Since 1998, I cannot remember a time when the Diamondbacks had so many young, promising pitchers. And to be perfectly honest, I can recall only two pitchers before this season who made any noise in the rotation their first year on the team. One was Brandon Webb and the other was Max Scherzer.
Webb was somewhat unheralded when he came up in 2003, but he was surprisingly spectacular, posting a 10-9 record with an ERA of 2.84. Many believed he should have been the Rookie of the Year, but Dontrelle Willis' 14 wins and wacky delivery won over the voters.
Scherzer came up in 2007 with the expectations of a hard throwing first-round draft pick. He showed enough flashes of absolute dominance to keep everyone very excited, but ended the season 0-4, albeit with a 3.05 ERA.
Outside of those two guys, there has never been much. The Arizona pitching staffs have been traditionally a combination top tier guys (Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Brandon Webb, and Dan Haren) and journeymen, also-rans, or scrubs.
Now, after a terrible pair of seasons and several trades, the Diamondbacks now have not one, but three promising young pitchers who have shown so far that they belong in the major leagues and have the potential to be very, very good pitchers for a long time.
Up through Sunday, Ian Kennedy, Barry Enright, and Daniel Hudson (ages 25, 24, and 23, respectively) have combined for a 20-13 record and a 3.54 ERA in 50 starts (292 1/3 innings). Compare that with the team record of 57-86 and 4.93 team ERA, and you can see how productive they have been for the team.
This performance is what pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. calls "impressive" and is the reason why interim general manager Jerry Dipoto considers it to be a "foregone conclusion" that they will be "the backbone" of the 2011 Arizona pitching rotation.
Why have they been so successful so far? Stottlemyre says that despite being three very different pitchers, they have found success "doing it the same way."
Kennedy has "three really good weapons" and "the ability to punch guys out," says Stottlemyre. Along with his fastball, he has shown and "outstanding curveball" and a "plus change-up."
Enright is different in the fact that he "has to pitch to contact." He will get a few strikeouts, but only when "he gets ahead and gets guys to expand their zone."
Hudson has "a live fastball, a plus change-up, [and] he's got some deception."
All three "attack the zone, they all throw other pitches for strikes [and] they pitch down for the most part." While Hudson and Kennedy have shown an ability to strike guys out (Hudson, in a recent start, recorded eight straight outs via the strikeout), that is not their approach when they face hitters.
As Stottlemyre says, "All three of those guys try to get in and out of at-bats in three pitches." This sort of approach has helped all of them go more than the typical five innings that many young pitchers give their teams. All three have regularly been able to go six, seven or eight innings.
Obviously, the talent is there, but there are other intangibles. Stottlemyre almost glows when commenting on their work ethic:
"The one common denominator is that they all work their butts off. They prepare themselves as well as any three young guys that I've been around in the game and that's pretty special for guys that come up.
"A lot of times you'll see guys struggle. You'll see them not know which way to go, but the thing about the three is they stick their nose to the grindstone and they prepare themselves in the video room, getting ready for the up and coming start. They work extremely hard in the weight room. And they prepare themselves really well on their side day."
Despite the success each has had, none is a finished product. All of them are working on other pitches. Enright and Kennedy are both working on adding a two-seam fastball to their repertoire to help them "keep the ball down," even when they get tired in a game. Hudson is working to improve his slider, and his pitching coach is very excited about the possibilities for him if he can even make that breaking pitch even okay, implying that he is likely the one who has the highest ceiling.
"When he can establish the breaking ball, and it doesn't have to be a nasty one, but something he can spin and give him different shapes, and get the hitters off his hard stuff and his nasty change, he's going have the opportunity to dominate the game."
Now there have been many pitchers who come up and succeed only to see their success wane in the following years.
Even eventual great pitchers typically struggle in their first full year in the majors. Randy Johnson was 7-13 with an ERA of almost 5.00 his first full year. Greg Maddux was 6-14 and 5.61. Tom Glavine was 7-17 and 4.56. These are guys that are locks for the Hall of Fame.
In Arizona's own history, we saw this happen. Brandon Webb followed his rookie campaign with a 7-16 season in which he led the league in walks and hit batsmen.
Why is this? Stottlemyre says that young pitchers "need to experience what it's like to go through a 35 start season." The need to know "how to get tired, how to deal with that in between your starts, and go out there with really a tired arm or maybe not your best stuff and learn how to get guys out." Enright and Hudson both need to just to experience that.
With Ian Kennedy, there is optimism in the fact that this is that season. He is already going through it and has taken his lumps, but the overall production has been solid. One thing that Stottlemyre noted about young pitchers is the need to "back down" and "cut back" between starts as the year progresses and they log more and more innings, "so they can have their bullets on game day."
Kennedy, for one, is "stubborn" and fought his pitching coach until recently when he "gave in." The results are positive. In his first 16 starts, his ERA was 3.77. His ERA over the next nine starts was almost two runs higher. His last four starts? Only three earned runs allowed over 28 innings (0.96 ERA). This also coincides with improved communication between he and catcher Miguel Montero. This success should carry him into next year.
What can we expect next year?
It appears that historically we should not expect too much out of Hudson and Enright and that they may take a few lumps, although they do have some advantages. Their aforementioned determination will serve them well in what will be their first full season in the big leagues.
Another factor to consider is the fact that they all push each other to be better. They are all close in age and have become friends very quickly. Kennedy said that "when you're with your buddies, you want to be right with them or a little better than them."
Enright echoed those sentiments saying this:
"It's fun to have some guys around 23, 24, and 25 years old, to have that friendly competition and hopefully establish ourselves in the rotation for next year and for some years to come. Hopefully, [we'll] bring some special moments to this ballclub."
Additionally, they will have the help of a veteran leader in Joe Saunders. Stottlemyre calls him a "good teacher" for the young pitchers, this being in addition to the fact that he has gone through what they are experiencing now and the fact that he has also been a winner. Saunders can go to them and tell and show them what they should do, but they can also look at his track record, having won a lot of games.
Hudson, because of his stuff, could begin to dominate like an ace if his slider is improved by next season. Kennedy will be the guy to watch because of his talent and because of the full season under his belt.
Enright is the guy to watch over the next two seasons. It is well documented that we here at SB Nation Arizona are big "Red" fans. These next couple of season will determine the type of pitcher he will be. Is he another Greg Maddux type, with great control and efficiency, without the overpowering stuff? Will he be Yusmeiro Petit? Will he be something in between? This is yet to be seen.
Whatever the case may be, it is certainly clear that for the first time in the franchise's history that there is a young core of quality pitchers. That in itself is reason to be hopeful. For all the miserable baseball that we here have had to witness these past two and a half seasons, there is at least a reason to look forward to 2011 and 2012. 2007 was the year of young position players making their impact. The year of the impact pitchers is soon approaching. If they all stay healthy, the 2011 and 2012 seasons and beyond should be great years to be a Diamondbacks fan.