Categorizing Minor League Pitchers: Part Five - Triple-A
Today marks the final installment of our five-part series on categorizing minor league pitchers by strikeout and groundball rates. We end on a high note - or at least at the highest level in the minors - Triple-A (also known as AAA). The Triple-A classification comprises just two leagues: International (IL) and Pacific Coast (PCL).
Although there is a meaningful difference in league ERAs, the other "defense independent" numbers are more in-line with one another. Studying K/BF and GB% focuses on strikeout and home run rates rather than ERAs, allowing for a better "apples to apples" comparison among pitchers performing at the same level but in different leagues. The PCL is clearly the more friendly circuit for hitters but the impact on K, BB, and HR rates is minimal.
STARTERS RELIEVERS ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 | ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 IL 4.03 6.46 3.03 0.82 3.53 7.71 3.40 0.67 PCL 4.46 6.62 3.25 0.95 4.27 7.72 3.81 0.87
Triple-A is somewhat unique in that most pitchers are working their way up to the big leagues while many others are either on their way down or are nothing more than what are known as AAAA caliber players (i.e., better than AAA but not quite good enough to cut it in MLB). Rule of thumb: pitchers under the age of 25 have a chance to make it big in the majors; hurlers in the 26-28 camp may have success but are even better candidates for AAAA; and those who are approaching their 30th birthdays are normally on their way back down or are minor league lifers.
The graph below includes strikeout and groundball data for every pitcher in Triple-A with 50 or more innings. 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 17.91% and the average GB% of 44.61%.
Sixty-two pitchers out of a total of 308 (or 20%) placed in the northeast quadrant. The following list includes the top half, ranked by K/BF.
NORTHEAST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG K AND GB RATES)
PITCHER TEAM LG K/BF GB% Pat Neshek MIN IL 37.18% 48.48% Colter Bean NYY IL 31.96% 46.00% Shaun Marcum TOR IL 28.85% 48.23% Hong-Chih Kuo LAD PCL 28.38% 44.93% Jamie Shields TB IL 27.23% 50.89% Josh Kinney STL PCL 27.05% 53.41% Chad Billingsley LAD PCL 26.99% 45.65% Dana Eveland MIL PCL 26.42% 53.05% Tom Gorzelanny PIT IL 25.20% 45.88% Scott Dunn TB IL 25.18% 49.45% Brian Falkenborg STL PCL 25.00% 45.03% Jason Windsor OAK PCL 24.50% 45.61% Hayden Penn BAL IL 24.36% 45.61% Renyel Pinto FLA PCL 23.94% 47.71% Kevin Cameron MIN IL 23.81% 52.97% Dustin McGowan TOR IL 23.76% 53.94% Brian Slocum CLE IL 23.48% 50.20% Erick Burke SD PCL 22.83% 45.85% Ryan Houston TOR IL 22.52% 45.45% J. P. Howell TB IL 22.48% 46.20% C. J. Nitkowski PIT IL 22.44% 60.23% Kason Gabbard BOS IL 22.22% 58.90% Jason Hammel TB IL 22.08% 46.25% Jake Robbins CIN IL 22.03% 49.36% Nick Masset TEX PCL 21.81% 50.71% Brad Clontz FLA PCL 21.69% 48.55% Dustin Nippert ARI PCL 21.42% 45.52% Jonathan Johnson ATL IL 21.40% 50.65% Dennis Sarfate MIL PCL 21.31% 46.98% Jose Rodriguez TB IL 20.53% 52.73%
Pat Neshek, who had the highest strikeout rate (37.18%) among all Triple-A pitchers, was called up to the majors by the Twins last summer and put up the highest K/BF (38.41%) among big-league hurlers as well. Increasing one's K rate after jumping any level, much less from AAA to the majors, is an impressive feat. The reliever with the funky sidearm delivery saw his groundball rate plummet from 48.48% to 31.58% once he reached Minnesota. His ability to get LHB out and keep the ball in the park will determine whether he can sustain his success at the highest level.
There were a number of other pitchers in the NE quadrant who made a positive impact for their parent clubs in the majors last year, including (among starters) Shaun Marcum (TOR), Hong-Chih Kuo and Chad Billingsley (LAD), Jamie Shields and J.P. Howell (TB), and Tom Gorzelanny (PIT). Several others got pounded upon their promotion, most notably Hayden Penn, who went 0-4 with a 15.10 ERA, lowlighted by 38 hits and 8 HR, 13 BB, and 8 SO in 19.2 IP.
Although not shown in the table above, another relief pitcher - Brandon League - was an outlier in terms of K/GB at AAA and MLB. Like Neshek, League was featured last month when I covered major-league starters and relievers. An extreme groundball pitcher, the 24-year-old set-up man for the Blue Jays saw his K (19.20% AAA/16.76% MLB) and GB (76.65%/72.87%) rates hold up rather well in Toronto.
Eighty-nine pitchers (or 29%) placed in the southeast quadrant. The top third are listed below.
SOUTHEAST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG K AND BELOW-AVG GB RATES)
PITCHER TEAM LG K/BF GB% Rich Hill CHC PCL 36.78% 43.84% Brad Salmon CIN IL 32.43% 35.88% Jered Weaver LAA PCL 31.85% 30.89% Julio Manon BAL IL 30.50% 35.00% Winston Abreu BAL IL 28.78% 35.26% Craig Breslow BOS IL 28.62% 42.77% Travis Hughes WAS PCL 28.52% 43.02% Jose Veras NYY IL 28.33% 42.77% Jonah Bayliss PIT IL 27.59% 36.43% Francisco Cruceta SEA PCL 26.97% 39.95% Matt Roney OAK PCL 26.75% 41.10% Marty McLeary PIT IL 26.68% 43.51% Edinson Volquez TEX PCL 26.05% 42.90% Aquilino Lopez SD PCL 25.99% 32.40% Jason Bergmann WAS PCL 25.51% 26.67% Mike Meyers MIL PCL 25.29% 38.55% Eric Hull LAD PCL 25.23% 43.63% Anthony Reyes STL PCL 25.08% 39.50% Angel Guzman CHC PCL 24.92% 38.25% Scott Strickland PIT IL 24.91% 32.68% John Wasdin TEX PCL 24.90% 41.04% Carlos Villanueva MIL PCL 24.68% 35.26% Andy Cavazos STL PCL 24.66% 35.85% Wayne Franklin ATL IL 24.53% 38.89% John Danks CWS PCL 24.11% 37.63% Robinson Tejeda TEX PCL 23.80% 41.51% Mike Burns CIN IL 23.74% 41.51% Kazuhito Tadano OAK PCL 23.62% 40.23% Wilfredo Ledezma DET IL 23.57% 34.85% Hyang-Nam Choi CLE IL 23.57% 39.33%
Rich Hill and Jered Weaver stand out not only for their performance in Triple-A, but both pitchers showed they could get big-league hitters out as well. Hill was featured on Monday when I looked at all starting pitchers in the minors with 90 or more innings. Weaver fell short of qualifying by 13 frames but thoroughly dominated AAA hitters in a tough league and ballpark for pitchers when he posted a 6-1 record with a 2.10 ERA and a 9.3 K/BB ratio. The 6-foot-7 righthander, who also placed in the southeast quadrant in the majors, went 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 19 GS covering 123 IP for the Angels.
Anthony Reyes was called up to the Cardinals and struggled during the regular season (5-8, 5.06) but redeemed himself by winning Game One of the World Series when he held the Tigers to only two runs in eight-plus innings.
Eighty-two pitchers (27%) landed in the northwest quadrant. The following table includes the top quartile.
NORTHWEST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG GB AND BELOW-AVG K RATES)
PITCHER TEAM LG K/BF GB% Andy Mitchell BAL IL 16.67% 64.55% Scott Rice BAL IL 13.67% 64.49% Zach McClellan COL PCL 16.90% 63.38% Jack Cassel SD PCL 12.83% 60.29% Jake Dittler CLE IL 9.44% 59.58% Jamie Vermilyea TOR IL 13.47% 59.39% Kevin Gryboski WAS PCL 16.23% 59.30% Shane Loux KC PCL 9.47% 59.22% Danny Graves CLE IL 12.74% 58.72% Terry Adams PIT IL 17.14% 57.82% Beau Kemp MIN IL 9.51% 57.10% Lance Cormier ATL IL 11.74% 56.99% Chris Sampson HOU PCL 13.99% 56.97% Clint Nageotte SEA PCL 12.72% 56.62% Sun-Woo Kim COL PCL 13.45% 56.22% Tim LaVigne NYM IL 14.94% 55.98% Jason Scobie TOR IL 14.94% 55.79% Joe Mays CIN IL 14.98% 55.45% Franquelis Osoria LAD PCL 11.24% 55.00% Brian O'Connor ATL IL 12.07% 54.80%
None of the starters in the above table strike my fancy as pitchers to watch. A number of them are older or perhaps back-of-the-bullpen types. However, there is one pitcher - Jeremy Sowers (14.29%/49.83%) - who fell into the northwest quadrant, although not shown, who has had success at every stop along the way, including his foray in the bigs last season. The crafty lefthander, who was the #1 pitching prospect in the International League (9-1, 1.39), went 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA for Cleveland. His K/9 rate has declined from 9.46 in A+ to 7.65 in AA to 4.99 in AAA to 3.57 in MLB. The good news is that it can't go down much more from that level.
Seventy-five pitchers (24%) found themselves in the southwest quadrant. The bottom six are listed below.
SOUTHWEST QUADRANT (BELOW-AVG GB AND K RATES)
PITCHER TEAM LG K/BF GB% Sean Burnett PIT IL 9.00% 43.48% Jerome Williams WAS PCL 10.77% 42.44% Chris Michalak CIN IL 11.34% 40.97% R. A. Dickey TEX PCL 11.34% 44.34% Matt Wilhite LAA PCL 11.36% 43.17% Randy Leek STL PCL 11.86% 36.36%