Hidden Gem: Ramon Troncoso

Last week, the Dodgers decided not to tender an offer to Takashi Saito, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball since coming over from Japan in 2006. The elbow problems that sidelined him for two months certainly played a factor, as did the presence of Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chi Kuo, and the surprise of the ’08 bullpen, Cory Wade. With those three youngsters all coming off wildly successful seasons, the Dodgers were willing to let Saito go, believing that they had capable late inning relievers already on the roster.

However, there may be another reason they were willing to part with Saito – Ramon Troncoso. He doesn’t have the prospect pedigree of Broxton or Kuo or the shiny 2008 ERA of Wade, and if didn’t follow the Dodgers closely last year, there’s a good chance you may have never heard of Troncoso. However, if I was going to pick one guy who had a chance to emerge as the Next Big Thing from obscurity, I’d go with Troncoso – he’s the hidden gem of young hurlers right now.

Troncoso’s big weapon is a heavy power sinker, and it’s one of the best in the game. The average velocity on his fastball was 92.8 MPH last year, which is outstanding velocity for a sinkerball pitcher. 17 major league pitchers sported a GB% of 60% or higher last year, and only Troncoso, Fausto Carmona, and Brandon League had an average fastball velocity of 92.0 MPH or higher.

Carmona’s actually an excellent comparison for Troncoso, skills wise. Both throw something that could be considered a turbo sinker, pounding the strike zone with high velocity sinkers that both cause groundballs and cause hitters to swing and miss. In 2006, when Carmona worked mostly in relief for Cleveland, he posted a 59.6% GB% and hitters made contact 76.8% of the time. Last year in Los Angeles, Troncoso posted a 60.8% GB% and hitters made contact 74.5% of the time.

Carmona was viewed as something of a disappointment in 2006, as his ERA was driven up by a .341 batting average on balls in play and a 13.8% HR/FB rate, both of which were mostly out of his control. His home-run adjusted FIP was 4.46, a full run lower than his 5.42 ERA, and suggested that his debut season had been quite a bit better than most people believed. Obviously, we remember his breakthrough 2007 season where he took his power sinker to the rotation and became one of the best young pitchers in baseball.

Troncoso seems to be going through a similar period of a lack or recognition for his ’08 campaign. His 4.26 ERA doesn’t draw amazement, especially for an NL relief pitcher, but that’s based on a .336 batting average on balls in play – his 3.00 FIP is tremendous, especially for a kid making his major league debut. It’s pretty amazing that there’s such a little amount of talk about a 25-year-old who just posted a 9.00 K/9 and a 3.44 GB/FB rate simultaneously in his major league debut and has the stuff to back it up. For comparison, hitters made contact against Tim Lincecum 74.1% of the time and Derek Lowe had a GB% of 60.3%. I’m not sure you can invent a better combination than Lincecum’s swing-and-miss rate and Lowe’s groundball rate, and that’s effectively what Troncoso posted in 2008.

The Dodgers have sent Troncoso to the Dominican Winter League to work on his curveball and get some action in, and he’s actually working as a starting pitcher for Aguilas and dominating in the role. In 16 innings, he’s allowed 14 hits, walked 1, struck out 11, and is posting a 3.24 GB/FB rate. While winter ball stats don’t mean much, the fact that he’s able to shut down professional hitters while working in five inning stints is worth taking note of. Perhaps, instead of replacing Saito in the bullpen, the Dodgers should look into having him replace Derek Lowe in the rotation?

No matter where he ends up, Troncoso has shown all the skills necessary to be a terrific major league pitcher. Just on the strength of his sinker, he’s going to be a nightmare for right-handed hitters, and his slider and curve have made enough progress that he’s a legitimate option as a potential relief ace or a starting pitcher. For whatever reason, the world hasn’t jumped on the Ramon Troncoso bandwagon yet, but I’d imagine that will change twelve months from now.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

11 Responses to “Hidden Gem: Ramon Troncoso”

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  1. JWay says:

    Fantasy alert? :)

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  2. Jonathan Lam says:

    I’m not as optimistic. Troncoso has been old for every level and has been used almost exclusively as a reliever. Carmona was much younger and used as a starter. Troncoso hasn’t exactly set the minor leagues on fire, either. In fact, accounting for Troncoso’s age and relative performance as a reliever, he looks downright ordinary. And by ordinary, I mean not a quality major league arm.

    Because Troncoso has managed to get his foot in the proverbial door, I won’t completely rule out the possibility of his becoming a productive pitcher, but if he does, he will be merely useful to a ballclub, not dominant. And his usefulness will wear out rather quickly. He will not have a long career. The very upside for Troncoso is something like Donn Pall numbers. Of course, all of this is contingent on him not fading into oblivion like I think is probable.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Age/Level for pitchers really doesn’t matter all that much. Pitchers don’t follow the hitter aging curve, so being a 25-year-old minor league arm doesn’t mean that a pitcher is near his peak already.

      Feel free to find an example of a guy with a 60% GB% and a 2/1 K/BB rate in the minors that throws 93 and couldn’t hack it in the majors. Good luck.

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  3. JWay says:

    Dave do you have like a top 10 sleeper list?

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  4. kensai says:

    Jonathan-His tRA last year already put him at being a relatively useful major league reliever.

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  5. Jay Jaffe says:

    As a Dodger fan I’d love it if Troncoso were to pan out as more than just a middle reliever, but I’m skeptical of this analysis for two main reasons.

    First, it’s based on all of 38 major league innings, which is a pretty small sample to get excited about. He’s faced 160 big-league hitters. No way do we have enough info on him.

    Second, nothing in Troncoso’s track record suggests he’ll maintain this strikeout rate. He’s got 246 minor league innings under his belt, innings where he was often on the old side for his level. In that time his strikeout rate is 7.2 per nine, and that’s unadjusted, going all the way down to rookie ball. Once you adjust for level, it’s below 5.0 per nine.

    Pitchers don’t develop in a linear fashion, of course; learning a new pitch or ironing out one’s mechanics can lead to huge breakthroughs. But seems far too early to decide that Troncoo has done so based on the way our very limited sample size runs counter to his track record.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      I realize that I didn’t talk about his minor league performances much, but don’t worry, I wasn’t basing my analysis off of just 38 major league innings. In a blog post format, I can’t always lay out all the details, and this post was already pretty long.

      I’ll offer the same comment as I did above – let’s try to find a guy who has a 93 MPH fastball and posted a 60% GB% and a 2/1 K/BB rate in the minors and didn’t turn into a good major league pitcher. With that kind of sinker, you don’t have to miss a ton of bats in order to be good. That Troncoso has been able to get a decent amount of strikeouts while sustaining a Derek Lowe type groundball rate is extremely encouraging.

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      • Dillon Tung says:

        The ’08 BA handbook doesn’t report him having a curve, so I wonder if it’s something he’s developed recently? His debut was impressive, I didn’t think I’d be reading an article comparing him to Carmona, but definitely looking forward to him in ’09.

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  6. Tymathee says:

    I love Troncoso. I was very surprised when he made the club out of spring training and loved watching him pitch. The super sinker is one of my favorite pitches to watch and also why i think his batted balls in play avg is so high. He throws it so hard, that it gets hard back into the infield and makes it out of the infield. Also, when you figure in that Jeff Kent was the starting 2nd and Furcal was out for most of the year, I think Troncoso will be much more effective with Loney, DeWitt, Furcal and Blake all back. I can easily see him posting a sub 3.50 ERA next year and be a solid middle reliever.

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  7. Trev says:

    Props to Dave. As I write this Troncoso is 3rd in WPA for relievers. And even if you take LI out he’s still 14th in WPA/LI.

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  8. Belt Sander says:

    Wow, interesting story. I just now found your blog and am already a fan. :)

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