March 19, 2010
Hot Spots: Starting Pitchers
The Tampa Bay Rays have three young pitchers in the mix for the #5 spot in the rotation. Wade Davis, 24, is the favorite according to HEATER Magazine's Ricky Zanker. 27-year-old Andy Sonnanstine, who started Game 4 of the 2008 World Series, is on the outside looking in, and the 23-year-old Jeremy Hellickson is on the outer rim as well.
Davis has impressed both in his 767 innings accumulated in six seasons in the Minors as well as in the 36 innings he pitched at the Major League level last year. In the Minors, he averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and finished with an aggregate ERA of 3.47 or lower every year since 2005.
In the Majors last year, he displayed a good fastball that averaged 92 MPH and a good curve that was his best pitch according to FanGraphs pitch type linear weights -- 2.66 runs above average per 100 curves. All of the ERA estimators viewed his short stint in the Majors more favorably than his ERA showed.
It is important to note that we are dealing with a very small sample size of only 36 innings.
Wade's highlight last year was a complete game shut-out in Baltimore in which he allowed only four hits and two walks and struck out 10 Orioles. As you may expect, the Rays like what they have seen so far from their third round draft pick from 2004.
Andy Sonannstine's star has fallen since holding opposing hitters to a .705 OPS in the 2008 post-season. He finished 2009 with a 6.77 ERA, mostly due to a .336 BABIP and a complete inability to strand runners (58 percent compared to the AL average 72 percent). His career BABIP is .323 over 424 innings, signifying that he's been 2.3% more unlucky than the average pitcher or that he just does not have the stuff to fool opposing batters.
Last year, Sonnanstine's strikeout rate continued to fall below 5.5 per nine innings and his walk rate ballooned by about 1.3 to 3.1 from 2008 to '09. His fastball averages just over 87 MPH and his off-speed pitches have been underwhelming over his career.
Jeremy Hellickson is another highly-touted young pitching prospect with an impressive Minor League resume looking to make the Major League roster. He spent equal time last year between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham where he collectively averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings and fewer than 2.5 walks for a 4.55 K/BB. He has finished every year with an ERA under 3.00, incredibly.
If either of the young guns wins the #5 spot over Sonnanstine, they will make great value picks in your fantasy league. Later in drafts, you should be going for upside and if you can nab the winner of Davis/Hellickson, you will be getting great value for your pick. Avoid Sonnanstine as he is in the same category as Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer, mentioned in last week's column.
The San Francisco Giants are yet another squad with competition at the back of the starting rotation. Phenom Madison Bumgarner is competing with the more seasoned Todd Wellemeyer while Kevin Pucetas is on the outside.
HEATER Magazine's Paul Bugala previously gave Bumgarner the edge over Wellemeyer going into the regular season. However, the young lefty has given many within the Giants organization cause for concern. On average, he had been found in the low 90 MPH range, but he has mostly been in the mid to high 80's so far this spring according to most reports and the limited amount of Pitch F/X data. Coupled with a disappointing showing in spring training thus far, Bumgarner has allowed Todd Wellemeyer to pull ahead in the race.
In his brief Minor League career, Bumgarner had been outstanding. In 2008 with Single A Augusta, he averaged more than 10 strikeouts and barely over one walk per nine innings, for a K/BB ratio approaching 8:1. With Double-A Connecticut, his strikeout rate dropped significantly to 5.8 per nine, and his walk rate nearly doubled to 2.5 per nine.
He seemed to regain his whiff stuff when he was called up to the Majors last September. In four appearances, including one start, he struck out 10 and walked three (one intentionally) in 10 innings. Bumgarner has never had a penchant for allowing home runs with an aggregate rate of 0.3 per nine innings in his Minor League career. He did allow two at the Major League level last year, though, to Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley in his only start against the San Diego Padres.
Todd Wellemeyer's career has been a windy road. He was a starter in the Minors, then used exclusively as a reliever from 2003 through the first half of 2006. When he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, he was used out of the rotation. Perhaps expectedly, his BABIP has been all over the map, ranging from .271 in 2006 to .346 last year. Yet, as DIPS has shown us, his career BABIP rests right at the average, .300.
When he was used as a reliever, his fastball routinely hit the mid-90's, but it dropped down to 91.5 MPH on average last year. Always struggling with control, Wellemeyer never developed more than an average ability to get hitters to swing and miss with respective per-nine rates of 5.74 strikeouts and 4.19 walks last year. He allows a lot of fly balls and subsequently a lot of home runs -- specifically, 11% of his fly balls land beyond the outfield fence.
None of the projection systems, including PECOTA, like him; neither should you. Still, his Major League experience makes him the favorite to win the final spot in the rotation over Bumgarner and Pucetas.
Kevin Pucetas spent 2006-08 at three levels of Single-A where he found a great deal of success, finishing each season with a great K/BB ratio, between 3-5 K per BB, and an ERA between 1.86 and 3.02. Last year, he skipped Double-A entirely, moving right up to Triple-A Fresno. There, he made 28 starts but was battered to the tune of a 5.04 ERA, a Minor League career low in strikeouts and high in walks, and doubled his previous career high in home runs per nine innings.
Pucetas and Wellemeyer have both looked strong thus far in spring training. Pucetas has tossed nine shut-out innings with no walks and three strikeouts. Wellemeyer has pitched ten innings and only allowed two runs with one walk and one strikeout. Bumgarner, meanwhile, has allowed five runs, walked seven, and struck out no one in seven innings.
Expect Bumgarner to start the year in Triple-A and Wellemeyer to win the #5 job. Keep tabs on Bumgarner, though, if he regains his stuff in the Minors and the Giants are at or near the top of the NL West going into the summer.