Triple-A pitchers, under the microscope

Last week, we looked at Triple-A pitch-by-pitch data to pick out some minor league players with notable contact rates, patience and lack thereof. Of course, we can look at the flip side too. Using the same information and slicing a little differently, we can find the Triple-A pitchers whose efficiency, bat-missing and strike-throwing stand out.

Before we jump into the numbers, a few notes for those of you who didn’t read last week’s column. Unfortunately, these data are only publicly available for Triple-A. These numbers are probably a little bit off: between stats stringers recording every pitch and my script parsing each one, mistakes are surely made. The results should be close though. Finally, all of these rankings are limited to pitchers who have faced 200 or more batters. Stats are current through Sunday’s games.

Efficiency

Much like contact rate for hitters, pitch efficiency is likely overrated for pitchers, especially in the minor leagues. We like prospects with lots of strikeouts, and I suspect we tend to prefer those who coax bad contact, which often turns into foul balls. As you’ll see at the bottom of the article, some of the biggest-name prospects to pitch at this level this year throw plenty of pitches, but seem to have gotten along okay in the big leagues.

That said, here are the Triple-A pitchers whose plate appearances end the most quickly:

Player          PA      Pitches Pit/PA
Jim Crowell     261     847     3.25
Adam Pettyjohn  330     1079    3.27
Mike Esposito   430     1414    3.29
Brian Lawrence  410     1360    3.32
Yorman Bazardo  558     1851    3.32
Evan MacLane    508     1689    3.32
Bobby Livingston438     1457    3.33
Alex Serrano    240     799     3.33
Ricardo Rodrigue300     999     3.33
Dwayne Pollok   310     1036    3.34

Some of these hurlers have had solid years, but I suspect that high pitch efficiency in the minors is a good way to spot those who’ll go bust after a promotion. Jim Crowell has allowed a 800+ OPS against, so he isn’t likely to get much of a look, but he’s a good example. Surprisingly, his walk rate is high—around four per nine innings—but his strikeout rate is even lower. That’s the kind of pitcher who might come up and impress for a week, coaxing a few critical ground balls, before imploding in a sea of consecutive singles three outings later.

Strike throwers

Strike percentage can be a misleading stat. Color commentators have trained us to believe that strikes are good things—and often they are—but when looking at pitch-by-pitch data, a lot of undesirable (or unrelated) events count as strikes. Any pitch resulting in contact gets categorized as a strike, as does a meatball down the middle that, perhaps, Jason Botts doesn’t swing at.

Because pitching to contact generates a high percentage of “strikes,” there’s plenty of overlap between the most efficient Triple-A pitchers and the ones with the highest strike percentages:

Player             PA      Pitches Str%
Alex Serrano       240     799     70.8%
Brian Lawrence     410     1360    70.7%
Nick Blackburn     331     1163    70.5%
Kevin Slowey       453     1661    70.3%
Dan Giese          241     872     69.7%
Andrew Sonnanstine 256     963     67.9%
Chris Britton      208     797     67.9%
Adam Pettyjohn     330     1079    67.8%
Scott Atchison     214     811     67.8%
Josh Banks         578     1963    67.7%
Jeremy Sowers      319     1103    67.6%

That’s not all that satisfying. We can do better.

Missing bats

If we’re looking for young pitchers with upside, we usually don’t prioritize guys who pitch to contact. We like strikes, but only of the swing-and-miss variety. Here are the pitchers for whom swings are most likely to turn into misses:

Player           PA      Pitches Str/Sw
Jason Bulger     202     746     62.0%
Chris Booker     206     900     61.1%
Brian Rogers     223     817     60.0%
Steve Andrade    244     949     59.9%
Alec Zumwalt     222     827     59.9%
Franklyn German  236     979     59.7%
J. P. Howell     430     1529    59.4%
Travis Driskill  229     840     59.3%
Paul Estrada     263     971     59.2%
Dennis Sarfate   225     913     59.0%

These pitchers are mostly relievers and they stand in direct contrast to the first two groups we’ve seen. Alec Zumwalt is a good example. He walks plenty, doesn’t have a particularly high strike percentage, but strikes out more than a batter per inning. Whether that translates into major league success remains to be seen—Grant Balfour is a good comparison, and the fact that multiple organizations haven’t tried him in their bullpens is another useful data point—but I’d probably take my chances on him as a seventh reliever over, say, Alex Serrano.

Pitchers of note

If you’re like me, you’re more interested in the Yovani Gallardos and Mike Pelfreys of the world than Serrano and Zumwalt. Here is a list of several pitchers—either prospects or guys I find intriguing for some reason—and how they fare on the metrics discussed above. “Sw/Str” is the percent of strikes that are swinging, “KS%” is the percent of strikeouts that are swinging, and “Fl/Ctt” is rate at which batted balls go foul.

Player              PA      Pit/PA  Sw/Str  Str/Sw  Str%    KS%     Fl/Ctt
Andrew Sisco        252     4.33    74.2%   56.5%   62.9%   77.8%   58.2%
Dan Meyer           412     4.23    74.5%   57.2%   60.3%   76.2%   52.2%
Fabio Castro        208     4.22    72.4%   55.8%   59.9%   63.4%   53.8%
Will Startup        228     4.07    71.3%   57.3%   63.0%   70.9%   51.4%
Homer Bailey        278     4.06    74.7%   56.1%   60.7%   69.5%   53.3%
Yovani Gallardo     335     4.05    70.5%   58.8%   63.7%   68.4%   56.4%
Craig Hansen        229     4.05    71.3%   56.1%   58.9%   60.0%   49.8%
Michael Pelfrey     268     4.04    75.7%   55.2%   61.7%   67.4%   51.7%
Matt Wright         465     3.86    72.4%   54.8%   62.7%   68.0%   47.2%
Tyler Clippard      317     3.85    72.7%   55.6%   61.6%   63.6%   48.6%
Charlie Haeger      490     3.85    69.1%   56.5%   62.0%   82.7%   47.4%
Matt Garza          424     3.84    72.5%   56.4%   62.3%   64.0%   49.6%
Matt Albers         223     3.84    72.0%   55.9%   60.2%   65.1%   46.8%
Jon Lester          306     3.83    72.7%   55.2%   61.9%   64.7%   48.5%
Chris Britton       208     3.83    73.4%   55.6%   67.9%   58.5%   55.5%
Yusmeiro Petit      374     3.83    72.6%   55.4%   63.2%   66.7%   47.2%
Eric Hurley         217     3.82    78.9%   56.9%   64.0%   82.2%   52.4%
Billy Buckner       412     3.79    68.9%   55.3%   63.4%   70.1%   40.7%
Andrew Sonnanstine  256     3.76    73.4%   57.7%   67.9%   78.5%   50.3%
Joe Saunders        367     3.75    76.4%   56.5%   66.5%   78.6%   51.3%
Adam Miller         256     3.73    72.0%   55.9%   65.8%   74.1%   51.4%
Philip Humber       522     3.69    71.5%   55.4%   63.2%   59.6%   46.9%
Kevin Slowey        453     3.67    74.9%   55.7%   70.3%   72.4%   51.2%
Devern Hansack      492     3.65    72.2%   57.5%   66.6%   70.5%   45.5%
Kason Gabbard       313     3.63    70.5%   57.9%   62.0%   76.6%   38.8%
Jordan Tata         258     3.53    76.8%   55.1%   60.5%   80.0%   39.9%
Carlos Marmol       202     3.53    68.7%   57.8%   64.4%   60.7%   47.6%
Jeremy Sowers       319     3.46    71.8%   54.1%   67.6%   84.8%   44.7%
Approx Avg          ---     3.72    73.0%   55.9%   62.6%   74.0%   45.5%
Errata

In last week’s column, I repeatedly referred to numbers for first-pitch swings. I didn’t notice that those percentages didn’t come close to passing the sniff test. They were not the percent of first pitches that batters swung at, they were the percent of first pitches that batters made contact with. Big difference, and it probably explains the apparent Joey Gathright paradox that I pointed out in that context.

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