I've been toying with this thought lately, as we hear about how much potential left-handed starter Andy Oliver has, compared to how all that potential has manifested itself (or rather, hasn't) in competition.
... I can't help but think of another lefty's name ... Andrew Miller.
Obviously, if you scratch the surface too much on any comparison, you'll start to find how imperfect a match is. I'm sure some could do that here.
But the similarities? Both were extremely-hyped, highly-ranked prospects, the illusive hard-throwing lefty. Both were drafted out of college and rushed to the majors by the Tigers. Both throw a fastball that routinely touches the mid-90s and a slider in the 80s. Miller, drafted in 2006, made his MLB debut later that year but was tasked with a starting role in 2007. Oliver, drafted in 2009, debuted in 2010. Both debuts greatly disappointed. Both struggled to find their control.
Miller, at age 22, made his first extended major league stay in 2007 after being called up in May. He walked three the first start, three the next start, three the next start ... you get the point. After 13 starts, the Tigers had seen enough. Despite striking out nearly 8 batters per nine innings, he finished the season with a 5.63 ERA, not helped by the 5.48 walks issued per nine innings.
Oliver, meanwhile, got the call to the majors in June of 2010 as a 22-year-old. He only allowed two runs, but he lost. The next start, he allowed five runs and lost. The next start, he allowed six runs and lost. Still, in contrast to Miller at least he had control, right? Nine walks across the next 8 1/3 innings later, that couldn't be said. The Tigers had seen enough by then and sent him back to the minors. He had a 7.36 ERA, 7.36 K/9 and 5.32 BB/9.
Two hyped lefties. Two dismal showings due to a lack of control. Even more interesting is a comparison of the minor-league walk rates. Miller actually walked 2.9 per nine innings during the minor-league portion of his first full season in the professional ranks. Maybe that was because the innings were mostly thrown against A-ball or Double-A players. Against Triple-A players, he walked five in six innings that year. (B-Ref minors stats)
Oliver's first pro year saw 2.9 BB/9 against Double-A batters, 4.2 BB/9 against Triple-A batters and (as we saw) 5.32 BB/9 against MLB batters. His second minor-league season saw the walk rate climb to 4.9 BB/9 against Triple-A batters. (B-Ref minors stats)
I wonder what exactly went on with the two pitchers. Did their confidence get shaken by facing major-league hitters before they were really ready? Did prospect hunters just totally whiff? They love a good ceiling, but most-likely scenarios fall a bit short.
Or maybe major league batters are just too wise to chase the offerings. Neither pitcher successfully gets MLB hitters to chase out of the zone. (Oliver was at 15% according to Fangraphs; Miller 22.5% at the same age. Compare that to Rick Porcello, who got batters to swing 28.5% of the time during his second year in the majors. Porcello also gets a higher percentage of swinging strikes than Oliver.) Maybe they're just not very good at repeating successful mechanics.
Eventually, Miller was a key cog in the Tigers' 2007-08 offseason trade for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Miller has since struggled to become a productive major leaguer and has never found his control despite a plethora of pitching coaches who think they can fix his woes.
Oliver, as many will point out, is young. He can still strike batters out. He has that dangerous "P" word: potential. But is he ever going to put everything together to reach that potential for any real stretch of games?
I'm the first to tell you just because it happened to one player, it doesn't doom another. Yet if history is my guide, I'm not feeling too optimistic for Oliver's future as a starting pitcher.