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Following up on yesterday’s post, let’s take a look at some current pitchers who had similar hype to Hughes, their history, and current outlook.
Zack Greinke: Kansas City Royals
Current Age: 25
Drafted: First round, 6th overall in 2002 from Apopka HS (Apopka,FL)
Highlight: The 2009 season.
Adversity: 5-17 record with a 5.80 ERA in 2005. Struggled with social anxiety disorder in 2006.
Without a doubt, as April winds down, no one has turned more heads in baseball so far this season than Zack Greinke. He managed to start the season by not giving up a run in his first four starts, including two complete game shutouts. He’s struck out many, walking few along the way. And though it’s far too early to make such predictions, there isn’t a soul alive who can tell you he’s not the leading candidate for the AL Cy Young this year with a straight face. He’s practically brought hope to the Kansas City fan base on his own, a feat that speaks volumes given their recent history.
Of course, it wasn’t always easy for Greinke. The Royals brought him up to the majors in 2004 at age 20, and though he held his own and produced, 2005 was a train wreck, leading to a lost 2006 campaign with the aforementioned anxiety issues (some speculated he might leave the game altogether at the time). He came back and had solid campaigns in 2007 and 2008, leading to this year’s big breakout. Kansas City now has an ace they can build around, and while there’s certainly some room for regression here, it’s very doubtful that he will return to the lackluster performances of his earlier years.
Felix Hernandez: Seattle Mariners
Current Age: 23
Drafted: Undrafted free agent out of Venezuela, signed July 4th, 2002.
Highlight: “King Felix” throws a one-hitter, out-dueling Daisuke Matsuzaka, spoiling the Japanese import’s Fenway debut on the national stage.
Adversity: Injuries, conditioning concerns and inconsistency.
“King Felix” couldn’t have come up with more hype. The U.S.S. Mariner blog created the nickname, and it stuck (along with it, some fairly heavy expectations). Certainly, this hype didn’t appear out of thin air. Hernandez dominated A ball, and skipped Double-A to go right to Triple-A, not missing a beat. His 2.25ERA and 110 strikeouts in 84.1 innings were enough to convince Mariners brass that the kid didn’t have anything left to prove in the minors, and it’s hard to argue with them. Matching the hype however, is another story.
By any rational measure, Felix has done “well” thus far. He produced at just below league average at age 20, and has pitched between 190-200 innings from 2006-2008, with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2007-2008. And while he’s shown flashes of greatness (see the Fenway game above), those who expected him to come up and become a phenom overnight have been greatly disappointed. Doc Gooden comparisons were made while he was in the minors, so fans more or less hoped he’d come up and immediately start winning Cy Youngs out the gate. It’s easy to understand why Mariners fans may be impatient at this point, but it helps to remember that he’s still only 23 years old. And there is plenty of hope in the present tense: he’s started off well this year, going 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA and 36 K’s in 34 innings.
Clay Buchholz: Boston Red Sox
Current Age: 23
Drafted: First round, 42nd overall in 2005 from Angelina College (Lufkin, Texas)
Highlight: Throwing a no-hitter at Fenway Park in his second major league start on September 1, 2007.
Adversity: A horrible 2008 campaign, followed by a demotion to Pawtucket, where he’s remained.
If you really want to pump up the hype machine, throw a no-hitter in your second major league start. Red Sox fans must have been doing backflips after seeing what this hyped prospect accomplished. And to be fair, New England knows its baseball: it’s not like this came out of nowhere. In the minor leagues, Buchholz has been nothing less than a strikeout machine, fanning 429 batters in 359 innings to date (not to mention a 2.43 ERA). So we’ll forgive Boston fans for getting excited.
That being said, he threw his no-hitter at age 22, and one game does not make a career. Although he did throw a complete game shutout against the Rays the following season, 2008 as a whole was more or less a disaster. Buchholz went on the DL with a finger injury, and when he returned, his ERA ballooned to 6.75. This led to a demotion to the minors, where he currently resides.
What caused such a steep decline? To hear it from the man himself, the pressure of the big leagues may have been too much: “I’ve never been one to say the pressure was too much for me, but I’ve felt like I’ve had a lot of weight on my shoulders just trying to be perfect and trying to do everything as well as I could to help this team win.” Not to say that a no-hitter is ever a bad thing (believe me, as a Mets fan we’re still waiting for our first), but it can create a “nowhere to go but down” mentality in a fragile, young psyche.
Although the same lessons learned from the pitchers mentioned above (and Hughes) can be applied here, there’s one major difference with Buchholz: with the rate that the Red Sox have produced talent from their farm (Youkilis, Pedroia, Papelbon, Lester, etc.), and their incredible pitching depth, there is far less pressure on Buchholz. In Kansas City and Seattle, the franchises have seen better days, and the fans are looking for their system to produce someone, anyone who can signal a change in their fortunes. Even with Hughes and the Yankees, the fans want to see their system produce a bonafide ace (especially to shut up fans who complain about them simply buying pitching, as they did with Sabathia and Burnett).
But in Boston, none of this pressure applies. They have tremendous rotation depth, and a system that has churned out star players the last few years. If you ask a Sox fan, I bet they’ll mention that while they’d like to see Buchholz succeed, even if he doesn’t, it won’t be viewed as the end of the world for their franchise by any means. And when you’re 23, already have a major league no-hitter under your belt and possess a great fastball, along with an elite changeup and curveball, that’s a good spot to be in. Good things should come to those who wait in Beantown.
Of course, there are far more examples around the league, and I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic as the season goes on. The Pirates pitching staff, if they continue their current run, warrant a post all their own. Jobamania, while running strong, certainly set expectations sky high, and the issue of whether he should be in the rotation or the bullpen is one of the biggest ongoing debates in sports bars across New York.
At the end of the day, let’s remember that greatness by itself is hard to come by. Debuting with greatness and maintaining that level of success? Practically impossible. A little patience goes a long way, so please take a deep breath the next time your team’s hyped future ace comes up from the minors, and doesn’t immediately meet your expectations.
To be fair, for every Zack Greinke there’s a Kris Benson. But that’s another post in itself.
Tomorrow: Brag Photo of the Week!