Monday, November 10, 2014

What's In the System: Power Arms

      In our last post, we look at the most promising arms in the Blue Jays system.
What we overlooked, however, are some of the power arms that have performed well in bullpens across the system.
    The conventional thinking goes that minor league relievers are not high value players.  Major league relievers tend to be failed starters who couldn't command their secondary pitches and had trouble getting hitters out the second time through the batting order.  Casey Janssen and Brett Cecil are two examples of pitchers who came up as starters, but found success out of the bullpen with their repertoires pared down.
   Cecil first came up the the Jays as a starting pitcher in 2009, and made 65 starts, winning a career high 15 games in 2010.  He was hit hard (5.10 FIP) in 2011, and found himself splitting time between the big club and the minors over the next two seasons.
   Here's a summary of what Cecil through from 2009 - 2011:

Pitch Type      Count       Freq Velo (mph)
Fourseam          2113      34.42%   90.52
Sinker                1091      17.77%   89.99
Change              1225      19.96% 81.76
Slider                 1095      17.84%   84.28
Curve                  428          6.97%  83.68
Cutter                  186         3.03%   87.33

 And here's what he has thrown since then:

Pitch Type       Count Freq       Velo (mph)
Fourseam           744 26.65% 91.88
Sinker                 351 12.57%     91.36
Change               252 9.03% 84.25
Slider                    55 1.97% 82.49
Curve                 896 32.09% 82.97
Cutter                479 17.16% 89.20

   Having limited himself to a fastball or curve 75% of the time since his move to the pen, Cecil experienced success like never before, and was a 2013 All Star.

   It's worth asking, of course, why baseball has gotten to his point.  The Blue Jays aren't trend setters in the use of their relievers.  The one inning power arm reliever is now widespread throughout the game.  Where did it begin?
   Certainly, baseball has been heading in this direction for some time.  The percentage of innings pitched by starting pitchers has been in steady decline, as shown below: graph

   The importance of the bullpen has steadily increased.  And then as the 1960s turned into the 70s came the closer, the reliever who would come into a game after the 7th inning to save the win: graph

   When he was managing the Athletics, Tony LaRussa led the bullpen game into its next phase of development.  He and pitching coach Dave Duncan converted Dennis Eckersley, a broken down starter who had thrown a no-hitter and won 20 games for the Red Sox in 1978, into a relief specialist: the 9th inning closer, who only came in when his team had a lead, most often of no more than 3 runs.  Eckersley was utterly dominant for six seasons, culminating with a 1992 season in which he captured both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.  Eckersley was reportedly less than thrilled with the move at first, but came to realize that it saved his career, and helped eventually propel him to the Hall of Fame:

   "It was a hell of an idea, and I was the lucky recipient," says the Eck.  "I was 32.  Starting was getting to be difficult.  I couldn't go through six or seven innings , wade through all of those left-handers anymore.  But just pitching one inning, my fastball came back.  I was throwing like I was 25 again.  One inning suited me very well.  I never would have lasted if I had to pitch two or three innings all the time.  Plus, I would have had my head knocked off."

    Not content with that extent of bullpen specialization,  LaRussa went even further.  He broke roles down into eighth and seventh inning guys, and gave us the LOOGY, the left-handed one out guy.  Bullpens ballooned from 4 members in the 70s to as many as 7 or 8 by the turn of the century.
   In response to the influx of late-inning power arms, major league hitters began to strike out at an unprecedented rate:
   There are several Blue Jays prospects who at one time or another have been mentioned as possible bullpen arms in the long run, starting with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.  The scouting community has long been concerned about Sanchez's command, but with his arsenal stripped down to two pitches, Sanchez was lights out in two months of relief work for the Blue Jays this season.  Alberto Tirado, who was a back end of most Top 10 Blue Jays prospects (including ours)  guy before the season, struggled greatly with his command this year until he was moved to Vancouver's pen.  Jairo Labout and Miguel Castro will have to develop their secondary pitches more as they move about A ball if they hope to remain in the picture for a starting job (BA tabbed Castro as the Blue Jays' closer on their projected Blue Jays 2018 lineup).

    From time to time, though, a pitcher comes along who was already well established as a minor league reliever, but fits a need with the major league club.  Aaron Loup started only 5 games in the minors, but has appeared in 168 in relief for the Blue Jays, and has been an important contributor to the club.  A combination of fastball velocity/movement, the refinement of his slider, and a deceptive delivery have helped to make him a mainstay in the Toronto relief corps.  Loup has never appeared on one of the system's top prospect lists.  A 2009 9th rounder, Loup didn't really start to put things together until he was with New Hampshire in 2012, the same year he made his pro debut.  In essence, you could say that he came out of nowhere. 

   With that in mind, we thought we would take a look at some other Blue Jays minor league relievers who may be long shots, but might fill a role like Loup does.

   Kyle Drabek at one time was one of the brightest prospects in all of baseball.  He was the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay deal, but his career has been derailed by his second Tommy John surgery in 2012.  Drabek has fought his command since his return.  This year at Buffalo, he struggled to find the strike zone, and was hit hard when he found too much of it.  Moved to the bullpen mid-season, he posted better numbers, but when we saw him pitch in relief in late August, he was rocked.  Drabek really seemed to have no clue where his pitches were going, falling behind hitters and then getting pounded when he had to throw a strike.  Still, we're not willing to give up on this arm just yet.  The bullpen may be his ultimate home, but Drabek is still young enough to turn things around.
   John Stilson, to our minds, was on the verge of earning a major league job at some point int 2014.  A return of his shoulder woes caused him to be shut down early, and he underwent his second surgery for a torn labrum in August.  The average return to competition for this surgery is about 9 months, which sets his timetable back.
   Gregory Infante hit 100 on the radar gun several times with New Hampshire in 2014, and converted 22 of 23 save chances.  Originally signed by the White Sox, he appeared in 5 games with them in 2010 when they moved him to the bullpen.  Signed as a free agent last off season by the Jays, Infante's lack of secondary pitches and fastball command have kept him in the minors since then.  
   Blake McFarland switched between the pen and the rotation his first two pro seasons, and was moved to relief permanently in 2013, and has averaged over a strikeout an inning since, working his way up to AA for the second half of 2014.  With Rule 5 exposure looming this fall, the Jays sent McFarland to the Arizona Fall League to see how he fared against top flight competition.  McFarland has yet to give up a run in 8 relief outings, so the Blue Jays may have a tough decision on their hands at the end of the month.
  Arik Sikula, McFarland's teammate at Arizona, Dunedin, and New Hampshire this season, has accumulated 61 saves since joining the organization in 2011.  Rated the best reliever in the Florida State League by Baseball America, Sikula notched 31 saves for Dunedin before being promoted to New Hampshire, and averaged over 12K/9 this year.  
   Lefthander Tyler Ybarra had numerous health and personal struggles over his first three pro seasons, but put things together at Dunedin last year.  His command wasn't as good at AA this year, but he still remains an intriguing prospect.  His fastball sits 91-95 with late life, and his delivery can be tough for lefthanded batters to pick up.  
   Griffin Murphy was a 2nd round pick and the second HS lefthander taken in the 2010 draft.  After dominating at Lansing, he struggled with his command when he was promoted to Dunedin.  Still, he has averaged almost a K per inning over the course of his minor league career.  A strike throwing lefty is a pitcher to keep an eye on, especially when your team plays 10 games a year in Yankee Stadium.
   It wouldn't be unreasonable to predict that none of these arms could make it to the majors, although the odds for a southpaw seem to be a little better.  Any one of the higher profile starting prospects ahead of them could falter, and supplant them in the bullpen queue.  

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