A few weeks ago, I blogged about attending a game here in Milwaukee between the 34-year old Chris Carpenter and the 23-year old Yovani Gallardo. It was an absolutely fantastic pitching matchup with both pitchers taking a no-hitter into the late innings, and I felt lucky to be there. Well, yesterday, I went to another Brewers game that promised an excellent pitching matchup: Gallardo vs the Dodgers’ 21-year old stud, Clayton Kershaw. Sadly, the game ended up being nothing at all like it promised (Kershaw did have a one-hitter into the 7th inning, but Gallardo couldn’t figure it out, giving up five runs in five innings), and the 44,000 of us at Miller Park went home disappointed.
It did get me thinking, though, about the incredible crop of young pitchers across the majors today. A few names off the top of my head: Gallardo, Kershaw, Zack Grienke, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, Chad Billingsley, John Danks, Jon Lester, and Edinson Volquez. All of these pitchers are 25 years old or younger and many of them have a legitimate argument for being the best pitcher in baseball. Granted, we all know that “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect (TINSTAAPP),” but this list does boast a lot of proven talent, especially considering the collective age of the group. And it isn’t even exhaustive!
So, are we currently seeing the best collection of young pitchers ever? Well, it’s much too early to say that conclusively since we have no idea how they all will pan out. However, if we change the question to “is this the largest collection of young pitchers making a significant contribution to their team,” then it becomes quantifiable. It may be a little wordy and it may not get exactly at the heart of what we’re talking about here, but I think it’s a pretty fair compromise.
Using Win Shares and players’ seasonal ages, I took a look at every season since the mound was lowered to find the number of pitchers who accumulated 15 Win Shares or more in one season while age 25 or younger. The top years are below:
1973 – 16 young pitchers: Bert Blyleven (age: 22, WS: 29), Wayne Twitchell (25, 21), Rick Reuschel (24, 20), Doc Medich (24, 18), Ken Brett (24, 17), Ron Bryant (25, 17), Jon Matlack (23, 16), Burt Hooten (23, 16), Don Gullett (22, 15), Vida Blue (23, 15), Bill Bonham (24, 15), Doug Bird (23, 15), Terry Forster (21, 15), Jerry Reuss (24, 15), Steve Rogers (23, 15), Ray Corbin (24, 15)
1969 – 15 young pitchers: Tom Seaver (age: 24, WS: 32), Denny McLain (25, 29), Bill Singer (25, 26), Larry Dierker (22, 25), Steve Carlton (24, 24), Andy Messersmith (23, 22), Ken Tatum (25, 20), Jim Palmer (23, 180, Blue Moon Odom (24, 18), Ken Holtzman (23, 17), Dick Bosman (25, 17), Wally Bunker (24, 16), Dave Boswell (24, 16), Rick Wise (23, 15), Wayne Granger (25, 15)
2008 – 14 young pitchers: Tim Lincecum (age: 23, WS: 27), Jon Lester (23, 19), Ervin Santana (24, 19), Cole Hamels (23, 18), John Danks (22, 17), Edinson Volquez (23, 17), Zack Greinke (23, 17), Rich Harden (25, 17), James Shields (25, 16), Chad Billingsley (22, 16) Ricky Nolasco (24, 16), Joakim Soria (23, 15), Felix Hernandez (21, 15), Gavin Floyd (24, 15)
1985 – 14 young pitchers: Dwight Gooden (age: 20, WS: 33), Bret Saberhagen (21, 24), Fernando Valenzuela (24, 21), Mike Moore (25, 19), Jimmy Key (24, 19), Tom Browning (25, 18), Ron Darling (24, 17), Oil Can Boyd (25, 17), Mike Witt (24, 16), Frank Viola (25, 16), Danny Jackson (23, 16), John Franco (24, 16), Danny Cox (25, 16), Andy Hawkins (25, 15)
1992 – 12 young pitchers: Mike Mussina (age: 23, WS: 24), Charles Nagy (25, 20), Kevin Appier (24, 20), John Smoltz (25, 18), Jim Abbott (24, 18), Curt Schilling (25, 17), Juan Guzman (25, 17), Mel Rojas (25, 16), Dave Fleming (22, 16), Andy Benes (24, 16), Rod Beck (23, 16), Jaime Navarro (25, 15)
There were also 13 pitchers on the list for each of 1971 and 1975, but many of those were overlaps with 1969 or 1973. I didn’t include them in the interest of space.
Overall, these lists tend to be pretty strong. The down-list names weaken significantly in each group, but the top of the list is almost uniformly remarkable. The weakest name at the top is, unsurprisingly, Dwight Gooden. But his case is so unique, being a young superstar in New York during the peak of the narcotics era, that you can’t really judge it against the rest of the list. Also, with Blyleven, Seaver, and Mussina atop the other groups, it’s hard to complain about the results.
Because we’re using end-season Win Shares to rank the pitchers, the 2009 season cannot be judged. We can see, though, that last season makes a respectable showing, and that’s without the two pitchers who started this whole exploration, Yovani Gallardo (who was injured all year) and Clayton Kershaw (who was only 20 and still learning the ropes). Other than adding those two, this year’s list would likely look a lot like last year’s. Harden and Shields wouldn’t qualify because of their age and Soria’s injury might make it too hard for him to earn enough Win Shares, but most of the others would probably stay. It might have a chance at competing for that top spot on the list.
We’ll have to wait for history to make its judgment before we can know for sure just how great this current crop really is. Of the years that are old enough for history to have already made its judgment, I think I’d have to say the 1969 crop is the best, despite being smaller than the ’73 crop. Seaver, Carlton, and Palmer beat out Blyleven, Reuschel, and Reuss any day of the week. Who knows if that’s what we’re seeing this year as Greinke and Lincecum fight it out for the crown of best pitcher in baseball, but, regardless, it sure is exciting to watch. I can’t wait for the second half.