With Stephen Strasburg being sent down to Double-A last week, there's been a decent amount of discussion about how he'll pitch in the minor leagues, and how long it'll be before he's on front stage in the nation's capital.
So I thought it'd be interesting to look at how some of the best college pitching prospects in the past 30 years have done in their first full seasons as professionals. Specifically, I'm looking at Neal Heaton of the University of Miami, Bobby Witt of the University of Oklahoma, Bobby Jones of Fresno State and Mark Prior of USC. The first three were named specifically by Keith Law when he discussed if Strasburg was the best college pitcher ever, and frankly, I really like Keith Law so those guys seem good to go with. Additionally, I added Prior because both he also garnered huge attention as scouts wondered if there had ever been a better college pitcher.
We'll go in order of when the pitchers made their debuts, and I've excluded great high school prospects like Josh Beckett, Todd Van Poppel and Brien Taylor, as we're just focusing on guys who were often regarded as historically great college pitchers before going professional.
Left-hander Neal Heaton, debuted in 1981
Heaton was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the second round of the 1981 draft after declining to sign with the New York Mets after going with the top pick in the 1979 January draft's Regular Phase. Sports Illustrated wrote a story about him after he struck out 23 batters in a game (sound familiar?) and blew away scouts with a mid-90's fastball. The Indians sent Heaton to Double-A Chattanooga after being drafted, where he struggled to miss bats. Regardless, he was promoted to Triple-A for his first full season in 1982, where he continued to struggle to miss bats but showed an improved ability to keep the ball in the park. He finished the year with a 4.33 FIP in 172.2 innings in Triple-A.
He slotted into Cleveland's rotation the next year, but never quite matched his hype. He finished with nearly identical 4.37 ERA and 4.36 FIP marks for his career, as he was always held back by the lack of an out-pitch beyond his fastball. But he did manage to stick in the majors for 12 years, going to the All-Star Game as a Pittsburgh Pirate in 1990.
Right-hander Bobby Witt, debuted in 1985
Witt burst onto the scene by dominating the Big 12 as the Sooners' ace. Armed with an impressive arsenal, the Texas Rangers took him with the 3rd pick in the 1985 draft and stuck him in Double-A that year, where he struggled to the tune of a 6.43 ERA. Alas, the Rangers simply ignored his minor league struggles and handed him a spot in their rotation for his first full season as a professional.
Witt, just 22 at the time, showed just how raw he was. He struck out an impressive 174 batters in 157 innings, but he also posted a horrid 8.16 walks per nine innings, finishing the year with a poor 4.83 FIP. His command would gradually improve, as he walked just 110 in 222 innings in his best year, 1990. Witt proved to have great stuff, but he had little idea of exactly where it was going, and he paid for it dearly.
Right-hander Bobby Jones, debuted in 1991
Jones was the Mets' first round pick in 1991 following an brilliant career with Fresno State. He won the 1991 National Pitcher of the Year award, finishing the season 16-2 with 18 complete games and 166 strikeouts in 20 starts.
Jones was sent to Double-A for the 1992 season and quickly proved that his college numbers were no fluke. In 158 innings spanning 24 starts, he posted a 143/43 K/BB ratio while giving up only 5 home runs, good for an impressive 2.62 FIP. His 1.88 ERA got the attention of the guys at Baseball America, too, as he was ranked as the 28th best prospect in baseball before the 1993 season. Jones made it to New York by the end of 1993, and was a mainstay in their rotation for much of the remainder of the decade. But his ability to miss bats never translated to the major league level, preventing him from ever being much more than a solid back-of-the-rotation starter.
Right-hander Mark Prior, debuted in 2002
Outside of Strasburg, Prior's name is probably the one that comes up most often when discussing the greatest college pitchers of all time. Prior dominated the Pac-10 en route to being the No. 2 pick in the 2001 draft, behind some Minnesota kid named Joe. The Cubs handed him what was at the time a record-breaking contract for a drafted amateur, an impressive $10.5M guaranteed.
And as we all know, Prior responded. He would make just nine starts in the minor leagues for the Cubs, and he flat out embarrassed his opponents. In 51 innings, he struck out 79 while only walking 18, and he gave up but one home run. Put it all together, and Prior's 1.42 FIP showed that he really didn't have much to learn in the minors.
Prior would finish the year with 19 starts in Chicago (I went to his debut, and we all thought that the club had struck gold), which he dominated as well. In 116 innings in Chicago, he struck out 147, walked 38 and finished the year with a 3.16 FIP. Prior would come back the next year to have one of the better pitching seasons of the decade, posting a 2.47 FIP in 211 innings, good for 7.6 wins above replacement. Unfortunately, Prior's demise will likely be remembered more than his initial brilliance. He would make just 57 more starts before injuries led to his departure from Chicago, and he has yet to return to the majors.
So of these four, we have a wide range of results for their debuts. Heaton was good, not great, and many of his flaws were exposed against superior competition. Witt showed incredible raw stuff, but also couldn't help from doing his best Steve Blass impression. Jones proved to dominate the minors, and whether the lack of adversity throughout his pre-MLB career held him back is questionable, his accomplishments never quite translated to the big leagues.
And then we have Prior. I think that we can safely say that this is about the best-case scenario for Strasburg: dominate the upper minors for a dozen starts, then come up and immediately prove to be one of the better pitchers in the game. Obviously, few pitchers have ever done anything remotely close to what Prior accomplished, but from what I've read and seen, Strasburg seems more likely to replicate that success than any other young pitcher that's come along since.
So while pretty much everyone has it written down that Strasburg is going to be really good, really soon (Oliver projects him for a 2.86 ERA! This season! In the majors!), it's worth remembering that not every guy who's tabbed as the greatest collegiate pitcher ever can translate that success to the majors. It's a long ways to go from blowing strikes by The University of Santa Clara to succeeding against the likes of the best hitters in the world.