Baseball BeatFebruary 02, 2007
Categorizing Minor League Pitchers: Part Five - Triple-A
By Rich Lederer

Part One: The Starters
Part Two: Low-A
Part Three: High-A
Part Four: Double-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.


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.


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.


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.


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%

I'm not going to pan Sean Burnett and Jerome Williams again. They both received my wrath on Monday. In the spirit of double jeopardy, I will withhold any additional comments.