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Which Soft Tossers Might Sustain 2012 Success?

As part of the new era of pitching, baseball has ushered in a wave of young fireballers who dominate through velocity. Aroldis Chapman, Stephen Strasburg, and even unheralded arms like Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera routinely hit 100 MPH with their fastballs, and baseball has never been so populated with as many hard throwers as there are in the game today.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, there is simultaneously a group of pitchers making a splash in the big leagues with stuff that would fit in better at your local high school. Tommy Milone (Oakland), Michael Fiers (Milwaukee), Carlos Villanueva (Toronto), and Scott Diamond (Minnesota) are all establishing themselves as big league starters, and rewarding their organizations for taking a shot on a guy without a big fastball. Milone’s success after being just the extra guy added into the Gio Gonzalez trade is one of the main reasons why the A’s are surprise contenders, while Diamond, Fiers, and Villanueva have all been pleasant surprises on pitching staffs that found themselves desperate for reliable pitching mid-season.

As a group, their fastballs have averaged just 88.5 mph this year, with Diamond being the hardest thrower with an average velocity of 89.5 mph on his fastball. However, they’re all very different pitchers, and succeeding in very different ways. Diamond is a sinkerball specialist who generates a ton of ground balls, while Fiers is one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in baseball. Milone is a control specialist who never walks anyone, while Villanueva has the 11th highest walk rate of any pitcher in baseball with at least 60 innings pitched this year. Despite the stereotype of every low velocity starter being cut from the same mold, these four are all pretty different.

Of these four low velocity hurlers, is there one whose skillset portends success more than the others? Let’s take a look at some historical comparisons for both.

Scott Diamond – 3.4% BB%, 13.5% K%, 56.5% GB%

Diamond’s the hardest of the group to find comps for, as this is a pretty rare combination of skills for a big league starter. Since 2002, only four other pitchers have thrown 100 innings in a season with a walk rate below 5%, a strikeout rate between 10-15%, and a ground ball rate over 50% – Greg Maddux, Carl Pavano, Joel Pineiro, and Chris Sampson. While any comparison to Maddux seems flattering, remember that the four years he fit into this category were all at the end of his career, so we aren’t talking about the Cy Young version of Maddux here. While he was still useful at this stage of his career, Pavano, Sampson, and Pineiro were more of a mixed bag, mixing in some above average years with some mediocre ones. Overall, this group combined to produce about league average results, which is still a nice thing to have, but well below the level that Diamond is achieving at the moment.

Michael Fiers – 5.5% BB%, 25.0% K%, 31.1% GB%

For Fiers, the comparisons are a bit easier and a bit more friendly, as there are a decent number of good pitchers who have succeeded by living up in the strike zone and trading extra fly balls for increased strikeout rates. Jered Weaver is the best version of this skillset (and also doesn’t throw particularly hard), but Colby Lewis, Scott Baker, and Ted Lilly have also posted similar seasons to what Fiers is doing right now. Those three have all fallen short of what Weaver has accomplished due to one common problem, though – the home run ball. As extreme fly ball guys, they’re more prone to giving up the long ball, and their issues with the home run caused them to settle in as more good pitchers than great ones. Weaver shows the potential this type of arm can have if he figures out how to keep the ball in the park, though the fact that he’s the only example also shows how tall of a task that really is. Still, Fiers is controlling the strike zone well enough to have success even if he does start giving up home runs. The stuff might not project as a quality starter, but like Baker and Lewis before him, Fiers may very well defy expectations.

Tommy Milone – 4.9% BB%, 17.7% K%, 39.1% GB%

Milone’s skillset is the most common of the four, as 30 different pitchers in the last 10 years have put up similar statistical seasons based on their walk rates, strikeout rates, and ground ball rates. As with any group this size, results are going to run the gambit, so you see the likes of Ben Sheets or Cliff Lee on the same list as Andy Sonnanstine and Brett Tomko. However, the significant majority belonged to pitchers who had good seasons, as only nine of the 30 pitchers on the list posted an above average ERA in the year that their profile matched up with Milone’s. Overall, the group posted an ERA that was 10 percent better than the league average, and the most representative sample was Chris Capuano, who is also a soft-tossing left-hander who gets some strikeouts despite pedestrian stuff. If Milone can have Capuano’s career minus the two Tommy John surgeries, I think the A’s will be quite happy they stole him away in the Gio Gonzalez trade.

Carlos Villanueva – 10.9% BB%, 25.0% K%, 43.5% GB%

Villanueva’s the one member of the group who isn’t arriving in the big leagues for the first time, as he made his big league debut with the Brewers in 2006. He’s also the guy whose statistical profile don’t align with his stuff at all. The list of pitchers with comparable numbers in a single season include A.J. Burnett, Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir, and Jorge de la Rosa, each of whom was a live arm with serious command problems. In fact, all of the ten comparable pitchers in terms of results had an average fastball velocity of 90 mph or higher in that season, so Villanueva is essentially breaking new ground here. Villanueva’s not going to be able to harness his raw stuff in the same way that Clayton Kershaw did, and he’s got a history of walking guys in the big leagues, so we probably shouldn’t expect a big leap forward. Still, even with his current skillset, Villanueva can be a useful starting pitcher, as he mixes in his off-speed pitches frequently and racks up enough strikeouts to offset the walks.