Saturday, February 02, 2008

Most Improved Prospects (Increased Strike Out Rate Edition)

We have all witnessed the rising cost of major league ready pitching talent. We have beared witness to Carlos Silva being awarded a 4-year, $44-million dollar contract. Kyle Lohse, a marginal starter at best, has recently said he is relinquishing his previous Gil Meche-type contract demands, is still in a market that will pay him well above his talent level. The Twins are not able to play this game. The internal pipeline of pitching prospects must always be full in order for the team to remain financially competitive against those that can spend far, far too much for your Silvas and Lohses.

As a rough guide: 13-15% is good/questionable (as you will see is case with Waldrop below), 16-18% is solid, 19-21% is great and 22%+ is phenomenal. Now these numbers carry different weight at different levels. Having a 24% strike out rate for the GCL Twins is completely different from having the same for the Rochester Red Wings. For example, Ryan Mullins spent 2006 with Beloit and finished with a 20.4% strike out rate. The following year the Twins moved him through high-A to triple-A in a single seasons where his strike out rate flattened to 10.1% of total batters faced. Typically, strike out totals tend to equalize as pitchers ascend in the system and encounter more polished competition. Therefore you will witness strikeout rates leveling out or even decreasing. As is the case with Yohan Pino. In 2006, Yohan Pino had a 26.3% strike out rate while in the Midwest League. In the following season split between high-A Ft Myers and double-A New Britain, Pino's strike out rate dropped to 22%. 22% is extremely studly so it goes to show that no matter how strong the prospect is, there still can be incremental drops.

There will undoubtedly be inherent flaws when judging prospects by one piece of the puzzle. This, however, highlights some aspects of one very necessary component of reaching the major league level: making bats miss.

This is not a complete assessment of the organization's pitching talent. Because of the minimum 200 batters faced, Jeff Manship, the pitcher who led the Twins minor leagues in strikeouts in 2007 (136), is excluded from this study (for reference, he had a 22.5% strike out rate). Additionally, a prospect whose strike out rate stays consistent throughout the minor league development is still a solid prospect so long as the strike out rate is about 17% or better as they progress.

Between 2006 and 2007, the Twins have had several of their prospects make significant inward adjustments in their mastery of the strike zone:

5) Kyle Waldrop - 13.1% in 2006/13.6% in 2007 - increase of 0.5%

Yes, it is a small incremental change but a positive change, nonetheless, and made in a season where he split two levels: high-A to double-A. Waldrop was drafted by the Twins in the 1st round (25th overall) out of Farragut High School In Knoxville, Tennessee. The Twins gave him a million dollar signing bonus to stay away from college.

“[T]hat definitely made me open up my eyes a little bit bigger,” Waldrop told his former high school's newspaper in 2004. “If they’re going to invest that much money in you, they’re going to give you every shot to make the major leagues. Being that twenty-fifth pick, they’re not going to give up on you as easily as they might if you’re a (30th)-round pick they give $5,000 to.”

In his first professional season at 18, Waldrop spent time in the Gulf Coast League and Elizabethon where he went 5-2 in 11 starts with a 2.14 era in addition to 55 strike outs in 62 innings. At the end of 2004, Baseball America had him ranked as the 6th overall prospect in the organization. The Twins moved him up to Beloit in the Midwest League in 2005 and he faltered as a 19-year-old, finishing 6-11 with a high 4.98 era. In 2006, he regain his prospect form as indicated by a 9-5 record with a 3.77 era shared between Beloit and Ft Myers. It was at those two stops that Waldrop struck out 13.1% (87 k's) of his total batters faced. Last season, Waldrop started the season 7-5 at Ft Myers in a performance that earned him a promotion to double-A New Britain where he finished 3-6 in 11 starts. While pitching at two higher levels, Waldrop improved his strike out rate to 13.6% (90 k's). In this August 2007 video of Kyle pitching against the Brevard County Manatees (Brewers), you will notice that Waldrop has a fairly short stride for his 6'5" frame. Still, you can't argue against results: he struck out 3 Manatees and allowed only 4 hits and 1 run in 7 innings of work.

His stock has slide greatly in the organization, from at one point being the 6th overall prospect in the BA rankings to not even being a blip on the top 20 for Sickel's list. Even though his 10-11 record in 2007 doesn't look great, he has proven that he has good control (90 strike outs to 43 walks), and if in 2008 he keeps the ball in the park (7.0% HR/FB at double-A) the Twins will still have a million reasons to keep moving him up in the organization.

4)Anthony Swarzak - 21.4% in 2006/22.3% in 2007 - increase of 0.9%

This image is from unknown origins but I think you can get that general idea: Swarzak is one hell of a power pitcher. He shows good balance and torque as he drive the his front hip towards home plate and swings that back leg hard. If you need further evidence, here is a youtube clip of him from May 26th, 2007. The Twins' second round pick in 2004, Swarzak began in the GCL where he struck out 42 in 48 innings of work. Like Waldrop, Swarzak was also ranked in the top ten following the 2004 (as the Twins 7th overall prospect, one behind Kyle). He was then elevated in the next season to Beloit (where he was a Midwest League all-star) and then to Ft Myers where he compiled a 12-9 record with a 3.89 era and 156 strike outs in 150.1 innings of work (24.2% k%). 2006 was more of the same dominance of the Florida State League. Swarzak struck out 21.4% of batters faced and finished 11-7 while leading the league in strike outs (131). In early 2007, Swarzak was cited for drug use (non-PED if that matters) by the league and was suspended for 50-games. Losing those two months might have been costly for some prospects. Swarzak had a shakey start to his introduction to double-A New Britain where in April he opened up with an 11.11 era. In June he was sent back to Ft Myers to work out a few kinks, probably attributed to his suspension. He finished strong in the waning months of the season as he was recalled to the Eastern League and finished with a 22.3% strike out rate shared between New Britain and Ft Myers.

The debate rages regarding Swarzak: John Sickels calls Swarzak the number 2 prospect for the Twins moving into 2008 (now Waldrop doesn't even crack the top 20), locally, a Twinkie Town survey declared him the top prospect in the system ahead of Tyler Robertson. It is almost a guarantee that Swarzak will get a crack at the rotation in 2009 if he starts out strong in 2008.

3) Tyler Robertson - 25.2% in 2006/29.2% in 2007 - increase of 4%

Robertson is the 20-year-old left-hander that John Sickels anointed as the club's number 1 prospect, to some chagrin. Sickels went so far as to write a diatribe defending his choice. Allegedly, the source of this malcontent is "the mixed scouting reports. Baseball America says his fastball was just 87-90 last year. He threw 90-92 in high school. Midwest League observers I spoke with say he was anywhere in the 88-92 range last year, which makes the BA numbers sound a bit pessimistic; I guess our sources are a bit different. He has good breaking stuff and throws strikes. The main bugaboo for scouts is his delivery, which is stiff, looks funny, and gives rise to fear about injuries. He's smoothed it out a bit, but given that he repeats it well, is his injury risk really any higher than it is for any other pitcher his age? I'm not convinced of that."

In the Gulf Coast League, Robertson torched batters at a 25.2% rate. His era was high (4.25) but in context to his FIP (2.81) you can obviously see he was pitching much better than that indicated. If there were any doubters, Robertson moved up to low-A Beloit and improved his strike out rate to 29.2%. Any way you slice it, 123 strike outs in 102.1 innings in the Midwest League is fantastic (even better for a 19-year-old).

I tend to believe that the reason most analysts are leary of giving him the number 1 status (as evidence by the Twinkie Town poll) is that he hasn't played at a higher level. It is easier to hedge your bet on a pitcher that has ascended through the ranks, performed at an elite level and remained injury-free. So far, that is all that Robertson has done, to the extent of what has been asked of him. It is not his fault that the scouting director has not asked him to throw innings at New Britain yet. But that day may come as soon as 2008.

2) Brian Duensing - 13.5% in 2006/17.9% in 2007 - increase of 4.4%

This former Cornhusker drafted by the Twins in the third round in 2005 has been been a rising stock in the organization. John Sickels had elected to name Duensing as the 7th best prospect in the Twins organization after a 2007 in which he led the organization innings pitched (167) and wins (15 - tied with Jeff Manship). Baseball America named him the 18th best overall player in the Eastern League. A lefty that had undergone Tommy John his sophomore year at the University of Nebraska, performed well in his first season at Elizabethton finishing with 2.32 era and a 25.5% strike out rate. His 2006 campaign was all about mobility. He was pushed through the Midwest League, Florida State League and finally the Eastern League. When all was said and done, Duensing had a 5-10 record, a 3.51 era and a 1.30 whip. Unfortunately, his strike outs took a sharp decline. He was only able to induce 13.5% of batters faced to strike out (mostly because of a 14.2% k% while in his first stint at double-A).

Upon return to New Britain to begin 2007, Duensing increased his strike out rate to 18.4% (up from 14.2%) and limited walks to 3.2% of plate appearances. This improvement got Duensing raised to Rochester where he struggled somewhat at first, but completed August (20.5% k%) and September (26.9% k%) strong. His 15 victories with New Britain and Rochester was good enough for tops in the Twins minor league system.

He may pitch himself into the rotation come 2008.

1) Brian Bass - 11.6% in 2006/18.9% in 2007 - increase of 7.3%

Back in December, I wrote:

Brian Bass was resigned after the Twins initially granted him free agency. Drafted by the Royals out of high school in Alabama, Bass made his debut in rookie ball as an 18-year-old. As a Royals prospect, Bass spent the next three season bouncing between A and high. In 2004, the then 22-year-old Bass got 9 starts in Double-A Whicita. His performance left something to be desired: facing 180 batters, Bass walked more than he struckout. The Royals were still high on him despite his nagging injuries and frequent dead-arm spells. After splitting time between Double-A Whicita and Triple-A Omaha with mixed results, the Twins picked up Bass with the intention of using him in the bullpen. In 37 games last year, Bass made 10 starts for the Red Wings. Against 424 batters faced, Bass struck out 18.9% of them and walked only 5.2%, a sharp contrast from his days within the Royals organization when he had the weapons but lacked the control. Even more impressive was his ability to produce groundballs (57% GB rate). Bass made 9 starts for the Tigres de Aragua and continued where his Rochester season left off by walking 2 of the 92 batters he faced (2.2%) and striking out 16 of the 92 (17.2%). Of the balls put in play, 68% of them were on the ground. Rotoworld's analysis is that Bass could made a good swingman out of the Twins bullpen and judging from his 2007 numbers, that might be a good fit.

I believe you will see Bass returned to Rochester once the 2008 commences, however, his improvement - coupled with the Royals neglect of a solid pitching prospect - leads me to believe there is a major league appearance in the near future for Bass. It may come out of the bullpen, but it is something. At 26, Bass is getting a little long in the tooth to be considered a prospect.