Baseball BeatJanuary 29, 2007
Categorizing Minor League Pitchers: Part One - The Starters
By Rich Lederer

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Great stuff, as always.

One thing that pops out? The Brewers have some amazing pitching talent in the minors right now.

First I just want to say that this was a fantastic article and I absolutely love the stuff that you're doing here, Rich. One question I have though is how you come up with you lists. I'm guessing that you have an innings limit so you don't come up with a bunch of guys that had 6k's in 3 innings or something like that, but does it limit guys that might have pitched below the innings thresh hold at two different levels? I'm just asking that because I was looking at Cardinal's pitcher Jaime Garcia's data over at minor league splits and noticed that in 77 innings at low A and 81 innings at high a he had a cumulative gb% of over 63% which would rank near the top of your list.

A tiny nitpick, but Jerome Williams pitched in the Cubs and A's organizations last season and was recently signed as a free agent by the Nationals.

Thanks, Joe and Jeff.

I will check on Garcia and add a comment later today. I know he is in the NE quadrant for Low-A (which is the subject of tomorrow's article) and one of just four pitchers who qualified for the 25-50 club.

As it relates to Williams, I was not aware that he had signed with the Nats two weeks ago. I based my comments on information provided by The Baseball Cube, which reported that he pitched for Iowa (AAA) and the Chicago Cubs last season and was claimed off waivers by the Phillies on 9/5/06. Whether he is with the Phillies or Nats doesn't change the fact that his career is going in the wrong direction but thanks for the update.

Thanks Rich. I double checked it and it looks like I forgot to add pop flies and bunts making his gb% closer to 59% than 63%. Another thing I was wondering is why you factor in bunted balls into the gb%. I'm sure it doesn't make all that much difference either way, but it seems like adding bunts is punishing a pitcher if he is bunted against which doesn't seem like it's really in his control. Again, I doubt it makes much difference, but it seems like just disregarding bunts would bring a slightly more accurate idea of a pitchers gb%.

Jeff: The raw data was delivered to me with bunted balls included. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I performed my study with this information. As you point out, the difference between including or excluding bunted balls is minimal, but I would prefer disregarding bunts if I had a choice between the two.

fair enough. thanks again.

Really cool stuff.

Just wondering: did Matt Garza slip through the cracks? I don't see him here or in the MLB starters piece a few weeks back.


As promised, with respect to Jaime Garcia, his combined totals placed him in the NE quadrant although he fell outside the top 25. As a result, he was not listed.

Here are his numbers:

                   K/BF     GB%
Quad Cities  A-   25.72%   60.37%
Palm Beach   A+   15.76    58.65
Combined          20.59    59.42

Garcia put up sensational stats in Low-A but wasn't quite as special once he moved up to High-A. His drop-off in K rate is extremely common, but it is a little bit lower than what I would like to see for a prized prospect. Nonetheless, I like that he is only 20 and has shown an ability to miss bats as well as induce groundballs at a high frequency.

did Matt Garza slip through the cracks?

Yes and no. He wasn't in the study for MLB starters because he failed to throw the minimum 100 IP that I required for inclusion. As I'm sure you know, his K/BF (16.4%) and GB (35.1%) rates with the Twins were a bit disappointing. He would have placed in the southeast quadrant.

Garza wasn't included in today's study for MiLB starters because I arbitrarily used a minimum of 50 IP at each level and 90 IP in total. However, he qualified for my study on AA pitchers, which will be published on Thursday. His K/BF (30.4%) and GB (38.5%) put him among the leaders in the southeast quadrant as ranked by strikeout rates.

Thanks, Rich, and again: really cool stuff. Looking forward to the next installment.

This is fascinating stuff. I'm surious as to where Matsuzaka would fit on that graph - I can't track down stats that detailed for his performance in Japan last year. Any ideas?

Great stuff as usual, Rich.

Whether [Williams] is with the Phillies or Nats doesn't change the fact that his career is going in the wrong direction but thanks for the update

No problem, and no argument there. Just thought you'd like to know.