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Finding Pitching

The Indians had phenomenal pitching during the second half of 2014. The pitching prospects in the minor league system are harder to find. Who might be breakout candidates for 2015?

It is mid-December, which means I should certainly be busy grading papers and final exams. But my toddler kept me up all night, so instead I am looking at minor league pitching. In particular, I am wondering where the next wave of pitching is going to come from. Last week I wrote at great length about the current depth of the Tribe system, but had this to say about the organization's pitching prospects:

Down the line the picture, at the moment, looks bleak...The Indians biggest organizational need is still starting pitching.

I have also been on record in the past as saying that I have no idea where starting pitching comes from. Most successful MLB starting pitchers were, at some point in their past, highly-touted prospects. So far this off-season Baseball America and John Sickels have come out with Cleveland prospect lists, and the only pitcher mentioned on both lists as a top 10 prospect is Justus Sheffield, a 2014 draftee who just finished a partial season of rookie ball (Cody Anderson and Mitch Brown get mentioned on one of the lists, respectively, as well). That is not much to go on.

Most, but not all, successful MLB starters were highly touted prospects. Of the projected Indians rotation, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Gavin Floyd were all top prospects. Notably, reigning Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, and Danny Salazar, were not. Salazar, it is true, was identified very early by Cleveland as a potential gem, hence his early promotion to the 40-man roster and protection from the rule 5 draft, but he was only very late identified as a top prospect by most national writers. Do the Indians have any future Klubers or Salazars lurking in the system?

If you get into the pitching projection literature, the biggest things that stick out are strikeouts and, to a somewhat lesser extent, strikeouts relative to walks. These were certainly notable aspects of the minor league track record of Kluber and Salazar. Kluber always had great strikeout numbers (averaging 9.1 K/9 across his lengthy minor league career), and showed improvement in his K/BB as he got closer to his Cleveland debut. Salazar showed flashes of strikeout ability and above average control before his breakout in 2013 (12.5 K/9, 5.4 K/BB).

The chart below shows Cleveland's minor league pitchers from 2014 and 2013, organized on the basis of K/9 (x-axis) and K/BB (y-axis). The solid black lines represent organizational averages; 8.4 K/9 and 3.0 K/BB. These date include both starters and relievers, and do not distinguish between performances at different organizational levels.

pitching K/K/BB

I have highlighted the 2014 performances that are in the upper right quadrant. In other words, lots of Ks coupled with good control. Not surprisingly, the list is heavy on relievers, but also features some expected (e.g. Justus Sheffield) and unexpected (e.g. Cole Sulser) starting pitchers. Nick Maronde's appearance is off a very small sample size. Adam Plutko just makes it, though he is obviously fairly mature given his college experience, and Giovanni Soto just misses (though hopefully he'll get another chance to reprise his starting role in 2015).

The other factor I wanted to consider was trajectory (hence the inclusion of the 2013 data). Which, if any, of the pitchers identified in the upper-right quadrant above saw positive movement on one or both axes from 2013 to 2014? Those pitchers are identified in the table below:

Name 2013 K 2013 K/BB 2014 K 2014 K/BB
Anderson Polanco 13.8 2.3 11.0 3.7
Austin Adams 12.4 2.6 8.7 3.3
C.C. Lee 11.5 3.7 11.1 4.1
Enosil Tejeda 10.2 3.0 9.7 4.6
Josh Martin 8.7 3.9 9.0 3.1
Louis Head 8.6 4.4 11.7 3.2
Luis Lugo 6.2 2.8 10.4 3.7
Matt Whitehouse 7.0 7.3 9.1 3.0
Shawn Armstrong 11.7 2.1 12.0 3.6
Trevor Frank 10.0 19.5 10.2 6.9

It should not be surprising to find many of the Indians top relief prospects here. Austin Adams and C.C. Lee made their Cleveland debuts a year ago. Shawn Armstrong was just added to the 40-man roster prior to the rule 5 draft. Enosil Tejeda was another candidate for that slot, and still could see Cleveland in 2015. Trevor Frank had a phenomenal short-season debut after being draft in the 8th round of the 2013 draft and continued that success with full-season Lake County last year. If you follow Cleveland, you very well might be familiar with those names. But then the list gets a little more interesting. Louis Head has steadily improved since his 2012 draft (18th round), reaching, and succeeding at Akron last year. Matt Whitehouse actually struggled at Lake County last year, despite his nice looking peripherals. That, coupled with his age (24 next year) and pure relief status, probably make him the least interesting name on the list. Josh Martin is a big-bodied righthander who has steadily moved up the ladder. As a reliever, he is not so exciting, but he is also a guy who has averaged 2 innings/appearance across his career. It would be interesting to see how he fared were he given a shot at the Akron rotation next year.

All of these guys might be viewed as potential "breakout" candidates, but it is really these last two I am excited about. Luis Lugo will quite possibly get some prospect praise this year after a very solid season in Lake County as a 6'5", 20-year old, lefthander. If he carries his improvements forward next year into the Carolina League, I fully expect him to start getting more prospect praise. Anderson Polanco is a 6'3" lefty out of the D.R. who had been a big-K, poor-control bullpen arm for his first couple of years in the Tribe organization. Last season, though, he made improvements to his control and, at the end of the season, was transferred to the starting rotation for his final five appearances. In those five starts (spanning 24.2 innings), he held opponents to a .450 OPS against, allowed just 6 BBs against 29 Ks, with an ERA of 1.46. Should he maintain his starting role (perhaps in Lynchburg), he could emerge quickly as a prospect worth watching.

So that's it. That's my entirely unscientific approach to identify potential breakout pitching prospects in the Tribe organization. It would be deceptive of me to think that such a purely descriptive and statistical approach was likely to succeed, but as I am not a scout and seldom get the chance to actually watch any of these guys, it is the best I can do.