Will Kasey Kiker make it?

Kasey Kiker was the ninth pitcher selected in the 2006 major league June amateur draft. Kiker was the 12th player selected overall, and the second high school pitcher. Entering his fifth season as a professional, Kiker should be getting close to helping the big league club. He has reached Double-A, moving one level per season after a start in Single-A, short season. Is he due for Triple-A, the American League or Double-A in 2010?

Ask Oliver

According to THT Forecasts, Kiker has a six-year Major League Equivalent ERA of around 5.50. That’s at or below replacement level. Kiker did show some improvement in 2009, though. His MLE ERA for the past three seasons has shuffled from 5.51 to 5.98 to 4.85. No alarm bells for his strike out rate, going from 10.2 per nine innings in 2007 to 8.2 and 8.6 the last two years. Unfortunately, Kiker’s walks per nine have suddenly jumped in the wrong direction: 3.8, 2.7, 4.7.

Check his stuff

Is the first-round pick a replacement level player? He is left handed, but his stuff is not very exciting. Kiker throws a fastball in the low 90s, a change-up and a slow curveball. He looks to be throwing both two- and four-seam fastballs, but I’d like to see one more (longer) outing to be sure. His curveball lacks the movement you’d expect from such a slow pitch, spring in Arizona or otherwise. Plenty of pitchers have shown good yakkers and hammers in the arid conditions of the Cactus League.

In his two spring outings captured by PITCHf/x, Kiker actually lost a bit of velocity. I have no idea what to make of that, but here is a ranking of his fastball speed, fastest to slowest, organized by game.

6-Mar   10-Mar
 91.6
 91.5
 91.0
 90.7
 90.4
         90.2
 89.7
 89.5
         89.3
         89.3
         88.8
 88.8
         88.2
         86.5

Right now, Cactus League PITCHf/x is more of curiosity than anything else. It’s a great thing to have, but it’s like being in 2007 again: partial coverage and limited applicability. On other words, we’re not seeing enough pitchers to sort out certain questions, and we’re essentially collecting a baseline for next spring. The most interesting way to look at Kiker for me is by comparison to other prospects and big leaguers.

Peer performance

The first point of comparison is Kiker’s own draft class. Kiker was one of five pitchers taken in the first round out of high school.

High school pitchers in the 2006 draft
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (7)
Kasey Kiker, Rangers (12)
Jeremy Jeffress, Brewers (16)
Kyle Drabek, Phillies (18)
Colton Willems, Nationals (22)

Kershaw wasn’t around, so we can’t fault the Rangers for not picking the youngster who is now settled into the Dodgers rotation. He hasn’t even seen the minor leagues since July 2008. Nice pick for Los Angeles.

Jeffress has had good results below Double-A, not so much in two rather short stints in Huntsville. He has been suspended twice for a “drug of abuse.” After his first suspension, Jeffress reportedly admitted to using marijuana. He’ll probably return to Double-A in 2010.

Drabek’s name has become known since he was traded to to the Blue Jays in the Roy Halladay deal. He looks just about ready to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Willems has barely made it to advanced-A, where he made six starts in 2009. At least Kiker is clearly ahead of one guy.

It’s not a fair comparison, but there was a very impressive group of older arms picked in Kiker’s round—beyond the likes of Kershaw and Drabek. Collegiate pitchers taken in the 2006 opening round included Luke Hochevar (1), Greg Reynolds (2), Brad Lincoln (4), Brandon Morrow (5), Andrew Miller (6), Tim Lincecum (10), Max Scherzer (11), Brett Sinkbeil (19), Ian Kennedy (21), Avery Morris (26, Juco), Daniel Bard (28), Kyle McCulloch (29), Adam Ottavino (30). I wonder if the Rangers cringed as the Giants and Diamondbacks made their picks in front of them.

Let’s put those peers aside and check out pitchers with profiles that are similar to Kiker’s. By profile, I mean outcomes of at-bats.

League-adjusted rate stats

I find it helpful to look at minor league performance relative to the league (not level) of the player. Benchmarked to three-year averages, I set each of several statistics to center on 100, much like OPS+. A 108 means 8 percent more than average, a 92 means 8 percent less. It helps compare players across leagues and levels, to others and themselves.

The adjusted lines used for this comparison were strikeouts per batter faced (K), walks plus hit batters per batter faced (BB+HBP) and the four batted ball types of line drive (LD), ground ball (GB), pop-up (PU) and fly ball (FB). I’ll spare you the details, which are available upon request. Similarity is simply the sum of differences, or the absolute value of those differences. No weighting is applied for age, level or metric, so pop-up rates (which vary a lot) count as much as anything else, and they shouldn’t. Quick and dirty comps are all I’m looking for—for now.

Kiker has been dead average in K and BB+HBP. On balls in play, however, he’s been noticeably low on GB, a little low on LD, high on FB, very high on PU. The most similar major league seasons to Kiker’s league-relative career line:
Carlos Villanueva 2007
Justin Hampson 2008
Michael Bowden 2009

And the major league player with the most similar three-year line:
Kevin Gregg

I’m not saying Kiker’s line, even the league-adjusted version, will translate into major league numbers. I’m just trying to get a feel of “this guy in the minors is kind of like this guy in the majors, relative to his competition.”

Taking another prospect/recent arrival from the Rangers, Neftali Feliz, let’s do the same thing—league-adjust his rates and find his comps. Feliz has a good strikeout rate and low walk rate. He’s a little below average on grounders and a bit on the wrong side of the FB and LD ratio, but a high PU rate (still less than Kiker’s).

Single season comps for Feliz’s three-year line:
Andrew Brown 2007
Jake Peavy 2008
Bronson Arroyo 2008

Last three seasons:
Brad Lidge

Ahem.

That’s not very scientific, but, well. I’m just saying.

Last thoughts

Kiker has not distinguished himself among his peers. Kershaw and Drabek have already provided value for their drafting teams. Kiker’s stuff isn’t electrifying, and his track record is more Kevin Gregg and Carlos Villanueva while his colleague Feliz has been more like Brad Lidge and Jake Peavy. Oliver projections yawn at him, and I suspect many in Texas will do the same soon, if they haven’t already.

References & Resources
Batted ball and PITCHf/x data from MLBAM. Pitch classifications by the author.

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