First starts for rookies appear to indicate little about a pitcher’s future success

September 22, 2018

OAKLAND, CALIF. As Tyler Duffey reached the Twins dugout, discouraged by giving up six runs while recording only six outs in his major league debut three summers ago, Trevor May greeted him with a message meant to console.

I said, Dont worry, mine was worse,  May said Friday. Mine took longer and looked uglier.

Mays point is one the Twins are confronting more than ever before. Four starting pitchers have made their big-league debuts for the team this season, something that has happened only once before in franchise history: last year. Thats a lot of youth and inexperience, a lot of cross-your-finger evenings, in the most important position on the field.

And the hardest part of all these career launchings is this: The Twins cant trust the results they are seeing, good or bad.

I dont think so. Its more about trying to see how they handle the transition, the demeanor on the mound, manager Paul Molitor said. But its hard to gauge.

Youve got to be careful how much credit or lack of credit you give people for success or lack of success. Were watching. Were watching stuff, not just control but command, and trying to see if their pitches play.

But drawing conclusions, or even just projecting what a pitcher might become, based on a September in the majors? Its next to impossible.

I had a good debut, Kyle Gibson said of limiting the Royals to two runs over six innings back in June 2013, and then the next nine starts, you would have wondered.

He followed up that hopeful outing, in fact, by giving up eight runs in his next start. By seasons end, his ERA had ballooned to 6.53.

Jose Berrios, meanwhile, gave up five runs in four innings in his 2016 debut, and had a rookie ERA of 8.02 in 14 starts. He was an All-Star two years later.

And May? He told the story Friday of his own 2014 debut, while sitting in the same stadium in which it occurred. I dont think it could have gone any worse. So its easy for me to say, Thats not who I am. Your first start, your first season, thats not who you will be,  he said of that two-inning debut, in which he walked seven As batters. But its a good memory now. My grandkids will know about it. I joke about it I had the worst debut of anyone in here, and Im still here.

That should come as some comfort for Stephen Gonsalves, the lefthander who pitched six shutout innings in Detroit on Wednesday.

Of the 44 starting pitchers who made their major league debut this season, nobody recorded fewer outs than Gonsalves, who gave up four runs in just 1⅓ innings in August. But that group of 44 has a cumulative ERA of 5.58, which tells you how bright lights affect young pitchers.

Guys just dont give away at-bats up here. Well, some guys do, but theyre usually young hitters learning their way, too. But guys who have been around for any length of time, they simply dont give away at-bats, and thats a huge adjustment, May said. You have to battle that every at-bat. You have to keep making good pitches even if youre nine pitches into the at-bat. Thats why 99.9 percent of pitchers struggle for a while when they get here.

And thats why teams cant even read too much into successful debuts, either. Fernando Romero, for instance, is one of eight rookies who didnt give up a run in his debut this season; he gave up only one run in his first three starts for the Twins, in fact. But hitters figured him out, hit .350 over his final six starts, and Romero, with a 7.67 ERA over that stretch, went back to Class AAA Rochester.

Gonsalves has stayed in the majors, and eventually began to show signs of the promise that got him promoted in the first place.

Youd like to succeed right away, but youre going to have growing pains. Its just about how you get through them, Gonsalves said. Youve got to be able to fight your way through them, learn from the mistakes, and try to kind of enjoy the struggle.

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