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What’s the perfect distraction for a burnt-out graduate student with a bunch of papers due in 3 days? Minor league baseball blogging.
Graham Stoneburner pitched about as good as he could on Saturday – 8 innings, 1 earned run, 8 strikeouts, no walks. At one point, he retired 20 straight batters. Stoneburner’s line on the season: 25 innings, 4 starts, 10.8 K/9, 2.16 BB/9. The Yankees started him this season at Low-A Charleston, ending some speculation that he might spend the year in short season baseball.
Stoneburner is a raw and largely untested college Sophomore that the Yankees picked up with an above-slot bonus last season. He was exactly the kind of player that the Yankees should be targeting with their inflated draft budget – later round, risky college players with upside. Although he pitched one inning in the minors last year, this season is for all intents and purposes his professional debut. Over time, Stoneburner will start to build a record for us to judge him by. We don’t have a lot of good information on the player right now – we know that he didn’t pitch too well in college, has good stuff, and has had early success in the minors. But really, he’s a blank slate.
I find it difficult to judge blank slates. Although I was impressed by Stoneburner’s scouting report, I only gave him an honorable mention in my top-30 prospect list. I’ve seen a lot of highly touted above-slot guys (Carmen Angelini, Kyle Higiashoka, Garrison Lassiter) flop recently, so I’ve been readjusting my prospect ratings to be more conservative on them. Unlike the previously mentioned three players, Stoneburner hit the ground running in the minors. He’s painting a pretty nice picture on his empty canvas.
This is an opportunity to describe the picture that we would like him to paint. How do you judge a minor league pitcher? We should first recognize that scouting reports tend to be generally unreliable. Namely, I’ve seen a million pitches judged as having “an average MLB changeup, curveball, and fastball”, but never make it out of Double-A. Scouts just don’t understand what it means to be an average major league player. Its actually pretty hard, and few guys have the boxed set to make it that far.
A lot of things make up that boxed set. Makeup, fastball velocity, secondary pitches, health, team faith, luck, body type, experience, deception, pitch movement, athleticism, etc. The problem is that much of this information is really difficult to discern. Professional scouts screw this stuff up, and I’m no professional scout. I might be lucky to make it to 6 or 7 minor league games this season, and I guarantee that I won’t see Stoneburner pitch until 2011. Anecdotal evidence is inherently limited and bias. Information can be gleamed through induction (The Yankees seem to think X, therefore Y), but that’s unreliable. Furthermore, many minor league statistics (ERA, H/9) lack a lot of major league meaning due to context.
Hitters can generally be evaluated by looking directly at their results – their triple slash line, K/BB ratio, stolen bases, etc. The equivalent to triple-slash lines for pitchers is ERA, which is flawed at the minor league level in a lot of ways.
I say all of this in order to set up objective and accessible criteria to evaluate pitchers. I evaluate minor league starting pitchers by the following criteria :
- Fastball Velocity – This is one area where I’ve changed my opinion significantly over the years. I used to care very little about fastball velocity – a strikeout is a strikeout, a walk is a walk. How a pitcher gets there varies among all kinds of major league starts. Two observations changed this – pitchers with high velocity tend to decrease, not increase, their walk rate as they rise through the minors, and reports of movement and poise are almost always exaggerated. Lower fastball velocity guys can definitely succeed, but I’m a lot more comfortable with a guy who can throw 95.
- Innings Pitched – The innings pitched is a proxy for several important characteristics. Injury derails twice as many promising young pitchers as do opposing batters. Pitchers who pitch a lot of innings are less likely to be injured as their workload and stress increases. Furthermore, pitchers who go deep in to games are having an easier time pitching. A guy who has a high pitch count in A-ball is probably going to have a higher pitch count in the majors. While there are some factors in the minors that limit innings – poor fielders, tougher pitch counts, mandatory innings limits, frequent 7-inning double headers – generally a guy who pitches more than 140 innings is pretty economical.
- Strikeout Rate – There are a lot of people out there who believe that you can pretty much measure how good a pitcher is doing by his strikeout rate. While this doesn’t really pass the smell test – look at Joel Pineiro last year – it carries a lot of truth to it. Pitchers without exceptional (over 8.0 per 9) K rate tend to rapidly taper off as they climb through the minor leagues. K rates also tend to indicate how a pitcher’s repertoire is doing. Pitchers with high K rates usually (though not always) have the secondary pitches to get hitters out. Fastball-only pitchers tend to have lower strikeout rates – look at Ivan Nova or Zach McAllister for most of their careers. When a pitcher has a big jump in his K rate and a history of a curveball in progress, I usually assume that the pitcher has successfully improved his curve.
- Walk Rate – I’m really torn on the importance of a walk rate. On one hand, MLB pitchers need low walk rates. On the other hand, tons of pitchers with low walk rates see their rates rise when they hit the high minors and the majors. Power pitchers with low walk rates are obviously the gold standard. Control is important, but there are two different kinds of balls thrown out of the strike zone – the “I meant to do that” and the “‘I didn’t mean to do that”. I have no doubt in my mind that Ryan Pope can put the ball where he wants to. He just can’t put it in the zone with a 3-2 count, or risk a home run. I generally consider walk rate the least important of the above characteristics, though still important. The “false positive” rule applies – a low walk rate is a good thing, but a high walk rate is a huge warning sign. Think Homer Baily.
Stoneburner has the fastball velocity, and the other stuff looks good in the early going. We’ll see as plays and moves up.
Another quick point on Stoneburner: he’s not D.J Mitchell or David Phelps. What I mean by this is that he doesn’t have the kind of experience that those two had when they dominated A ball. Stoneburner had only one full season of starting in college, and Clemson’s Atlantic Coast conference isn’t really all that nasty. A ball is exactly where he should be, experience wise. Phelps and Mitchell were much more experienced than their A ball opponents.