Staring Down the Sinkerballers, Part Three

I want to be clear about my intentions in this series. Simply put, I believe that prospect evaluation has improved by a radical margin during the information era, and we’re doing it better than we ever have. But I believe that the type of analysis being done does inherently underrate players, and that we can always be better. The writers can be better, the farm directors can be better, the General Managers can be better. One of those steps, in my estimation, is giving sinkerball pitchers a different route of analysis. These are not players that follow a typical path of progression and improvement.

In this belief, on Tuesday I laid out my method for creating a sample of 22 sinkerballers that have made it to the Major Leagues, and succeeded enough to be causing 50% of their batters faced to hit the ball in the ground. I crunched the numbers on these players, and below, I believe their Minor League performance speaks for itself. If defense is beginning to matter more and more, than the way we understand pitchers that rely on defense needs to change. Here is my sample’s aggregate Minor League statistics (note: “Yrs” is the player seasons in the study, and “2009” was their aggregate 2009 Major League performance):

Level   Yrs   Age    ERA    H/9    K/9    BB/9   HR/9
Low-A   20    21.2   3.91   9.16   6.46   2.41   0.58
HighA   23    22.0   3.68   9.43   6.55   2.70   0.47
DoubA   35    23.5   3.76   8.97   6.73   2.96   0.59
TripA   44    25.8   4.01   9.26   6.27   2.97   0.82
2009    22    28.4   4.33   9.65   5.64   3.40   0.85

If nothing else, I am immediately struck by the uniformity of the numbers. Obviously, Major League hitters are responsible for the decline in strikeouts (which, unsurprisingly, leads to the small jump in H/9) and the increase of walks. The power that Minor League hitters are developing seems to come to fruition in Triple-A, and certainly sustains itself in the Major Leagues. Of course, we could micro-analyze the changes in peripherals all over the place. But at the end of the day, the difference in ERA between this group of sinkerballer pitchers in Low-A, and in their average age-28 season in the Major Leagues is 42 ERA points (and it’s even closer if you discount two players that were WAY too old for the Midwest League). I doubt there’s another subset of players that shows such consistency from the lowest rung of the minors to the bigs.

Best Undervalued Low-A Pitcher: Jamey Wright, Asheville. A first round pick in 1993, Wright made his debut the next season, and was one of the worst starting pitchers in the league. His 11.8 H/9 led to a 5.97 ERA, and would have been worse had he not allowed just six home runs in 143 innings. The next year, Wright was promoted, and though his strikeout and walk rates worsened, his H/9 dropped to 8.4, his ERA to 2.47, and he was all over the prospect map again.

Best Undervalued High-A Pitcher: Chris Sampson, Salem. A former shortstop, Sampson didn’t make his conversion to pitching until age 25, when he dominated Low-A hitters in Lexington (1.39 ERA in 84 IP). The next season, some began to question Sampson as his hit rate ballooned to 10.1. However, his walk rate had dropped, and the difference in strikeout and home run rates were insignificant. It was merely the Salem defense, as Sampson proved by dominating the Minor Leagues for the next two seasons. If history repeats itself, Sampson should have a better 2010 after a strange .342 BABIP last year.

Best Undervalued Double-A Pitcher: Chad Qualls, Round Rock. Baseball America did have Qualls as a top ten prospect following his 2002 first run at Double-A. But ninth just wasn’t high enough, as this was a guy that had a 0.5 HR/9, 7.8 K/9, and plenty of groundball outs. His 9.6 H/9 was the hold-up, and when it regulated itself the next season, BA moved him up in the Astros rankings. (Also note: They left him off the 2005 top ten list when his H/9 ballooned in Triple-A. The next year, he had a 3.28 ERA in the Astros bullpen.)

Best Undervalued Triple-A Pitcher: Clay Condrey, Everywhere. This guy pitched from 2002-2007 in the Triple-A, never sniffing more than 30 innings in a big league bullpen. But in 2003, when Condrey improved everything but his hit rate in his second go-around, the Padres should have known what they had. Instead, they sold him to the Phillies, who certainly got more than they paid for in 2008-2009.

So I want to repeat what I have been saying throughout this series: the wonderful thing about sinkerballer pitchers is that they just don’t change very much. Yes, they have to work on their out pitch to left-handed batters. And everything needs to be harnessed and tweaked. But what you see is what you get, and with every promotion, they simply strike a balance between the difficulty of facing harder hitters with the ease of better fielders. No one better personifies this notion than Doug Mathis:

Year   Level   H/9    ERA    K/9   BB/9   HR/9
2006   HighA   9.6    4.18   6.5   2.8    0.8
2007   DoubA   9.6    3.76   6.3   2.7    0.5
2008   TripA   8.6    3.35   6.0   2.3    1.2
2009     MLB   8.2    3.16   5.3   2.1    0.8

See what a good defense does? Imagine how much worse the Brandon McCarthy trade would have been for Texas if the White Sox insisted on Mathis instead of Jake Rasner. Note: Tomorrow’s article will be looking into the minors for the next crop of sinkerballers. After the jump, a little clarification on what I’m looking for from that group.

In the comments yesterday, someone asked what specific groundball rates we should expect of a Minor League sinkerballer. While I didn’t have the specific batted ball profile of every player in today’s study, I did survey Jeff Sackmann’s splits site, and found 14 players that had over 100 innings worth of data from 2005-2009. Here’s what those players totaled:

Name                Inn      GB%     LD%     FB%
Matt Palmer         488.0    49.7    17.2    31.3
Sergio Mitre        141.3    62.6    16.3    16.3
Ramon Troncoso      259.7    62.1    14.3    21.5
Mike Pelfrey        179.3    54.7    12.8    30.5
Sean Green          120.7    66.0    12.4    21.3
Justin Masterson    256.7    61.5    12.4    24.1
Brad Bergesen       484.0    62.5    12.7    33.4
Burke Badenhop      424.7    56.5    10.7    30.7
Shawn Camp          103.3    50.3    12.2    36.1
Jeff Bennett        195.0    52.8    16.5    28.6
Mitch Boggs         597.7    48.4    18.6    31.6
Rick Porcello       130.7    64.1     8.3    25.2
Chris Sampson       295.0    57.7    15.9    25.2
Doug Mathis         534.3    55.5    14.6    27.6

Since we’re looking for the best players possible, I’m going to use this as a broad restriction when surveying Minor League sinkerballers for tomorrow: let’s say 55% groundball rate (9 of 14 eclipsed), sub-15% line drive rate, and sub-30% fly drive rate are good barometers to identify players.

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