Matt Wisler needed 27 pitches to record an out Thursday. The first six Phillies did this: Walked, singled, homered, homered, singled and walked. Not so long ago, Wisler seemed the first actual graduate of the Atlanta Braves’ charter class in their Rebuild Around Pitching. Late Thursday, Wisler was demoted to Gwinnett.
This makes three big names — Mike Foltynewicz (last year) and Aaron Blair (last month) being the others — among the Braves’ high-profile young pitchers who’ve been called up and then sent back. Blair has had two strong starts in Triple-A after four bad ones. Foltynewicz is back in the bigs and seems to have figured it out, but that could be a momentary thing. Young pitching is both tantalizing and maddening.
Pete Van Wieren used to say — I believe Pete was quoting somebody, but I forget who — that of every three starts by a young pitcher, you’d get a good one, a bad one and an indifferent one. Go back and check Tom Glavine’s numbers from 1988 or John Smoltz’s from the the first half of the worst-to-first 1991. Heck, check Sandy Koufax’s first five big-league seasons. Those three became first-ballot Hall of Famers.
This time a year ago, the Mets’ young pitching was the envy of baseball. Today those arms are yet another chapter in the tome of cautionary tales. Matt Harvey has had season-ending surgery. Noah Syndergaard reported a “dead arm” before the All-Star break. Steven Matz has bone chips in his elbow. Zack Wheeler’s return from Tommy John surgery has been delayed.
Even the best Dodgers pitcher since Koufax isn’t impervious to pain. (Koufax himself retired at 30 because his left arm hurt so much.) Clayton Kershaw is on the disabled list with back issues. There’s no assurance he’ll return this season. He might need surgery.
The good news for the Braves is that Wisler appears healthy. To invoke Mike Minor’s description of himself, Wisler is simply making “too many non-competitive pitches.” (Still not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds about right.) In this season’s first 10 starts, he yielded six home runs. In the past 10, he has been touched for 16.
As noted, the first six Phillies reached base Thursday, five scoring. Wisler then retired 13 of the next 15 batters. About here, you thought, “The ship might have sailed, but this is rather better.” Then Cody Asche reached on a two-out single. Then Aaron Altherr, making his seasonal big-league debut, hit a home run. Now it was 7-nil and the game was well and truly gone. The Braves would score five runs — Aaron Nola, one of the Phillies’ young pitchers, didn’t have much, either — and lose.
So that was Wisler’s night: Started badly, settled nicely, ended poorly. Then: Sent to Gwinnett. If you’re still a Braves’ fan — and if you are, bless your heart — this is massively frustrating. (Imagine how it feels to the Braves themselves.) But it comes with the territory. That Wisler and Blair have disappointed doesn’t mean the plan to rebuild around pitching was wrong-headed; on the contrary, it means that the idea of stockpiling arms was spot-on. If one (or two, or five) don’t pan out, the next one (or two, or five) just might.
We saw again in this week’s trade with Texas how even first-place teams and first-tier organizations can run short of pitching. The Rangers sent a first-round draftee with power potential here for two pitchers who weren’t on the Braves’ roster 2 1/2 months ago. And we just saw the Cubs, who’ve rebuilt around hitters, send a package of prospects to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman, who throws 105 mph, but might wind up being a three-month rental.
Moral of our story: As nerve-racking as the cultivation of young pitchers can be, it’s worth the aggravation. There’s always a market for pitching. Always.