Is Brandon Ready to Dominate the League?
In the ultra-competitive American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays are relying heavily on a relative unknown in 2007. The hard-throwing Brandon League is expected to replace Justin Speier as the primary set-up man for closer B.J. Ryan. Speier signed a four-year, $18 million free agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this past off-season. League - who possesses a fastball that touches 100 mph but sits around 94-96 mph, an 88-90 mph slider and an 86-90 mph changeup - has the potential to be a dominating pitcher, but he has only pitched 83 major league innings.
League, a high school pitcher in Hawaii, was considered the 53rd best prospect before the June draft in 2001, according to Baseball America. The Blue Jays took him in the second round (after Auburn University's Gabe Gross, now with Milwaukee, in the first round) with the 59th pick. He had committed to Pepperdine University but the Jays convinced him to give pro ball a try with a cheque for $660,000. The buzz in the draft certainly surrounded the first round with such names as Joe Mauer, Mark Prior, Mark Teixeira and even Colt Griffin available.
The second round was a lot quieter and began with Minnesota taking right-handed pitcher (now with Florida) Scott Tyler with the 45th pick. Other interesting names taken before League in the second round included catcher Kelly Shoppach (Boston, now with Cleveland) at 48, football star Roscoe Crosby (Kansas City) at 53, shortstop J.J. Hardy (Milwaukee) at 56, third baseman Dallas McPherson (LA Angels) at 57 and right-handed pitcher Matt Harrington (San Diego) at 58. The three players taken after League included pitchers Garrett Berger (Florida), Matt Chico (Boston) and outfielder Shelley Duncan (New York AL). Arguably the best player taken in the second round after League was right-handed pitcher Dan Haren (St. Louis) at 72.
In his pro debut, League traveled a few thousand miles from Hawaii to Medicine Hat, Alberta (also known as the middle of nowhere). Despite the obvious culture shock, League held his own and posted a 4.62 ERA in 39 innings of work in the starting rotation. He allowed 36 hits, 11 walks and struck out 38 batters. After the season, Baseball America ranked him as Toronto's seventh best prospect, after Josh Phelps, Gross, Jayson Werth, Dustin McGowan, Orlando Hudson and future Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske.
The next year, 2002, League stayed in extended spring training and then reported to Auburn in the New York Penn League as a 19-year-old. His overall numbers improved as he started 16 games and pitched 85 innings. He allowed only 80 hits and 23 walks. He struck out 72 batters. League moved up one spot on Baseball America's Top 10 list to No. 6.
In 2003, League finally made his full-season, A-ball debut in Charleston. He pitched 70 innings and allowed 58 hits and 18 walks. However, his strikeout totals continued to be lower (61) than one might expect from a power pitcher who can touch triple digits. Regardless, League posted a 1.91 ERA and the Jays jumped him up to the Florida State League around mid-season and he pitched another 66 innings for Dunedin. League allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time (76) and walked 20 batters, while striking out 34. His ERA rose to 4.75. Baseball America dropped him to No. 10 after the season and reported that he was having trouble repeating his delivery and staying on top of his slider.
Despite his issues in half a season in Dunedin, the Jays jumped League to Double-A New Hampshire to start the 2004 season, which was also the year he would have to be protected on the 40-man roster. League was shifted to the bullpen for the first time, although he also made 10 starts and pitched a total of 104 innings. He allowed only 92 hits but walked 41 and struck out 91. League posted a 3.38 ERA and his season was good enough to earn him cup of coffee in the majors for the first time. He appeared in three games and pitched 4.2 innings, allowing three hits, no runs, one walk and two strikeouts. League posted a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 3.00. His first appearance came on Sept. 21 against the New York Yankees with the bases loaded and Gary Sheffield at the plate. He proceeded to get Sheffield to ground out weakly and League went on to pitch 1.1 innings of scoreless relief. After the season he was ranked the No. 1 Blue Jays' prospect by Baseball America.
2005 would not be kind to League. He made the Jays' opening day roster with a solid spring and pitched 20 games in the majors and threw 35.2 innings. He posted a 6.56 ERA by allowing 42 hits and 20 walks. League struck out only 17 batters and posted a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 2.10. At Triple-A Syracuse, he posted a 5.71 ERA in 63 innings of work. He allowed 78 hits, 18 walks and struck out only 35 batters. The Jays bounced League between the bullpen and the starting rotation and back again to the pen. He fell back to the No. 7 prospect slot on Baseball America's Top 10 Jays' prospect list.
At the start of 2006 nobody knew what to expect from League - not the Blue Jays' management or the fans. Toronto decided to stick League back in Triple-A in the bullpen and leave him there...in hopes of building his confidence back up. In 54.2 innings of work, League allowed 57 hits, 15 walks and struck out 43 batters. He posted a 2.14 ERA. More importantly, League posted a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 5.78 as he finally began to master working down in the strike zone. When injuries and ineffectiveness took their toll on the big club, however, the Jays finally recalled League and held their breath. But a finally thing happened. The League everyone was waiting for finally arrived. He threw 42.2 innings of work and allowed 34 hits and only nine walks. The one downside to his season was that he continued to struggle with the strikeout, managing only 29. His groundball-to-flyball ratio was 4.53 and his WHIP was 1.01. League struggled against left-handed batters, who hit .323 against him, while righties hit only .239.
As we saw in Rich Lederer's entertaining groundball percentage versus strikeout per batter faced analysis here at Baseball Analysts, League was head and shoulders above other triple-A pitchers in 2006 as far as inducing groundballs (76 per cent). Baltimore's Andy Mitchell (64.55) and Scott Rice (64.49) were second and third, respectively. League also led major league relievers in inducing groundballs with a percentage of 72.87. Texas reliever Wes Littleton was second with a percentage of 70.75. However, League's strikeout ratios remain below average at only 16.76 percent. On one hand, League is keeping his pitch counts down by pitching to contact and trusting his defence. On the other hand, late-inning relievers often find themselves in situations where they really need a strikeout.
By looking at Rich's research, it is clear that the most dominating relievers in the majors have above-average strikeout rates. Those with strikeout rates above 30 percent included Pat Neshek, Joe Nathan, Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez, B.J. Ryan, J.J. Putz and Billy Wagner. Players with high groundball ratios but low strikeout rates, like League, included the aforementioned Littleton, Chad Bradford, Ryan Wagner, Rick White, Chad Qualls and Fausto Carmona. There is a pretty big gap between those two groups of pitchers in terms of dominance in 2006.
Although League, 23, had an encouraging season in 2006, he still has a ways to go to become a dominating, reliable reliever year-in and year-out. Increased strikeout rates, while maintaining his groundball ratios, would go a long way in accomplishing just that. League could be one of those rare players who is actually better in the major leagues than his minor league numbers would indicate for the simple reason that he has better infield defense behind him, as well as improved field conditions. For the Jays to be successful in 2007, they need League - who has arguably the best arm on the staff - to prove that his minor league days are behind him once and for all.