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NL SP for $1: Mike Minor

Earlier this morning, Zach Sanders unveiled the RotoGraphs staff’s NL starting pitcher rankings. The bottom half of those rankings consist of a mix of mediocre veterans, youngsters without a guaranteed spot in the rotation and rookies that fantasy owners are typically advised to avoid, regardless of that pitcher’s skill set. One of the most intriguing names in that bottom tier is Mike Minor.

You might be yelling at your screen right now to remind me that Minor is a rookie, the type of pitcher I just described as one to avoid. However, I dislike hard rules and am always willing to make an exception depending on the circumstances. After just 129.1 innings at the minor league level, Minor was promoted to the big leagues, where he threw 40.2 innings over eight starts and one relief appearance. On the surface, his 5.98 ERA and 1.57 WHIP painted the picture of a 23-year old struggling mightily in his first taste of Major League action.

Looking under the hood though, we observe some terrible luck paired with some exciting skills. A .379 BABIP that contributed to a 65.4% LOB% marred what should have been an impressive debut. Minor posted an excellent 9.5 K/9 and demonstrated strong control with a 2.4 BB/9, resulting in a more than respectable 3.77 FIP and 3.86 xFIP. His 11.3% swinging strike percentage would have ranked fourth among all Major League starters and 76.9% contact rate would have ranked him 13th. In his three stops at the minor league level, he had not posted a strikeout rate below 9.99, so his punchout prowess should have been no surprise.

However, the one caution about his strikeout rate is that according to StatCorner, Minor generated just 14.5% called strikes, well below the Major League average of 17% for starting pitchers. In order to sustain at least a strikeout per inning, Minor will have to rediscover the skills he showed at Triple-A when he earned a called strike 19.7% of the time. Though Minor should once again post a strong strikeout rate in 2011, it would be wise to expect some decline as batters see him for a second time.

Similarly, Minor’s walk rate should remain better than league average, but I would expect it to rise a bit this season. His control was better than he showed at his two previous minor league stops, but he threw fewer pitches in the strike zone than the average pitcher and the percentage of his pitches thrown for a ball according to StatCorner was right at the league average. A jump in walk rate to around 3.0 would be a reasonable expectation.

The most concerning aspect of Minor’s skill set is his fly ball rate. With the Braves, he allowed fly balls at a nearly 48% clip. That is dangerous territory no matter how good your other skills are. Fortunately, he did display better ground ball inducing ability in the minors, with rates in the low-to-mid 40% range. This at least provides us hope that his ground ball rate will jump to at least the 40% plateau this season.

Let’s see what the various projection systems are expecting from Minor this season:

RotoChamp: 3.99 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 144 IP
Marcel: 4.44 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 76 IP
Fans: 4.22 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 139 IP
My Forecast: 3.89 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 160 IP

First off, check out that ERA/WHIP pairing from RotoChamp! Has a pitcher ever posted a sub-4.00 ERA with a WHIP that high? If you thought last year’s .379 BABIP was high, RotoChamp says you’ve seen nothing yet, as it is projecting a crazy .402 BABIP! Okay, so clearly that projection looks a little kooky. In terms of skills, the two other forecasting systems are pretty much in agreement with what I am projecting, but a .330 BABIP is inflating Marcel’s ERA and WHIP projection. I think Minor’s innings pitched total should end closest to my forecast as I fully expect Minor to win the fifth spot in the rotation and hold onto it all season. If he performs as well as expected, then barring injury, 160 innings should be reached.

Minor is still technically battling Brandon Beachy for the Braves’ fifth starter slot, which will keep the bidding on him depressed during drafts. Though Beachy has shown some fantastic skills in the minors, he has primarily been used as a reliever and he is nearly as inexperienced as Minor. Given Minor’s outwardly poor debut in 2010, despite strong underlying skills, and his excellent, albeit short, minor league track record, he makes for an intriguing choice at the end of drafts or for your dollar at the auction.