On September 23, 1970 a scowling lefty took the mound for the Kansas City Royals to make his major league debut.
After seven innings, Paul Splittorff came out of the game having given up five runs (three earned) and took the loss. He would make 391 more starts and another 36 relief appearances en route to the Royals Hall of Fame.
Today, Jake Odorizzi makes his major league debut, a much-anticipated event by Royals fans. Odorizzi represents more hope for a homegrown starting rotation that can lead the franchise back to the playoffs. It’s comparable to Danny Duffy‘s debut from May 2011 when he went four innings against the Rangers. There was plenty of buzz then, just as there is now for Odorizzi. When the time comes for Mike Montgomery to finally make it up here, he’ll generate a lot of interest as well (and the same can be said for John Lamb, Kyle Zimmer, Yordano Ventura and others).
The standard by which Royals debut starts should be judged is that of Steve Busby. On September 8, 1972, Busby pitched a complete game in his major league debut, striking out seven and securing the win.
Other starting debuts haven’t been as solid. Just this year, Will Smith and Ryan Verdugo made their major league debuts and both were pulled early from the start. Smith was tossed into Yankee Stadium and gave up three homers in 3.1 innings. He’s turned it around and given the Royals some strong outings since. Verdugo was rocked for six runs in 1.2 innings by the Mariners on July 17. He was left off the active roster when it expanded in September.
Even worse than Verdugo’s start was Dan Reichart’s debut (there’s a fun name from the past). In 1.2 innings on July 16, 1999, Reichert gave up seven runs. An inauspicious beginning to a season in which he’d finish with a 9.08 ERA (and to a career that would end with a 5.55 ERA). Another pitcher who was supposed to anchor a Royals rotation was Jim Pittsley. His major league debut was similar to Will Smith‘s – 3.1 innings, five runs allowed and three homers on the road. His debut was exactly 17 years before Smith’s too (May 23, 1995).
Sometimes, though, even good debuts don’t always indicate impending success. Jimmy Gobble debuted with six shutout innings on August 3, 2003 (a win that put the Royals up by two games in the AL Central at that point). He struggled for the next few seasons before looking like an effective reliever in 2007. Then he imploded and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2009. Kyle Snyder threw five innings and gave up only one run on May 1, 2003. He battled injuries and ineffectiveness through his career but had an effective season in relief for the Red Sox in 2007. J.P. Howell was drafted in the first round in 2004, started 2005 in High A but by June 11 of that year, he was making his debut and going five innings, striking out eight in a victory. He started 2006 in Triple A and then was traded for Joey Gathright.
Of course, the fun is in looking back at players that we know have found success and seeing how they performed at the highest level for the first time.
Mark Gubicza? His first start was a good one – six innings and only one run allowed in 1984. Kevin Appier‘s first start in the big leagues wasn’t strong in 1989 (5.1 IP and four runs allowed), but we know that he didn’t let that hold him back once the 1990s started and he was dominant in the first half of the decade.
Then there’s Zack Greinke. At 20 years old on May 22, 2004, he took on Oakland, held them to two runs over five innings and, well, that’s about it. The game went into extra innings and he didn’t factor into the decision. Since, he left the game, moved to the bullpen, won the Cy Young and has since been traded twice. (For the record, Bret Saberhagen‘s major league debut came in relief of Splittorff in 1984. He threw 4.2 scoreless innings a week before his 20th birthday.)
So what’s in store for Odorizzi? We’ll learn that tomorrow. Ned Yost has stated that the result isn’t as important as the experience, that Odorizzi just needs to get the game out of the way and battle at this level. It won’t make or break his career one way or another. He was a top pitching prospect when the year started and he’ll retain that status going into next year. But most importantly, the wait is over.