Categorizing Minor League Pitchers: Part One - The Starters
Earlier this month, I published a two-part special designed to categorize major league starters and relievers by batted ball types and strikeout rates. I am going to continue this project by analyzing minor league pitchers this week, beginning with starters today and covering all pitchers by level of classification from Tuesday through Friday.
Strikeout and groundball tendencies can tell us more about pitchers than win-loss records, ERAs, and most opinions. Pitchers who combine high K and GB rates are almost always successful. Conversely, pitchers who combine low K and GB rates are rarely successful.
It's no secret that strikeouts are the best outcome for a pitcher. Next to infield flies, grounders are the least harmful among batted ball types. Although groundballs result in a higher batting average than fly balls, their run impact is lower because the hits are usually limited to singles and an occasional double down the first or third base line, whereas balls in the air that turn into hits become doubles, triples, or home runs.
Groundball rates are an important predictor of home runs because the latter can be influenced to a much greater degree by park factors, which vary significantly from one minor league stop to another. Keep in mind that no attempt has been made to adjust the data for classification, league, or park factors.
To provide a visual aid, the strikeout and groundball rates for all minor league starters with 90 or more innings have been plotted in the graph below. The x-axis is strikeouts per batter faced (K/BF) and the y-axis is groundball percentage (GB%). The graph is divided into four quadrants with the mid-point equal to the average K/BF of 18.42% and the average GB% of 45.68%.
The northeast quadrant is comprised of pitchers with above-average strikeout and groundball rates; the southeast quadrant encompasses pitchers with above-average strikeout and below-average groundball rates; the northwest quadrant is made up of pitchers with above-average groundball and below-average strikeout rates; and the southwest quadrant is the home for pitchers with below-average strikeout and groundball rates.
Most of the outlying names in the northeast and southeast quadrants were highlighted last year when I ran a three-part series on Screening for Pitching Prospects. Rather than using K/BF and GB%, I sorted pitchers by high K/9 and low HR/9 rates.
I have listed the top 25 pitchers in the northeast quadrant by strikeout rate. Ages are as of July 1, 2007. Organizations, for the most part, are updated to include trades. Levels are based on classifications where the pitcher threw at least 50 innings in 2006. Stats have been combined for those who competed at more than one level, provided they pitched a minimum of 50 innings at each of the stops.
NORTHEAST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG K AND GB RATES)
PITCHER AGE ORG LEV K/BF GB%
Yovani Gallardo 21 MIL A+/AA 31.70% 47.14%
Philip Hughes 21 NYY AA 31.44 50.72
T. J. Nall 26 LAD AA 28.17 46.61
Wade Davis 21 TB A 27.82 48.25
Franklin Morales 21 COL A+ 27.37 53.18
Michael Bowden 20 BOS A 27.09 51.10
Dana Eveland 23 MIL AAA 26.42 53.05
Samuel Deduno 23 COL A+ 26.18 60.26
Chi-Hung Cheng 22 TOR A 25.84 49.48
Adam Miller 22 CLE AA 25.61 53.92
Sean Gallagher 21 CHC A+/AA 25.33 51.24
Carlos Carrasco 20 PHI A 25.21 48.23
Tom Gorzelanny 24 PIT AAA 25.20 45.88
John Bannister 23 TEX A+ 25.06 49.64
Jonathon Niese 20 NYM A 24.67 48.84
Mitch Talbot 23 TB AA 24.41 50.68
Cory Wade 24 LAD A 24.35 53.15
Renyel Pinto 24 FLA AAA 23.94 47.71
Ryan Tucker 20 FLA A 23.33 47.99
Kevin Roberts 23 MIL A 23.13 46.60
Justin Thomas 23 SEA A/A+ 23.01 51.02
Kason Gabbard 25 BOS AA/AAA 22.92 59.13
Adam Daniels 24 STL A 22.70 51.75
Jonathan Barratt 22 TB A+ 22.52 47.76
Zach Ward 23 MIN A 22.20 67.44
When separating the wheat from the chaff, it helps to look at age vs. level. Yovani Gallardo, Philip Hughes, and Sean Gallagher all pitched in Double-A as 20-year-olds. T.J. Nall pitched in Double-A as a 25-year-old. All else being equal, you take the younger pitcher every time. Nall isn't the only Dodgers hurler that needs to be discounted due to his age. Cory Wade spent the majority of the season pitching in Low-A as a 23-year-old. He was promoted to High-A (Vero Beach, Florida State League) and got clobbered (2-4, 8.24 ERA with 9 HR in 39.1 IP). Despite Wade's excellent K and GB rates at Low-A, he is NOT a legitimate prospect. [Update: Nall signed with the Washington Nationals as a minor league free agent on 11/6/06.]
Gallardo won't turn 21 until next month, yet is about as polished and mature as any minor leaguer. Milwaukee's second-round draft pick in 2004 ate up hitters in A+ (6-3, 2.09 ERA) and AA (5-2, 1.63) although his K and GB rates dipped at the higher level. The righthander out of Mexico led the minors with 188 strikeouts in 155 combined innings while only allowing 104 hits and 6 HR. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he combines size with stuff (including a low-90s fastball, a slider, and changeup), command, and performance. Unlike Nall and Wade, Gallardo is the real deal.
Hughes, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound righthander, went 12-6 with a 2.16 ERA in 146 combined innings in the Florida State (A+) and Eastern (AA) Leagues. The first-round draft choice in 2004 was a dominant force down the stretch (5-0, 1.43 with 62 SO, 21 H, and 9 BB in 44 IP) and in the first game of the playoffs (13 punchouts in 6 IP vs. Portland, the team that won the EL championship). He throws a heavy two-seam fastball, a four-seamer that sits at 93-95, a plus curve, and is working on developing his changeup. Hughes will begin the season in Triple-A at the Yankees' new Scranton/Wilkes Barre affiliate and should reach the Big Apple no later than this summer.
Gallagher, while not nearly in the class of Gallardo or Hughes, has been overlooked by many prospect analysts. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound righthander sported an 11-5 record and a 2.51 ERA with 171 SO in 164.2 combined IP in the FSL and Southern League (AA). However, the big jump in Gallagher's walk rate (5.73 BB/9) when he was promoted to West Tennessee bears watching this year. The youngster may have tried to be "too fine" rather than trusting his stuff against the older competition.
Special mention also goes to Franklin Morales, Michael Bowden, Dana Eveland, Samuel Deduno, and Adam Miller for being part of the 25-50 club. 25% K rate. 50% GB rate. The combination is rare at any level. Among major leaguers, only one starting pitcher (Francisco Liriano) and four relievers (Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz, Dennys Reyes, and Billy Wagner) pierced both marks last year.
Speaking of Liriano, Colorado Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said Morales has "Francisco Liriano-type ability." The lefthander struck out 16 batters in a 7-inning game last year and has whiffed 369 and walked 176 batters in 315.1 career frames. He works in the mid-90s and has reportedly touched the upper-90s. K/GB types like Morales and Deduno at Coors Field would help mitigate the disadvantage of pitching in such extreme altitude.
Zach Ward was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the third round in 2005. The pride of Gardner-Webb University made his pro debut in Low-A in 2006 and went 7-0 with a 2.29 ERA before being traded to the Minnesota Twins for Kyle Lohse in July. What makes Ward unique is his MiLB-high (among pitchers with at least 100 innings) GB rate of 67.44%. With a heavy fastball that sits in the low-90s and a hard slider, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound righthander allowed only 3 HR in 144.1 IP last year. He is a long ways from the bigs but is an intriguing prospect to say the least.
The following are the top 20 pitchers in the southeast quadrant by strikeout rate.
SOUTHEAST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG K AND BELOW-AVG GB RATES)
PITCHER AGE ORG LEV K/BF GB%
Rich Hill 27 CHC AAA 36.78% 43.84%
Will Inman 20 MIL A 32.06 40.98
Alexander Smit 21 MIN A 31.97 33.46
Jacob McGee 20 TB A 30.92 41.49
Brandon Erbe 19 BAL A 29.42 35.25
Eduardo Morlan 21 MIN A 29.41 34.47
Clay Buchholz 22 BOS A 29.40 44.23
Scott Elbert 21 LAD A+/AA 29.17 38.40
Donald Veal 22 CHN A/A+ 28.86 36.26
Homer Bailey 21 CIN A+/AA 28.31 45.07
Scott Lewis 23 CLE A+ 27.83 41.02
Scott Mathieson 23 PHI AA 27.50 38.75
Tyler Clippard 22 NYY AA 27.09 42.35
Francisco Cruceta 25 TEX AAA 26.97 39.95
Glen Perkins 24 MIN AA 26.91 37.38
Raymar Diaz 23 HOU A 26.82 37.93
Johnny Cueto 21 CIN A/A+ 26.78 44.66
Kevin Slowey 23 MIN A+/AA 26.77 39.90
Radhames Liz 24 BAL A+/AA 26.56 40.88
Humberto Sanchez 24 NYY AA/AAA 26.54 44.48
Rich Hill (7-1, 1.80 ERA with 135 SO in 100 IP) dominated the Pacific Coast League last spring and earned a promotion to the Chicago Cubs. After going 0-4 with a 9.31 ERA in his first four starts, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound southpaw went 6-3 with a 2.92 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and 8.89 K/9. He turns 27 in March.
As of next week, Will Inman will no longer be a teenager. The third-round draft pick in 2005 overcame a sore right shoulder early in the season to go 10-2 with a 1.71 ERA at West Virginia in the South Atlantic League. His peripheral stats (10.90 K/9, 1.95 BB/9, and 0.24 HR/9) were among the best in the minors. The three HR he allowed last year all came in his final two starts. Inman can flat out pitch. His durability and stuff will dictate just how good he becomes.
Maybe I'm just partial to Dutch pitchers but Alexander Smit baffled Midwest League hitters when he became a starting pitcher in the second half of the season. The lefthander fashioned a 5-1 record with a 2.31 ERA while punching out 106 batters over 78 IP. He has fanned more than 12 per nine innings during his minor league career.
Jacob McGee and Wade Davis (with the fourth-highest K/BF rate in the northeast quadrant) formed a strong 1-2 punch for Southwest Michigan in the Midwest League. McGee K'd 171 batters in 134 innings. The southpaw has a lively fastball that he can dial up to around 95-96 mph on occasion. He is far from a finished project but has the size, stuff, and handedness that make scouts sit up and take notice.
Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Humberto Sanchez, and Clay Buchholz fell just below the average GB rate and missed placing in the northeast quadrant. That said, it's much better to have a K/BF rate 10 percentage points above the norm with league-average GB tendencies than the other way around.
The next table lists the top dozen pitchers in the northwest quadrant ranked by GB rates. A few pitchers in this group may stick in the majors but not nearly the same number or percentage as those in the northeast or southeast quadrants. Pitchers who miss bats are the most likely to graduate to the majors but keeping the ball on the ground is the next best avenue to the Show.
NORTHWEST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG GB AND BELOW-AVG K RATES)
PITCHER AGE ORG LEV K/BF GB%
Dallas Trahern 21 DET A+ 14.70% 64.13%
Brad James 23 HOU A 13.86 63.27
Jack Cassel 27 SD AA/AAA 18.17 62.07
Justin Berg 23 CHC A+ 16.21 61.84
Ryan Shaver 22 SF A 14.23 61.32
Anthony Cupps 24 ARI A 12.59 61.21
Burke Badenhop 24 DET A 18.13 59.59
Jake Dittler 24 CLE AAA 9.44 59.58
Wesley Whisler 24 CWS A+ 11.59 59.45
Jamie Vermilyea 25 TOR AAA 13.47 59.39
Chris Volstad 20 FLA A 15.58 59.15
Aaron Laffey 22 CLE AA 13.32 58.56
Dallas Trahern is a classic groundball pitcher who throws strikes and keeps the ball in the yard. A 34th-round draft pick out of high school, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound righthander throws a sinking fastball in the low-90s and a hard slider. He's been moving up one level per year and is likely to be assigned to Erie in the Eastern League (AA) as a 21-year-old. Like most of the pitchers in this group, Trahern suffers from a lower-than-desirable strikeout rate.
The biggest name and body belongs to Chris Volstad, one of Florida's five first-round draft picks in 2005. The 6-foot-7 RHP struggled in the early part of 2006 (including 1-4, 5.94 in May), then went 6-1 with a 1.53 ERA in the second half. He is an extreme groundball pitcher who gave up 21 unearned runs in 152 IP last year. Volstad and his fellow first rounders are slated for High-A Jupiter in the Florida State League this spring.
The southwest quadrant is not the place you want to be if your goal is to earn a major league pension. The bottom half dozen pitchers ranked by strikeout rate would be best served by learning a new pitch, approach, or occupation.
SOUTHWEST QUADRANT (BELOW-AVG GB AND K RATES)
PITCHER AGE ORG LEV K/BF GB%
Chris Hunter 26 LAA AA 8.38% 43.58%
Sean Burnett 24 PIT AAA 9.00 43.48
Luis Atilano 22 WAS A+ 9.41 44.07
Tim Kester 35 BAL AAA 10.49 45.10
Jerome Williams 25 PHI AAA 10.77 42.44
A. J. Shappi 24 ARI A+ 11.03 40.22
Sean Burnett may be too young to cut loose at this point, but the former first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates is no longer the highly regarded prospect he once was as a high school All-American in 2000 or the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002 or the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year in 2002 or the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year in 2003. In fairness to Burnett, he had elbow surgery in April 2005 and missed the entire season. His career is on the line in 2007.
Jerome Williams threw 260 innings in the big leagues and won 17 games for the Giants before his 23rd birthday. A first-round selection in 1999, the native of Honolulu was assigned to Low-A ball his first year out of high school, then progressed one level per year until reaching the majors in 2003. He was traded to the Cubs in 2005 and claimed off waivers by the Phillies in September 2006. Williams is only 25 but his career is going in the wrong direction.
Tim Kester, on the other hand, is a minor league lifer. He has been pitching professionally since 1993 but has never thrown a single pitch in the majors. Drafted by the Yankees in 1990 and 1991, Kester didn't sign until he was selected by the Astros in 1993. The righthander has been employed by Houston, Boston, and Baltimore, working 1,482 innings for 10 different minor league clubs. If nothing else, Kester has traveled extensively and would be a good person to ask for motel accommodations in rural and suburban towns across the country.
I will break down the 2006 K and GB rates for pitchers (including relievers) in Low-A on Tuesday, High-A on Wednesday, Double-A on Thursday, and Triple-A on Friday.
A special thanks to Jeff Sackmann of Minor League Splits for gathering the raw data and David Appelman of FanGraphs for providing the graphs throughout the five-part series.