Pitching Debuts (Revisited)

Not that you don’t already know, but Stephen Strasburg was absolutely nasty last night. With a Justin Verlander-like fastball, a Pedro Martinez-like changeup, and a Barry Zito-like curveball, every pitch to the Pirates was something to awe at. In the end, Strasburg left the game with 7 IP, 0 BB, 14 K, and 2 ER in only 94 pitches for a game score of 75. Beyond impressive.

But, as great as that game was, a game score of 75 is nowhere near the best in history. That honor – the best pitched debut in history – belongs to Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, who had a game score of 96. I wrote about Marichal and some other pitching debuts last summer. The short of it: a great debut, or a poor debut, does nothing to tell us just how good a pitcher will really be. Here’s that piece reprinted, for those who may have missed it last June (and don’t miss this list of 10+-strikeout debuts by Bill over at The Daily Something):

For the fourth time this season yesterday, the Brewers faced an opposing pitcher making his major league debut. And, for the fourth time this season yesterday, the Brewers lost a game in which they were facing a pitcher making his major league debut.

Called up only a couple of days ago, Ryan Sadowski pitched a strong, six-inning, four-hit game in his debut, leaving the game only after being hit in the leg by a Ryan Braun drive up the middle. The Giants went on to win the game 7-0 and Sadowski’s pitching line earned him a game score of 63. It was a solid performance, and one that Sadowski should be very proud of. It should be interesting to see how his career progresses from here after that start.

Now, Sadowski’s performance isn’t likely to be anything that I’ll be telling my kids about in 20 years, but he got me wondering: what does a solid first game mean, career-wise? What was the best ever major-league debut, and who pitched it? Do all Hall of Famers come out strong, or are there some clunkers in there too? We tend to make a big deal about big debuts, so I thought it might be nice to look a little deeper into it.

Using the Play Index over at Baseball-Reference – still one of the best tools on the internet – I was able to learn that the best ever start in a major league debut belonged to Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. On July 10, 1960, Marichal, the strikeout leader in the Pacific Coast League, was called up from Tacoma to join the big club. He made his debut a little over a week later, on July 19. From the game story the next day:

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“The 5-10 right-hander who was the strikeout king of the Pacific Coast League until he was recalled from Tacoma with an 11-5 record, had a perfect game for 6 1-3 innings Tuesday night for San Francisco. An error by Eddie Bressoud let the Phils’ Tony Taylor reach base.

Marichal lost his no-hit bid when pinch hitter Clay Carlymple singled with two out in the eighth. The newcomer struck out 12, only three short of the record that the Dodgers’ Karl Spooner set in his first start in 1954.

No other National League pitcher in modern days, since 1900, has thrown a one-hitter in his first start. Charles Jones of Cincinnati pitched a no-hitter in his major league debut in 1884. Two American Leaguers have broken in with one-hitters, Addie Joss of Cleveland and Mike Fornieles of Washington.”

Marichal’s line on the night looked like this: 9 IP, 1 hit, 1 walk, 12 strikeouts, and no runs, for a game score of 96. As a pitcher, you just can’t ask for more than that in your debut. The fact that it was a Hall of Famer who was able to do it in his debut seems almost accidental. The next best debut belongs to the Karl Spooner mentioned above, who struck out 15 but walked 3 and gave up 3 hits in his first start for a game score of 93. Milwaukee’s Steve Woodard had the third best debut of all time in 1997 with a game score of 91, while Pedro Astacio’s debut game score of 87 was the 6th best ever.

To find the next certain Hall of Famer on the list, you have to drop all the way down to John Smoltz, whose debut earned a game score of 71 (tied for 90th best debut ever). There are a few other names between Smoltz and Marichal, including Luis Tiant, JR Richard, and Josh Beckett, but none of them are Hall of Famers and, outside of Tiant’s game score of 86, none of them had substantially better games than Smoltz.

On the flip side, there are countless pitchers with terrible debuts. Pitchers whose names will forever be forgotten. But there are also plenty of Hall of Famers in that camp. Using the Play Index again, this time to get low game scores in major league debuts, there’s one name that jumps out in particular: the recently (though, unofficially) retired Tom Glavine.

On August 17, 1987, Glavine made his first start as a Brave, but could not get out of the 4th inning. By the time they pulled him, Glavine had given up 10 hits, 5 walks, and 6 runs while striking out only 1 for a middling game score of 13. From the game story the next day:

“Tom Glavine, the 21-year-old Braves starter, was making his major-league debut. The rookie from Boston was a high school hockey star and was drafted in the fourth round in 1984 by the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL.

Monday night, Glavine must have felt like he was killing a perpetual two-man power play. Baseballs were whizzing past him to the outfield like slap shots from the point.

Before the first inning was over, the Astros had put five runners on base and scored twice. By the time, Glavine was knocked out in the fourth inning, he had faced 35 batters. Fifteen had reached – 10 on hits and five on walks – and the Astros had built a 6-0 lead for [Mike] Scott.”

Of course, that one game was not the best example of what Tom Glavine could do. He would, after all, go on to make 681 more starts and win 305 of them. There were no doubt a few more clunkers in those 20+ years of starts, but they were the exception. In the end, Glavine’s Hall of Fame talent would shine through.

That’s just how it is when looking at any given day. Baseball is such a fickle sport that, depending on the weather or the travel or the makeup of the lineup or one of a dozen other possible factors, a player can go from brilliant to terrible in just one start. We do a disservice, then, to the players when we put so much emphasis on this one start or that one start. A strong debut could easily show the player to be the next Juan Marichal, but it could also mean they’re the next Pedro Astacio. Conversely, the weak debut could show signs of them being either the next Jeff Mutis or Tom Glavine. The only way to know for sure is to let them play a few more games (or even a whole career) and see what happens. Debuts may be nice to get excited about, but they just don’t mean enough in the long run. Instead, we need to focus on the player as a whole and determine what they bring most to the table.

Still, it’s hard not to get excited when someone dazzles in their first start, even if we already know that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The 13,000 people who were at Marichal’s debut in 1960 probably still talk about it to this very day. There were over 42,000 people at Sadowski’s big league debut yesterday and, while it’s unlikely that we witnessed the birth of a star, history shows us that you never really know.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.