How Minor League Pitching Changes Across Levels

For pitchers in the low- to mid-Minors, velocity is no longer the biggest factor (via Ted Kerwin).

For pitchers in the low- to mid-Minors, velocity is no longer the biggest factor (via Ted Kerwin).

A common refrain when discussing minor league players is speculation about how their abilities will translate to higher levels of competition. We hear phrases like “Oh, Double-A pitchers will eat him alive with a steady diet of breaking stuff” or “His deception won’t fool major league hitters like minor league ones.”

These statements imply a clear divide between the talent at different levels of affiliated professional baseball. It makes sense that the levels are a hierarchy of talent, but statements like the above have always struck me as a touch absolute. After all, there are certainly Double-A pitchers who don’t throw particularly good breaking pitches, because there are major league pitchers who struggle in this regard; likewise, any fan of a major league team likely complains regularly about  hitters on his favorite team’s lineup who get fooled at the plate.

So, how well-defined is the talent gap between levels, and what constitutes the archetypal “Low-A pitcher” or “Triple-A hitter” in these sorts of statements? It’s a big question, and one I’m not going to attempt to fully answer; that would require first-hand knowledge of every player as he moved through every level. Rather, I’ll focus on the pitching across three different levels from which I’ve gathered extensive data.

Between the start of 2013 and the end of July 2014, I attended more than 100 minor league games among the High-A Carolina League, the Low-A South Atlantic League, and the Rookie-Advanced Appalachian League. At each, I recorded the arsenal and velocity of every pitcher–839 in all. Many of the pitchers were recorded multiple times, so it’s actually significantly fewer than 839 individual pitchers, just 839 data points. Still, that’s quite a bit, and between these data and my anecdotal observations, we can attain a clear picture of some of the distinguishing features of pitchers at these three levels.

A number of key points need to be made when discussing what pitchers at these fairly low levels typically bring to the table. First–and this is key–stuff is everywhere. Even in the lowly Appalachian League, I’ve seen Jandel Gustave hit 100 mph, lefty Reymin Guduan throw as high as to 98 with a good slider, Brent Honeywell throw three above-average pitches, and plenty of other hurlers touch the mid-90s while showcasing a plus breaking ball. The number of exceptionally exciting pitchers I’ve seen at the Low-A level is too long to list, and many of the names on it are players who are little more than blips on the prospect radar.

In a sense, that’s kind of tough to fathom. Take, for example, the case of Phillies relief prospect Delvi Francisco. Francisco pitches for the team’s Low-A Lakewood affiliate, and his numbers there are not pretty. At this writing, he has a 9.45 ERA  in 26.2 innings. In a stint in the short-season New York-Penn League earlier this year, he walked more batters than he struck out while pitching to a 5.14 ERA. I got my first look at him on July 15, seeing him throw two innings against Hickory. In that outing, at least, Francisco threw two plus pitches.

There are a lot of major league pitchers, including some pretty good ones, who don’t throw two plus pitches, but there was Delvi Francisco, with the highest ERA of SAL relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, throwing a 92-94 mph fastball that touched 96 and a hard 82-84 mph slider with impressive tilt. Bruce Chen and Mark Buehrle can get big league hitters out with regularity, and Delvi Francisco can’t survive in the lowest level of full-season ball. There’s something that seems to not quite add up there, but it’s a clear indicator of how widespread interesting pitchers are. There aren’t just a handful of guys who bring impressive skills to the table, and the no-stuff Chen/Buehrle types would stick out as badly in a Low-A rotation as they do in major league ones.

To put some data behind this, consider that roughly a quarter of major league pitchers this year have an average fastball velocity of less than 90 mph. While I don’t have exact average velocities of the pitchers I’ve seen, I do have the velocity ranges they worked in, which are enough of a proxy to get a sense for the percentage of pitchers that average below 90 mph at each of the three levels I’m discussing.

  • Carolina League (High A): 36.2 percent
  • South Atlantic League (Low A): 37.9 percent
  • Appalachian League Rookie Advanced): 51.9 percent

This suggests that the velocities of A-ball pitchers are slightly below those of major leaguers, on average, but not by as much as some might think. It is quite rare to see a non-sidearmer in full-season ball who doesn’t at least touch 90 mph, and it’s almost unheard of to see one who can’t at least get up to 88. (I’ve seen exactly three, ever–Jeff McKenzie, Matt Taylor and Joey DeNato, all of whom are left-handed.)

Velocity isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a great sifter–if a guy’s throwing 84-86 mph, he better have a whole lot of something else if he expects to stick around for long. Guys who can work at 90-plus mph have longer leashes and can’t be written off as quickly. Thus, most pitchers in full-season are good enough that if you squint, you can see them reaching the big leagues and not embarrassing themselves, because they have decent velocity and typically at least one other semi-developed skill (another pitch or command). If a player of that sort can add a tick or two of velocity and refine his second pitch into a solid-average offering while throwing strikes, he’s reached the profile of the typical major league middle reliever.

It’s in the Appalachian League where the quality control starts to fall apart, as the data show. Whereas a SAL pitcher who throws 88-92 with fringy offspeed pitches is mildly disappointing to see in a Low-A context, the same pitcher is often a relief to see in the Appy, where it’s not unusual to see a string of soft-tossers who are almost immediately easy to write off. Certainly, there are pitchers with plus arm strength in the circuit, as well as some with big offspeed stuff, but the pitchers who surround them aren’t the sort of generic-but-basically-solid types who populate the back halves of many A-ball staffs–they’re kids who throw in the mid-to-upper-80s with nondescript offspeed pitches and unappealing deliveries.

It shouldn’t be taken as a coincidence that the jump from the Appy to the SAL is considered to be much tougher to make than that from the SAL to the Carolina. The jump to Low-A isn’t spoken of in the same foreboding tones as that of the jump to Double-A or the big leagues, but that’s largely because the prospects jumping to Low-A are less popular, not because the jump is less significant.

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What’s easy to forget, though, is the context that makes it a significant jump. In my last THT article, I discussed how adjustments are a ubiquitous and central part of the minor league chain. One might then speculate that Appalachian League pitchers, being young and (in the case of current-year draftees) fatigued, tend to pick up velocity as they ascend to the Low-A level more than Low-A pitchers do when they get up to High-A. While this idea may have some validity, it is at most a minor piece of the puzzle.

The big piece is that the readily obvious filler pitchers of the Appalachian League often never make it any higher. The bottom of my list of 2013 Appalachian League velocities is littered with pitchers–Ryan Connolly, Scott Ronnenbergh, Gabe Saquilon, Andre Martinez, Isliexel Gonzalez, Ben Tomchick, Tyler Mills, Wander Marte, and so on–who were either released or retired before the 2014 season began. It’s not that those guys suddenly start throwing 90-92 mph the next year; it’s that for them, there is no next year.

This, of course, has major consequences for the statistical progression of players from short-season to full-season ball. The back third of short-season rosters– pitchers and position players–tends to be filler players who clearly lack the tools  to compete in high-level professional baseball. Invariably, these players constitute a sizeable portion of the opponents a given player faces in short-season competition, buoying a player’s production. In full-season ball, however, these filler types are nearly extinct; almost everybody has at least one usable weapon to deploy.

That trend is not on display for the jump from Low-A to High-A, suggesting that the ability for pitchers to advance from the lower level to the higher one is due to more than pure arm strength. That makes intuitive sense based on my viewings–I can’t recall too many flamethrowers in the Appalachian League who had a tough time holding their own against that circuit’s competition, but I can think of plenty of mid-90s guys who had a lot of trouble dealing with Low-A hitters due to the lack of a quality second pitch or command. Some, like Delvi Francisco, even have that second skill and don’t cut it in the South Atlantic League.

So the biggest difference in pitchers at the Low-A and High-A levels is more approach-based, and that’s harder to quantify, especially with the limited minor league data available. But I can still offer some anecdotes that help illuminate the differences, particularly to the cases of the 29 pitchers I saw pitch at both the Low-A and High-A levels in the past two years.

My notes show that many of these pitchers looked very similar in Low-A and High-A, with essentially the same stuff, approach and delivery. Kyle Hansen, Kylin Turnbull and Jefferson Olacio all picked up velocity, but that can largely be attributed to moving to relief work. White Sox southpaw reliever Jose Bautista also added velocity, but he’s stayed in the same role–he worked mostly in the upper 80s in Low-A in April, but he recently was up to 94 mph in High-A. However, Rangers prospect Luis Parra and White Sox prospect Tony Bucciferro both lost velocity between late-2013 Low-A looks and early-2014 High-A looks. So out of 29 pitchers I viewed at both the Low-A and High-A levels in 2013/14, four added velocity (three at least partially explained by a role change), two lost velocity, and 23 were just about the same.

Velocity for major leaguers peaks at age 23, on average, so this isn’t a groundbreaking finding. But something has to be changing, right?

As important as adjustments are, it’s not as if every player is constantly reinventing himself. The fact is that once a player has gotten going in pro ball, he’s likely mostly figured out his optimal stuff and approach. Mechanics are another story, but most guys typically will stick with a delivery until they run into trouble. Thus, 18 of these 29 pitchers looked pretty much the same in Low-A and High-A. As for the others…

Dakota Bacus junked a solid curveball and James Dykstra replaced his overhand breaker with a slightly inferior slider. Bautista, Turnbull and Hansen picked up velocity, while Bucciferro and Parra lost velocity. Oddly, Hansen also started throwing his slider at Luke Gregerson-ish rates despite the increased speed on his heater. Francellis Montas improved his slider, J.B. Wendelken improved his chang-up while his breaking stuff regressed. I detailed Jefferson Olacio’s significant alterations in my last piece.

Other than Olacio, none of these pitchers made significant mechanical changes, and none had major improvements in raw stuff. You might, then, be led to the conclusion that a High-A pitcher is just a Low-A pitcher with slightly more experience and maybe a hair more raw stuff.

And you would be right…sort of. Actually, I left out two cases of pitchers changing things on the jump from Low-A to High-A: those of White Sox prospects Jake Cose (2013) and Tyler Danish (2014).

The name Jake Cose isn’t heard much anymore in prospect circles–he hasn’t thrown a pitch in 2014 due to back issues that threaten his career. He got a bit of buzz early in 2013 when he put up a 1.72 ERA in 10 Low-A starts, but the former 27th-round pick seemed to hit a wall in High-A, seeing his ERA rise to 4.16 and his K/BB ratio cut in more than half. If I’d never seen him pitch, I’d probably guess he was some sort of college finesse pitcher who met his match in High-A.

But that wasn’t who Cose was. In reality, he was a junior college third baseman who came to pitching late and basically pitched like a third baseman, with a short stride and a slingy arm slot that came in just above sidearm. The motion put violent sink and run on his fastball, and he threw it just hard enough–mostly 89-91 mph, but occasionally anywhere from 87 to 93–that you couldn’t really put a finesse label on him. At the outset of 2013 (during his dominant run in Low-A Kannapolis), Cose also tossed in a slurvy slider in the upper 70s and a change-up with (predictably) big movement in the low 80s, both of which seemed to have some promise.

The whole package was a bit odd–not many starters succeed with Cose’s arm slot, but he was a three-pitch guy without overwhelming velocity, which screams “back-end starter” more than “high-leverage reliever” — but it was an interesting one. Given that he boasted plus-plus fastball movement, presented an unusual look (especially for righties), and had three pitches he could sequence, Cose predictably carved up Low-A batters.

Then he got to High-A. Cose’s stuff didn’t really change–he still was upper-80s-to-low-90s with a big, sweeping slurvy breaker and a sinking change-up–but he was a palpably different and inferior pitcher. I saw his seventh start at the High-A level on July 7 of last year. In the first six, he’d been knocked around for a 6.34 ERA and opposing .278/.390/.405 line, and on that hot July afternoon, he pitched like a man who had clearly been thrown off his game. Conventional wisdom might hold that, being a low-slot pitcher, working in the change-up would be essential for Cose to keep opposing left-handers at bay, but instead, he almost abandoned the pitch in favor of throwing a bunch of backdoor sliders that weren’t fooling anybody. He couldn’t come inside to lefties, causing him to get predictable and fall behind in the count, resulting in hard contact when he challenged hitters and walks when he didn’t.

If Cose was going to be a successful High-A starter, then, something had to give. After that start on July 7, he immediately went on a run of eight starts with a 1.87 ERA and opposing .197/.275/.295 line. Clearly something changed. What was it?

I went back and saw Cose throw on Aug. 5, right in the middle of that run, and what immediately jumped out was that he had a new pitch, a second, harder slider. While his usual one was in between a slider and a curve, this one was between a slider and a cutter, and it came in with short break and power at 82-84 mph. Unlike the slower 76-80 mph slider, this was a pitch Cose could bring inside to left-handers. He also demonstrated more of a willingness to work in the change-up again. He threw seven scoreless innings that night even without much command.

Ten days later, when I saw Cose throw again, he allowed just two hits in seven innings against the Salem Red Sox with eight strikeouts. I’ve seen more dominating starts than that in a statistical sense, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better showcase of different movement looks in a game. Cose’s fastball and change-up dove off the table, he could cut the hard slider in on lefties or back-foot it in the dirt against them, and the slower breaker provided a different look and plenty of movement on its own. That night, Cose, who two months earlier couldn’t get through a High-A lineup multiple times without running into big issues, looked like he might’ve been able to fight through seven quality innings against the Boston Red Sox.

Tyler Danish presents a different sort of profile. He was picked 25 rounds ahead of (and a year later than) Cose in the draft, signed for $1 million, and made it to High-A as a 19-year-old after just 68 pro innings (He’s also pitched to a 2.61 ERA at that level). He’s five inches shorter than Cose and yet weighs 10 pounds more.

And yet, Danish is actually a lot closer to Cose than many White Sox fans might care to admit. He’s an undeniably funky pitcher, working from a slingshot low three-quartersdelivery that isn’t too different from Cose’s. Pre-draft reports often said that he worked in the low 90s and touched 95, but when I first came across Danish last July, he threw just 86-90 mph. Then I saw him in August–88-90 mph. September–86-90. All of these were in two-inning relief stints, not starts, mind you.

Fans insisted (hoped?) it was just a case of post-draft fatigue, and that working a high school season and pro season cost Danish velocity. It would be back in 2014, many assumed. I saw Danish in one of his first 2014 starts and had some hope after he worked at 89-91 mph and touched 92 in the first inning, but then he reverted to 85-90 the rest of the game. I saw him again last month, and he was back at the familiar 86-90 the whole outing. While I suppose there’s a glimmer of hope that the 93s and 94s return someday, Danish’s velocity probably is what it is at this point.

On face, that is a bit scary, because the White Sox invested $1 million (and a second-round pick) in the kid, and it makes one wonder why the heck Danish has such good results. If his velocity is 2-3 mph below advertised, why is he still outpacing so many of his counterparts?

Well, like Cose, Danish gets plus-plus movement on his fastball. His odd motion presents the ball late, and it dives. Like Cose, he’s been able to put up groundball rates north of 60 percent thanks to the nearly unparalleled vertical action on the baseball. It’s not easy to get over Danish’s odd delivery or his lack of velocity, but if you’re going to, the sink is a good place to start.

From my first viewing, Danish also showed a solid slider that would flash good tilt at times. It typically arrived at 78-80 but would occasionally be anywhere from 77 to 82. He also tossed in a little change-up that arrived in the low 80s with a bit of sink, but it lagged behind the other two offerings.

So Danish was a fairly short pitcher with odd mechanics, a low arm slot, a good sinker/slider combination and a change-up that lagged behind. Those signs all point to a relief future–earlier this year, I compared him to Pat Neshek, of all people. I figured if Danish came out of the bullpen, he might throw in the low 90s with big sink and deception and the slider would be a tough look too, and there was enough of a change-up there for him to be something more than a platoon specialist. Frankly, turning into Neshek wouldn’t be a bad return for $1 million.

Unless you followed Danish’s season closely, you probably didn’t notice that there was a brief part of the year where he wasn’t bringing 22- and 23-year-old batters to their knees. And, in an odd parallel with Cose, it consisted of his first six starts in High-A, where he was hit around for a 5.68 ERA and .324/.361/.468 line. A contact of mine was at one of those starts and told me that Danish was “92-93 and flat” in his viewing, which sounded like…well, basically the opposite of the pitcher I was familiar with.

Like Cose, Danish had recognized a difference between Low-A competition and High-A competition, but he made the wrong adjustment to try to cope with it. The shellacking he took in those outings caused him not just to revert to his (successful) previous formula, but add in some new wrinkles.

It wasn’t adding velocity that ended up letting Danish solve High-A–it was subtracting it. Not from the fastball–which, as I noted above, is now back in its familiar 86-90 range–but from his offspeed pitches. When I last saw him on July 23, Danish’s slider and change-up were no longer coming in at 77-82 mph as they had in April, but instead 73-78. And on one particularly sublime pitch, he subtracted even more and threw a 70 mph changeup that was Alex Claudio-level gorgeous. Danish showed incredible pitching ability in that game, adding and subtracting from all three offerings in terms of both velocity and movement, keeping hitters off balance and inducing weak contact while keeping his pitch count down. It wasn’t quite as grandiose as the Cose start I described above, but it was a huge step up from the Danish I knew from April, let alone a guy throwing flat 92-93 mph heat and getting knocked all over the park.

Here’s the notable thing about Cose and Danish, though: their stuff didn’t improve over the course of these anecdotes. Cose had the same velocity and movement throughout, his slower slider was the same, his harder slider didn’t grade out any better than the slower one, and his change-up maybe gained a bit of consistency, but nothing more. Danish had the same pitches; he just slowed down the offspeeds and varied his looks more. In terms of radar gun readings or even raw 20-80 grades on a scouting report, not much changed for either player in going from a good Low-A pitcher to a bad High-A pitcher to a good High-A pitcher.

Instead, it came down to both pitchers recognizing their identities and strengths and adapting them to play more consistently and dynamically against the more polished hitters of the High-A level.

The ultimate conclusion here is that while short-season pitchers aren’t certain to have legitimate “stuff” (due to their youth/inexperience and, for some, their lack of natural talent), most will succeed or fail through higher levels largely on  their ability to come up with a consistent approach that makes that stuff play up to its full potential. To be sure, there still are gaps in stuff in full-season ball, but that’s true in the majors, too.

There are certainly the Jefferson Olacio stories of pitchers picking up velocity and coming up with plus offspeed pitches overnight, or making a mechanical change and taking off, but by the time players are in the mid-minors, these sorts of dramatic alterations are the exception, not the rule. After all, by then, you’d expect the pitcher to have assembled some semblance of an identity on the mound, and you’d expect that identity to be at least somewhat optimized for his talents. So much of the final few level jumps revolve around the always nebulous concept of “pitchability”–the pitcher taking his already established stuff and identity and finding a way to make it function optimally.

It might be a nebulous concept, but it’s really all that separates Delvi Francisco and his inflated ERA in Lakewood from a late-innings major league relief gig,  so it’s very real.


Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.
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Jim S.
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Jim S.

Outstanding.

kevin
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kevin

very good article.
thank you.

Buford
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Buford

As usual, a first-class article

gc
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gc

Funny that Chen is given as an example of a no-stuff MLBer. When he first came up he was racking up swing-and-misses from a late-breaking slider.

noch
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noch

Bravo. what a great read

ILMOU
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ILMOU

I guess I’m one who doesn’t want to believe Danish is that much like Cose. Danish is still a work in progress, in terms of pitch refinement and physical development, but he’s maintained excellent results and has increased his strikeouts. Cose had major control issues and didn’t K nearly as many at High A, while 3 years older, nor did he maintain his GB rates.

Velocity peaks at 23 – why would you say Danish’s “is what it is” at 19?