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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Updated: May 14, 3:17 PM ET
Rookies poised for big K stats

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

What a rich class of rookie flamethrowers we're witnessing.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Consider: In each of the past two seasons, three rookie pitchers struck out 150 or more hitters. This year, four rookies are on pace to strike out at least that many. To put that into historical perspective, consider that in only two seasons since 1901 did four or more rookies whiff at least 150 hitters (6, in 1967; and 4, in 1970; that per Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index tool).

Yes, what Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shelby Miller, Tony Cingrani and Jose Fernandez have done thus far is historic; there is also compelling evidence that all four might remain on track to reach that plateau. But as is the case with any rookie, adjustment periods, workloads and fatigue are factors that threaten to come into play.

What, then, precisely are their odds of meeting their current full-season paces? Better yet: How will they fare in the other primary Rotisserie categories?

Let's take a snapshot of each, going in order of Player Rater standing.

Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals

Miller
Miller

Age: 22; MLB career starts: 7; Player Rater SP ranking: 16th

Stuff: He has a 93.0 mph (2013 average to date) fastball and hard curveball, both of which have been solid thus far. Twenty-nine of his 38 strikeouts have come on the fastball, the other nine on his curve, the latter widely regarded his punch-out pitch. Watch Miller's curveball sometime; you'll see why it's his ticket to a 150-strikeout rookie season without severe danger of a major slump.

Adjustment period? If Miller is due one, it'll be because he lacks a viable third pitch. Keith Law noted in his preseason top 100 prospects -- he ranked Miller 21st -- that Miller's changeup "continues to improve and will flash above-average." Amazingly, Miller has thrown only eight changeups all year, all of them to lefties. The season-opening edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches" illustrated that pitchers at Miller's young career stage tend to be the ones who hit such a phase; I think he might well be due one soon. But let's be clear: Such a stage might last only 1-2 months and constitute a barely-sub-four ERA, which wouldn't cost him his rotation spot or make him a cut in any fantasy league larger than 12-team mixed. Only sell high if you're getting silly value, like that of a top-30 starter.

Workload: Miller is the member of this quartet in the best standing in this department, thanks to workloads of 104 1/3, 139 2/3 and 150 1/3 innings pitched the past three seasons working forward. Even if the Cardinals cap his innings, they probably wouldn't do so beneath 180 frames. In addition, keep in mind that he finished 2012 strong in Triple-A, with a 2.88 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 10.00 K-per-walk ratio in his final 10 starts, answering many of the questions about his prospect status that were raised during his sluggish first half.

Projection going forward: 24 GS, 3.85 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 135 K's.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers

Ryu
Ryu

Age: 26; MLB career starts: 7; Player Rater SP ranking: 36th

Stuff: Many scouting reports during the winter, at the time the Dodgers signed Ryu to a six-year, $36 million contract after paying a $25.7 million posting fee, had the left-hander's stuff ranging as high as that of a No. 3 or 4 starter to as low as that of a situational reliever. Ryu's changeup is the key to his sticking in the rotation: It's his best pitch, he uses it often against righties (30 percent usage) and opponents overall have batted .222 against it. Meanwhile, his delivery is deceptive enough to completely fluster lefties -- hence the "reliever" chatter -- as they're batting just .176/.243/.294 against him.

Adjustment period? Hitters might begin to catch up with Ryu the more times they see him; the San Francisco Giants, who on Sunday became the first team to face him for the second time during the regular season, enjoyed more success against him (4 runs, 8 hits, only 2 K's) in meeting No. 2. Two years ago, "60 Feet 6 Inches" examined pitchers' prospects for success during their proverbial "second trip around the league," and the telling tale was that strikeout artists tended to fare better than finesse types during that phase. Ryu's current 251-K pace might paint such a strikeout-artist picture, but if he's not a traditional flamethrower -- his average fastball velocity thus far is 90.0 mph -- is he subject to that? I wonder.

Workload: You might think Ryu is the safest of the quartet, thanks to three seasons of 180-plus innings pitched in his four years in the Korean Professional Baseball league. That's not necessarily true because, as with the Nippon Professional Baseball league (Japan), the Korean schedule is shorter -- 133 games per season. Ryu is therefore subject to the same adjustment to the U.S. game as a Japanese import, and one must wonder whether the 162-game schedule might cause a downturn in second-half stats.

Projection going forward: 24 GS, 3.90 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 142 K's.

Tony Cingrani, Cincinnati Reds

Cingrani
Cingrani

Age: 23; MLB career starts: 4; Player Rater SP ranking: 42nd

Stuff: He's a fascinating case. Only two pitchers (three or more starts) have thrown their fastball more often than Cingrani this season (82.3 percent usage), but it's the deception created by his delivery that has made the pitch so effective. Cingrani's fastball has averaged 92.2 mph, has limited opponents to the ninth-lowest batting average (.179) and has notched 30 of his 33 strikeouts. Incidentally, he's only the second pitcher since 1900 to manage eight or more strikeouts in each of his first three major league starts.

The problem, however, is that Cingrani's secondary pitches lack polish. He has thrown his curveball 12 percent of the time, his changeup 5 percent and his slider less than 1 percent, and his 33 percent rate of throwing those pitches in the strike zone is the third-worst rate in the game. Cingrani is hoping that hitters fish for pitches out of the zone; no one has missed on eight swings at his "soft" stuff in the strike zone, and on 12 swings at "soft" stuff out of the zone, eight times hitters missed and three times they fouled it off, while the 12th was a harmless ground out.

Adjustment period? This goes hand-in-hand with the above; I believe that Cingrani is going to have to develop, and rely upon, his secondary pitches more to remain consistently successful. He has pitched well enough to warrant remaining in the Reds' rotation beyond Johnny Cueto's return from the disabled list -- he should bump Mike Leake after that point -- but I'm most concerned that Cingrani's midsummer phase will be the most distressing to his fantasy owners of this quartet. Deceptive hurlers can buck adjustment periods -- see Dontrelle Willis' 2003 -- but the risk makes him as strong a sell-high candidate as any 2013 rookie.

Workload: Cingrani threw 151 innings between high Class A (56 2/3), Triple-A (89 1/3) and Cincinnati (5) last season, after throwing 108 1/3 between Rice University (57) and rookie ball (51 1/3) in 2011, so an innings cap might not be a major factor. That said, any midsummer struggles could feed the Reds' thinking in this area. Don't be surprised if he doesn't top 170 frames.

Projection going forward: 20 GS, 4.15 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 118 K's.

Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

Fernandez
Fernandez

Age: 20; MLB career starts: 6; Player Rater SP ranking: 58th

Stuff: His is gooooooood … which should've been clear when he leapfrogged both Double- and Triple-A in order to make the Marlins' Opening Day roster at only 20 years old. Fernandez was the highest-ranked of the bunch in Keith Law's preseason top 100 prospects, placing 16th, after he managed a 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 134 innings in Class A ball last season.

A quick look at his pitch selection says Fernandez has what it takes to stick: His fastball has averaged 94.5 mph, with 54 percent of them clocked at 95 mph or higher, and opponents have batted .234 against it with 16 of his 32 K's. His curveball -- advertised as his strikeout pitch -- has limited foes to a .129 batting average with 11 K's and a 27 percent miss rate on swings. And his changeup, perhaps the most surprising advance, has limited left-handed hitters to a .083 batting average with a 42 percent miss rate on swings. It's no surprise, therefore, that Fernandez lacks a steep platoon split; lefties are batting .151/.262/.205 against him.

Adjustment period: What if he has already endured it? Fernandez's career starts Nos. 3-5 resulted in a combined 11 earned runs and 15 hits allowed in 13 innings, and he's coming off the best outing by any rookie (using Game Score) this season, his seven-shutout-inning, nine-strikeout masterpiece against the Philadelphia Phillies this past Saturday. Even if he has more adjustments to make, Fernandez's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching score) is 3.05, 20th-best in the league, and his K-to-walk ratio 2.67, 52nd-best (out of 114 pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched). I'd classify Fernandez as potentially the most stable of the quartet on a start-by-start basis; he might possess the smallest deviation in ERA/WHIP between months come season's end.

Workload: The Marlins have actually done a good job pacing Fernandez, who is on pace for 152 innings, or only 18 more than he threw in all of 2012 in the minors. They've done it by capping his pitch counts at 85 in each of his six starts, though couple his resulting shorter outings with the weak Marlins offense backing him and he's the weakest choice of the bunch by far in terms of wins, and perhaps quality starts as well. Fernandez might not need an innings cap at his current pace, so don't race to trade him assuming he'll bump up against one.

Projection going forward: 23 GS, 3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 126 K's. (Keep in mind that his average innings-per-start should be well beneath the others'.)

You might also notice another rookie who cracked this week's rankings: Top New York Mets prospect Zack Wheeler, who tossed six shutout innings of three-hit baseball for Triple-A Las Vegas on Sunday.

Wheeler actually topped Fernandez, Miller and Cingrani in Keith Law's preseason top 100 prospects, and granted the chance to make 20 starts at the big-league level from this point forward, might have as good a chance at leading this bunch -- except for perhaps Ryu -- in strikeouts.

Let's take a closer look:

Zack Wheeler, New York Mets

Wheeler
Wheeler

Stuff: He's somewhat like Miller and Fernandez in that Wheeler possesses a mid-90s fastball and a solid curveball that he can use to generate strikeouts. Thus far in his professional career, he has averaged 9.71 K's per nine innings, that number 9.15 in his 32 starts combined between Double- and Triple-A.

But unlike some of those others, Wheeler possesses a steeper platoon split, lefties batting .253/.363/.381 against him, compared to .209/.279/.296 for righties. As Law noted in the preseason, Wheeler sports "a straight change that is probably too hard to be truly effective," though at least he seems to have improved against left-handers so far this year: They're hitting .224/.329/.373 against him.

Adjustment period: Wheeler's so-so change might set him up for some early-career struggles; He's a pitcher whose career starts Nos. 6-20 might be somewhat forgettable. That said, he'll have a spacious ballpark in which to work, and as his career has yet to start, he'll at least possess the potential to give you up to 10 starts of use in his early weeks in the bigs.

Workload: Wheeler tossed 149 innings between Double- and Triple-A last season, after 115 frames between the Mets and San Francisco Giants' high Class A affiliates in 2011, and thus far he has 36 innings for Las Vegas in 2013. The Mets might cap him at around 170 frames; his fantasy owners should hope that, in that event, most of his remaining 134 innings come in the majors.

Projections going forward: 17 GS, 3.95 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 88 K's.

Relief Efforts

Sticking with this week's rookie theme, don't overlook the St. Louis Cardinals' promotion in the past week of one of their top pitching prospects, Carlos Martinez. Oddly, while 54 of Martinez's 55 career appearances in the minors were starts, the Cardinals immediately installed him in their struggling bullpen.

Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals

Stuff: Martinez's fastball is arguably quicker than anyone profiled this week; he has averaged 97.3 mph with his 21 big-league fastballs thus far, not a single one of them clocked beneath 94 mph. Between it and his sinker, he generates a healthy number of ground balls, as his ground ball rate in 2012 was 54.1 percent, and in the minors this year it was 51.4 percent. Martinez also has a curveball and a so-so changeup, though in short relief, he might rely mostly on his fastball.

Martinez's stuff profiles as future "closer" material, giving the Cardinals two arguably more talented youngsters behind red-hot closer Edward Mujica; primary setup man Trevor Rosenthal is the other. But even if Martinez is locked into the seventh inning for the long haul and Rosenthal the eighth, both setup men have enough ERA/WHIP/K's potential to help owners in NL-only leagues.

Adjustment period: Martinez might suffer through one, though in his defense he demonstrated significant improvement in his command in 2012, his walk rate dropping from 4.68 per nine innings in 2011 to 2.76 per nine last season. For now he's merely a speculative pickup in fantasy, so at least you wouldn't put yourself at nearly as much roster risk considering the price you'd pay.

Workload: It's not a concern if he's a reliever. Heck, many good starters have begun their careers as relievers -- Roy Oswalt and Johan Santana immediately come to mind -- and Martinez has little chance of topping the 104 1/3 frames he compiled in 2012 if he's throwing only an inning at a time.

Projections going forward: 45 IP, 2.90 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 10 holds.