Ron Darling: Another Guy, Like Zack Wheeler, Who Wasn’t “Ready” for the Major Leagues

Once upon a time, the New York Mets were down in the dumps. The team was a disaster. They lived in the cellar, and put a lock on the door. It was damp and musty and smelled of boiled hot dogs, but the Mets called it home.

So they traded a popular centerfielder, a former All-Star past his prime, and in the return package received a hot pitching prospect. This guy was a first-rounder, 9th overall, and the dream was that he’d become a building block for the future.

Was he perfect? Oh, no, he was not. The fastball had life, he had good secondary pitches, and he was a competitor. But he walked too many guys. Or as folks are so fond of saying nowadays, he lacked command.

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At age 21, his BB/9 ratio was 5.6. He walked 95 batters in 152 innings.

Was he ready for the big leagues? Not quite.

The next season, at age 22, he walked 102 batters in 159 innings in AAA. So the Mets, in their infinite wisdom, brought him up for a cup of coffee. In five late-season starts, he walked 17 in 35 innings. He had not, alas, magically metamorphosized like a character from Ovid.

He wasn’t ready, he needed refinement.

mQaqrdgu3WR8nEi5embdXZwSo, of course, dazzled by his promise and potential, the Mets organization installed this exciting prospect into the everyday rotation. That first season, he walked 104 in 205 innings. An awful 4.6 ratio, ranking him #3 in the NL in free passes.

But here’s the thing: He had talent seeping out of his pores. You could see it. This pitcher had a presence, he had toughness, and he had a knack for winning games. That first year, despite the flaws and imperfections, he cobbled together an ERA of 3.81 and a 12-9 record. He helped the team.

Most importantly, however, this pitcher was a living, breathing person — not a stat sheet, not a row of numbers. Because of his exceptional ability, he did not fit into the standard, idealized formula for success.

Would it have been nice, dear friends and neighbors, if this pitcher had flawless control? Yes, that would have been swell.

$T2eC16RHJHwE9n8ihql(BQEcLkpb0g~~60_35So now we come to his age 24 season, and the kid leads all of the national league in walks! He’s infuriating to watch sometimes. He’s constantly battling, behind in the count, throwing too many pitches, handing out free passes, digging holes for himself. The list goes on and on about all the things this young pitcher is not. You could write long essays about all the things he doesn’t do well enough. He walks 114 guys — but, lo, the ratio is a touch better at 4.1. He’s showing progress.

And just look at the ERA, 2.90. Gaze upon the W-L record, 16-6.

He was not perfect, and would never be, but the prospect was learning on the job and helping the team win ballgames in the process. Because that’s how all jobs work. At a certain point, you have to do it, and do it before you are “ready.” So you go out and try that first case, make that first sale, write that first article, build your first house, operate on your first patient.

I’m talking about Ron Darling, of course; the headline gave that away. The pictures were clues, too.

Darling’s control got better over time, and at age 27 it made a significant leap in the right direction. But it was never great, never perfect, and his career never quite reached the heights fans might have once dreamed he’d achieve.

If only, if only. Such is life.

But one thing I never think is: if only he spent more time in Tidewater.

Obviously, I tell this story to make a point. We hear a lot about Zach Wheeler needing “more time” to refine his command down in AAA. And I don’t believe a word of it. He’s 23 years old, a #6 overall draft pick, bursting with talent.

If this is about money, and service time, okay, fine, I surrender. I think it’s misguided, I don’t agree, but there’s a logic to that argument I can grudgingly accept. We’re afraid of paying the guy. Maybe he’ll be better if he throws more in Nevada as opposed to throwing them in New York, though I can’t figure out why in the world that might be true. In fact, the opposite may well be true, that too much time at AAA will hold him back.

Jeremy Hefner starts in our rotation, followed by Aaron Laffey, and I can’t think that many folks are pushing through the gates to see these kids on the hill. I doubt we’ll ever see them on the cover of the official score book. And because those eager fans aren’t in the park, they aren’t spending the extra $70 on food and t-shirts and everything else that adds up to lost revenue.

Not many pitchers are ever going to be “ready” in the sense of arriving as a finished product. In fact, the idea is preposterous. The critical questions are about whether he’s mature enough to be with the big club, if he can win, if he can handle losing, and if he’s better than your options.

I see the major leagues as the next challenge in Zack Wheeler’s development. He needs to graduate from the minor leagues, where he no longer belongs. He needs to learn on the job with the New York Mets.

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Okay, I’ll have to wait three more months. I get it. No one will die, it’s not the end of the world.

Just don’t tell me that it’s because he’s not ready.

Because if that’s what we’re waiting for, he’s readiness, then you are also telling me that maybe the Mets should not bring him up at all in 2013.

He might still lack command, you know? And heaven forfend a guy fitting that description ever makes it to Flushing.

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11 comments

  1. Blastingzone says:

    Great article, I have been saying let the kid pitch in ML since spring training! Wheeler’s comand problems or not he’s better than Hefner and he’s a lot better
    than Laffey! With Harvey and Niese giving the mets a very nice one, two, punch
    and Harvey turning into the future ace Wheeler would fit in behind them for now!
    Gee is good but we don’t really know yet how good he will be but Wheeler is
    going to challege Harvey in a year or two for #1 on this staff! It would give the
    fans hope and excite them and maybe they will come to the ballpark to see
    Harvey and Wheeler pitch!! Niese is good and getting better but he doesn’t
    have the stuff Harvey and Wheeler do!! Harvey and Niese remind me a little bit of
    Seaver and Kooseman not that I ‘m comparing them but it they just do and
    Wheeler can be Nolan Ryan but this time the mets don’t trade him for a
    past his prime third baseman!! Funny Ryan walked a lot of people too
    and didn’t have very good comand either but what a fast ball! What were
    the mets thinking?

  2. kranepool says:

    It would be refreshing if the org didn’t just look at Wheeler as a money investment but as the ying to Harvey’s yang. I would love to go into a series with the Nats and Braves with Harvey, Niese and Wheeler as my pitchers

    • The conventional wisdom for every Mets decision seems to be, “It’s about the money, stupid.”

      I can’t wait for the day when management — from ownership to our GM — makes the statement, “It’s about championships, stupid.”

  3. Dave says:

    The Darling analogy is a good one. He was always a nibbler, and had too many no decisions because his pitch count was always high by the 6th or 7th inning. He had a great curveball though, and pitched the game of his life in the 1st game of a must win series against the Cards in late Sept. 1985. I think Darling left after 9 with a scoreless tie, before Strawberry hit a titantic HR off the scoreboard in extra innings to win it.

    Gooden was another young pitcher who supposedly “wasn’t ready” in 1984, making a jump from the low minors to the big club at age 19. Of course, Gooden finished that year winning 8 of his last 9 starts en route to becoming rookie of the year. I’m not saying Wheeler has that kind of potential, but if he has the stuff to win games for the Mets, bring him up sooner rather than later.

  4. DD says:

    For a team that could REALLY use the talents of one of their players in the system, in the sense that there is something to win and the team is thisclose, sure, it can make good sense to bring the player in as an unfinished product.

    What generally is happening in no great mystery; once a player hits the Show, the clock begins and the seven year period, or whatever the number is, that team owns that player begins to erode, after which he hits free agency and he owns his own future. It often is entirely rational for the team to want those years under team control to be the best the player will ever have to give; which can mean him spending time when he could have competed in the majors, working on his third pitch or command or something in Triple A.

    From a fans standpoint the frustration comes when your team doesn’t have much to choose from, when you’re picking through the Jae Seo’s and the Grant Roberts to simply get through the year. That is sort of the Mets situation at the moment; but it won’t be much longer.

    • Tom M says:

      The other day in the Mets/Marlins game I couldn’t help feel sorry for the Marlins fans. Watching Fernandez pitch so well at such a young age must have been driving them crazy. How they must have gnashed their teeth thinking this is going to cost Mr. Loria a pretty penny four years from now

      They must have thought why didn’t they have a journeyman pitcher afraid to throw strikes like we did. That was clearly much more fun for us than watching a young talent.

      With Wheeler in the dessert, Laffey on the mound,and Fred’s money safe in the bank we can all wait for the future to begin in July… maybe. How jealous those fish fans must be.

  5. Brian Joura says:

    I enjoyed this piece.

    I think the key difference is that when Darling made the Mets in 1984, he already had 311 IP at Triple-A under his belt. Coming into this season, Wheeler had 33 IP at Triple-A.

    Unlike Darling in 1984, I think there still is some benefit for Wheeler to pitch in the minors. Darling was a collegiate pitcher who then went and spent time at Double and Triple-A. Wheeler is a HS guy with a grand total of 149 innings above A-ball.

    • Thanks, Brian. There are distinctions and differences, of course, but I don’t think they are very meaningful. I mean, I know it’s a lost cause and I don’t need to bang my head against the tree. Could Wheeler be better? He could, maybe some AAA time is the best for him. No one really knows. He threw 2 tremendous innings in spring training, looked incredible, then suffered the fluke injury. That was his moment to bust down the door and he lost the opportunity to turn heads.

      That said, minor league baseball has changed a lot in 30 years; AAA ain’t what it used to be. The real talent is in AA, and many teams use AAA for Replacement Level Players. Just look at the Las Vegas roster. For example, Matt Harvey only threw 110 AAA innings. Come July last season, there was a huge uproar from the fans — the overwhelming majority of fans on the blogs thought he was being “rushed” to the majors. I believe that pitchers are different, especially the exceptional ones, they can come quickly.

      Hey: I wonder how good that Fernandez kid could have been against the Mets if he had any time above A-ball.

      Again, yes, financial considerations aside, Wheeler needs to develop and grow; I just think that it could be done with the Mets. And I also believe it would help the Mets field a better team. It would be more fun, too.

  6. [...] will Zack Wheeler’s talent lead him? How will it turn out? No one knows. A while back I compared him to young Ron Darling — the wildness, the unfinished quality — and I’m okay with that comparison for [...]

  7. [...] walked a lot of hitters. For a while there, anyway. I won’t repeat myself at length, because I made the comparison a while back, but Darling had an awful 4.6 BB/9 ratio in his first full rookie season (1984), and improved to a [...]

  8. [...] almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post comparing Wheeler to a young Ron Darling. At the time, I was lobbying for the Mets to bring up [...]

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