Week after week, eye-popping pitching line after eye-popping pitching line, Phillies officials tried to put Andrew Painter’s season in context. It wasn’t easy because few witnessed anything like it.
It began in Clearwater, Fla., where Painter amassed a 1.40 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 38⅔ innings over nine starts in low-A ball. It continued in Lakewood, NJ, high A, with a 0.98 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 36⅔ innings over eight starts. And it wound up at double-A Reading, where the 6-foot-7 right-hander had a 2.54 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 28⅓ innings over five starts.
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Recently, after a seven-inning, nine-strikeout gem in Painter’s third double-A start, a conversation began, mostly for kicks, about pitchers who made a major-league start at age 19. In the last 20 years, there were four : Julio Urías (2016), Madison Bumgarner (2009), Félix Hernández (2005), and Edwin Jackson (2003). That’s it. That’s the list.
The Phillies never considered adding Painter’s name. Not this year, at least. But there’s still time. He doesn’t turn 20 until April 10, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski noted over the summer that he has never been afraid to fast-track pitching phenoms to the big leagues after a short stint in the minors.
“He has the capabilities to be as good as any young pitcher that I’ve been around,” Dombrowski said this week before the Phillies presented Painter with the Paul Owens Award as their top minor league pitcher. “And when I say that, there’s been some really good ones that I’ve been around.”
Indeed, Dombrowski is something of an expert in this area. He was a young executive with the Chicago White Sox when Britt Burns made his major-league debut as a 19-year-old in 1978 and a year later when Richard Dotson came up at age 20. Dombrowski was calling the shots in Detroit when the Tigers gave rotation spots to 20-year-olds Jeremy Bonderman and Rick Porcello in 2003 and 2009, respectively.
And a few weeks ago, when the subject turned to Painter, Dombrowski brought up another former whiz kid: Josh Beckett.
Dombrowski ran the Florida Marlins’ baseball operations in 1999 when they drafted Beckett with the No. 2 overall pick out of a Texas high school. Painter was Dombrowski’s first first-round pick with the Phillies, 13th overall last year out of Calvary Christian High School in Florida. Like Painter, Beckett was tall (6-foot-5) and right-handed, with an upper-90s fastball that earned him the nickname “Kid Heat.” He also buckled hitters’ knees with his curveball and slowed their bats with a changeup, secondary pitches that are part of Painter’s repertoire, along with a wicked slider.
Beckett spent two years on the farm before getting called up, at age 21, for the final month of a 2001 season that began with his throwing 39 consecutive scoreless innings in high A (Painter had a 32-inning scoreless streak this summer) and included seven innings of a combined no-hitter in double A. He had a 1.50 ERA in four September starts for the out-of-contention Marlins, then took a regular turn in their rotation in 2002.
A year after that, Beckett tossed a five-hit shutout at Yankee Stadium in the clinching game of the World Series.
“Just a heck of a competitor and great stuff,” said Phillies third base coach Dusty Wathan, who caught Beckett at double-A Portland in 2001. “From what I’ve seen of Painter on video — I haven’t got to see him throw in person, really — it’s kind of the same build, same arsenal. I don’t know him personally yet, but from what I hear, he could be the same thing. And if it is, man, that’s something special.”
The minor league numbers are almost a mirror image.
Beckett in 2001: 1.54 ERA, 38.7% strikeout rate, 6.5% walk rate in 140 innings over 25 starts.
Painter in 2022: 1.56 ERA, 38.7% strikeout rate, 6.2% walk rate in 103⅔ innings over 22 starts.
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“Without drawing individual comparisons — because those end up being mighty high when you start talking about Josh Becketts and Jeremy Bondermans and Rick Porcellos, Britt Burnses, Richard Dotsons, guys who I’ve been around who pitched at 20 years old or 21 years old — [Painter] can be as good as any of those pitchers,” Dombrowski said. “He’s got tremendous abilities, he’s a hard worker. He’s a guy that, he’s got multiple pitches. He’s a good athlete. He really almost touches everything that you want to have in a young pitcher.”
Matt Hockenberry knew all about those physical attributes before Painter arrived in Reading last month as the youngest player in the Eastern League. But what the double-A pitching coach had to see for himself, and what wound up catching his attention right away, was Painter’s feel for pitching.
In A-ball, Painter and fellow first-round pick Mick Abel could have been effective if they threw only high-octane heaters. Instead, they worked with the coaches to refine their secondary pitches and study how to best deploy them.
Painter, for instance, said he noticed that double-A hitters initially tried to sit on his fastball. Once he threw his curveball and changeup more often, they had to respect those pitches. The changeup, in particular, disrupted hitters’ timing and made the fastball seem even faster.
“The thing that is the most impressive is his mentality and maturity when it comes to legitimate baseball conversation and what he’s trying to accomplish day in and day out,” Hockenberry said. “It isn’t just in-game pitching stuff. It’s his preparation and his understanding of how to go through a week and what he’s trying to accomplish in every bullpen before his next start. It’s just really impressive that he’s 19 years old with the maturity of an upper-level guy.”
Wathan recalled a similar seriousness of purpose with Beckett and Cole Hamels. Beckett and Hamels knew they were bound for the majors, according to Wathan, but wanted more than to merely get there. They wanted to stay for a long time.
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Painter is the Phillies’ most touted pitching prospect since Hamels, a first-round pick out of high school in 2002 who made his major-league debut in 2006 at age 22. Hamels would have arrived sooner if not for injuries, including a broken hand suffered in a bar fight in Clearwater before the 2005 season.
Dombrowski said Painter, Abel, and fellow pitching prospect Griff McGarry will be invited to major-league spring training. The Phillies may have at least one vacancy in the rotation, with Kyle Gibson, Noah Syndergaard, and possibly Zach Eflin eligible for free agency. There will be opportunity.
“Nothing has been said like that,” Painter said. “I’m going into the offseason like I always do — get in the weight room and prepare for spring training no matter what, whether it’s double A, triple A, or here throughout the year.
“It’s all moving pretty fast. It’s kind of hard to get a grip on it. I was thinking about it earlier, how this first year has gone by quick. It’s weird to think how, in the beginning of the year, I was in Clearwater, then I was at three different locations. It’s definitely moved quickly.”
If Painter makes his major-league debut next season, he would be the Phillies’ youngest pitcher since Mark Davis made nine starts as a 20-year-old in 1981.
Does Painter think he’s ready?
“One hundred percent,” he said. “If they’re ready for that.”
Painter will spend the offseason in South Florida, where he trains at Cressey Sports Performance, a facility that was co-founded by Phillies director of pitching Brian Kaplan. Among the pitchers who train at Cressey: Justin Verlander, another former phenom with a Dombrowski connection.
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The Tigers drafted Verlander with the No. 2 overall pick in 2004. Thirteen months later, at age 22, the 6-foot-5 right-hander had a 1.29 ERA and 30% strikeout rate in 118⅔ innings before Dombrowski called him up directly from double A.
Dombrowski intentionally leaves out Verlander from his list of fast-tracked pitchers because the two-time Cy Young Award winner and 2011 American League MVP got drafted out of Old Dominion. College pitchers tend to move through the minors more quickly than high school pitchers.
But Painter listed Verlander as his role model. When he sees him in the offseason, he tends to keep his distance. This winter, they may have more to talk about.
Dombrowski would encourage the conversation. Because it takes more than talent to fulfill the promise of a pitching prodigy. Wathan listed a third pitcher among the best he caught in the minors: Ryan Anderson, a 6-foot-10 lefty in the Seattle Mariners organization who didn’t make it out of triple A because of shoulder injuries that either stemmed from or sparked questions about his work clothes.
“One thing with every one of those guys,” Dombrowski said, listing off his collection of young pitchers, “is that they were all driven to be great. Every single one of them. They had tremendous work ethic, and even though they were good, really good, they all continued to work along those same lines. I do not think [Painter] will fall off from a work ethic [standpoint] from what we know of him. I think he’ll only improve in that regard.
“I don’t see any reason why he cannot be as good as those guys. I think he has the chance to be a really, really fine big-league pitcher.”
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