Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mowing down Triple-A hitters

If you've never checked out this blog before, welcome. Try a pastry!

If you're a regular, though, you know how much we believe in the idea of learning from history, of looking at past performance and using it to gauge future performance.

And with that in mind, there was a nagging question left over from Monday night's Clay Buchholz-Michael Bowden discussion: How impressive is this start to the season, really? Isn't it a little misleading since they're, you know, mowing down Triple-A hitters and not big-league hitters? Does that really matter?

(To recap: Buchholz has a 1.03 ERA in 35 innings pitched this season for Pawtucket, and Bowden has a 0.86 ERA in 35 1/3 innings pitched. Buchholz takes the ball again this afternoon against the Buffalo Bisons.)

Neither Buchholz nor Bowden is likely to keep putting up numbers that are that ridiculous. But no one in recent memory (meaning the last five years) has come even close to putting up numbers like that over a full season, which means if both pitchers see their ERAs double over the next few months, they'd still be in elite company.

More importantly, there's evidence that a sensational season at Triple-A as an apex to a record of success in the minor leagues can translate into a productive first season or two in the major leagues.

Here's the list of pitchers who have finished a Triple-A season with a sub-3.00 ERA since 2005:

(If you still don't think it's impressive that Buchholz and Bowden have ERAs around 1.00 seven weeks into the season, it's worth noting that the best Triple-A ERA in 2005 was Scott Baker's 3.01. Not a single pitcher had a sub-3.00 ERA in Triple-A that year.)

Brian Mazone (2.03): Mazone was a 29-year-old who had spent much of his prime pitching in independent ball when he went 13-3 with a 2.03 ERA for Scranton-Wilkes-Barre in the Phillies' orgaization. Given his age, though, Mazone was a non-prospect by then and still has never thrown a major-league pitch.

Jason Hirsh (2.10): Hirsch was 24 years old when he spun a dandy of a season for Round Rock, the Astros' Triple-A affiliate, earning Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year honors. He then was traded to the Rockies as part of the Willy Taveras-Jason Jennings deal. He opened the 2007 season in the Rockies' rotation, throwing 6 2/3 strong innings in his first start and finishing the month of April with a 3.41 ERA before scuffling down the stretch and eventually missing most of the final two months after a line drive broke his right calf bone.

He then missed most of the 2008 season with shoulder inflammation and began this season back in Triple-A to try to get back to where he once was.

Chris Sampson (2.51): Sampson was a 28-year-old converted shortstop, teetering on the edge of non-prospect-dom when his sensational first three months in Triple-A earned him a call-up to the Astros. He made three big-league starts that year and allowed just one earned run in 14 2/3 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .151 batting average. A year later, he opened the season in the Astros' rotation and generally pitched very well though mid-June before running into trouble.

The Astros then turned him into a swingman; he had a 4.22 ERA while making 11 starts and 43 relief appearances in 2008. This season, he's been exclusively a relief pitcher -- and he has a 2.22 ERA in 24 1/3 innings out of the bullpen.

Joe Saunders (2.67): Saunders had a 3.07 ERA in two Single-A stops and a 4.11 ERA in two double-A stops -- including a 3.49 ERA in 18 starts in 2005. He was 25 years old when he won 10 games to go along with his 2.67 ERA for Triple-A Salt Lake City, an effort that earned him his first full-time shot as a big-league starting pitcher in the Angels' rotation in late July. He pitched seven strong innings in each of his first three starts but was hit hard twice in August and twice against in September, and he finished the season with a 4.71 ERA. (It was 4.11 before he allowed five runs in the first inning in his final start of the year.)

A year ago, though, Saunders went 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA in 31 big-league starts and helped pitch the Angels to the best record in the major leagues. So far this season, Saunders is 5-2 with a 3.59 ERA and twice as many strikeouts (26) as walks (13).

Heath Phillips (2.96): Phillips was a 24-year-old in his sixth minor-league season when he broke out in a big way for Triple-A Charlotte in the White Sox's organization, turning in a 2.96 ERA on the strength of a 2.6 K/BB ratio and the remarkable feat of allowing only 12 home runs in 24 starts. A year later, though, his walk rates began to climb and the ball began to fly out of the park a little bit -- and while he earned a cup of coffee with the White Sox (and handled himself well, accumulating a 3.68 ERA), things started to fall apart. He finished the 2007 season with a 4.30 ERA and was not retained as a free agent.

He now has an 8.05 ERA in his first eight starts with Triple-A Omaha in the Royals' organzation.

Chris Michalak (2.99): Michalak was a 35-year-old career minor leaguer who first pitched in Triple-A in 1998, and though his outstanding season at Triple-A Louisville earned him a brief call-up to the Reds, when you're 35 years old, you're no longer a prospect.

Kevin Slowey (1.89): Slowey, a former second-round pick, had a 2.12 ERA in Single-A in 2005 and a 1.88 ERA split between Single-A and Double-A in 2006. After three strong minor-league starts to open the 2008 season, he earned a full-time call-up to the Twins and had a 3.99 ERA in 27 starts, including two complete-game shutouts.

So far this season, he's 5-1 with a 4.50 ERA and an astonishing 35-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

David Purcey (2.69): After back-to-back seasons with a 5.00-plus ERA -- including a 5.37 ERA with Double-A New Hampshire in 2007 -- the 26-year-old Purcey actually got better when the Blue Jays pushed him up the ladder. In 19 starts at Triple-A Syracuse, Purcey had a 2.69 ERA and a 3.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

When he ended up in the big leagues, though, he was hit hard in his first start (eight runs in three innings with four walks and no strikeouts). He spent the rest of the year gradually working his ERA back down to a more manageable number; he even struck out 11 in eight innings in a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in August.

He began the season in Toronto this season but was shipped back to Triple-A after he compiled a 7.01 ERA in his first five starts.

Charlie Zink (2.84): Zink was 28 years old and was on the downward slope of his career roller-coaster -- his ERAs ranged from 1.41 to 5.80 between 2002 and 2007 -- when the knuckleballer went 14-6 with a 2.84 ERA for Triple-A Pawtucket.

So far this season, though, he's 2-4 with a 5.14 ERA and more walks (28) than strikeouts (20).


What can we learn?

In the last three seasons, nine pitchers have posted sub-3.00 ERAs in Triple-A. Four were 28 years old or older, making them effectively non-prospects. One has fought through injuries, something that's a risk with any pitcher.

Of the other four, only two did so with a consistent track record of success all the way up through the minor leagues: Saunders and Slowey. It's hard to say it's a coincidence that those two are the ones who have become established middle-of-the-rotation starters in the major leagues.

Based on recent history, a dominant season at Triple-A -- provided it's accompanied by a consistent track record of success throughout the minor leagues -- does seem to indicate a good chance for success at the big-league level.


Dan said...

I want to see Buchholz pitching for the Red Sox right now. Get Penny out of there and give Clay a chance to prove that he is going to be good. Last year he wasn't quite ready, but he has some more experience under him and I think he could have a Joe Saunders type season next year.

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