Back in mid-March I took a look at some interesting names that were making the conversion from minor league hitters to pitchers. The biggest success, so far, has been the emergence of Oakland’s Sean Doolittle who has now pitched 23.1 big league innings. Let’s see how everyone is doing as the minor league regular season starts to wind down.
Kyler Burke, Chicago Cubs (CF to LHP)
Burke, 24, is the rare conversion project who is being used in the starting rotation, as opposed to the bullpen. Hitters-turned-pitchers usually have more success in the bullpen because they have fewer pitches to polish and can move quickly (They’re typically older and a few years behind the eight ball once they start pitching). Burke began the year in low-A ball and made 15 appearances (10 starts) and is now pitching in high-A where he’s made another eight starts. His control has been good but his strikeout rate is low at 6.64 K/9. He could be ready for double-A to begin 2013.
Sean Doolittle, Oakland A’s (1B/LF to LHP)
Doolittle, 25, began the year in the minors but has now appeared in 20 games at the big league level. He has a xFIP of 2.79 (4.24 ERA) and a strikeout rate of 12.73 K/9. He’s been an extreme fly-ball pitcher (30% ground-ball rate) so there is definitely some room for improvement. At 6’3” he has the frame to get a better plane on the ball. It’s just a small sample size but Doolittle has been better against right-handed hitters than lefties (.426 vs .209 wOBA). He’s also clearly been helped by his home environment (.242 home vs .357 road wOBA).
Chris Hatcher, Miami Marlins (C to RHP)
Hatcher, 27, has spent the majority of 2012 in triple-A. He’s saved 11 games with a strikeout rate of 8.62 K/9 in 37 appearances. He’s made three big league appearances but has struggled with his control, walking five bases in 4.2 innings. Hatcher doesn’t have a huge ceiling but he’s a useful, low cost, arm for a money-conscious organization.
Jason Lane, Arizona Diamondbacks (LF to LHP)
The 35-year-old Lane was the oldest conversion project in the minors. He also had just shy of 500 big league games under his belt with 1,208 at-bats. He hit 26 homers for the 2005 Houston Astros. Lane hasn’t appeared in the Majors since 2007 and has been a valuable quad-A slugger for a number of organizations. After making some mop-up appearances for the Blue Jays’ triple-A squad in 2011, Lane decided to try his hand at full-time pitching in 2012. He caught on with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He made 15 appearances in triple-A but was then cut when he posted a 7.59 ERA. Given his FIP of 3.58, strikeout rate of 7.59 K/9 and walk rate of 2.53 BB/9, he should have earned another shot but he hasn’t played since the end of May.
Robert Stock, St. Louis Cardinals (C to RHP)
One of the more highly-regarded prospects, Stock was a two-way player in both high school and college. He wanted to be an everyday player when he turned pro but gave up that dream after three minor league seasons when he hit just .241. The 22-year-old has been pitching in low-A ball with mixed results. His ERA is 4.39 (5.06 FIP) and he has a strikeout rate of 8.63 K/9. Control has been the big problem for Stock; his walk rate is 5.89 BB/9.
Matt West, Texas Rangers (3B to RHP)
West, 23, is another former highly-regarded prospect who has moved to the mound after failing to reach his lofty ceiling with the bat. The right-hander was very impressive in short-season ball in 2011 by striking out 35 and walking just one batter in 26.0 innings. He hurt his elbow earlier this year and has not been right since. He’s made 17 appearances in high-A ball and has walked 13 batters in 16.0 innings of work. His ERA sits at 7.31.
Matt Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays (UT to RHP)
Johnson is one of the more intriguing stories. He was a non-drafted college infielder who was playing in short-season ball at the age of 24. He came into a game earlier this year in a mop-up situation. His first pitch reportedly came in at 88 mph but was up to 95 mph by the end of the game. Johnson has now made nine pitching appearances and has 11 Ks to four walks in 8.1 innings.
Matt Spencer, Chicago Cubs (OF to LHP)
Spencer, 26, was selected by the Phillies in the third round of the 2007 amateur draft as an outfielder and was later traded to Oakland in the Joe Blanton deal (2008). He reached triple-A but had the profile of a fringe regular at the big league level. He’s pitched at three levels in 2012 and reached high-A ball where he posted a 12.15 ERA in six games. Spencer is now on the disabled list. When healthy, his fastball sits in the 90-94 mph range.
Brian Rike, Colorado Rockies (OF to LHP)
A former second round draft pick out of Louisiana Tech University, Rike enjoyed five minor league seasons with average production and strikeout rates between 24-35 K%. Pitching in short-season ball at the age of 26, Rike has allowed just 11 hits and has 24 Ks in 20.1 innings – but he’s also walked 18 batters. His fastball sits in the 90-93 mph range.
With good pitching so hard to find (and difficult to develop) it makes sense for organizations to move fringe prospects – with strong arms – to the mound in an effort to squeeze out the most valuable possible. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these conversion projects continue to increase in popularity.