Ranking the 5 best expansion era seasons by Cubs rookie pitchers

Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Kirn /Allsport
Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Kirn /Allsport /
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Cubs could add to this list sooner than later with improved development

#2 Mike Harkey 1990, 12-6, 3.26 ERA, 126 ERA+, 4.6 WAR

And speaking of injuries, Oh, Mike! That said, Mike Harkey’s medical records would have been a multi-volume set even if he hadn’t tried to get his Oksana Baiul on. Not to belabor the belabored, but here’s a list of 160-pitch performances by Cubs hurlers since 1961:

  • Greg Maddux, 167 pitches on May 17, 1988 (3-0 loss to St. Louis)
  • Mike Harkey, 160 pitches on June 24, 1990 (3-2 win over St. Louis)

Harkey and Dick Ellsworth appear twice each in the top 10 Cubs pitch-count outings in the expansion era; nobody else appears more than once.

Maybe some arms could handle this kind of workload, but we now know Mike Harkey’s couldn’t. Even more than Wells, Harkey’s value is overwhelmingly concentrated in his rookie season. Out of his 5.7 career pitching WAR, 4.6 of it happened in 1990.

#1 Burt Hooton 1972, 11-14, 2.80 ERA, 135 ERA+, 5.0 WAR

After his stellar rookie season, Burt Hooton received as many Rookie of the Year votes as you will this year. Part of that is because Hooton had the remarkable misfortune to debut the same year as Jon Matlack, who did indeed have an even better year. But part of it is probably down to the importance voters placed on his won-loss record. That idea has now, of course, been driven from the field, but far too late for Hooton, who at least should have been in the running.

Hooton also had the misfortune to arrive in the majors as an unconventional pitcher for a team being badly run by conventional men. They tolerated Hooton and his newfangled knuckle-curve until Burt stumbled to a 4.80 ERA in 1974. On the bubble to begin1975, his bubble burst after two starts of 8.18 ERA ball. So the Cubs traded him to the Dodgers for … no, this can’t be right … Eddie Solomon and Geoff Zahn??

Solomon would throw just six innings for the Cubs before they traded him for … yeah, that’s right … the immortal Ken Crosby. Twenty innings and 16 earned runs later, Crosby would leave The Show for good. Zahn was a better player than either of these guys, a groundball specialist miscast in front of a shaky defense. He pitched for four different clubs over a 13-year career; the Cubs were the only team for which he failed to attain a league average ERA. Unable to figure out what to with him, the Cubs released him after two years.

During the Cubs’ century-long night, the goat had help. Gormless trades like these contributed to the franchise’s seemingly endless drift through a Sargasso Sea of mediocrity.  Hooton, for his part, would become a rotation horse for the Dodgers and enter the Hall of Pretty Darn Good with a career WAR of 35.5.

Chicago Cubs pitching: a developing situation

It’s been a fairly bleak trip, but in reviewing these great Cubs rookie pitching seasons, we see the team making a number of mistakes that it would not make today. In addition to innovative individualized pitcher development, the Cubs have also begun attacking the pitching development problem the good-old fashioned way, by accumulating a vast horde of young arms. Between this year’s draft and in-season trades, the Cubs have added numerous pitching prospects to a now highly-ranked system.

Next. Assembling a list of the 25 greatest Cubs of all-time. dark

Most of these guys will not become rotation mainstays, but most of them don’t have to. By enhancing the team’s ability to obtain the maximum performance from each player, and building in a lot of redundancy to account for the high pitcher prospect attrition rate, Hoyer & Co. are at least approaching the problem the right way.