Minor Matters: The Pitchers’ Hot Starts

I looked at some minor league hitters’ hot starts last week, so let’s break down some of the pitchers’ hot starts this week. This isn’t a comprehensive analysis or ranking of the best starts among minor league pitchers; it’s just a collection of successful starts among pitching prospects that I find interesting for one reason or another. All of these pitchers are 23 years old or younger and could help out their parent club at some point this season.

Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers

Chad Billingsley is arguably baseball’s best pitching prospect.

YEAR  LVL  G    IP   H   R  ER  HR  BB  SO   ERA
2006  AAA  5  28.1  16   6   5   2  10  31  1.59

Billingsley has pitched this well while playing most of his games at an extremely hitter-friendly context. He has only allowed five runs over four starts in the thin air of Las Vegas. Billingsley is able to prevent runs in this environment because he rarely allows the ball to leave the infield. He is striking out more than a batter per inning and has a 1.52 groundball-to-flyball ratio.

Anthony Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals

Reyes had a fantastic 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Memphis Redbirds in 2005. He put together an even more impressive ratio in his first month with Memphis this year:

YEAR  LVL  G    IP   H   R  ER  HR  BB  SO   ERA
2006  AAA  4  25.1  24  13  10   3   2  20  3.55

Reyes was THT’s #19 overall prospect this year even though he was described as “a fly-ball pitcher who has given up a fair number of homers”. Reyes had a 0.60 groundball-to-flyball ratio last year, and this year he has 0.62 groundball-to-flyball ratio.

For what it’s worth, he is inducing a lot of infield pop-ups. The average Pacific Coast League pitcher has about 22% of their flyballs fielded by infielders, but Reyes’ infielders have fielded about 31% of his flyballs. That doesn’t mean he won’t have trouble with home runs. Reyes has already allowed 11 extra base hits (including 3 HR) in just over 25 innings pitched.

Cesar Carrillo, San Diego Padres

Carrillo, a first-round pick from the 2005 draft, has contributed positive results for the Double-A Mobile BayBears this year.

YEAR  LVL  G    IP   H   R  ER  HR  BB  SO   ERA
2006   AA  5  28.0  23   8   8   1   6  20  2.57

Carrillo is keeping the ball on the ground and isn’t allowing many runs to cross the plate, but there are some areas of concern here. His strikeout rate isn’t overwhelming, and he has struggled versus left-handed hitters. Lefties have hit Carrillo hard at times, and they have an OBP of .333 versus him this year. Carrillo could reach San Diego as soon as this year, but it appears that he may have some work to do before successfully competing at that level.

Abe Alvarez, Boston Red Sox

Alvarez struggled in the International League last year, but he was young for the league and this is starting to look like the year that he starts getting attention from Red Sox fans.

YEAR  LVL  G    IP   H   R  ER  HR  BB  SO   ERA
2006   AA  5  29.0  16  10   7   4  10  14  2.17

On the other hand, it’s unlikely that he will sustain that 2.17 ERA. He continues to surrender home runs and opposing hitters put the ball in play very often. All of this means his fielding-independent ERA is 5.15 this year. FIP-ERA has some predictive value, so don’t expect Abe’s hot start to last through the month of May.

Jeremy Sowers, Cleveland Indians

Sowers is 2-1 with a 1.44 ERA after five starts. He’s not striking out many batters, so how is he doing it?

YEAR  LVL  G    IP   H   R  ER  HR  BB  SO   ERA
2006  AAA  5  31.1  30   7   5   0  11  21  1.44

In many ways, Sowers’ impressive results look like a fluke. He has surrendered a high proportion of fly balls, and some of those flyballs will eventually lead to costly home runs. He also has a LOB% of 83% this year; only about one out of five baserunners goes on to score when he’s on the mound. All those stranded runners might be due to good luck on Sowers’ part, but this may also be a repeatable skill to some extent. Sowers stranded a better-than-average proportion of runners last year and this season’s results seem consistent with that history. His approach to pitching has been described as “relentlessly analytical,” so he may have a knack for making good decisions with runners on base. He has already induced five double plays this year.

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