Thirty-three times in St. Louis Cardinals history, a pitcher making his first career start in the Major Leagues posted a Game Score of 65 or better. The third most recent time occurred on May 30, 2013, courtesy of Michael Wacha (if you don’t remember this particular game–Wacha was awesome, Mitchell Boggs blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning immediately, there were multiple rain delays, and a 24 year-old fan by the name of John Fleming who was in attendance has spent the last half-decade complaining about it whenever he has even the slightest opportunity to do so). The second most recent time was on Monday night. The most recent time was on Tuesday.
The big headline from the back-to-back debut starts from Daniel Poncedeleon and Austin Gomber were their respective no-hit bids–Poncedeleon, making his MLB debut, pitched seven innings without allowing a single hit (at 116 pitches, Mike Shildt correctly pinch-hit for him), while Gomber, who had previously only pitched in relief, went 6 1/3 innings before surrendering a single to Joey Votto (and then a game-tying home run to Eugenio Suarez, because life isn’t fair). But the totality of their performances put them in rarified air among Cardinals rotation debutantes.
By Game Score, an arbitrary but ultimately decent approximation of the overall quality of a pitcher’s performance in a game, Poncedeleon and Gomber look even more impressive when considering the relatively few innings they pitched. The Game Score leader in his debut, Al Jurisich, actually allowed a home run, eight hits, and four walks, but he pitched 12 2/3 innings. This was in 1944, a different time (both in terms of it being a general era in which pitchers went longer and it being the peak of World War II player attrition, and thus his potential bullpen replacements were worse than under normal circumstances).
It is almost unfathomable to imagine a modern manager letting somebody making his first career MLB start go nine innings. It would require a Madduxian level of maintaining a low pitch count to make this even a consideration. So for the sake of comparison, let’s look at starts that went seven innings or fewer. A seven inning start in a debut is itself rather rare, and was especially unlikely over the last two nights given the relative lack of prospect pedigree of the two pitchers in question. Here are the top debuts by Game Score for the Cardinals.
- Daniel Poncedeleon, 77, Monday
- Michael Wacha, 75, 5/30/2013
- Jerry Reuss, 73, 9/27/1969
- Tyler Lyons, 68, 5/22/2013
- (tie) Austin Gomber, 65, Tuesday; Anthony Reyes, 65, 8/9/2005
It is a bizarre form of cluster luck that of the six games which reached this criteria, which span nearly half a century, two happened within a day, and another two happened within eight days. The improbability of either happening doesn’t require much explanation, but at least in 2013, the Cardinals had the benefit of Michael Wacha, a first-round pick in 2012 and the team’s seventh-best prospect entering the 2013 season. Entering this season, Gomber was #9, and figured as more of a low-ceiling pick than a pitcher on whom to dream too extensively. Poncedeleon ranked 30th.
Having such an impressive debut is hardly a sign of extensive future success. Jerry Reuss went on to a long, successful career, winning 220 games and eventually receiving Hall of Fame votes after a long career mostly with the Los Angeles Dodgers as the other lefty starter Cardinals fans in the 1970s lived in constant regret of trading. But Anthony Reyes, despite being able to live forever with the knowledge that he is a trivia answer for who started opposite Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, hardly had a distinguished MLB career. Jason Simontacchi, who just missed the list with a 62 Game Score, had a nice (BABIP-aided) rookie season in 2002 but only played in three more MLB seasons.
For now, though, let’s appreciate the sheer absurdity of what we just witnessed. In their first career starts, men whose presence in the rotation was supposed to be a signal that the 2018 Cardinals are going nowhere (which, to be clear, they still might not be, but it’s not because of this) performed nearly as well as anyone else has this season. Poncedeleon equalled Luke Weaver’s best start of the season. Miles Mikolas, an All-Star, only had one start better. Michael Wacha also only had one better start, while Jack Flaherty and Carlos Martinez each had two. And that was it.
Austin Gomber isn’t in quite the same company (this is arguably unfair–Poncedeleon got the benefit for his Game Score of being removed before he allowed a hit, while Gomber had to surrender a two-run home run first), he had a better start than Adam Wainwright has had in all of 2018. Imagine that at the beginning of the season–Austin Gomber had never pitched in AAA before this season, much less the Majors. In 2017 in AA Springfield and in 2018 in AAA Memphis, Gomber posted fielding-independent ERAs of over four runs per nine innings. And last night, even if only for one night, Austin Gomber looked like a Major League starter.
I don’t know what Daniel Poncedeleon or Austin Gomber are going to do going forward. They may have peaked. And if that’s the case, let’s sit back and enjoy it.