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October 3, 2008
A great deal of the e-mails and chat questions that I receive concern pitching statistics, with most writers wanting to know what numbers they should look at when evaluating prospects, and which are more relevant than others. My answer usually begins with the caveat that you really have to have scouting reports, and that you can never judge minor leaguers at any level by numbers alone. While it's still baseball, the minor league game is very different than the major league version, and there are certain skill sets that can lead to great-looking numbers in the minors, with little or no promise of big-league success.
That said, there are numbers that I do look at, and they involve keeping the ball out of play (strikeouts), and keeping runners off base (hit and walk rates). Combining those things, I use a simplistic measurement I call MBN, or Missed Bat Number. The simple formula is K-H-BB, or strikeouts minus baserunners allowed. Divide that by innings pitched and one gets MBR or Missed Bats Ratio. On a basic level, any positive number (which would indicate more strikeouts than runners allowed) is outstanding, and the all-time major league record is +116 by Pedro Martinez in his ridiculous 1999 season that included 313 strikeouts against only 128 hits and 32 walks. No ERA qualifier this year had a positive number, although Tim Lincecum came as close as one can get with 265 strikeouts, 182 hits allowed and 84 walks, for a -1. Falling just short of the innings minimum, Rich Harden was by far the most dominant starter in the big leagues this year, compiling a +24 mark in 148 innings by allowing just 96 hits, walking 61 and punching out 181. Closers are often in the positive range, as this year's leader among relievers was Mariano Rivera, with an amazing +30 in just 70
Getting back to prospects and the minors, there were 11 players with 100 or more innings who compiled a positive MBN, and here they are, ordered by MBR, and with a discussion on just how real it is in each instance.
Stats: +32 at Low-A (141.2-111-21-164); MBR: 0.23
As if one needed it, here is further evidence that last year's first-round pick has established himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Two aspects of Bumgarner's game well exceeded expectations coming into the year. His command improved dramatically when, instead of worrying about Bumgarner's natural three-quarters arm slot, the Giants instead simply worked on helping him find a consistent angle with it to enable him to throw more strikes. Beyond the wild success seen in his strike-throwing ability, his breaking ball went from a slurvy, looping offering to a real power downer that flashes plus at times, and shows the potential to become a big-league out pitch. Add that to this lefty's plus to plus-plus velocity, and he has true impact potential.
2. Tommy Hanson, RHP, Braves
Stats: +23 at High-A (40-15-11-49); +3 at Double-A (98-70-41-114); MBR: 0.19
Even beyond his amazing start to the season and the no-hitter in the Southern League, Hanson was one of the most dominant pitchers in the minors this year, and it seems as if he's flying under the radar a bit; when it comes to any discussion of the top pitching prospects in the game, he's not in it. That's hard to understand, as the stuff matches the stats, with his fastball, curve, slider, and changeup all rating as above average in the eyes of scouts.
Stats: +23 at Low-A (82-55-28-106); -10 at Double-A (45.1-34-23-47); MBR: 0.10
While he had a slightly negative number at Double-A mostly due to some command issues, Feliz remains one of the most dominant arms in the minors, and more than held his own in the Texas League as a 20-year-old. He's still doing it mostly on the strength of an upper-90s fastball that grades up even more because of its movement and location, but he did make process with his secondary pitches as well, flashing a plus slider and much improved changeup as the season wore on.
4. Wilkins De La Rosa, LHP, Yankees
Stats: +11 at Low-A (90.1-60-39-110); -2 at High-A (16.1-12-5-15); MBR: 0.08
There's a good chance that De La Rosa is the first player on this list you haven't heard of, but you should, because he's probably the best sleeper in the Yankees system. Originally signed six years ago out of the Dominican Republic as an outfielder, De La Rosa didn't covert to pitching until last year after batting .224/.353/.287 in 287 minor league games. He began the year in the Low-A Charleston bullpen, but the 23-year-old moved to the rotation in the second half of the season and continued to dominate while impressing scouts with a low-90s fastball, average slider, and plus changeup. He has some chance to remain a starter, and many believe that at the very least he'll be a solid lefty reliever in the big leagues.
Stats: +21 at High-A (87.1-52-31-103); -10 at Double-A (37-24-19-33); MBR: 0.08
Let's not forget about Cahill, who didn't pitch after late July due to his Olympic commitment. He was the most dominant pitcher in the California League during the first half of the season, and took only a small step backwards after moving up to Double-A. He's one of those pitchers that are hard to rank because he doesn't have All-Star stuff, but it's still awfully good, with a plus fastball and curve. While it's hard to see an impact ceiling, it's also impossible to see him as anything less than a third starter, the kind of projection that is rarely guaranteed for a 20-year-old.
6. Josh Tomlin, RHP, Indians
Stats: +11 at High-A (102.2-82-16-109); -4 at Triple-A (7-6-1-2); MBR: 0.06
While De La Rosa might be the first obscure name on the list, Tomlin is the first who really isn't a very strong prospect. A 19th-round pick in 2006, Tomlin's scouting profile is little more than that of a strike-thrower, but in his defense, his stuff did make progress this year. His fastball now rates as average, and his once-slurvy breaking pitch is now a true slider with nice tilt. Still, there's nothing in his arsenal that rates as a true big-league out-generating offering, so at best his projection ends up at the level of big-league middle-reliever.
7. Derek Holland, LHP, Rangers
Stats: -15 at Low-A (93.2-77-29-91); +12 at High-A (31-20-5-37); +9 at Double-A (26-14-6-29); MBR: 0.04
Holland had the biggest breakout performance of the year, and actually got better at each level as the season wore on. A moderately obscure draft-and-follow going into the year, Holland shocked everyone by suddenly firing mid-90s fastballs, getting up as high as 98 as the season wore on. He's also my favorite kind of breakout player, because when you ask the Rangers themselves to explain the sudden increase, the answers basically amount to, "don't know, but I'm not complaining about it."
8. Mike McCardell, RHP, Twins
Stats: +4 at Low-A (135.1-110-25-139); MBR: 0.03
A fifth-round pick last year out of a Division II school, McCardell put up an incredible +47 in just 63 innings during his pro debut last year, allowing only 40 hits and eight walks while striking out 95. He was able to keep it up this year, but there are still plenty of red flags. First of all, he's 23 years old and has done nothing but beat up on Low-A hitters. He's also a severe fly-ball pitcher who lives in the upper half of the strike zone. That said, there are some positive things on the ledger: a plus curveball, solid velocity, and a bulldog mentality. He's the eighth most-dominant pitcher statistically, but he only projects as a middle reliever down the road.
9. Jeremy Horst, LHP, Reds
Stats: +3 at Low-A (102-74-33-110); MBR: 0.03
A 21st-round pick last year out of the baseball powerhouse that is Armstrong Atlantic State College (it's in Georgia, in case you're wondering), Horst began the year in the bullpen at Dayton, and was even better after moving to the rotation in July, putting up a 1.64 ERA in 10 starts while going +5 in 49
10. Victor Garate, LHP, Dodgers
Stats: +14 at Low-A (77.2-61-28-103); -11 at High-A (38.1-44-14-47); MBR: 0.03
A Rule 5 minor league pick, Garate has put up gaudy strikeout numbers wherever he goes, but scouts have yet to warm to him, and it's unlikely that they ever will. He's an older, smaller version of Horst-he's left-handed and hardly ever touches 90, but he has perhaps the most deceptive delivery in the minors, as his natural motion hides the ball behind his head and body until almost the moment of release. He should end up as a situational reliever in the future.
11. David Huff, LHP, Indians
Stats: +4 at Double-A (65.2-44-14-62); -2 at Triple-A (80.2-68-15-81); MBR: 0.01
A supplemental first-round pick in 2006, Huff was limited to just 11 starts last year due to elbow soreness, but his arm held up fine this year, and his stuff took a step forward. He's a command/control pitcher who pounds the strike zone with four average or better-than-average pitches. His 88-90 mph fastball grades up due to command and sink, while his changeup generates swings and misses. He throws two breaking balls (curve and slider), and while neither are mind-bending, they do enough to keep hitters off balance. Once seen as a solid back-end starter type, that projection has been upped to 'mid-rotation' by this year's outstanding showing.