Rookie Starting Pitchers – Realistic Expectations

Recent buzz concerning Cubs’ pitchers C.J. Edwards, Kyle Hendricks, and Pierce Johnson, as well as the possible acquisition of Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, have raised expectations in the minds of many fans. Before fans become too excited, however, a bit of historical perspective might recalibrate those hopes. A review of Cubs’ rookie pitchers since 1945 reveals relatively modest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) results. For example, the Cubs’ top rookie pitching WAR belongs to Burt Hooton, who posted a 5.1 WAR in 1972. Mike Harkey’s WAR of 4.6 as a rookie in 1990 ranks second, followed by Randy Wells’s 4.2 WAR performance in 2009 and Dennis Lamp’s career best 4.0 WAR in his 1978 rookie campaign. In fact, of the Cubs’ four pitchers atop the team’s rookie season WAR rankings, only Hooton ever matched his rookie WAR in a subsequent year — and Hooton managed the feat only once.

In contrast to the team’s top rookie pitchers, Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood led the 2013 team with a 4.4 WAR. If Wood had been a rookie last year, he would have recorded the Cubs’ third highest rookie WAR in modern history. Interestingly, Kerry Wood’s Rookie of the Year performance in 1997 resulted in a surprising low 3.9 WAR. While Wood did not pitch a full season that year, he only started one fewer game than Harkey did in 1990.

Clearly, Cubs’ rookie pitchers have not set the league on fire. Nevertheless, a lack of rookie pitching success is not peculiar to the Cubs. Even Hooton’s team-leading rookie pitching WAR of 5.1 puts him 28th in the modern era of major league baseball. Last year, Miami Marlins phenomenon Jose Fernandez recorded the major leagues’ first rookie pitching WAR over 5.0 in ten years. Other than Fernandez and Arizona Diamondbacks hurler Brandon Webb, no other rookie pitcher has surpassed a 5.0 rookie pitching WAR in this century. In an era of pitch counts and shutting down pitchers later in the season to guard against injury, a rookie pitching WAR of 5.0, in and of itself, has become a rare achievement. For what it’s worth, one-year wonder Mark Fidrych set the all-time rookie pitching WAR record of 9.6 in 1976. Fidrych’s amazing 250-inning rookie season came with a price as mental and physical ailments prevented him from ever again approaching high-level pitching success. In the 37 seasons since Fidrych’s 1976 season, only two pitchers have thrown 250 or more innings as rookies and neither achieved that benchmark during the past 28 years.

While Cubs fans have reason to be excited about several pitchers in the team’s minor league system, no one should realistically expect any Cub rookie pitcher to match even Travis Wood’s performance from last year. Rookie starting pitchers rarely pitch complete seasons, let alone do so effectively. As the Cubs begin to integrate young pitchers into their starting rotation, they likely will demonstrate the same caution as other teams have done with promising rookie pitchers. Accordingly, do not anticipate the Cubs to generate consistent high-impact success from rookie pitchers. While this may not affect the team’s pennant hopes in 2014, it could prove problematic during a 2015 playoff race.