Can these young pitchers turn it around?

Two weeks ago, I looked for signs of hope from struggling minor league hitters. This week, I’ll examine four young pitchers who are looking to rebound from disappointing performances.

Jimmy Barthmaier

Houston Astros | RHP | 23 years old
Barthmaier has struggled with consistency and control throughout his minor league career, but his mid-90s fastball and hard breaking ball have kept him on the prospect radar. This season he is giving up tons of runs and posting a losing record:

            IP  W  L  SO  BB  HR  ERA
2006  A+ 146.2 11  8 134  67   6  3.62
2007  AA  63.2  2  7  53  32   8  6.08

Barthmaier is still struggling with control—he allowed six walks in his last outing—but he’s really the same type of prospect he was six months ago. He has struck out nearly one-fifth of opposing batters since a slow start to the season and his .372 batting average of balls in play (BABIP) seems to be more damning of his infielders than Barthmaier himself, given the large number of groundball hits he has allowed.

In summary, Astros fans shouldn’t be particularly alarmed by the 6.08 ERA. On the other hand, he hasn’t made a whole lot of progress over the past year and perhaps it’s time to think about using his two great pitches in a new role.

Prognosis: Fair. A move to the bullpen might do some good, though.

Brandon Erbe

Baltimore Orioles | RHP | 19 years old
Erbe began the season as Baltimore’s top pitching prospect, but his performance has been underwhelming in the Carolina League. He isn’t striking out a high proportion of opposing batters and his walk rate is alarming.

            IP  W  L  SO  BB  HR  ERA
2006  A  114.2  5  9 133  47   2  3.22
2007  A+  83.2  6  3  75  46   9  5.27

It isn’t pretty, but I’m not particularly worried about Erbe. If you want to, you can ignore a disastrous May 16 start and Erbe’s numbers won’t look so bad.

I’m less interested in picking and choosing numbers, however, and more interested in figuring out how seriously to take bad performances. Erbe’s disappointing results have a lot to do with his inconsistent control. If you search for comparable 19-year-olds with slightly above-average strikeout rates and poor walk rates, however, you’ll find a handful went on to notable major league careers (including Joel Zumaya most recently). For that reason, it’s clearly too soon to write off Erbe’s chances of becoming a good major league pitcher. That said, he’s taken a step back during the first half of the season and has something to prove over the next couple months.

Prognosis: Fair. Erbe has time to turn things around.

Will Inman

Milwaukee Brewers | RHP | 20 years old
Inman rocketed through Single-A baseball despite modest fastball velocity. Six starts after a promotion to Double-A Huntsville, Inman is struggling for the first time in his career:

             IP  W  L  SO  BB  HR  ERA
2006   A  110.2 10  2 134  24   3  1.71
2007   A+  78.2  4  3  98  23   4  1.72
2007  AA   26.1  1  4  30  13   8  6.84

Is this is a dismissable artifact of a small sample of performances, or is Inman’s stuff finally failing him?
I can’t be too disappointed in any 20-year-old who is struggling against much older competition in Double-A baseball, and Inman’s component statistics suggest he’ll be fine in the long run. First, he’s striking out nearly 25% of all opposing batters in Double-A. That’s a dropoff from his exceptional rates in the lower minor leagues, but it’s still quite good. If he was able to finish the season with a similar strikeout rate, he would be among the top 10 Southern League pitchers in this regard and certainly the youngest among that group.

Also, Inman hasn’t been terribly lucky with the balls in play he has allowed. A high proportion of fly balls have left the ballpark during windy days. And, like the previously mentioned Barthmaier, Inman is surrendering many groundball hits—more than 35% of groundballs have gone for hits. It is likely that these rates will regress to more typical levels in the near future.

Prognosis: Good. Expect a strong final two months.

Donnie Veal

Chicago Cubs | LHP | 22 years old
During the offseason, Veal was widely praised as a top pitching prospect, occasionally inspired comparisons to Dontrelle Willis.

            IP  W  L  SO  BB  HR  ERA
2006   A  73.2  5  3  86  40   4  2.69
2006   A+ 80.2  6  2  88  42   3  1.67
2007  AA  89.0  5  7  87  56   8  5.36

A glance at Veal’s fielding-independent ERA last year could have told you his 2006 season was a fluke. The reason is clear: Veal simply walks too many batters. He always has. And while the optimistic fan can dream of what kind of player Veal will become if he cuts down on his walks, the fact is pitchers rarely fix control problems if they are still struggling at Veal’s age. If you look for southpaws with comparable strikeout and walk rates at Veal’s age and level of competition, you’ll find players like Joey Eischen, Luis Martinez and Adam Bostick. In other words, you don’t see many good major league starters begin their career the way Veal has.

Prognosis: Not good, if he hasn’t figured out how to throw strikes yet…

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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