Last year, of course, we were lucky enough to get two of the most precocious young players in baseball history — Mike Trout put up a historic season at age 20, Bryce Harper put up a superb one at age 19. It was the greatest young duo to hit baseball since 1928 — when Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott were 20 and 19 respectively — and, really, Trout and Harper were probably even better.
So, it’s astonishing that one year later we have a shot to have the best duo of rookie pitchers* to hit the league since, well, 1901, maybe?
All right, let’s not get ahead of ourselves — we’re not even a quarter into the season yet — but Matt Harvey and Shelby Miller have already been astonishing. I (along with everyone else) have already written Harvey’s story. And Shelby Miller — wow. Did you see him Friday night? He gave up a leadoff single and recorded 27 consecutive outs, 13 by strikeout, including the last two batters he faced. It was breathtaking, not just because of the numbers but because of seemingly easy way he controlled the game. The Rockies never had a chance.
*Technically, Harvey is not a rookie — he pitched 59 innings in 2012. The limit to maintain rookie status is 50.
Right now, Matt Harvey is 4-0, a 1.28 ERA with 58 strikeouts against 12 walks. The league’s hitting an almost unbelievable .133 against against him.
Right now, Shelby Miller is 5-2, a 1.58 ERA with 51 strikeouts against 11 walks. The league’s hitting a comparatively robust .179 against him.
There will be plenty of time to argue about which pitcher is better or will have a better career — the thing that’s so cool and promising is that neither of these pitcher is a come-out-of-nowhere surprise. Harvey was the seventh pick in the 2010 draft and, even though he had a little trouble harnessing his stuff in the minors, his stuff was always eye-popping. Miller was the 19th pick in the 2009 draft and has been a Baseball America Top 10 prospect each of the last two seasons. The stock is good. The talent is obvious. And now, they’re dominating.
But for now, the question is more like this: How often do you get two rookie pitchers with such promise coming up in the same year?
It does happen every now and again. I mean, if you want to go back to 1901, Christy Mathewson and Eddie Plank were both “rookies” — in quotation marks because there was no such identification then — and they both showed some promise (especially Mathewson, who won 20) and they both ended up in the Hall of Fame.
But let’s look in more recent time, in my lifetime, which begins in 1967. That year, two brilliant young pitchers — Tom Seaver and Gary Nolan — emerged. Nolan was just 19 (he was actually 18 when he made his first start) and he struck out 200 batters and led the league in strikeouts-per-nine. Seaver won 17 and pitched 251 innings with a 2.76 ERA for the Mets and won rookie of the year. Seaver went on to a Hall of Fame career and a place in the stratosphere as one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball history.
Nolan, meanwhile, dealt with numerous injuries and rather shocking mistreatment from his team that seemed to come right of the 16th century. The Reds kept telling Nolan that the extreme pain in his shoulder was just in his mind. They made him keep pitching and shamed him when he did not. At one point, the Reds actually called in a dentist and told Nolan his shoulder problems would be fixed by a tooth extraction. Nolan had a fine career, winning 110 games and pitching more than 1,500 innings, but he did not become the superstar that his wonderful rookie year had forecast.
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The next year, the year of the pitcher, two more exciting young pitchers were rookies. Jerry Koosman threw 263 innings (ah, those days when nobody cared at all about a rookie’s arm) and had a 2.08 ERA. It really is astonishing that in three years — from 1966 to 1968 — the New York Mets called up from their farm system Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan.
Meanwhile, across town, the Yankees had a rookie, Stan Bahnsen, who had an almost identical season to Koosman.
Koosman: 19-12, 2.08 ERA, 263 2/3 innings, 178 Ks, 69 walks.
Bahnsen: 17-12, 2.05 ERA, 267 1/2 innings, 162 Ks, 68 walks.
Koosman went on to a borderline Hall of Fame career — he won 222 games and struck out more than 2,500 batters. He is another pitcher who should be rooting for Jack Morris to make the Hall of Fame because it would bolster his case. They pitched almost exactly the same number of innings and, eerily, started exactly the same number of games (527), Morris won more games with a better win percentage if you want to attribute such things to an individual. Koosman, meanwhile, threw more shutouts, struck out more batters, walked fewer, gave up about 100 fewer homers and his ERA was a half-run better. You know, if you want to attribute THOSE things to an individual.
Bahnsen was never as good as he was his rookie year, though he did have a 20-win season (and was probably even better the next year when he lost 20). He won 146 big league games and collected a big league check for 16 years.
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In 1972, the Mets had another brilliant young pitcher — Jon Matlack. He was just 22, posted a 2.32 ERA in 244 innings pitched. At the same time, the Cubs had their own 22-year-old with promise, Burt Hooton, who won 11 with a 2.80 ERA. Both went on to good but not great careers. Matlack pitched 30 shutouts, Hooton pitched 29, and they both pitched in the World Series.
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I would say that we really thought we were seeing the birth of two Hall of Fame pitching careers in 1984. Dwight Gooden was the obvious one. He struck out 276 win 218 innings, nobody had ever seen anything like that from a 19-year-old — even Bob Feller at 19 didn’t strike out batters at that pace. But in the American League, Seattle had a 23-year-old rookie, Mark Langston, who led the league in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings.
Gooden’s decline is well known. Langston, meanwhile, settled into an underrated career where he led the league in strikeouts three times, won seven Gold Gloves, had three or four excellent years (particularly 1993, when he had a strong case for Cy Young but did not get even a single third-place vote because of his 16-11 record for a terrible Angels team). Langston won 179 games and actually finished with a higher career WAR than Dwight Gooden.
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One thing about Harvey and Miller is that they have already pitched singular, luminous games. Miller pitched his on Friday. That was a 98 Game Score. Harvey threw a one-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts against the White Sox. That was a 97 Game Score.
How often have you had a season where two rookies threw 95-plus Game Scores in regulation games? Best I can tell, it only happened once before.
In 1998, three rookie pitchers threw amazing games. El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, wasn’t a typical rookie, of course. He was listed at 32 though he actually may have been 438. On September 14, against the Red Sox, El Duque threw a three-hit, complete game shutout where he struck out nine, didn’t walk anybody, retired the last 10 batters he faced, and out-dueled Pedro Martinez. But his Game Score for that one was 90 so it doesn’t quite qualify for what I’m writing about here — I only mention it because you should mention El Duque every chance you get.
Kevin Millwood did not have a spectacular rookie season. But against the Pirates in April he threw precisely the same game Miller just threw on Friday — he pitched a one-hit shutout, struck out 13 and didn’t walk anybody for that 98 Game Score.
And, as you no doubt remember, phenom Kerry Wood pitched what some will still argue is the greatest ever regular-season nine-inning game in baseball history. It was nine innings, one hit, 20 strikeouts, no walks against Houston on May 6. That 105 Game Score is a record for a nine-inning game. It’s hard to believe we just passed the 15-year anniversary of that amazing game. It’s also hard to believe that Kerry Wood is now retired and doing State Farm commercials.
Wood’s injuries prevented him from being more than an occasionally great pitcher and, late in his career, a one-inning closer. Millwood won 169 games and led the league in ERA in 2005. He was a good pitcher, though it probably says something about the luck of his career that the year he led the league in ERA he won only nine games.
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Probably the best comparison for Harvey-Miller happened in 2006, when Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver were big league rookies. They were both American Leaguers. They were both huge right handers. They were both first round picks in the 2004 draft — Verlander was the second pick in the draft, which led to the classic Doug Mientkiewicz line, “Who the hell was first? And you better say Pujols.”*
*It was not Pujols, of course, who was a 13th round pick back in 1999. The No. 1 pick that year was the much less satisfying (especially for Padres fans) Matt Bush. Other first round picks that year: Gio Gonzalez, Billy Butler, Stephen Drew, Huston Street, Phil Hughes, Neil Walker, Glen Perkins and Homer Bailey. Sigh.
Both were really good right away. Verlander won 17 and won Rookie of the Year. Weaver only made 19 starts but pitched better than Verlander. It is somewhat interesting that it took Verlander a little bit longer to become a dominant pitcher. In either case, Verlander has been the best pitcher in the league since 2006, and I’d say Weaver is probably third or fourth.
Here’s an incredible thing: There was ANOTHER right-handed pitching phenom in the American League that year. Felix Hernandez was not technically a rookie because he threw 84 innings as a 19-year-old. But that was his first full year as a starter, and of course he’s been a dominant force in the league. This year, with Weaver hurt, there could be a fun Cy Young battle between King Felix and Verlander. Right now, Verlander’s 4-2 with a 1.55 ERA. Hernandez is 5-2 with a 1.53 ERA.