In an appearance on FanGraphs Audio in early 2012, shortly after then-rookie Michael Pineda had been traded to the Yankees in a deal that sent Jesus Montero to Seattle, managing editor Dave Cameron spoke to the possible reasons for Pineda’s success in 2011 despite the almost total absence of a changeup. The changeup, or at least some manner of pitch defined more by its vertical than its horizontal movement, is regarded generally as a prerequisite for success as a starting pitcher.
By way of example, consider: of 2011’s 94 qualified pitchers, only seven threw their curveball, changeup, and/or splitter a combined 10% or less. One of those seven was R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer. Another was Alexi Ogando, a reliever working as a starter. Other pitchers with other unique circumstances occupied the remainder of the list.
Michael Pineda was a member of that group, as well. Despite throwing either a fastball or slider about 94% of the time in 2011, Pineda produced an excellent rookie season, recording the 11th-best strikeout- and walk-rate differential among that same group of qualifiers, a park-adjusted xFIP 13% better than league average, and the second-best WAR figure among all rookies (including hitters).
Other pitchers had exhibited the ability to survive without some manner of downward-moving pitch, but all of them were attended by an explanation. What, I asked, was Pineda’s? Cameron’s answer: If you throw 95 mph and also feature better-than-average control, you have a larger margin for error than pitchers who don’t have or do those things.
Indeed, Pineda’s combination of velocity and control wasn’t common. In 2011, the league-average walk rate was 8.1%. Only five starting pitchers posted a walk rate lower than that league-average mark while also recording an average fastball velocity of 94.5 mph or better.
Here they are, sorted by RA9-WAR — that is, WAR calculated using ERA instead of FIP:
Universally successful, is how one might characterize that group. Collectively, they prevented runs at a rate about 15% better than league average and recorded about four wins. Which, that’s good — and, notably, this sample is the product merely of identifying those pitchers who met two simple (but seemingly important) criteria.
Having stumbled upon this, I was intrigued. What would happen, I wondered, if one were to apply these very simple criteria — throws hard, avoids walks — not to major leaguers, but to prospects in the high minors? Would it be possible, in effect, to identify the next Michael Pineda?
Not long after the aforementioned podcast episode, I published a two-partseries called that exact same thing (i.e. The Next Michael Pineda). The goal: to find minor leaguers who, regardless of their prospect status, might inherently feature promise owing to their resemblance to Michael Pineda et al. The methodology for that study was as follows:
I went through the Double- and Triple-A pitching leaderboards from 2011, looking at pitchers who (a) threw more than 50 innings, with the majority of them as a starter, (b) posted a walk rate of 7.0% or less, and (c) were younger than 25 years old. Because pitchers don’t age on a bell curve like hitters, that last filter is less important than the others. On the other hand, if a pitcher has made it to 25 without playing the majority of a season in the majors, he’s probably something less than a top prospect. Also, I didn’t want to have to look up a whole bunch of scouting reports on career minor leaguers.
From that methodology, I generated a list of all the pitchers who met the relevant criteria, sorted by average fastball velocity. On the top of that list — that is, the player most likely (in theory) to embody the second coming of Michael Pineda — was Garrett Richards.
At the time, Richards was a prospect of what might accurately be called "medium renown." The fastball velocity and strike-throwing were two positive attributes, obviously. Later in the offseason, Baseball America would rank him 83rd among all rookie-eligible players in baseball. Despite the premium arm speed, however, he’d recorded a strikeout rate of just 17.8% over 143 innings as a 23-year-old at Double-A Arkansas in 2011. Moreover, following an August promotion to the majors, he was ineffective, striking out too few (14.5%) and walking too many (11.3%). If Richards were the Next Michael Pineda, the transformation wasn’t imminent.
Nor would the next season (2012) represent a giant leap in that direction. Throwing 71 major-league innings both as a starter and in relief, Richards recorded strikeout and walk rates (14.8% and 10.7%, respectively) almost identical to those he’d produced during his brief audition the previous year. His line in the majors was also quite similar, with a few extra percentage points added to the strikeout rate.
The Next Michael Pineda experiment, at this point, appeared to have been a failure. Richards showed subtle improvement in 2013, however — once again transitioning between the rotation and the bullpen — and then finally, this past season, ascended to ace-like levels.
Ended in August by a freak leg injury, Richards’ 2014 was excellent. More than that, it bore no little resemblance to that version of Pineda from the latter’s rookie year.
Strikeout rate: nearly identical. Walk rate: nearly identical. Ground-ball rate: not identical at all, really — and hence Richards’ advantage in the fielding-independent categories. Overall, though, the similarities are compelling.
To suggest that this experiment of identifying the next Michael Pineda is necessarily a success because Garrett Richards eventually produced an above-average season — this would be an exercise in folly. What the results do add, though, is some combination of credibility and/or false hope to the notion that a pitcher, possessing a 95-mph fastball and an idea of where it’s going, might develop into an above-average starting pitcher.
With that in mind, I’ve duplicated the experiment from early in 2012, using player-seasons from Double- and Triple-A in 2014 — the idea being, in this case, to find the next Garrett Richards or the next next Michael Pineda.
The criteria, once again, in brief:
Threw 50-plus innings at the relevant level in 2014, mostly as a starter; and
Walked fewer than 7% of batters faced at the relevant level in 2014; and
The top-10 pitchers by that criteria appear below. Note that velocity readings are collected from recent scouting reports or, if available, actual major-league pitching data available at FanGraphs. lMPH denotes the low end of the pitcher’s sitting velocity; hMPH, the high end.
In fact, the above table actually features 11 names, but two of them belong to the same person. A.J. Cole is a 23-year-old right-hander in the Nationals system who posted walk rates better (i.e. less) than 7% at both Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse this past year. Reports on Cole suggest that his fastball velocity was actually a little down this year, sitting at 92-95 mph, according to Chris Mellen of Baseball Prospectus, after having been recorded at 94-97 mph in July of 2013, for example, by Nathaniel Stoltz. Cole appeared 57th overall on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list before the 2012 season, but has been omitted from subsequent ones.
The primary successor to Pineda and Richards isn’t A.J. Cole, however, but rather Dodgers right-hander Carlos Frias. Signed out of the Dominican in 2007, Frias has been absent from all notable top-100 prospect lists. He made his major-league debut this season as a 24-year-old, and, so far as run prevention is concerned, the results weren’t great: over 32 innings he conceded 22 of them (i.e. runs), leading to a 6.12 ERA. Frias’s fielding-independent performance was actually much better, however, as suggested by his 88 xFIP- and 102 FIP-. The resemblance to both Pineda and Richards was also evident at the major-league level: with the Dodgers, Frias produced a walk rate of just 5.1% while also sitting with his fastball in the 93-96 mph range even in his two starts.
None of this should be regarded as a substitute for actual prospect analysis by actual prospect analysts. If something can be learned from those prospects who, in previous years, have possessed certain qualities, however then it would appear — for the present moment, at least — that Carlos Frias has provided grounds for optimism.