By June 14, those numbers still looked impressive: a 2.92 ERA, 86 strikeouts, 36 walks, four home runs, 74 innings. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Phillies were 33-35 and had two starters on the disabled list, one of whom turned out to be 3 1/2 months away from retirement. Factor in sentiment - Biddle was raised in West Mount Airy and attended Germantown Friends School - and there were very few areas of the city where a humble ball scribe could venture without running into the question, "What about Biddle?"
The answer now is the same as it was then. The kid has plenty of talent. Joe Jordan, the Phillies director of minor league operations, said yesterday that Biddle is better now than Cliff Lee was at his age (Jordan was the area scout who signed Lee after the Expos drafted him in 2000). But it was clear to anybody who watched the 6-4, 225-pound lefty pitch last season that he simply wasn't ready. Including the lefty himself, whom the Phillies ended up shutting down in September due in part to a battle with whooping cough that had lasted for much of the season.
"I could probably stand here and tell you a million different reasons why I sucked at certain points last year, because I did, and it was rough," Biddle said. "I mean, I was at the lowest of my lows that I've had in my baseball career. My high school coach came to see me pitch at Binghamton and I threw two-thirds of an inning, and did not do well. So I can tell you a million different reasons why. I could say it was my illness, I could say it was mechanics, I could say it was mental - the fact is, it was everything. I let certain things affect met that I shouldn't, and at the end of the day, I am so excited for 2014 and I just want to show everybody that I put the work in, I put the time in; this is my passion in life."
Now, Biddle is being a bit hard on himself, which is exactly how you would hope he'd be, as long as he doesn't turn it into psychological self-immolation. Truth is - and the Phillies have told him this - Biddle acquitted himself well last season. He finished with a 3.64 ERA in 27 starts, striking out an average of 10 batters per nine innings and surrendering less than one homer per nine. Compare that with Lee's performance during his 21-year-old season, when he walked 36 batters in 44 2/3 innings (an average of 7.3 per nine) while competing two levels below where Biddle spent 2013.
But fastball command is an issue - The Issue - for Biddle as he attempts to make that transition from "developing nicely" to "major league ready." Last year, Biddle walked 82 batters in 138 1/3 innings, an average of 5.3 per nine. Even during his good outings he would have stretches of three or four or five batters where the ball did not appear to do what he wanted it do, screaming toward the opposite side of the plate, or up and out of the strike zone.
All of this is common stuff for a young hurler, particularly, for whatever reason, a tall lefty. Randy Johnson walked 8.2 batters per nine as a 23-year-old at Double A. In the six starts Cole Hamels made in the minors in 2005 as a 21-year-old, he issued 4.9 BB/9. Clayton Kershaw walked 6.2 BB/9 in his first stint at Double A and averaged 4.6 BB/9 in his first two seasons in the majors (as a 20- and 21-year-old). On and on it goes. CC Sabathia (4.8 BB/9 at Double A), Chris Sale (5.2 BB/9 in the only 11 minor league appearances of his life, all as a 21-year-old), Travis Wood (4.9 BB/9 as a 21-year-old at A+ and AA).
"Consistency, fastball command: For me, it's very, very simple with Jesse," Jordan said, "because if you grade out all of his pitches last year, even though his command wasn't what it needed to be, if you grade the pitches out compared to the year before, it was much better. I mean, way more fastball. It's harness."
How quickly Biddle harnesses his stuff will determine whether he can fill a gaping void on the 40-man roster. There is a reason why the Phillies never wavered on whether to offer arbitration to Kyle Kendrick, who posted a 6.04 ERA in his last 17 starts, or why they felt the need to spend $5 million on Roberto Hernandez, whom the Rays had relegated to the bullpen by the end of last season, or why their projected No. 5 starter is a Cuban defector who hasn't pitched competitively in two seasons. With lefty Adam Morgan lost for the year with a shoulder injury, Biddle is one of the few - perhaps the only - serious pitching prospect who will start the season at Double A or Triple A.
Injuries will happen, and at this point, the options for filling them are few. That presents an opportunity for somebody like Biddle. But as last season showed, there is no sense in rushing things.