How soon is too soon?
When is it too early to bring up a phenom pitching prospect, working his way up the organizational ladder faster than a speeding bullet?
When is it too soon to send that prospect back down if he’s struggling at the major league level?
More than 15 years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted Roy Halladay out of high school and watched him join the ranks of the major leagues at 21. He found success immediately, coming within one out of a no-hitter in just his second start.
For Halladay, though, his drop was as quick as his climb.
Philadelphia’s ace still holds the record for the worst earned-run average of any pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched in a season (10.64 in 2000). He was farmed out to work with Jays’ pitching guru Mel Queen and, in the two seasons that followed, he went 41-14 and earned a Cy Young Award. He never looked back.
The Blue Jays have had a history, especially of late, of bringing their pitching farmhands up to The Show straight from AA New Hampshire. The recent trend in Toronto started two seasons ago with Kyle Drabek and continued with current Chicago White Sox righty Zach Stewart, bullpen addition Joel Carreno, and current starter Henderson Alvarez.
Alvarez is entering the upcoming season in a similar position to that of Drabek last spring. With part of a big-league season under his belt, he is already a staple in the five-man starting rotation going into his sophomore year.
Ahead of Drabek
The 21-year-old does have significantly more major-league time on his resume than Drabek did a year ago, with 10 games started and 63 2/3 innings pitched, but the transition from AA to the majors is unlikely to be complete as of yet.
The man on the receiving end, catcher J.P. Arencibia, believes the young right-hander’s limited experience and the work he’s done so far this pre-season will benefit him greatly going into this season.
“He has a sense of knowing what he’s going to face,” Arencibia said of Alvarez. “His slider is tightening up which is a big pitch for him. He didn’t really throw his slider much last year and it’s gotten better. There’s just an overall knowing of what it takes, knowledge of what it takes to pitch in the big leagues.”
Having built a relationship with Alvarez over the end of last season, Arencibia got a strong feel for what helps the Venezuelan hurler when he’s on the mound.
“Talking to him in Spanish really helps me,” Arencibia said jokingly. “Really, just telling him to calm down, sometimes he rushes. He gets amped up. He’s young, too. He’s still young so he gets too emotional sometimes and everything speeds up, so you have to slow him down.”
Trouble controlling emotions on the hill is reminiscent of the problem Drabek encountered in his second season with the Blue Jays. After three starts in 2010, the 24-year-old went 4-5 last year with a 6.06 ERA in 14 starts through 78 2/3 frames.
For the son of Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek, it was the first time he’d experienced a real sense of struggle.
“Just learning from the failures really,” Drabek said of what he can take from last season. “Last season wasn’t really anything to write home about. I think it taught me about how that season can happen and I think I could have gone a different route of dealing with it.
“It was just the first time that’s happened to me and I didn’t really know how to take care of it. Talking with my dad, he just told me to forget it but to learn from last year and kind of take that into this season and go at it.”
Drabek believes that the problems he had were more with his body than his head, despite his emotional appearance on the mound at times.
“I think it was more physical,” he said. “I caught myself changing my mechanics a bunch because I couldn’t really find the strike zone. I thought changing it up would fix it and that didn’t really help so it was kind of a little roller coaster.”
Having been in Alvarez’s position and making the jump from the Fisher Cats to the Blue Jays, Drabek has advice to offer his younger counterpart after going through his own learning experience.
“It’s the same game as it is in double-A and triple-A,” Drabek said. “There are just better hitters and a bigger atmosphere, but when you’re on the mound, it’s still just a game.
“You’ve still got to be able to have fun. You know what you’re doing. You just can’t let the atmosphere and the names get in your head.”
Though Drabek had trouble with the transition from one level to the next, he believes he’s learned what he needs to do now, and how to slow things down in the future.
“It was a little difficult for me just because that’s where you wanted to be,” Drabek said of going from AA to the big leagues. “I think that when I started the season last year it was a little bit easier because I got those few games [the year before] and I was able to see how it works up there.
“You can get into it pretty quickly and learn fast but you’ve just got to remember that it’s just a game. That’s what my dad always told me. It’s a game and you’ve got to have fun with it but pitch your game.”
Arencibia stressed the same idea when working with Alvarez though his transition to the majors last year, though the catcher doesn’t necessarily believe Alvarez needs the extra time that Drabek did in order to make the adjustment.
“It’s the same game,” Arencibia said. “It will never change. What anyone’s strength is, is what their strength is. Your strength is your strength. You’re not going to change it because of where you’re at. You may make adjustments to where you’re at but you’re not going to change what you do.”
The adjustments made by Alvarez prior to the upcoming season may determine whether or not he will head in a direction similar to that of Halladay, or come to a fork in the road like Drabek.