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Thursday, May 19, 2011
Rookie starters take center stage

By David Schoenfield


If you collected baseball cards in the 1980s, you'll remember the "rookie craze." You'd open a pack, desperately seeking that Dwight Gooden rookie card or Mark McGwire rookie card or Sam Horn rookie card. Those cards were going to pay for your college tuition.

I don't know if the rookie card craze still exists -- I haven't collected baseball cards in more than 20 years -- but I had a rookie craze on Wednesday night. Danny Duffy was making his major league debut for the Kansas City Royals. Zach Britton was going for the Baltimore Orioles. Jeremy Hellickson started for the Tampa Bay Rays. Julio Teheran was making his second start for the Atlanta Braves.

Here are some notes as I flipped through the action.

Danny Duffy: Listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, although he doesn't look that big to me, maybe built more along the lines of somebody like Erik Bedard. ... Baby-faced, close-shaven blonde hair, looks like he should nervously be pinning a corsage on his date before the prom instead of looking calm and confident on a major league mound. ... Duffy actually retired last spring, but returned in June. He's pitched only 14 games above Class A, so the Royals are maybe rushing him a bit. ... Early on, he's relying on his fastball and occasional curveball. Works at a nice pace, moving his fastball in and out, trying to keep the ball down in the zone. Fastball speed is all over the place, according to the TV radar gun, moving around from 90 to 95 mph. ... After two scoreless innings, gets in a bases-loaded jam in the third inning with one out. Jams Adrian Beltre with an 0-1 inside fastball for a 6-4 force out and then throws two nice curveballs to get Mitch Moreland to bounce out to first. Nice job, rook. ... In the end, Duffy lasts just four innings, throwing 94 pitches, 54 for strikes. The line score looks worse than what I saw: 4 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 6 BB, 4 SO. ... On this night, he was able to get the fastball inside to right-handed hitters, but he fatigued a bit, started getting the ball up and didn't challenge the hitters if he fell behind in the count. In other words, he looked like a rookie.

Zach Britton: I love watching this kid pitch. He enters his start against the Yankees with a 5-2 record and 2.42 ERA through his first eight starts. He throws a hard sinker, and while he has just 29 strikeouts in 52 innings, opponents are hitting just .203 with a .578 OPS off him. ... He looks good early on, keeping the ball down, getting ground ball outs. The Yankees' first four hits are all ground singles through the infield. Those are the types of hits Britton gives up, as he's allowed only 11 extra-base hits over those eight starts. ... Defense lets him down in the fourth inning when second baseman Robert Andino's error leads to an unearned run. ... By the way, the last Orioles pitcher to throw 200 innings with an ERA under 3.25: Mike Mussina in 1997. And other than Mussina? Storm Davis and Mike Boddicker -- in 1984. This franchise is starving for an ace. ... Finally gives up a couple of hard-hit balls in the sixth when Alex Rodriguez singles in the gap and Robinson Cano drills a single off the right-field scoreboard. But Adam Jones gunned down A-Rod trying to stretch his hit into a double and Britton gets Nick Swisher looking to end the inning. ... Britton ends up going seven innings and gets off the hook for the "loss" when the Orioles tie it up at 1 with a run off Mariano Rivera in the ninth. ... Did I mention the Orioles need an ace? They may have one.

Jeremy Hellickson: A lot of people like to compare him to Greg Maddux, which is really code for "Right-handed pitcher, good control, knows how to pitch, not overpowering." Of course, everybody acknowledges there's only one Greg Maddux, and truth is Hellickson is nothing like Maddux, other than the lack of a big fastball. Maddux essentially relied on a moving fastball that he developed pinpoint control with. Hellickson throws the kitchen sink up at you: fastballs, changeups, curveballs, varying the speed and location with every pitch. ... He's not afraid to pitch up in the zone. In the first, he gets Yunel Escobar swinging on a 79-mph changeup that's up at the letters and gets Corey Patterson to swing through a 90-mph fastball that looks down the middle. Jose Bautista smacks a fastball at the knees into left for a single. A good pitch, in that at least Bautista didn't homer. ... Later on in the sixth, Patterson hits an outside fastball to right for a double. It wasn't a bad pitch, but Patterson was able to hook it into the corner. ... Bautista drills a liner to left on a low curve that Sam Fuld makes a nice running catch on, but Hellickson is chased when Aaron Hill doubles off the wall in left-center and Eric Thames lines his first major league hit to center. ... Hellickson had a 33/8 SO/BB ratio during his late-season call-up last year, but right now it's at 36/21 after walking three guys on this night. He lasts long enough to get credit for the win, improving his record to 5-2. ... The overall season numbers are decent, but he's also a beneficiary of Tampa's excellent defense. Without that overpowering fastball, he'll need to drop the walk rate.

Julio Teheran: Just 20 years old, his start on May 7 against the Phillies was supposed to be a one-start cameo due to a rainout backlog, but he's back already for another try. I watched that Phillies game and he didn't look ready for the majors, with little command of his fastball. ... Watching the Arizona feed as the game begins and the announcers say he threw 23 changeups in his first start. ... He gets two quick outs, goes to a 3-2 count to Justin Upton and throws another changeup. As Mark Grace says on the broadcast, "Justin was not fooled." Upton crushes it about 15 rows over the fence in left-center. ... In the fourth, with two outs and two runners on, Ryan Roberts is up. On a 2-2 count, Teheran goes to the fastball this time, but Roberts cuts down on his swing (these are not your 2010 Diamondbacks) and lines an RBI single to right. ... Teheran is done after four innings and 83 pitches and leaves trailing 2-0. Like his first start, he shows that he lacks a knockout pitch, as he again strikes out just one batter. Grace likes what he sees, however: "I was very impressed with the young man. Showed good moxie out there. Wasn't afraid. Went right after the hitters."

* * * *

I was going to rank this year's rookie pitchers, but we'll do that another time. I may be biased as a Mariners fan, but it's clear that Michael Pineda is by the far most electrifying of these rookie starters. He's like a Don Drysdale or Justin Verlander: Tall, overpowering and intimidating. When Pineda gave up his first major league homer a couple starts ago to Mitch Moreland, he had a look of disbelief on his face. He's a very confident young pitcher. Of course, I suppose if I was 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, with the ability to throw 97 mph with control, I'd be pretty confident as well.

Time will tell how good this group will turn out to be, but I did a quick look back at some rookie pitching crops of the past 30 years. This isn't comprehensive and is sorted by rookie season (not necessarily debut season, so a September call-up season wouldn't count). Anyway, here are some of the best years I found (the 2006 group looks pretty special and check out that 1984 class):

2006: Justin Verlander, Josh Johnson, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Jered Weaver, James Shields Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley, Adam Wainwright.

2000: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Mark Buehrle, Johan Santana, Brad Penny, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett.

1987: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, David Cone, Chuck Finley.

1984: Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Mark Langston, Bret Saberhagen, Jose Rijo, Orel Hershiser, John Franco, Jimmy Key, Mark Gubicza, Sid Fernandez.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Cubs Fans
Insert your own joke about what these poor kids are about to embark upon in a lifetime as Cubs fans.