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The trouble with young arms

06/25/2013 3:29 PM ET
By Doug Williams

Gerrit Cole has shined in his brief career, but the real test is whether he can sustain it.(AP)
Don't get your hopes up.

There's a vicious cycle that occurs every few years in baseball, and has for some time now. A phenom starting pitcher gets called up, throwing 97 MPH with a nasty off-speed pitch. His innings are limited and he never sees the eighth inning as a result. His rookie season is sensational, strikeout numbers are high and batting average against is low.

During the next few seasons, the league begins to catch up with him. His fastball has lost a few miles per hour and his strikeouts are down. Suddenly, he leaves a game with an injury. He struggles to stay healthy, and the pitcher we saw his rookie year is hardly ever seen again.

While there is nothing quite like a young pitcher coming up in an organization, there is unfortunately also nothing more hit or miss. In fact, it's almost impossible to predict a pitcher's success very early in their career, no matter how dominant their stuff looks. Let's look at some examples. How about Francisco Liriano? His first full season, Liriano was absolutely dominant. He went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and struck out almost 11 per nine innings. The next year, Liriano was forced to have Tommy John surgery. Since then, Liriano has had an ERA over 5.00 in all but one season and has never returned to his rookie form.

Heard of Oliver Perez? Today, Perez is a relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners who some might consider lucky to have a job after averaging a 5.85 ERA from 2005-2010. But in 2004, Perez was the pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He won 12 games on a terrible team, with a 2.98 ERA and 11 strikeouts per nine innings. We'll never see that pitcher again.

The Chicago Cubs know more about this issue than anyone. The poster boy for it might just be Kerry Wood, who was the most dominant starting pitcher in baseball from 2000-2003. In 2003, Wood struck out 266 batters. Sadly, we would never see that pitcher again either. In fact, he struck out more hitters that year than he did in his 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons combined.

Then there's Mark Prior, who pitched at about the same time as Wood. In 2003, Prior was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts. After that year, which was only his second in the league, Prior never pitched a full season again, and has been out of Major League Baseball since 2006.

Speaking of out of the big leagues, how about Dontrelle Willis? In 2005, Willis had a league-high 22 wins with a 2.63 ERA and 170 Ks. His average season for the rest of his career was five wins with a 5.50 ERA and 90 K's.

Sadly, it's time for baseball fans to start taking each golden arm with a grain of salt, and it's time for general managers to avoid building entire franchises around one unproven and young starting pitcher. There's a reason why there are more "promising young arms" than legitimate aces in this league. After the Darwinism sets in, only a few remain. The Verlanders, Sabathias, Cains and Kershaws are a rarity in today's league.

It's not all bad news. Watching a young pitcher dominate is what makes baseball so special. It can be a major contributing factor to winning championships and certainly fills ballparks. So if you're a Mets or Pirates fan, enjoy the electric stuff and total domination of Matt Harvey and Gerrit Cole. But while they may look like special talents now, the true test of their talent will be their ability to make it last. 

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