CINCINNATI -- Mike Leake had possession of the first major league pitch he threw on Sunday. He also kept the souvenir ball that he had driven up the middle for the first base hit of his career, and the hat that had been doused with shaving cream in celebration of his performance unassumingly sat in his locker. But if Leake took anything from his career debut, it was a sense of dissatisfaction.
It was like he had eaten most of his meal, but the dessert had disappeared.
Sunday recap: Reds 3, Cubs 1
|Drafted players who skipped minors|
|1989||John Olerud||1B||Blue Jays|
|1978||Brian Milner||C||Blue Jays|
More than anything, Leake hates to walk hitters. On Sunday, he issued seven of them, and to the 22-year-old who had just become the 21st player since 1965 to entirely skip the minor leagues before making his pro debut, that was unacceptable.
"I should get that seventh-walk ball [as a souvenir], too," Leake said with a laugh.
OK, considering he allowed four hits and one earned run in 6 2/3 innings in his no-decision, he was a little hard on himself. He deserves a shred of credit for becoming the first pitcher since Ariel Prieto in 1995 and the first player since Xavier Nady in 2000 to move directly to the majors without first dipping his toe into the minor league wave pool.
As Leake pitched, Nady watched him from the Cubs dugout and thought back to his own career debut in 2000 with the Padres when he singled in his only major league at-bat that year. The difference between Nady and Leake, though, is that Nady knew he was only in the majors for a small taste test. He knew, by the time the 2001 season began, he'd be playing in Class A Lake Elsinore.
Nady -– who didn't return to the majors until 2003 -- had a life preserver. Leake doesn't. He'll either swim, or he'll sink -- and possibly take his career with him.
Before you dismiss Leake as a seat-warmer for Cuban rookie phenom Aroldis Chapman (who, coincidentally, made his pro debut Sunday for Triple-A Louisville where he hit at least 100 mph on the radar gun five times and struck out nine in 4 2/3 innings), remember that Leake was the Reds first-round draft pick last year and that he beat out Travis Wood -- the organization's minor league pitcher of the year last season -- to earn the fifth starter role.
Yet, in most cases, a player of Nady's caliber is the best-case scenario the express train to the majors usually delivers -- a solid guy who doesn't quite develop into a superstar. Hall of Famer Dave Winfield is the obvious exception, and so is John Olerud. But among the 20 previous players who, since the amateur draft was instituted in 1965, took a direct flight to the majors, solid is the kindest description of how their careers unfolded.
You remember Jim Abbott as an inspirational story who threw a no-hitter with only one hand? You probably forgot, though, that Abbott's career win-loss record was 87-108.
|Mike Leake will try and avoid the long list of straight-to-the-Majors pitchers that nobody remembers. (Getty Images)|
Of those previous 20, you've got, by my count, four busts who played three major league seasons or less, six players who had historically irrelevant careers, eight solid guys, one really good player in Olerud and one of the best athletes ever to play ball in Winfield. If you're betting on whether Leake -- who, this time last year, was pitching for Arizona State -- will become a superstar based on his lack of minor league experience, the safe wager is to bet no.
"Who says he's supposed to be a superstar? How about just a star?" Reds manager Dusty Baker asked. "This decision was made with much deliberation by all the top people in the organization. It's certainly a big test, but he's not here because of the hoopla or because we're trying to get fans to the ballpark. He's here because he pitched his way here."
It showed Sunday in a glorious day at Great American Ball Park. Leake had predicted a day earlier that he would not be nervous, and he was right. He didn't look nervous. Until he faced his first big-league hitter, Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot.
The first pitch of his career was a strike across the heart of the plate. Then, he threw four straight balls. Kosuke Fukudome cracked a two-strike double, and then, Leake walked Derrek Lee on four straight pitches that were nowhere near the plate to load the bases.
Then, Leak took a breath. He coerced Aramis Ramirez into a weak pop out. He struck out Marlon Byrd on a 2-2 pitch in the dirt. He got Alfonso Soriano to fly out to right field. And when he got back to the dugout, the entire team greeted him with high-fives and fist bumps.
Oh, and he went 2 for 2 at the plate, as well.
Yet, one very good performance only equals one very good performance.
In 1973, David Clyde also had a great start to his career, allowing one hit in five innings to grab a win in front of more than 35,000 fans at Arlington Stadium less than three weeks after he was drafted out of high school. The last-place Rangers needed an attraction, and Clyde was their man. Originally, he was supposed to make two starts and head to the minors. It never happened. Two years later, his arm had been ruined for good, his career record stalled at 18-33.
I'm not saying this will happen to Leake. I'm just saying making this move usually doesn't pan out for the player or for the team. Most of the time, a raw prospect needs a little seasoning. He needs a little time to adjust from facing Pac-10 players to the best players in the world.
"I'd rather get the opportunity than not; I'd rather have the opportunity to fail than no opportunity at all," Leake said. "But you can't worry about that stuff. You're worrying about the wrong thing if that's what you worry about. You have to pitch like you're going to be here forever."
The souvenirs he earned Sunday, those he'll have forever. The rest of his career? Those odds are stacked heavily against him.