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Chris George: From Finesse to Flamethrower?

It’s time for the Royals to find out about Chris George.

Why? While browsing through some Royals articles from the past week on the Kansas City Star’s website, I found this in a "Notes" article detailing the team’s plans for September call-ups:

[ . . . ] (Chris George) is 7-0 with a 1.86 ERA since getting shelled July 24 for 10 runs and 11 hits by Cleveland in a one-game call-up.

"He's up to 94 (mph) on his fastball," Baird said. "How? I don't know. But that changes things. A left-hander who can throw 94 can fill different roles. Maybe in the bullpen."

As many of you know, there are two ways to have a long career as a pitcher at the major league level: Have a lot of talent, or be left-handed. But if you’re a left-handed pitcher AND have the God-given ability to throw in the mid-90s, you’ll probably keep getting opportunities even if you stink up the joint at every stop. With that said, color me skeptical about Chris George, Power Pitcher.

But I’ve been skeptical of Chris George, Finesse Pitcher too. Many pitching prospects are overrated by scouts, and George – before he was "up to 94" on his fastball – was one of the most overhyped young pitchers in baseball for about three years. From a visual standpoint, it’s easy to see why looks-oriented minor league publications such as Baseball America ranked the young man as one of the better pitching talents in the bus leagues. He used good mechanics, threw anywhere from 88-90 mph with his fastball, showed a quality changeup, and knew "how to pitch," meaning he changed speeds well to keep hitters off-balance. In short, he was a left-hander with underwhelming velocity, which reminded everybody of Hall of Fame-bound Tom Glavine.

Unfortunately, George’s production never has matched the hype, save his first full season in 1999. That year, he pitched for Single-A Wilmington, and posted this quality line:

IP: 145
H/9: 8.81
K/9: 8.81
BB/9: 3.29
K/BB: 2.68
ERA: 3.60

Aside from the fairly high number of base hits Chris allowed (142 in 145 innings), there wasn’t anything not to like in that performance from a 20-year-old. George earned a promotion to Double-A Wichita to start the 2000 season. His career began to unravel, albeit not as much in the most noticeable stats like ERA. Here’s what he did from 2000 to 2003 in the minor leagues:

IP: 454
H/9: 9.36
K/9: 6.40
BB/9: 4.22
K/BB: 1.52
ERA: 4.67

All of his peripheral statistics indicative of future success took a hit, including his ERA. He became more hittable, missed fewer bats, and his supposed great control ceased to exist. In fact, depending on your definition of "great control," he may have never had it. In my opinion, a player should have to earn his promotions through the minor leagues, or master each level before being moved up to the next. George never mastered any of the upper levels by showing a solid process to preventing runs, but the Royals kept pushing him anyway, ignoring the facts and focusing entirely on his "pitchability," an Allard Baird-ism that makes my skin crawl every time I read it. It turns out the Royals should’ve paid more attention to those facts, because George has been downright horrible in the majors:

IP: 225.2
H/9: 11.35
K/9: 3.71
BB/9: 3.59
K/BB: 1.03
ERA: 6.50

But just when I thought George’s fall from being KC’s number one prospect per Baseball America in 2001 was complete, this business about Curious George suddenly throwing 94 mph caught my attention, although it raised some doubts in my mind too. Many times, a scout observing a pitcher may write something like this:

"Showed good velocity on his fastball, although it was without the sinking action we like our pitchers to have. Hit 94 on the gun. Showed a plus change 10-12 mph slower than his fastball."

The important thing to note here is the part about the pitcher hitting 94 mph on the radar gun. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he pitches at 94 on almost every pitch. Zack Greinke has the ability to throw in the mid-90s when he wants to, but most of the time, he sits at 88-90 mph. The same is probably true for George; I’ve never seen him consistently pitch in the low-to-mid 90s, nor have I heard of him doing such a thing. For that reason, I won’t believe this report until I see it myself.

However, George is clearly doing something right for the Omaha Royals, and I think that’s the reason why Allard Baird is considering letting George audition for the 2005 team this month. I’d even venture to say this is his finest minor league season:

IP: 101.1
H/9: 7.83
K/9: 6.32
BB/9: 3.38
K/BB: 1.87
ERA: 2.84

If George was really throwing in the low-90s with any consistency, there’s an awfully good chance that his strikeout rate would be much higher than 6.32. His control still isn’t where it needs to be to have real success in the majors, but there’s no question he’s made progress with Dave LaRoche, Omaha’s pitching coach.

George, at 24 years of age, is still plenty young enough to make an impact in the majors. He wouldn’t be the first southpaw to "figure it out" at age 30; Al Leiter and Randy Johnson both saw their careers take off after that age. Will he figure it out while wearing a Royals uniform? My guess is No, but stranger things have happened. Who knows? Greinke and Denny Bautista ARE going to need a solid 3-4-5 to back them up.

--Comments? Questions? E-mail me at royalfan24@sbcglobal.net--
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