Yesterday, as Part 1 of this post, I looked at the accomplishment that was Michael Pineda‘s 2010 season in the minor leagues — an accomplishment, specifically, for his ability to limit walks while simultanously throwing a fastball with excellent velocity.
As was noted in that piece, no other starter with 50-plus innings in either Double- or Triple-A (again, in 2010) was able to sit at around 95 mph with his fastball while also walking fewer than 7.0% of batters faced. Pineda, in fact, accomplished this feat at both Double- and Triple-A, walking 5.4% of opposing batters in 77.0 innings at Double-A West Tenn and then 6.5% of opposing batters in 62.1 innings at Triple-A Tacoma.
In this post, I’ll be looking at which players performed similarly in the high minors last season to how Pineda did in 2010.
Before proceeding, however, allow me to acknowledge something I didn’t yesterday — which is that the 7.0% walk threshold isn’t a particularly meaingful one. Among the starters with over 50 innings pitched at Double- and Triple-A in 2010, the average walk rate was a little over 8%; the standard deviation, a little over 2%. Which is to say, those pitchers who walked 7.0% or fewer batters are about a half a standard deviation or greater above the league average — meaning that they finished in about the top-third of the entire starting-pitching population. Basically, I needed to create a cutoff that wasn’t so low as to isolate only one or two players, but low enough that it meant something. So the resulting threshold was 7.0%. There might be a pitcher who throws 110 mph but walked 7.1% of the batters he faced last year. He wasn’t included in this study. He’s still probably gonna be good at baseball, though.
I omitted another relatively obvious, but still entirely relevant, point yesterday, as well — namely, that throwing the ball at a high velocity while also not walking people is of great benefit to a pitcher’s capacity for preventing runs. Major-league data illustrates this nicely.
Consider: between 2002 and ’11 there are 1708 player seasons for starters who threw 50 innings or more. The average xFIP for those pitchers was 4.35. For the 612 of those pitchers who also walked 7.0% or fewer batters, their collective xFIP was 4.06. (This, of course, makes sense, as walks are one of the variables in the equation for xFIP. Still, it bears out that pitchers aren’t collectively compensating for higher walk rates with even higher strikeout or ground-ball rates.)
Among those pitchers who walked 7.0% or fewer batters, the benefit of velocity is obvious. Consder the following table, which groups those pitchers in buckets by fastball velocity. The # sign is the number of player seasons, 2002-11, in that particular bucket; the xFIP is the average xFIP of all the player seasons in that bucket.
The average xFIPs bunch together at the bottom of the list mainly owing to selection bias: pitchers who average an xFIP north of 4.50 are unlikely to be given more than 50 innings as a starter. In any case, this table illustrates the point: pitchers who don’t walk people and throw the ball really hard are better than the alternative.
With that out of the way, let’s look at some names — 10 names, actually. I went through the Double- and Triple-A pitching leaderboards from 2011, looking at pitchers who (a) threw more than 50 innings, with the majority of them as a starter, (b) posted a walk rate of 7.0% or less, and (c) were younger than 25 years old. Because pitchers don’t age on a bell curve like hitters, that last filter is less important than the others. On the other hand, if a pitcher has made it to 25 without playing the majority of a season in the majors, he’s probably something less than a top prospect. Also, I didn’t want to have to look up a whole bunch of scouting reports on career minor leaguers.
Here are the pitchers who fit the above criteria and had the highest sitting fastball ranges in 2011. Alongside each pitcher, I’ve listed the low (lMPH) and high (hMPH) ends of his sitting fastball range from 2011, as best as I could find between Baseball America and assorted other scouting reports. I’ve also included 2011 age, height, weight, and a rough average of the low and high end of the sitting fastball range.
Because I’m not a prospect analyst, and because this portion of the post is more or less just a glorified leaderboard, I won’t write at any great length about the names above. As I’ve stated earlier, what we know is that preventing walks is good — and that doing so while throwing hard is even better. As I’ve also stated (in Part 1), there is no “Next Michael Pineda,” per se — nor am I suggesting that the following 10 pitchers are all likely to contend for Rookie of the Year honors this season. I’m merely saying that the above pitchers meet three or four criteria, and that I sorted them by average fastball velocity.
Now, here are some notes:
• Two of the above pitchers — Henderson Alvarez and Juan Nicasio — exceeded the 50-inning threshold in the majors last year, and have thus lost their rookie eligibility for 2012. Both were pretty excellent. Alvarez posted this line while averaging 93.3 mph on his four-seam fastball: 63.2 IP, 15.4% K, 3.1% BB, 53.5% GB, 3.38 xFIP, 84 xFIP-. Nicasio did this, with an average fastball velocity of 94.0 mph: 71.2 IP, 19.4% K, 6.0% BB, 45.9% GB, 3.43 xFIP, 89 xFIP-. Nicasio was ranked 8th in the Rockies system by Baseball America before the 2011 season; Alvarez, 17th. Both pitchers are likely to start the 2012 season in their team’s respective rotations — with Nicasio looking set to return from a fractured vertebra he suffered on an Ian Desmond line drive last season.
• Four of these pitchers — Matt Moore, Brad Peacock, Garrett Richards, and Jacob Turner — made brief appearances in the majors in 2011. All of them are ranked by BA within the top three of their respective organization’s prospects (with Peacock appearing on the Nats list before the trade that sent him to Oakland).
• Here are the organizational rankings, per BA, for the four pitchers who didn’t make an MLB appearance last season: Simon Castro, 14th (with San Diego); Kyle McPherson, 6th; Erasmo Ramirez, 13th; and Ross Seaton, 16th. The data indicate that these pitchers are, on average, likely to outperform expectations.
• Size is something to consider, which is why I’ve included height and weight here. As noted yesterday, Pineda saw his fastball velocity increase from 88-92 mph in 2008, to 91-92 in 2009, and then to 93-97 in 2010. It’s notable that Pineda is listed at 6-5, 180 in the 2009 edition of BA’s Prospect Handbook and then 6-5, 250 in the 2011 edition — i.e. an increase of 70 pounds. Both Juan Nicasio and Henderson Alvarez were listed at a lower weight in the 2010 edition of the Handbook than they are currently at the site here. Nicasio’s fastball was reported as sitting in the “low 90s” in the 2010 edition; Alvarez, 89-92. Cultivating mass generally appears to be a good thing for pitchers. Given his current size, Erasmo Ramirez is unlikely to grow much; Jacob Turner, on the other hand, might still fill out. There are certainly other pitchers who sat in the low 90s in 2011 but have put on weight or done something else to the end of creating a jump in velocity. They will likely become more effective for it in 2012.
• Given what we see here, if there’s a pitcher who’s most likely to impress people above and beyond his present status as a prospect, that pitcher is likely Garrett Richards. Pitchers with his combination of velocity and command (at least as represented by walk rate) are rare — not just in the minors, but in the majors, too — and almost all those pitchers are successful. His 14.0 MLB innings last season weren’t particularly impressive: 14.5% K, 11.3% BB, 43.5% GB, 4.41 xFIP, 109 xFIP-. That’s not something to dismiss entirely. But Richards also throws a cutter and slider and changeup. Plus, per StatCorner, he’s posted ground-ball rates in the high-40 percents up to the mid-50s in the minors.
Below is Richards’ first career strikeout, on what appears to be a 95 mph cutter. I’m excluding another video clip — of Richards surrendering a game-winning home run to Edwin Encarnacion — because it’s not fit for human consumption.