Gary Huckabay, before he founded Baseball Prospectus, coined the phrase “TINSTAAPP”–there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. I like Huckabay’s work generally speaking, and I like Baseball Prospectus, but how much stock should we put in his idea of pitching prospects?
Let’s start with WAR leaders in the draft era. 1965 was the first year of the MLB draft, so I will sort by career fWAR from 1966 to the present, with a note of when the player was selected in the draft.
Roger Clemens 145.5 (1st round)
Greg Maddux 120.6 (2nd round)
Randy Johnson 114.7 (2nd round)
Bert Blyleven 110.0 (3rd round)
Nolan Ryan 108.9 (12th round)
Steve Carlton 90.8 (pre-dated the draft)
Pedro Martinez 89.4 (international free agent)
Curt Schilling 89.1 (2nd round)
Mike Mussina 85.6 (1st round)
Tom Seaver 85.5 (signed as amateur free agent)
John Smoltz 82.5 (22nd round)
Kevin Brown 77.2 (1st round)
Gaylord Perry 73.5 (pre-dated the draft)
Rick Reuschel 73.4 (3rd round)
Roy Halladay 72.2 (1st round)
Don Sutton 72.0 (pre-dated the draft)
Phil Niekro 69.8 (pre-dated the draft)
Andy Pettitte 68.6 (22nd round)
Tom Glavine 68.5 (2nd round)
Fergie Jenkins 67.3 (pre-dated the draft)
Dennis Eckersley 67.1 (3rd round)
Tommy John 62.5 (pre-dated the draft)
CC Sabathia 61.6 (1st round)
Bret Saberhagen 61.5 (19th round)
David Wells 61.2 (2nd round)
Frank Tanana 60.7 (1st round)
Chuck Finley 60.0 (1st round)
Jerry Koosman 59.4 (pre-dated the draft)
David Cone 58.4 (3rd round)
Dwight Gooden 58.1 (1st round)
That’s the top 30 in career fWAR since 1966.
Seven of them pre-dated the draft. Of note, they are, other than Steve Carlton, primarily workhorses who stayed healthy during an era when a man pitched every fourth day and the run scoring environment was much lower. If a starter could stay healthy and pitch reasonably well, he could rack up WAR on more workload than ace-like work.
Of the 23 remaining names, they break down as:
8 1st-rounders (34.8%)
5 2nd-rounders (21.7%)
4 3rd-rounders (17.4%)
….and then the other 26% were either Pedro Martinez or picked after the third round.
Meaning our aces, our bona fide stud pitchers, our Halladays, our Clemenses, our Madduxes, our Randy Johnsons, all come from the first few rounds. They’re highly regarded on draft day, they’re highly regarded in the minors, and they’re great pitchers at the MLB level.
A completely different take would be to gather the list by FIP. We can exclude the workload factor somewhat, and sort, from 1966, the best FIPs for pitchers with at least 2000 IP.
Bob Gibson 2.68 (pre-dated the draft)
Pedro Martinez 2.91 (international free agent)
Nolan Ryan 2.97 (12th round)
Juan Marichal 3.03 (pre-dated the draft)
Tom Seaver 3.04 (amateur free agent)
Gaylord Perry 3.04 (pre-dated the draft)
Jon Matlack 3.06 (1st round)
Bill Singer 3.08 (pre-dated the draft)
Roger Clemens 3.09 (1st round)
Steve Carlton 3.15 (pre-dated the draft)
Ron Reed 3.16 (amateur free agent)
Randy Johnson 3.19 (2nd round)
Bert Blyleven 3.19 (3rd round)
Mickey Lolich 3.20 (pre-dated the draft)
Steve Rogers 3.20 (1st round)
Rick Reuschel 3.22 (3rd round)
Curt Schilling 3.23 (2nd round)
Don Sutton 3.24 (pre-dated the draft)
John Smoltz 3.24 (22nd round)
Fritz Peterson 3.25 (pre-dated the draft)
Larry Dierker 3.25 (pre-dated the draft)
Jerry Koosman 3.26 (pre-dated the draft)
Greg Maddux (2nd round)
Ron Guidry 3.27 (3rd round)
Bret Saberhagen 3.27 (19th round)
Mike Cuellar 3.28 (pre-dated the draft)
Fergie Jenkins 3.28 (pre-dated the draft)
Andy Messersmith 3.28 (1st round)
Claude Osteen 3.30 (pre-dated the draft)
Dwight Gooden 3.33 (1st round)
Weird, right? Only 14 of them were actually drafted, and of those 14 all but three were taken in rounds 1-3. Of the best pitchers by FIP in the last 46 years who were in the draft, 78.6% of them went in the first round.
If there’s really no such thing as a pitching prospect, we have to ask, why do such a high percentage of them have such high WARs and such low FIPs?
Certainly it’s silly to think that universally rave scouting reports will mean a pitcher is destined for greatness–if that were the case our list would be more tightly packed, with less separation. Additionally, all the pitchers who were drafted high and subsequently were highly regarded as prospects would be on the list of MLB greats.
They’re not, and that’s not because TINSTAAPP. It’s because Being A Highly Regarded Pitching Prospect Is No Guarantee Of Future Success. Unfortunatelhy, BAHRPPINGOFS doesn’t have as nice a ring as TINSTAAPP, nor does it have the latter’s hyperbolic dismissiveness that is so handy for those who have taken Huckabay’s acronym to it’s wildest extreme in internet discussions about baseball.