Staring Down the Sinkerballers, Final Part

Five years from now, there will be dozens of new Major League pitchers succeeding in the Major Leagues with the same profile. Each will seem a surprise in his own right, discounted at some level in the Minor Leagues due to the perception of bad performance. They will be succeeding because their batting average on balls in play is lower than it has been in their professional career, and because they don’t walk many batters. They will not have been top 10 prospects, but they will be a steady presence on every Major League roster, a set-up man, a middle reliever, a fourth starter.

They will each throw a sinker. This week, I have used a sample of sinker pitchers to show that this subset of pitcher is underrated by current prospect evaluation techniques. This is because too rarely we realize, while scouts agree the player has very limited further upside, improved defenses at higher levels should yield better results. Today, with the lessons learned this week, I want to turn the attention to the future. I have culled the minor leagues and found 10 players, who I present alphabetically, that I think could be the next generation of Major League sinkerballers.

In the interest of saving space, I’m going to tell you about almost all of them in a paragraph, because this type of pitcher has very specific similarities. These guys, of course, all have very good sinkers around 90 mph, and have been carefully selected due to consistent high groundball rates. Their breaking ball is solid, but it could certainly be more consistent. They struggle against left-handed batters, and as a result, future success – especially in a rotation – is contingent on an improved change-up. And all of them have given me reason to believe that their BABIP will come down at some point and, with it, their H/9 and ERA.

Please note that groundball percentages and BABIP numbers come from Jeff Sackmann’s incomparable Minor League Splits site. Also, some of these players now have their college splits available, if you click on the red number on their Career Stats page. A great tool keeps getting better.

Kyle Allen, 20, New York Mets

Level   BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
Low-A   3.7    8.0   0.6    55.0   .289

The youngest of the ten, Allen also has one of the best change-ups, which led to a .508 OPS against left-handed batters. His defense was pretty good for him this year, so if he can cut down on the walks and tighten the slider, watch out.

Randy Boone, 25, Toronto Blue Jays

Level    BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
AA/AAA   3.0    6.4   0.5    53.6   .320

I do hope the Blue Jays give Boone a chance, as he’s really located well down in the zone since leaving University of Texas. He does have a nice breaking ball, and doesn’t figure to get more polished. Should be the first starter called up this season, if you ask me.

Shane Dyer, 22, Tampa Bay Rays

Level   BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
Low-A   2.8    6.8   0.3    58.1   .360

Really a good representation of players on this list. He didn’t allow any home runs, but Tim Beckham’s Bowling Green defense let down that entire pitching staff. If things get any better on that front this year, Dyer is going to surely cut down that 10.7 H/9.

Stephen Fife, 23, Boston Red Sox

Level   BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
A-/A+   1.4    8.9   0.8    55.5   .317

Assuming his days of a sore shoulder are behind him, my favorite player on this list. Still has sink on his fastball up to 93 mph. Fife was a late bloomer at University of Utah, but has shown all three pitches to be plus at times. His defense in High-A wasn’t very good, and I expect him to fly up the Boston prospect rankings this season.

Jason Godin, 25, Kansas City Royals

Level       BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
A-/AA/AAA   4.2    7.4   0.3    60.0   .356

Godin came back slow after a facial fracture ended his season short in 2008, but he’s shown signs of really making good on that fifth round choice in 2006. I truly believe the Royals should be aggressive with Godin, who has a career 58.9 groundball percentage. The tools to be a viable Major League reliever all seem there to me.

Liam Hendriks, 21, Minnesota Twins

Level   BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
Low-A   2.0    8.4   0.4    57.5   .354

Hendriks missed 2008 with a broken back, but didn’t show any signs of injury in his 14 starts last season. Instead, all he showed was some bad luck. Hendriks was a choice of Australia’s last World Baseball Classic team, and is more advanced than the Twins handling has shown. An assignment to Fort Myers, with a quick trigger to Double-A, should be in the cards. Note: fellow Australian and Cubs prospect Ryan Searle was a finalist for this article.

Luke Putkonen, 24, Detroit Tigers

Level   BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
Low-A   2.8    6.9   0.2    56.9   .318

Putkonen was not known for his fastball movement at the University of North Carolina, and had a 1.52 GO/AO in his final year there. But he has reinvented himself as a sinker pitcher, and had a fantastic year in the Midwest League. There’s no semblance of a third pitch, so I think he’s a reliever in the end, but he could be a good one.

Stephen Sauer, 23, Chicago White Sox

Level   BB.9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
Low-A   1.2    7.8   0.3    56.3   .363

This guy managed a 3.36 ERA in Kannapolis because he was so good at limiting home runs and walks, but look at his BABIP! His hit rate seems to have scared off prospect evaluators, as he’s not listed as one of Baseball America’s top 30 White Sox prospects. But his sinker has always been good (2.64 GO/AO at ASU) and his slider is average enough. With a good change-up, Sauer can be just as good as Jon Garland ever was.

Kyle Waldrop, 24, Minnesota Twins

Level   BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
A+/AA   2.5    5.0   0.2    60.1   .322

I’m not sure about this one, but Waldrop’s groundball numbers were just so good. They were good before he had Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2008 season, but they were never above 60%. This is a guy that has had to reinvent himself since he was a first-round pick, and with that pedigree, should be given a chance to succeed with the organization. He seems to have the savvy to be able to do just that.

Trey Watten, 23, Milwaukee Brewers

Level   BB/9   K/9   HR/9   GB%    BABIP
Low-A   3.9    6.5   0.6    56.7   .329

Watten is still pretty new to pitching, but his arm strength landed him a spot in the seventh round of the 2008 Draft. His debut season went well, but his defense just didn’t do good enough work. He’s the rawest player on the list, but if the command and change-up come along, his athleticism could make him the best.




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14 Responses to “Staring Down the Sinkerballers, Final Part”

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  1. Troy says:

    It’s no real surprise to see 2 Twins on this list. They really covet this type of pitcher, Nick Blackburn is perfect example of one of them in the Majors today.

    It would be interesting to analyze his numbers in the minors to see if his BABIP came down as your article suggest it should have as he progressed through the minors and eventually into a MLB rotation.

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    • MPauer says:

      This is just an annecdotal observation as a Twins fan but Blackburn became a more promising prospect as he rose in the minor league rates. He shot up the Twins prospect rankings as he climbed the ladder.

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  2. drchstrpunk says:

    No coincidence that the best strikeout pitcher on the list is your favorite, combining the three ways to keep runs off the board. Ks, low BBs, GB%.

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  3. Matt B. says:

    This sort of reminds me of a “Best stocks under $5″ piece on finance pages!

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  4. Sky Kalkman says:

    Thinking out loud…

    GB rates are all the fashion these days, and for good reason. As more pitchers learn to throw sinkers and avoid the classic rising fastball, might it be that hitters better adjust to those approaches, and a pitchers who can actually survive as fly ball pitchers will gain an advantage? Could use the same game theory argument for pitches that pitchers are giving up in favor of throwing more cutters.

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    • Matt B. says:

      Interesting thought.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Definitely interesting. Although I wonder what hitters “better adjusting” to a sinker really means. No matter what, it will forever be easier for a hitter to get under a four seamer than a two seamer, just by the notion of how they are thrown. Now, I think there’s real value of a guy like Porcello sometimes throwing his 96 mph four seamer to catch a hitter off balance, but looking for a market inefficiency in a flyball type of pitcher doesn’t seem right to me.

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  5. razor says:

    The pitching pool available for this type of pitcher is greater as well…and far less expensive, at least early on. You can get what you pay for no doubt, but some of these types of pitchers really are underrated if the defense behind them is solid or better.

    Someone earlier mentioned Bill James talking about the Tommy John family of pitchers. I remember reading that all those years ago as well. It basically said that a pitcher of this type would pitch .600 baseball on a .550 team, but pitch .400 baseball on a .450 team…Something like that, and a good chunk of it revolved around the defense being played behind this type of pitcher, relative to the league.

    Props to the author of this article series. Good stuff…

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  6. Ericpalmer says:

    I loved this whole series. One of the most interesting I’ve read so far in my 6 months of FanGraphs.

    It’ll be interesting to see how all of these guys are doing a few years down the road.

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  7. JordanB says:

    I was _sure_ Evan Anundsen would make this list. Looks like his ground ball rate was “only” 51.9% in 2009, though he has a career rate of 58.2%.

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  8. Mike Newman says:

    It’s great to see Kyle Allen earn some well-deserved prospect press, but I think this may be the wrong forum for him. He actually threw the entire 2009 season at 19, can get the FB up to 93 with room for growth, has an average slider and potential plus change. This list seems more for “fringy” guys with high GB% and little else and this is definitely not Allen. In addition, his defense in Savannah was HORRID. From watching 40-50 of their games, Jefry Marte made 50 or so errors, Wilmer Flores, Josh Satin, and Sean Ratliff offered little in terms of range up the middle, and the first base position was filled by a number of organizational guys. The corner outfielders were also brutal and the catching corps was wet behind the ears.

    With Allen, the high GB% says a lot about his floor, but he could very well be a top 4 prospect in the Mets organization next season and top 100 overall. To say he’s just a sinkerballer really shortchanges his ability.

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  9. gnomez says:

    No Evan Anundsen or DJ Mitchell?

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  10. Josh says:

    I find it interesting that looking at pitchers in this way, (K%, BB%, GB%) is basically what Ron Shandler’s crew is using these days to evaluate pitchers for fantasy. The formula that they use to rate pitchers is:

    ((K%-5)*18)+((4-BB%)*27)+(GB%-40%).

    I’d like to see outside research on whether this is a correct way to evaluate the skills that lead to good ERA, WHIP, and Ks.

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