Ranking The Rookie Starting Pitchers

Starting pitcher Michael Pineda of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Only seven rookies have thrown enough innings this season, in either league, to qualify for the ERA rankings.

This is a testament to two things: 1) management's unwillingness to trust rookies with significant numbers of innings, and 2) rookies' inability to hold on to those innings when they do get them.

Anyway, it's easy to rank the rookie starting pitchers because there aren't many of them. Only seven, and only two or three of them are magnificent ...

7. Tyler Chatwood, Angels (2-2, 4.50 ERA)
That ERA's not so awful, but it's the highest in the group and (more to the point) Chatwood's exceptionally lucky that his ERA isn't quite a bit higher. In 44 innings, he's struck out 19 hitters and walked 27. It's one thing to have an exceptionally low strikeout rate, or an exceptionally high walk rate. But it's another thing entirely to have both, and if Chatwood doesn't begin to control the strike zone soon, his ERA's going to explode and he's going to wind up back in Salt Lake City.

6. Ivan Nova, Yankees (4-3, 4.33)
Another pitcher who's fortunate to have an ERA well below 5, Nova's walked nearly as many batters (20) as he's struck out (24). Nova established himself as a prospect last season, his second in Class AAA, by elevating his strikeout rate to nearly eight per nine innings. This season it's been just five per nine, and that's workable only if accompanied by a low walk rate. Which Nova hasn't had yet.

5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (3-2, 4.32)
Drabek's fortunate to have that record, and he's fortunate to have that ERA. Because in 50 innings, he's struck out 35 batters and walked 34, more than anyone else in the league. It's certainly possible that Drabek simply needs more seasoning in the minors. He has skipped Class AAA completely, and even in double-A last year he issued nearly four walks per nine innings. To quote my friend John Sickels (from this book, which you should buy if you haven't already), "If I were running things I'd like him to get some some Triple-A time to put the finishing touches on his command."

4. Brandon Beachy, Braves (1-1, 3.45)
Beachy might rank even higher than fourth, except he's not actually pitching at this moment. Or this week, or this month, because he's on the Disabled List with an oblique injury that will keep him out of action until the middle of June, at least. Which is a real shame, because Beachy -- undrafted out of college, only to rocket through the Braves' farm system -- was throwing as well as anyone on the staff, with 46 strikeouts and only eight uninentional walks in 44 innings. But Beachy's never thrown 135 innings in a professional season and in college he was a third-baseman-slash-relief-pitcher, so there's no way of knowing if he can withstand for long the rigors of throwing six or seven innings ever five days. The early returns are not encouraging.

3. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (5-2, 3.18)
Entering this season, there were two pitching prospects who ranked above all the rest: Atlanta's Julio Teheran, and Jeremy Hellickson. With Teheran opening the season in the minors, Hellickson became the best pitching prospect in the majors by default. And he's been far from a disappointment; his No. 3 ranking here is simply a testament to how well two other rookies have pitched, and to some degree how surprising that's been. If you're looking for a demerit, it's that Hellickson hasn't controlled the strike zone this season nearly as well as he has in the minors (or for that matter, nearly as well as during his time in the majors last season).

2. Zach Britton, Orioles (5-2, 2.14)
Britton didn't beat the Yankees Wednesday night, but he did pitch seven excellent innings and lowered his ERA to a paltry 2.14, fifth-lowest in the entire American League. There's no arguing with Britton's results -- which are especially impressive, considering he was originally slated for Class AAA this spring -- and only an amazing pitcher could keep Britton from claiming the top spot among rookie pitchers. But of course there is an amazing rookie pitcher this spring ...

1. Michael Pineda, Mariners (5-2, 2.45)
Yes, Britton's having a great season. No, Pineda can't quite match Britton's ERA. But once you get past ERA and its attendant vagaries, there's probably not a great deal of argument here ...

One of the big things that makes Felix Hernandez great is that he doesn't give up home runs, and he's given up only three this season.

Michael Pineda has also given up three home runs this season.

The other big thing that make Felix Hernandez great is that he strikes out a lot more batters than he walks.

Michael Pineda's strikeout-to-walk ratio this season is better than Hernandez's.

Oh, and Pineda is the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in the majors.

Given a choice between Pineda and any other rookie starting pitcher this spring, who are you taking?

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