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September 16, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The 45-Strikeouts, One-Walk Pitcher

by Sam Miller

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Derek Law’s worst outing with the San Jose Giants probably came on Aug. 24, when he was brought in to protect a three-run lead. The leadoff batter in the ninth reached on an error, followed by a double, a single, a wild pitch and, with two outs, a full-count walk to put the winning run on base. Law would end up striking out the side to preserve the lead. That walk wouldn’t come back to hurt him, except in the most trivial way: it was the only walk he allowed in High-A all season.

That’s roughly a 0.45 FIP. He’s a big guy with a four-seamer that touches 95 and a hammer curve that “will be a plus offering,” says Chris Rodriguez of our prospect team. Somebody else who has seen him multiple times in San Jose told me “he was always around 95, and have seen 97.” And he’s got as pure a baseball name as there is.

Law isn’t a prospect, though. This is the first time he’s ever been mentioned by a Baseball Prospectus author: never mentioned in an article, a book comment, a chat, and as far as I know a private phone conversation, a confessional diary entry, a legal filing, a text, a sext, or even an absent-minded doodle. On MLB.com’s team rankings (updated in late July), he doesn’t make the Giants’ top 20. Which leads to this question:

First the disclaimer: Every prospect is different. Low-minors stats lie. That’s the point of this article, in fact. What follows is a lumping together of players based on stats who would, by scouting standards, have no business being lumped together, because we’re trying to answer a very specific question that has nothing to do with scouting. It has to do with us, and what we—the non-scouts—can do with a season like Law’s.

There are a ton of seasons that resemble Law’s, if not quite reaching the peaks of Law’s. I went back to 2006 looking for pitchers who met all of the following criteria:

  • 23 or younger in High-A or full-season A-Ball, or 22 or younger in a short-season league;
  • Pitched at least 20 innings, with at least two-thirds of his appearances coming in relief;
  • At least 4.5 Ks per walk in High-A, at least 5.0 K/BB in full-season A, or at least 6.0 K/BB in short-season A or rookie ball.

Including Law, that turns up 146 pitchers. If you jack the minimum up to 7 Ks per walk, there are 63 pitchers. To 10 Ks per walk, 26 pitchers. To 15 Ks per walk, 11 pitchers. To put that in perspective, there have been three 15 K/BB seasons in the majors, in history, but nearly four times as many in the various A-balls by a very specific subset of pitchers (relievers of a certain age) over just an eight-year period. The low minors are absolutely loaded with insanely good FIPs.

But not insanely good prospects. Of that group of 146, just 18 have made the majors. Of course, a pitcher who did this in 2013 in the Pioneer League wouldn’t be expected to make the majors, but if we limit it to pitchers between 2006 and 2009, then 15 of 70 have made it. Those 15 can be split into two camps: Justin Masterson, and not Justin Masterson.

Justin Masterson

  • Justin Masterson

Not Justin Masterson

Masterson is the exception that proves the rule. He’s part of the overall pool, but there are a bunch of reasons he didn’t quite fit: He was a second-round pick, while most of these low-A relievers were taken much lower. He spent 2006 relieving in the New York-Penn League, but the difference between starting and relieving at that level can sometimes be semantic, as pitchers are getting stretched out, worked in slowly, or tandem-starting with teammates. Masterson averaged more than two innings per outing and was developed as a starter throughout the rest of his minor league career, after starting in college. The fact that he was “relieving” in his pro debut doesn’t seem to have been any indication that his organization saw him as limited to that.

The other 14 have produced 0.9 WARP in the majors, combined, in about 1,000 innings. Not one has a career WARP total as high as 1.0. Fernando Abad is probably the best pitcher to come out of that group, or maybe Tomlin.

So what happens to all of these guys? Here’s a look at some of the players who might have been your prospect-sleeper darlings if you’d had only the stat lines to go on:

2006: Gilbert de la Vara

Squat left-handed 15th-rounder struck out 11.4 per nine while walking 2.1 in the Midwest League as a 21-year-old in his second pro season.

Then: bumped up to High-A the same season, he lost two strikeouts and added nearly two walks to those rates. By the time he hit Double-A the next season, he was striking out five or six batters per nine. Pitched just 31 innings in Triple-A; has spent the past four seasons in independent leagues.

2007: Brad Tippett

Australian right-hander struck out 12 and walked fewer than one batter per nine innings as a 19-year-old in the Appalachian League. Also allowed just one home run, for a 0.93 ERA in 39 innings.

Then: Repeated the level as a starter; shed four Ks per nine. Added walks as he moved up levels, and topped out at High-A, where in two seasons he struck out 34, walked 13, allowed 35 earned runs in 47 innings and got released.

2008: Jamie Bagley

Right-hander popped in 35th round debuted in the Appy League at age 20, struck out 29 and walked one in 23 innings.

Then: Promoted to NYPL the same year, walked batters approximately 12 times more often. In his full-season debut, struck out 7.5 per nine, walked 3.2, with a 6.67 ERA. Released by Rays just before the start of the 2010 season.

2009: Evan Bronson

Tall, lean lefty taken in the 29th round, struck out 38 while walking three and allowing no home runs in pro debut.

Then: Put in the rotation the next year, saw his walk rate go up at every level. Spent most of the rest of his career trying to crack High-A, finishing with 5.4 Ks and 2.2 walks per nine in about 200 innings at the level.

2010: Diego Moreno

Slim Venezuelan right-hander struck out 39 batters and walked two in the first half of the High-A Florida State League in 2010, when he was 22. He got a late first-half promotion to Double-A, then quickly went back down, ending the season with a 1.13 ERA, 13.2 Ks per nine, and 11.4 Ks per walk.

Then: Despite that staggering performance, started the following season back in High-A, and spent almost the entire season there. Then got traded (as part of the A.J. Burnett deal) and missed 2012 to surgery, and spent most of the 2013 season in High-A again. He’s already 26 and, despite a 2.65 minor-league ERA, occasionally eye-popping peripherals, and a mid-90s fastball, he has thrown only 28 innings in Double-A (and none higher).

2011: Edwin Carl

Undrafted right-hander pitched 33 innings in the Pioneer League as a 22-year-old. His numbers: 71 strikeouts, three walks, no home runs. That’s about a -0.80 FIP. Negative 0.80 FIP. Negative.

Then: Moved up a level and given a chance to start, his strikeout rate predictably dropped by about two-thirds, though he was still effective. Then up to High-A as a reliever again, where he had half the strikeout rate and twice the walk rate as in the Pioneer League. In 2013 he got bumped up to Double-A and struggled, with two Ks per walk and a 5.60 ERA. Just like that, he was released, less than two years after that season in the Pioneer League. He spent a little time in an independent league and is now with the Dodgers, with whom he pitched in High-A as a 24-year-old.

Erik Miller would fit, too. He struck out 26 batters and walked one as a 21-year-old in the Pioneer League. Then, in 2012, he struck out 27 batters and walked...33. He was released. (Without pancakes.)

2012: Michael Heesch

Eighth-round pick pitched for the Cubs’ low-A affiliate in Boise during first pro season. He struck out 19, walked one, and allowed no homers in 23 innings, for a 1.72 FIP.

Then: Moved up to the Midwest League this year, as a starter. He struck out four and a half batters per nine, and walked nearly three.

And, in 2013, Law is obviously your guy.

Part of the problem with these seasons is that the very premise of “kicks butt as A-ball reliever” is “A-ball reliever,” and good prospects don’t get dumped into the reliever bucket so soon. The most important datum at that level is often what the clubs themselves are telling us: what round they pick him, how much money they give him to sign, where they assign him, and what role he has. For most of these types, including Law, the data from the club are all bad.

So how doomed is he? It’s obviously not great that, out of 75 similar stat/age/role performances over a four-year period, only one turned into an impact major leaguer and maybe a half-dozen have even stuck in the majors. But there are reasons to keep hoping on Law. One is that nobody has equaled his K:BB ratio. His draft position, and slightly-above-average bonus for that draft position, mean his team has invested more in him already than most of these guys. Most encouragingly, if you draw the parameters a bit more broadly, you can find future major leaguers who resembled Law, but with (at the time) even less reason for optimism: Sergio Romo, for instance, was too old to make our list in 2007 (along with his leaguemates Ramon Troncoso and Darren O’Day). David Robertson would have been a match, but his K/BB ratio was just the smallest bit too low. “Definitely a major league contributor, not sold he's anything more than a 5 (average) reliever,” Chris Rodriguez says. So to answer the question: Law will probably never be a prospect. But he might be a successful major leaguer, for a long time, anyway.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Relievers,  Prospects,  Scouting,  Minor Leagues,  Derek Law

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