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Staring Down the Sinkerballers, Part One

We’re really excited to introduce you to the newest writer to join the FanGraphs team – Bryan Smith. He’s covered minor league and college baseball for nearly every site on the planet, and we’re thrilled that this will be his new home. Please welcome him to the site.

Brad Bergesen was not the most exciting player that had his Major League debut with the Baltimore Orioles last season. Not even close. When Bergesen was called up in late April, the fan base was too busy anticipating Matt Wieters arrival to notice. His season-ending injury was suffered in late July, one day after Chris Tillman made his debut, and six days before Brian Matusz would follow suit. The minor league strikeout numbers of David Hernandez and Jason Berken surely held more promise for Orioles fans.

A lot of blue-chip players debuted for the Orioles last season, ushering in a new era of trust in the farm system. Of all those players, Brad Bergesen was the most valuable. The 2.3 WAR he accumulated in 19 starts was more than those other pitchers combined, and still managed to top Wieters and Nolan Reimold. Bergesen, amazingly, was the Orioles’ Rookie of the Year.

Now, I don’t believe that when it’s all said and done, Bergesen will end up as the career WAR leader of this esteemed group. But even within his small sample size of success, I think there is a lesson to be learned for those of us that follow (and report on) Minor League Baseball. I use Bergesen as a very particular example as I begin my first project here at FanGraphs. I posit that no type of minor leaguer is typically as undervalued as the right-handed sinker-slider brigade, for a couple reasons: 1) the sheer number of them gives the notion they are fungible, 2) they don’t light up radar guns or strikeout columns and, most importantly, 3) their success depends upon the inexperienced eight players in the field.

More than three years ago, I wrote an article for The Hardball Times predicting eight breakout prospects for the 2007 season. (I ask you to ignore the article so as not to become blinded by my Eric Campbell infatuation). One of the diamonds in the rough in the piece was Vince Mazzaro, coming off his debut season in the minor leagues: 5.05 ERA, 11.0 H/9, 6.1 K/9. But armed with the knowledge that he had a solid sinker, and quoting his .320 BABIP and 62.4 LOB%, I saw someone that would improve as his defenses did.

After his first 17 Major League starts yielded replacement level results, Mazzaro probably shouldn’t serve as my credibility-defining example. But his progression up the minor league ladder, from “bust” to 2008 Texas League Pitcher of the Year, serves as an interesting narrative to begin this series. I plan to isolate a sample of Major League sinkerballers, define their minor league commonalities, and use this information to help us recognize a different breed of prospects. The criteria I used to isolate the sinker guys was as follows:

— At least 40 IP in 2009.
— At least a 50% groundball percentage in 2009.
— Neither left-handed, nor right-handed with an average fastball above 93.0.
— And then I used my eyes to do things like eliminate the side-armed Cla Meredith‘s of the world.

I want to clarify my third criteria. When a scout sees a player, there’s no question a few traits will inspire a little bias off the bat. You’ll find that all scouts love lefties that can touch even 90 mph, especially lefties with the kind of control that sinker/slider guys possess. Paul Maholm and Marc Rzepczynski don’t have better stuff than the guys in my sample, but because they were left-handed, they were a lot more noticed at the college level. The velocity requirement is similar: Fausto Carmona could get by in the minor leagues at times solely based on his velocity — and scouts held him up as a prospect as a result of velocity + movement.

So, with all that out of the way, I whittled down a nice sample of sinkerballers. We have 24 in all, complete with guys you would expect, like Derek Lowe, or Aaron Cook, or Chien-Ming Wang. And also a whole lot of guys who are, yes, fungible (I’ll leave the whole list in the comments). Still, the job of a prospect reporter is to identify as many up-and-coming Major Leaguers as possible — even the guys capable of just 40 decent innings. Prospect coverage can get better, and I see sinkerballers as a fine place to start.

Final Note: I’m thrilled to say that I’m joining David Appelman’s fantastic outfit here at FanGraphs for the indefinite future. I’m very pleased to be joining friends of mine, like, Dave Cameron and Erik Manning, and just as pleased to be joining the company of guys I admire, like, well the rest of this staff. If you’d like to get a hold of me, please try bsmithwtny AT gmail, or I’m going to try this Twitter thing again with the @bsmithwtny handle. Thanks!