Planning Careers: Estrada vs. Thornburg | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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I believe there’s an argument that Tyler Thornburg should start the season as one of the Brewers’ five starters, perhaps in the place of Marco Estrada. In fact, that very argument can be drawn from Estrada’s own career, his first four years: among 65 games with the Nationals’ and Brewers’ organizations, Estrada’s games started totals went 0-1-1-7.

If you look through the early careers of contemporary MLB starters, and see the progression of their first four years, few full-time starter has early career progressions similar to 0, 1, 1, and 7 games started. In fact, my first project upon receiving a Christmas copy of The Bill James Handbook 2013 was simple: how many other starters have early career progressions of 0-to-less-than-10 starts, followed by full-time seasons as starters? As I mentioned in “The Inimitable Marco Estrada,” it’s almost shocking how many starters begin their careers immediately in the starting rotation. Sure, there are relievers who might start their careers as starters and then move to the bullpen, and there are injured starters that might have some oddball games started totals, but there are a significant number of starters that immediately begin their careers as starting pitchers.

Early Career Starts
Once again, Estrada is an outlier in the MLB. Not only is he one of only 10 starters within the last decade to first crack 100+ IP during his age 28 season, but he’s also one of the few starters to work 20+ starts after accumulating a handful of (or less) starts during his first four years. We might find some strange early career progressions for a guy like Jorge de la Rosa, who bounced between the rotation and bullpen for one organization before starting elsewhere, but even he started 5-0-13-23 in his first four seasons. Relievers Dan Wheeler and Wesley Wright had a few starts within their early careers, but that seems different; they never became a full-time starter or even a 20 game starter. Even Darren Oliver‘s first three years look comparable to Estrada’s, but in his fourth year, he started 30 games. 0-0-7-30 is way different than 0-1-1-7. C.J. Wilson comes from an even more extreme situation; he went 6-0-0-0 in his first four years, and then worked another season with 0 GS before pitching three seasons of 33+ GS. Close to Estrada, but no cigar; I feel like we can really push this concept, and say that Estrada’s career path is clearly different than that of Wilson; Wilson stayed with his first MLB organization and simply switched from a reliever to a starter after five seasons, whereas Estrada switched organizations before he became a swingman and regular starter. Completely different.

Edwin Jackson has an extremely interesting start to his career. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Jackson in 2001, and rushed him to the majors, opening his career at the ripe old age of 19. Before he started 31 games with Tampa Bay in 2007, the young Jackson started 3-5-6-1 games between his first two organizations. Jackson became an extremely dependable-if-average starter, but one wonders if things would have been different if he wasn’t rushed to the majors. In some ways, Jackson’s first four seasons serve as a comparison to Estrada in terms of early career organizational moving and low start totals, but they are completely different in terms of age; we’re not talking about Estrada’s strange early career at age 19.

Ross Detwiler also had a unique early career start for the Washington Nationals, during the same time that Estrada worked in the organization. The sixth pick in the 2007 draft, the Nationals rushed Detwiler to the majors, and he made his first appearance for the organization that year. Skip 2008, and Detwiler began a string of three seasons as the Nationals’ swingman and encountered an injury before working a strong season in the Washington rotation in 2012. I picked Detwiler because he also played with the Nationals’ organization, and I wonder whether the organization that did not find Estrada to be a suitable starter was misjudging talent enough to rush their first round pick to the majors in 2007. There’s probably an article about that era of the Nationals and their attempt to rebuild their franchise.

Select Early Career Low Start Totals / Eventual Full Time Starting?
Guillermo Moscoso (four organizations (drafted by Det))
2009-2010: 11 G, 0 GS, 14.7 IP, 14 K/8 BB/1 HR; 113 ERA+ (Tex)
2011: 23 G, 21 GS, 128 IP, 74 K/38 BB/14 HR; 119 ERA+ (Oak)
2011-2012: 46 G, 24 GS, 178 IP, 121 K/57 BB/22 HR; 102 ERA+ (Oak, Col)

Ross Detwiler (Was)
2007-2011: 39 G, 29 GS, 172.3 IP, 102 K/67 BB/15 HR; 100 ERA+
2012: 33 G, 27 GS, 164.3 IP, 105 K/52 BB/15 HR; 117 ERA+
2012- ???

Dan Runzler (SF)
2009-2012: 89 G, 1 GS, 72.3 IP, 78 K/44 BB/2 HR; 100 ERA+

Kevin Correia (three organizations)
2003-2008: 170 G, 46 GS, 398 IP, 289 K/168 BB/50 HR; 96 ERA+ (SF)
2009: 33 G, 33 GS, 198 IP, 142 K/64 BB/17 HR; 97 ERA+ (SD)
2009-2012: 120 G, 113 GS, 668 IP, 423 K/213 BB/81 HR; 83 ERA+ (SD, Pit)

Jeff Samardzija (CHN)
2008-2011: 128 G, 5 GS, 169.7 IP, 142 K/100 BB/16 HR; 95 ERA+
2012: 28 G, 28 GS, 174.7 IP, 180 K/56 BB/20 HR; 103 ERA+

Dustin Moseley (four organizations (drafted by Cin))
2006-2010: 80 G, 32 GS, 233.3 IP, 131 K/79 BB/32 HR; 85 ERA+ (LAA, NYA)
2011: 20 G, 20 GS, 120 IP, 64 K/36 BB/10 HR; 108 ERA+ (SD)
2011-2012: 21 G, 21 GS, 125 IP, 68 K/38 BB/11 HR; 101 ERA+ (SD)

Philip Humber (four organizations)
2006-2010: 26 G, 2 GS, 51.3 IP, 35 K/24 BB/7 HR; 83 ERA+ (NYN, Min, KC)
2011: 28 G, 26 GS, 163 IP, 116 K/41 BB/14 HR; 116 ERA+ (CHA)
2011-2012: 54 G, 42 GS, 265 IP, 201 K/85 BB/37 HR; 91 ERA+ (CHA)

Marco Estrada (two organizations)
2008-2011: 65 G, 9 GS, 124 IP, 120 K/44 BB/19 HR; 80 ERA+ (Was, Mil)
2012: 29 G, 23 GS, 138.3 IP, 143 K/29 BB/18 HR; 113 ERA+ (Mil)

Edwin Jackson (seven organizations)
2003-2006: 42 G, 15 GS, 111.7 IP, 75 K/64 BB/13 HR; 78 ERA+ (LAN, TB)
2007: 32 G, 31 GS, 161 IP, 128 K/88 BB/19 HR; 79 ERA+ (TB)
2007-2012: 192 G, 189 GS, 1157 IP, 894 K/433 BB/129 HR; 100 ERA+ (TB, Det, Ari, CHA, StL, Was)


Early Career Starts and Development
If we scrutinize contemporary starters, we might find 20 (or so) contemporary MLB starters with early career pitching patterns similar to Marco Estrada; that list above features eight starters with similar starts to their careers. Starters that required a move to another organization prior to pitching full-time, starters that spent a lot of time in the bullpen, starters that just could not crack a full-time role. Frankly, I scrutinized these players to find more arguments and facts about what we might expect from Estrada’s 2013 campaign, but I also found an argument about how the Brewers should treat their young arms in 2013. Specifically, last week I mentioned that I thought Thornburg profiles well for a role in the bullpen in 2013, starting games as needed, as a swingman. However, after viewing the career trajectory of Estrada, and studying the career progressions of starters that do not get a lot of work early in their careers, I wondered: Will the Brewers obstruct Thornburg’s development if he does not start in 2013?

I understand that there are question marks about Thornburg’s ability to start full time. Some scouts, in the past, have mentioned that they do not believe his size profiles to the mound. Thornburg also did not establish himself as a starter, suffering a few rough starts in his scattered outings in the cobbled Brewers’ 2012 rotation. While I understand that three starts in the MLB are certainly not enough to judge a young pitcher, the progression of Thornburg’s 2012 campaign raised some questions about the righty’s ability to start full-time for the Brewers.

Thornburg’s started 3 games for the Brewers in 2012. So, against Estrada’s 0-1-1-7, he’s already ahead, 3-?-?-?. I believe we can draw an argument from Estrada’s career, and wonder whether Thornburg will need to establish himself with another organization if he doesn’t regularly start with the Brewers during his early career. While it’s possible that he could become a reliever — maybe even follow the C.J. Wilson trajectory, one wonders how many seasons he will be afforded to build his starting career in Milwaukee. Even if Estrada is the better starter for 2013, one wonders if it is better for both careers if Thornburg starts full-time, and Estrada reclaims his role as swingman.

This is the trouble with Estrada’s career — he’s established himself as quite a good pitcher, but he’s also established himself as a swingman with few comparisons for career development in the contemporary MLB. For that reason, it could be better for Thornburg’s career if Estrada once again works as a swingman in 2013, rather than a regular starter; that feels like selling Estrada short, but Estrada does not necessarily lose anything by serving as a swingman; one might argue that placing Thornburg in that role could change the course of his career.

Frankly, I really like Estrada in the 2013 Brewers’ rotation. I think he hammers the strike zone, changes speeds, successfully adjusted his pitching approach, and doesn’t beat himself; regardless of the lack of comparisons in the MLB, I believe that he can produce in the Brewers’ rotation. However, I believe that starting Estrada in the rotation might also alter the course of some of the young starters; perhaps one of the youngsters might be delayed in the minors by a year, or latch on as a reliever during the 2013 season. Looking at the career trajectory of Estrada, one can only wonder, which of the Brewers’ youngsters will make their name with another organization?

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