolute fire, averaging 97 mph on his fastball and routinely touching triple digits. He throws a sinker at 93-94 mph and can flash a better-than-average curve and changeup when he’s on. He’s 6-foot-4 and strong, with a football player’s build. What awaits is the proverbial conversion from thrower to pitcher. But he is already regarded as one of the more underrated pitching prospects in the game, having made it to Double-A (striking out nearly a batter an inning) at age 21.
Dominican-born Michael Feliz obliterated hitters as a 19-year-old in the New York–Penn League this season, striking out 78 batters against just 13 walks and two homers, with a 1.96 ERA. He’s another 98-mph fastball wielder with a nasty slider, a sleeper prospect who could pop up on top prospect lists with a big year at high Single-A ball. Vincent Velasquez was a second-round pick in the 2010 draft who finished the season as a 21-year-old in the California League. His path has been a little bumpy, with just 29⅓ innings pitched in rookie ball three years ago before going under the knife with Tommy John surgery. But the results have been there this year, with 142 strikeouts in 124⅔ innings across two levels. Velasquez owns a fastball that peaks in the mid-90s, with a changeup that is advanced for his level. Given that Velasquez mostly played shortstop in high school, the Astros believe he might have a lot of room for growth as he gains experience and hones his curveball.
The two picks immediately following Appel in this year’s draft also bring promise. Andrew Thurman is a big right-hander out of UC Irvine with a low-90s fastball, curve, and change whose greatest strength is having no obvious weaknesses. Kent Emanuel is a lefty who was the ace of a strong University of North Carolina team with excellent command and control, someone who lacks a high ceiling but also has a high floor and could slot in as a back-end starter in the big leagues.
We haven’t even covered the young Astros pitchers already in the big leagues. Brett Oberholtzer doesn’t have killer stuff nor big-time strikeout rates on his ledger. But he pounds the strike zone, doesn’t walk anyone, and keeps the ball down to limit damage. There are a million lefties who’ve succeeded with similar or inferior arsenals; given that Ryan Dempster’s making $13 million this year, having someone who could hold down a back-end starter’s job for the league minimum holds plenty of value. Brad Peacock scuffled last year after getting traded to the A’s, posting a heinous 6.01 ERA in Triple-A Sacramento. But he fared much better this year in Triple-A Oklahoma City (2.73 ERA). Moreover, he’s a former top-100 prospect with the Nationals, and has shown flashes of excellence along the way. On Thursday night he pitched a gem against the A’s, striking out nine and allowing just two runs on five hits over seven innings. He’s the kind of pitcher you take a chance on when you’re trying to pull your franchise off the deck.
Which brings us to Jarred Cosart. A 38th-round pick by the Phillies five years ago, Cosart overcame the long odds against low draft picks and excelled in the minors. When Houston shopped Hunter Pence around at the 2011 trade deadline, they asked Philly for both slugging first-base prospect Jonathan Singleton and Cosart in return. Rated Baseball America‘s no. 27 prospect coming into this season, Cosart has posted a 2.13 ERA in his first nine major league starts. His peripherals haven’t supported that number, with Cosart striking out just 30 batters and walking 29 over 55 innings. The Astros are optimistic that he’ll regain the swing-and-miss results he showed in the minors, given his mid-90s fastball, a 93-mph cutter that’s devastating when he can locate it, and a curveball and changeup that can look pedestrian once, then unhittable the next time. The biggest challenge will be refining his stuff and improving his command, given he struggled to throw strikes in Triple-A too. Still, the building blocks are there for a breakout, once he gets some more innings under his belt.
Here’s the kicker: Carlos Rodon is a 20-year-old lefty pitching for NC State who’s projected by many to go no. 1 overall in next year’s draft, with an arsenal that might top Appel’s. Barring an act of Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Astros will own the top pick in the draft next summer, making it three years in a row for them and setting up a possible love connection with Rodon.
Every team has its share of promising arms that don’t pan out; we have example after example of exciting careers getting derailed, or at the very least sidetracked for a while. But the Astros have more and better young pitchers than most. Adding Rodon could make the team’s stable of pitching prospects downright scary. Any rebuilding team with that many dynamic, up-and-coming pitchers has a great chance to turn its fortunes around.