Minor League Analysis: Ks are Great (for pitchers that is)


We know that in Major League Baseball, pitchers have multiple ways of pitching that can lead them to success. One is striking out a lot of batters, which will reduce the chances for hits by opposing batters. However, if that leads to a lot of walks (see Volquez, Edinson or Sanchez, Jonathan) it can reduce the amount of innings that pitcher can give your team. So it's not strange that what makes pitchers like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels so effective is that in addition to good strikeout rates they limit the free passes they allow. Not all pitchers have the ability to still get good amounts of strikeouts while staying in the zone, so most pitch-to-contact guys are pitchers who try to induce groundballs. Groundballs don't go for homers and don't often go for other extra base hits either, and they also get double plays, so they're a good alternative to strikeouts. But there's even a group of relatively successful pitchers who limit the walks so well that they succeed without great groundball tendencies. Guys like Dallas Braden, Jair Jurrjens, Mark Buehrle, Doug Fister, Bronson Arroyo, Freddy Garcia and now Josh Tomlin and Phil Humber come to mind as examples. Mind you, these guys shouldn't be considered aces, but they're good pitchers to have on your team.

So, basically I just argued that strikeouts are not as all important as they are sometimes made out to be. Now I'm going to throw that thought of the window and say that in terms of the Blue Jays' farm system, strikeouts are the most important tool to evaluate how a pitcher is doing. You know, besides the real life stuff that we don't know about like how a certain pitch is coming along or if they're controlling their emotions (looking at you Kyle). I think most of the time, if a pitcher is pitching well, you'll see notice it from the strikeout numbers. The reason I so confidently state this is because I gathered a bunch of data on relatively young and successful starting pitchers, who pitched in the minors in 2007 or later (this because minor league environments probably change over time). The data shows that the pitchers who do become good major league starters usually get a good number of Ks in the minors, even if they don't end up as strikeout machines in the majors (for example: Jurrjens, Buchholz, Cahill). There are a few exceptions like John Lannan and Doug Fister, but they don't have the kind of upside the Blue Jays are looking for.

The average K% for recent successful pitching prospects is around 24%, meaning that they struck out almost a quarter of the batters they faced, on average. The reason I use K% and not K/9 is quite simple: pitchers who extend their innings will see their K/9 inflated, while efficient pitchers who don't give up a lot of hits and walks will have a lower K/9, even though they're more efficient. K% is a much better statistic, especially when you consider what a bad defense will do to the length of a pitcher's innings (Hello, Gustavo Pierre!). So while noting that the average is around 24%, I will also note that with anything below 19%, we should be a bit disappointed. There are very few examples of non-Lannan, non-Fister pitchers on my spreadsheet who K'd less than 19% at any one stop. Ricky Romero is a quite exceptional case, but Travis Wood and Brandon Beachy have also had bad (partial) seasons of around 15% Ks. Of course, Beachy's and Wood's ultimate skill as Major League pitchers is still to be determined.

This doesn't mean that we should completely write off every pitching prospect who Ks less than 19% of the batters he faces. What it does mean is that we likely shouldn't be projecting that prospect as a member of our future rotation yet, because that prospect likely has some things to work on, and when that's the case you never know if he's actually going to succeed and turn that proverbial corner in terms of dominance, like Romero did (but again, Romero is quite unique). I think almost every pitcher with pitches that can do well in the majors will get Ks in the minors, simply because your pitches need to be very good to survive in the majors. If you throw good pitches, minor league hitters will miss them, because there's a lot of minor league hitters out there who just aren't that good. So I think the 19% Ks prerequisite doesn't seem all that strange, even though pitchers can get by without getting a lot of Ks in the majors. Let's take a look at our pitching prospects' K percentages and see if they are striking out enough batters (according to me anyway). Oh, the average BB% for successful pitching prospects was around 9%.

Name
Age
Level
K%
BB%
GB%
Brett Cecil
24
AAA
18.3
7
39.1
Brad Mills
26
AAA
21.7
6.4
39.3
Zach Stewart
25
AA
16.5
7.1
44.2
Joel Carreno
24
AA
30.2
12.6
35.1
Henderson Alvarez
21
AA
16.6
5.5
56.7
Chad Jenkins*
23
AA
18.1
9.6
47.5
Chad Jenkins 23
A+
15.5
4.6
54.9
Deck McGuire
22
A+
23.0
9.3
36.6
Nestor Molina
22
A+
27.7
2.9
46.5
Asher Wojc.
22
A+
16.2
6.8
41.9
Drew Hutchison
20
A
27.7
6.3
50.8
Sean Nolin
21
A
24.9
7.5
42.2
Egan Smith
22
A
19.4
6.8
45.0

*=just a few games pitched at that level

So, we have a few guys meeting the norm who are old for their level in Mills, Carreno, Molina and Nolin, although Molina isn't that old and this is only his first year as a starter. Then there's Deck McGuire (turned 22 only very recently) and Drew Hutchison, the best statistical performer of them all. Notably absent from the group that meets the norm is Henderson Alvarez, who hasn't thrown that many innings, but then he hasn't been near the norm in his whole career yet. This is strange because Alvarez throws very hard and has been somewhat of a hype around here. Still, it's somewhat explainable by the fact his best pitches are a (sinking?) fastball and a changeup. A fastball doesn't nearly get as many whiffs as offspeed pitches do, and changeups are the worst pitch to get called strikes with, which makes them a little less likely to set up strikeouts. Still, very rarely do hard-throwing pitchers not get a lot of strikeouts. The best comp I could find for Alvarez is Fausto Carmona. Carmona's K% was mostly around 15% in the minors and he was pitching in AA for the first time at an even younger age than Alvarez. Now, Carmona was bad in 2008 and 2009, while he was good in 2007 and 2010. In 2011 he seems to have been unlucky so far, with a 3.97 xFIP that doesn't match his unsightly 5.89 ERA. In any case, Carmona is a good example of why throwing hard does not mean you'll strike a lot of guys out. The quality of one's offspeed pitches and the command one has over them are also a big factor.

In future minor league recaps, I will throw strikeout percentages around a lot, so be prepared. In fact I'll start right now: Noah Syndergaard struck out about 26% of the hitters he faced yesterday, getting 66.7% groundballs and pitching 5 scoreless innings. Mitchell Taylor struck out a decent 21% but got just 23% groundballs and was tagged for 3 runs in 4 innings. Drew Hutchison struck out 22% in his debut for high-A Dunedin, getting 52% groundballs and giving up no earned runs (one unearned) in 6 innings.

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