The National League’s Impressive Crop of Rookie Starters

Jose Fernandez has led an impressive group of National League rookie starters in 2013. - Mike Ehrmann

The National League's 2013 class of rookie pitchers has been one of the best in recent memory. Just how well do the likes of Jose Fernandez, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shelby Miller and Co. stack up against recent crops of rookie starters?

2013 has proven to be a pretty good year for National League rookies. Miami’s 20-year-old phenom Jose Fernandez has been among the best pitchers in baseball, posting the top ERA and FIP of any starter in the season’s second half. Ever since his call-up in early June, meanwhile, Yasiel Puig has batted .344/.406/.558 and generated such widespread fervor that an entire Twitter account is devoted to tracking each of his at-bats.

Lost amid the deserved buzz surrounding Fernandez and Puig, though, is the impressive depth and talent within the 2013 class of NL rookie pitchers. The table below gives a better idea of just how great this crop of freshman hurlers have performed this year:

Player IP K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Jose Fernandez 165.2 27.9% 8.4% 0.49 2.23 2.64 4.2
Hyun-Jin Ryu 167.0 20.3% 6.7% 0.70 3.02 3.24 2.7
Julio Teheran 161.1 21.9% 6.2% 1.06 3.01 3.77 2.0
Shelby Miller 141.2 25.2% 7.7% 1.14 3.19 3.66 1.9
Tony Cingrani 95.2 28.7% 9.3% 1.22 2.63 3.72 1.4
Gerrit Cole 91.1 18.0% 5.2% 0.69 3.74 3.32 1.3
Alex Wood 51.1 22.9% 9.0% 0.53 3.86 3.05 1.1

Fernandez, of course, has had one of the best seasons of any 20-year-old pitcher ever, as not one, but two recent Beyond the Box Score articles have demonstrated.  His 4.2 WAR ranks sixth overall among National League pitchers, while the right-hander’s strikeout percentage (27.9%) and batting average against (.179) are both first in the NL.

But the likes of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Julio Teheran, and Shelby Miller (among others) haven’t been too shabby either, with each of these young starters posting a K/BB ratio greater than 3:1 and contributing at least 1.9 WAR to their respective clubs. Ryu is probably the biggest surprise of this group, given the fact he hadn’t thrown a pitch on North American soil prior to this season, and many wondered if he would be capable of holding down a spot in a big league rotation.

Instead, the Korean lefty has proven to be a steady performer on one of the best pitching staffs in the majors. His 50.3% groundball rate is eighth-best in the NL, and despite some slight bumps in the road in July, Ryu has allowed three earned runs or less in 21 of his 26 starts in 2013.

After seeing his prospect luster fade following struggles in both 2011 and 2012, Teheran has shown everyone why scouts fawned over him so much in the minors. The biggest adjustment Teheran made is the slider he added to his arsenal, a pitch he did not throw once before 2013, but has featured in 19.6% of his offerings so far this season. Moreover, Teheran’s slider has been highly effective, generating a 34.8% whiff/swing percentage and a .162 batting average against.

Though Shelby Miller’s August has been nothing to write home about, the Cardinals right-hander has still had a strong campaign, attacking hitters with a two-pitch mix that has led to an impressive 25.2% strikeout rate. Miller’s success with a high volume of fastballs resembles the approach of Reds rookie lefty Tony Cingrani, who has ridden his deceptive fastball to similar results.

All in all, this five pitcher crop of rookies has proven to be among the best group of rookie pitchers in recent memory. Dating back to 1980, their combined WAR of 12.2 ranks ninth when compared with the top five NL rookie pitchers in every other season during that span, with the chance to climb as high as fifth or sixth before the season is over:

Year Pitchers (WAR) Combined WAR
1984 Dwight Gooden (8.4), Orel Hershisher (3.9), Jeff Robinson (2.0), Jay Tibbs (1.6), Kurt Kepshire (1.3) 17.2
1997 Matt Morris (4.5), John Thomson (4.1), Dustin Hermanson (2.2), Garrett Stephenson (1.9), Chris Holt (1.9) 14.6
2012 Wade Miley (4.6), Mike Fiers (3.0), Lance Lynn (2.7), Lucas Harrell (2.6), Jeremy Hefner (1.2) 14.1
2003 Brandon Webb (4.4), Dontrelle Willis (3.1), Jae Seo (3.0), Jerome Williams (2.0), Horacio Ramirez (1.4) 13.9
1995 Hideo Nomo (4.8), Ismael Valdez (3.1), Carlos Perez (2.2), Bryan Rekar (1.7), John Ericks (1.7) 13.5
2006 Matt Cain (3.8), Cole Hamels (2.4), Josh Johnson (2.4), Scott Olsen (2.2), Anibal Sanchez (2.0) 12.8
2010 Jhoulys Chacin (3.0), Jaime Garcia (2.7), Stephen Strasburg (2.5), Daniel Hudson (2.2), Travis Wood (2.2) 12.6
1998 Kerry Wood (4.2), Bobby Jones (2.7), Steve Woodard (2.3), Jose Silva (1.9), Brian Meadows (1.3) 12.4
2013 Jose Fernandez (4.2), Hyun-Jin Ryu (2.7), Julio Teheran (2.0), Shelby Miller (1.9), Tony Cingrani (1.4) 12.2

The irony here is that two more NL rookie pitchers, Gerrit Cole and Zach Wheeler, may prove even more talented than their fellow rookie starters.  Both were consistently ranked among the top five prospects in baseball heading into 2013, and both have impressed at times in their inaugural MLB campaigns after midseason call-ups.

A lot will take place before all the careers of this current crop of NL rookie pitchers are over. Injuries, poor performance, and the simple fickleness of pitching will likely prevent a few of these rookie from fulfilling their promise.  As you can tell from the table above, a lot of strong inaugural seasons in the past have turned into little else than that.

Nevertheless, the 2013 class of National League pitchers is as impressive as they come, and before the season is over, it may prove to be the best group of young hurlers we have seen in a decade.

. . .

All stats courtesy of Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs.com.

Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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