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On Developing Left-Handed Pitching

Since I finally figured out a way to, however inexactly, find a way to figure out which teams are better about talent development, I now share my results.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Any time you have a number of producers, you're likely to see varying levels of production. Just because group XXX tries to make item YYY, doesn't mean they'll be good at it. Some will be good at the endeavor. Some will be less so. In baseball, developing left-handed pitching is made easier by some teams.

Before I start, I will go over my research. On September 7 and 8 (yeah, the dates matter), I reviewed Baseball Reference's vast library. What I was seeking was which players drafted in the MLB draft had representative careers for the team that drafted them. Fortunately, their platform was very compatible. I started in 1965, and checked all reasonably possible left-handed pitchers that were selected in the draft, checking to see if they netted their original team as much as five wins above replacement before departing.

Undrafted free agents, including players ineligible for the draft, weren't included. I never intended this to be a pure proxy for player development abilities, and it isn't. That said, the project took far shorter to research than I feared. With my records kept 'in the cloud', I will be able to update my stats any time I want. And when I do, I can get a fairly decent read on how development is coming along.

Before I get to the results you care about, I want to start with pitchers who 'just missed'. With the surprisingly few guys out in the cold, I'm convinced (rightly or wrongly) 5.0 WAR is a reasonable number. Through the history of the draft, only six players have been drafted by a team, and produced a half-win or less under 5.0 before being moved. The closest were ex-Cub and Mets draftee Randy Myers and San Diego's Bob Shirley at, you guessed it, 4.9. Rod Scurry and recent ex-Cub Doug Davis landed at 4.8. Twins selection J.C. Romero was a 4.6, and Cubs selection Rich Hill was at 4.5. Unless I missed some, those are the only six players in MLB history to be drafted by a team, and leave that squad within half a game of 5.0 WAR on the mound.


The actual results are posted here. I'm not going over the entire battery of numbers, as there are too many to go over in word form. Needless to say, some teams are far better at developing lefty pitchers than other teams. After my research, I have a few general observations of the process.

1. It is really hard to put together a talent development system from scratch. Many teams go a very extended period of time without getting any LHP developed from selection to 5 WAR. Often, this applies to expansion teams, though the Blue Jays and Royals got out to a fairly early start. Conversely, the Marlins and Diamondbacks still have none developed. Still. The Marlins aren't even remotely close.

2. The Cubs have not done well. They have outperformed a few teams, and are surprisingly close to the Cardinals. That said, the Expos are only 2 WAR behind the Cubs, despite not being around for the first or last few drafts (this part excluded the Nationals from the Expos franchise list). Ken Holtzman leads the way from the 1965 draft with 17.0 WAR, followed by Sean Marshall at 8.4, and Jamie Moyer at 5.1. The Cubs 30.5 team total trails ten players, including current lefties Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels.

3. As for the 'crapshoot' argument, the numbers don't represent that. Not even close. I will use three examples. The Braves were horrible for about 20 years of development. Then, they zipped off Zane Smith, Tom Glavine, Kent Mercker, and Steve Avery, all in a row -- just about the time they started to commit to development. They also have Jonny Venters, Mike Minor, and Alex Wood closing in now, while Arizona still has none.

Oakland started fast with Vida Blue but got trampled for a long stretch in 'minor market ville', until Billy Beane came along and unearthed Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Dallas Braden. Sean Doolittle is on his way. Texas was abysmal, until recently. C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland have sent them past the Cubs with room to spare, and Robbie Ross could add to the list soon.

Tampa, before shrinking their nickname and adding Andrew Friedman, was brutal. Since Friedman's arrival, they've drafted and developed David Price, Matt Moore, and Jake McGee. Off of those three, they will soon pass the Cubs. When you draft and develop better, you climb the list faster.


When I was finishing up this list, the part that became the most curious wasn't the list of players who have reached the list, or even the subset of current members still adding to their total. What became fascinating to me was the list of guys close, but not quite there yet. As there were only six in all of history that 'missed' by a half-point or less, you would expect there to be not many knocking down the door to join. Maybe one or two, right?

Uhhhh, not so much.

From the time I started on Friday, Brian Duensing has joined the list off of a start over the weekend. Colorado's Rex Brothers is at 4.8. Jonny Venters of Atlanta and the White Sox' Hector Santiago sit at 4.7. St. Louis' Jaime Garcia and the Mets' Jonathon Niese sit withing a half-win as well. To summarize, when I started my research, as many current players were within half-a-win of 5 WAR among lefty pitchers as had missed by half-a-win in all of baseball history.


Baseball strategy evolves, as time and market conditions change. With the current high cost of mediocre veterans, many wise systems have decided to commit to developing their own talent better. This has little or nothing to do with southpaw pitchers. If I were to run a review on righty-throwers, or hitters, I'm confident I would see an uptick in the value on developing them as well. Developing your own, without concern to position, handedness, race, religion, or creed is a burgeoning market in-efficiency.

Teams like Houston and Miami have nobody close to joining the list. Chris Rusin is the nearest Cubs candidate, at 1.0. Does that mean the Cubs should go hog-wild on drafting lefty pitchers? Is Rob Zastryzny (this year's second-round pick and southpaw thrower) the Rosetta Stone for the team? Not even close.

For the Cubs to join the adults table of the baseball annual playoff competitors, they can hit almost 100 percent on all their free agent purchases, including guessing the right price on Japanese import-to-be pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Or, they can do what teams like Atlanta, St. Louis, Tampa, and Texas are doing. They can go all-in on developing their own talent -- even if that means hiring the strength and conditioning coach away from the Blue Jays in short-season ball, which they did. Or hiring the batting coach from an A-Ball Rangers affiliate and making him the pitching coach in Daytona, which they did.

It really has little to do with pitchers, left-handed or not. The historical coaching in the Cubs system has been filled with guys who were probably loyal, knowledgeable in the game, and maybe even really nice guys. In present-day affiliated baseball, though, those aren't what leads to success. Most minor league teams have a manager, a pitching coach, a hitting coach, and that's about it. Most minor league teams have 25 or so players. Wise teams maximize results, present and future, from each of them. If a player finally gets to that point where he's willing to accept coaching, and his instructor has his mind elsewhere, the scouting, development, and bonus money has been wasted.

The teams in the future that will win will likely be good at accruing talent in the three general ways. Trading, drafting, and free agency. If my numbers are accurate of anything, and they may not be, it appears teams are more committed to maximizing draft results than before. Likely, the same is true of international signings, players acquired through trade, and undrafted free agents signed in other ways. Lessons learned in minor league years lead to major league success. Do I take it a bit too far? Probably. But by taking about a day out of my September, I have a new facet of baseball to monitor. Until the Collective Bargaining Agreement changes, significantly, developing your own talent will probably be a major part of future success. Not the only, of course.

Duensing became the 95th member of the club over the weekend. That pencils to just under two per year. Brothers and Venters may also join this season. Garcia and Santiago may join in April or May. Niese, Moore, Brett Cecil, and Wade Miley are all within a point. It looks like an avalanche of activity will be happening here soon. Wise teams will continue to thrive by developing their own without spending on expensive free agents. Some will extend this young talent, as well.

Baseball finances and strategy are always changing. I'm happy the Cubs seem to grasp the importance of developing their own talent, be it pitching or hitting. By having your own talent, players you already know the temperament, strengths, and weakness of, you minimize surprises.

Some will be upset if there aren't major additions this off-season from other squads. I'm good with wise trades, or signing free agents that figure to outperform their contracts. Heck, I'm good with a mild overspend on a veteran free agent this off-season, if it doesn't cost the team a draft pick. Signings like Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm not only made the team better while here, but upgraded the future on their way out of town. Hopefully the players added in the off-season do the same, or represent long-term pieces, which would be even better. All phases should be in play for a good franchise. As the television money and attendance increase, more money will be added to the annual budget.

Internally developed talent, while an inexact science, is a very good way to upgrade any team. Other ways are important as well. However, giving short shrift to internal development disregards the Braves' success since adding Glavine, the Athletics' improvement since Zito and Mulder, and the Rays' success since opting to develop Price. Can it be over-emphasized? Yeah, probably. But with any inexact science, the one you disregard may be the one that blossoms elsewhere.


In late 1973, the Cubs were in a pennant chase in a very mediocre National League East. At the waiver-trade deadline, August 31, they traded for a left-handed reliever they hoped would put them over the top. Mike Paul didn't. The trade wasn't a bad one, as the Cubs were, and remained, in a tight race to the finish. Sadly, the player they ended up trading for Paul ended up being Larry Gura as a PTBNL that off-season. The Rangers flipped Gura to New York, who sent him to Kansas City in 1976 for Fran Healy.

Upon arriving in Kansas City, Gura was a solid pitcher for the Royals for a string of years. Did the Royals have better coaching than the Cubs or Yankees? I'm not sure. Did Gura just 'mature' at the proper time to benefit the best team in the AL West in that part of the 1970s? Probably.

The shame of the trade wasn't getting Paul, or giving up Gura. The problem was not having a development system to get more benefit from the lefty, and not having more ready options to be plucked in the system.

The Cubs could make a trade this off-season for a veteran using prospects as bait. If they do, it might sting me more than most. That said, part of developing a top-shelf farm system is having quality to deal for what your team needs. Not all (or even most) prospects have distinguished major league careers. A wise front office develops what they have, and knows as much about the quality in other systems as possible.

If the Cubs continue to have ownership and management on the same page, develop talent in every level like it's very important, and make generally wise acquisitions, they aren't following uncharted territory. Branch Rickey did the same in the past. The Braves have done so quite well since the late 1980s. Tampa has stepped up in the last decade. And why are the Yankees slipping a bit? Their veterans have gotten old, and the Bronx Bombers haven't gotten much production from their draft picks since, well, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter.

2013 has been better than 2012. Junior Lake will make some veteran outfield placeholders needless in the future. The success in 2014 and beyond will ride, in part, on success of veteran free agents. Much more, though, it will hinge on how well youngsters in the minor leagues grasp the basics being taught by Cubs coaches at seven different levels of development. Here's to more success stories. And more homegrown left-handed pitching.