After three seasons flying under the radar in the Oakland A's system, right-hander Jeff Gray…
By The Numbers: 6 Top A's Pitching Prospects
While all the focus in the last week seems to be on Dominican signee Michel Inoa, the A's also have several high-profile prospects who are further along in their development. Perhaps the most well-known are righties Trevor Cahill, Craig Italiano, Vince Mazzaro and Henry Rodriguez and lefties Gio Gonzalez and Brett Anderson. In this column, we'll examine the careers of the six and see just how good each really is. If you are familiar with my columns at all, you probably have seen me trot out the Adjusted Run Average (ARA) and Ultimate Value Index (UVI) statistics to examine pitching performance. As a quick memory refresher, however, ARA is RA (Run Average) adjusted for luck, and UVI is basically how many bases a pitcher is likely to allow to each batter. ARA basically runs along the same scale as RA; for UVI, average is approximately .450. To give an idea of the spread of UVI for starting pitchers, it's something like this: UVI Range Role <.370 Cy Young-caliber .370-390 #1 Starter .390-410 #2 Starter .410-.430 #3 Starter .430-.450 #4 Starter .450-470 #5 Starter >.470 Doesn't belong in rotation for extended periods In addition to ARA and UVI, my luck-adjustment translations project several other statistics: Innings Pitched, Hits Allowed, WHIP, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS against. By examining these other statistics, we can better understand exactly what is causing a pitcher's UVI to be where it is. We'll start with Gonzalez, since he is the only pitcher of the six to have reached Triple-A. Here are Gonzalez's adjusted stat lines for every year of his career: Year Team (Level) IP H HR BB K WHIP ARA AVG OBP SLG OPS UVI 2004 Bristol (Rookie) 24.3 16 0 8 36 0.99 2.69 .180 .247 .236 .483 .299 2004 Kannapolis (Low-A) 32.3 31 1 13 27 1.36 3.83 .242 .312 .328 .640 .390 2005 Kannapolis (Low-A) 57 38 3 22 84 1.05 3.20 .182 .266 .273 .539 .348 2005 Winston-Salem (High-A) 72.3 64 5 25 79 1.23 3.80 .228 .293 .342 .635 .397 2006 Reading (AA) 155 137 24 81 166 1.41 4.76 .228 .327 .397 .724 .475 2007 Birmingham (AA) 150.3 115 10 57 185 1.14 3.44 .203 .278 .302 .580 .368 2008 Sacramento (AAA) 98 86 12 48 103 1.37 4.39 .226 .315 .374 .689 .445 Obviously, Gonzalez was dominant through 2005, posting UVIs below .400 at every stop through High-A. He then hit a fairly major roadblock in the Eastern League in 2006. While his strikeout rate was still excellent, his walk rate and homer rate slid considerably. What that indicates is that Gonzalez struggled with his command. As pitchers progress up the organizational ladder, they face better hitters who are less inclined to swing at bad pitches. Gonzalez has a big-breaking curveball that hitters swung at with little or no discretion through High-A, but many Double-A hitters were able to lay off it, and Gonzalez struggled to adjust. Since hitters didn't chase as many pitches, Gonzalez fell behind in counts, so he had to throw fastballs in the middle of the plate, causing the homer spike. In some ways, it becomes a vicious cycle, as pitchers become cautious because of the homers, which leads to nibbling and more walks again. While the 166 K's made 2006 look like a successful year, Gonzalez's .475 UVI showed that his 7-12 record was no fluke, and he needed plenty of work. Note that the batting average translation is constant between Winston-Salem in 2005 and Reading in 2006; the walks and homers, however, led to an OPS 89 points higher and a UVI 78 points higher. When the White Sox re-acquired Gonzalez from the Phillies, they did the smart thing and had him repeat Double-A, despite ‘06's impressive strikeout rate. Gonzalez proved the move to be correct as his walks and homers returned to their pre-'06 levels and his UVI fell by a whopping 107 points. Given that he was only 20 when he reached Double-A, having to repeat a level doesn't really affect Gonzalez's projection, as he reached Triple-A at 22, still well ahead of schedule. Upon his latest promotion, Gonzalez has once again regressed, although not quite as severely. He walks a batter every other inning, and allows a homer every eight innings, two ratios that need to come down if Gonzalez is going to be consistently successful. However, he has had several dominant outings recently, most notably a 13-strikeout, complete-game one-hitter in his last start. It seems that Gonzalez takes fairly long to adapt to each new level. While that may seem like a bad quality for a player to have, for Gonzalez it really shouldn't matter since he got to Double-A at 20. If he continues his pattern of improvement, he'll be a dominant Triple-A pitcher next year, a mid-rotation major leaguer in 2010, and a big league ace in 2011, at age 25. Gonzalez may require some patience, but his future is still very bright. Next we will examine Mazzaro, who has dazzled with a 2.29 ERA at Midland this year. Here are his career translations: Year Team (Level) IP H HR BB K WHIP ARA AVG OBP SLG OPS UVI 2006 Kane County (Low-A) 126 126 7 42 81 1.33 4.09 .250 .321 .349 .670 .411 2007 Stockton (High-A) 156 152 13 71 115 1.43 4.47 .245 .335 .365 .700 .440 2008 Midland (AA) 104.3 100 3 27 74 1.22 3.67 .242 .304 .322 .626 .378 First, it appears that Mazzaro's ERAs in '06 and '07 were a result of bad luck more than bad pitching, as his ARAs are about a run lower in both cases, meaning his ERA should have been a bit below 4.00 in 2006 and a bit above it in 2007. That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, especially for 2006, when Mazzaro's BABIP was an ugly .363. His ERA has dropped over three runs from 2007 to 2008, but the translation shows that the drop should be closer to one run than three. Mazzaro's luck has swung the other way this year, as he has allowed five less hits than expected. Still, a much-improved walk rate and strong groundball tendencies have propelled Mazzaro to a sizeable leap forward this year, even if it's not as large of a leap as his ERA would lead one to believe. Those same groundball tendencies do produce one area of concern, however, and that is Mazzaro's low strikeout rate. While it's improved from his pro debut (5.8 K/9 in '06, 6.6 in '07, 6.4 in '08), it still rates as a big concern. Pitchers with below-average K-rates in the minors have no margin for error in the majors, and thus have to be perfect to survive. Mazzaro's best pitch is his sinker, which generates tons of grounders for him but also is easy to make contact on. Mazzaro isn't your typical soft-tossing sinkerballer—the pitch has touched 96 in the past—so he has more stuff than most low-strikeout sinkerballers like the River Cats' Kirk Saarloos, but the inability to miss bats may relegate Mazzaro to the back half of a big league rotation or the bullpen if it doesn't improve. Next up is Henry Rodriguez, the only foreign player on this list. Here are the Venezuelan righty's career translations: Year Team (Level) IP H HR BB K WHIP ARA AVG OBP SLG OPS UVI 2006 AZL A's (Rookie) 46.7 35 1 50 59 1.82 4.91 .200 .394 .263 .657 .442 2007 Kane County (Low-A) 97.3 82 2 58 106 1.44 3.95 .219 .330 .292 .622 .392 2008 Stockton (High-A) 48.3 32 4 22 70 1.12 3.49 .181 .279 .288 .567 .373 2008 Midland (AA) 38 34 1 36 36 1.84 5.15 .230 .400 .304 .704 .458 Obviously, the big stat that jumps out as a negative in Rodriguez's statline is the walks. His Kane County and Stockton walk rates are below average, and his AZL and Midland walk rates are downright unplayable. It does speak to just how good Rodriguez is at everything else, however, that his AZL and Midland UVIs are still about average. In large part, this is due to Rodriguez's groundball and strikeout tendencies—Rodriguez is tough to hit, and when batters do hit him, they generally get singles. Rodriguez can afford to put some runners on if he isn't going to allow deadly base-clearing hits. Still, as he advances up the ladder, hitters will be able to hit his mistakes a long way, so his walk rate needs to at least be at the Stockton level, or about 4 BB/9, for Rodriguez to move up. What's interesting with Rodriguez is that his walk rates seem to be clustered together. His AZL and Midland walk rates are 9.6 and 8.5, and his Kane County and Stockton walk rates are 5.4 and 4.1. The 4.4 BB/9 difference between his stops in 2008 also seems strange, especially given that his control at Stockton has been constant on both sides of his Midland stint. What that suggests is that Rodriguez's control problems may be in part due to psychological pressure, first in acclimating to the US and then dealing with an in-season promotion. Given the disastrous results of Rodriguez's stay at Midland, the A's should probably move him one level per season from now on so he has time to mentally prepare for each new level in the offseason. Since his control isn't particularly good even when he seems to be comfortable, he could use the extra development time to hone it and sharpen his breaking pitches. If he's handled carefully, Rodriguez still has front-of-the-rotation or back-of-the-bullpen potential. However, he's a far riskier bet than all of these prospects, with the possible exception of Italiano. Next, we'll look at the prospect who has garnered the most attention this year, RockHounds righthander and minor league strikeout leader Trevor Cahill. His translations are as follows: Year Team (Level) IP H HR BB K WHIP ARA AVG OBP SLG OPS UVI 2006 AZL A's (Rookie) 8 5 0 7 11 1.50 3.66 .172 .333 .207 .540 .361 2007 Kane County (Low-A) 105.3 85 3 40 117 1.19 3.48 .212 .298 .284 .582 .362 2008 Stockton (High-A) 84.3 61 3 31 103 1.09 3.02 .194 .267 .261 .528 .328 2008 Midland (AA) 17.3 13 1 8 18 1.21 3.51 .200 .307 .262 .569 .360 As you can see, Cahill's UVI's have been remarkably consistent. He hasn't posted a UVI above .362 at any of his four minor league stops. Referring back to my table at the beginning of this article, you can see that UVIs in the .360s, let alone the .320s, places Cahill among the best of the best. Given that he is pitching this whole year at age 20, his dominance becomes even more remarkable. There's really nothing not to like about Cahill. From a scouting perspective, he has clean mechanics, a good body and three plus pitches. From a statistical perspective, he keeps the ball on the ground, strikes out over a batter per inning, and has decent control. He could stand to cut his walks down a little bit, but even if he doesn't, he'll be great. Unlike Gonzalez, Mazzaro and Rodriguez, Cahill has had no trouble adapting to each new level, a sign that he could be ready for the big leagues as soon as the trading deadline if the A's decide to trade Joe Blanton. While it may seem strange, Cahill's consistency makes him more big-league-ready than Gonzalez. Promoted with Cahill from Stockton to Midland at midseason was lefty Brett Anderson, who is widely considered to be the A's third-best pitching prospect (after Inoa and Cahill). Do my translations back that up? Let's take a look… Year Team (Level) IP H HR BB K WHIP ARA AVG OBP SLG OPS UVI 2007 South Bend (Low-A) 83.7 69 3 10 85 0.94 2.82 .216 .244 .291 .535 .316 2007 Visalia (Low-A) 43 38 6 11 40 1.14 3.98 .228 .279 .383 .662 .425 2008 Stockton (High-A) 75.7 63 5 18 80 1.07 3.30 .217 .263 .321 .584 .360 2008 Midland (AA) 10.7 6 2 1 15 0.65 2.94 .157 .179 .341 .520 .359 Like Cahill, Anderson has posted extremely low UVIs throughout his career, save for a minor late-season hiccup at Visalia in 2007. On a scouting level, he rates a bit below Cahill, due to a body often described as "soft" and slightly less velocity. On a statistical level, he rates a bit higher because of his left-handedness, precise command, and combination of ground balls and strikeouts. Both are legitimate #1 starters in the making if they can stay healthy, and given their size, good mechanics and reasonable pro workloads, they are a better bet than most 20-year-olds to stay off the DL. Cahill's ceiling is probably a bit higher, but lefties like Anderson are more valuable. It remains to be seen which of the RockHounds' aces will front the Oakland rotation, but both should end up with long, successful careers. Finally, we have Craig Italiano, the only one of this sextet who has yet to reach Double-A. Italiano was the minor league ERA leader with a staggering 1.14 mark at Kane County before his recent callup to Stockton. Here are his translations: Year Team (Level) IP H HR BB K WHIP ARA AVG OBP SLG OPS UVI 2005 AZL A's (Rookie) 20.3 15 0 8 27 1.13 3.44 .198 .307 .250 .557 .352 2006 Kane County (Low-A) 19 15 1 9 23 1.26 3.91 .208 .321 .292 .613 .393 2007 Kane County (Low-A) 21.3 19 3 16 24 1.64 5.28 .229 .366 .386 .752 .495 2008 Kane County (Low-A) 67.3 51 2 35 79 1.28 3.68 .202 .313 .273 .586 .374 2008 Stockton (High-A) 7.7 8 2 7 5 1.95 6.43 .257 .395 .482 .877 .579 Obviously, prior to 2008, injuries kept Italiano from accumulating enough innings to get a clear statistical picture of him. It is clear, however, from his '05-'07 performance that he can strike hitters out but can struggle with control. Italiano has two plus pitches: a high-90s fastball and hard curve, which explains the strikeouts, but he also has poor mechanics, which leads to the relatively high walk rates, especially 2007. His short arm action has also led to a history of arm injuries, including a labrum tear in 2006. In 2008, Italiano has thrown more innings than in 2005, 2006 and 2007 combined, so we can finally get a good sample in which to examine his pitching. Clearly, his low ERA was very lucky, but his .374 UVI is similar to Cahill and Anderson's performance. Yes, Italiano is a year older and a level lower, but he also had fewer pro innings than Cahill and Anderson coming into the season, so developmentally, Italiano is actually "younger." He's also still two weeks shy of his 22nd birthday and in High-A, which, given his extensive injury history, is a fairly remarkable achievement. Italiano's high walk rate needs to come down by at least 1 BB/9 from his Kane County showing or it will prevent him from moving up, much like Rodriguez. You can already see the walks causing Italiano trouble in his two Cal League starts. Italiano is similar to Rodriguez in that his control is all that's holding him back from excelling when healthy. The two are different in other ways—Rodriguez throws harder, has succeeded in High-A, and doesn't have an injury history, while Italiano has a better breaking ball, no language barrier, and no history of control meltdowns—but both seem like classic high-risk, high-reward players. They will either excel in the majors or never reach them. They are also prime candidates to move to relief down the line, especially in the A's organization, where there is seemingly endless starting pitching depth. Italiano is certainly one to watch, especially if he can translate his Kane County success to Stockton for the rest of the year. Until that happens, however, don't let that 1.14 ERA convince you that he's a better prospect than anyone else on this list. About The Author: Nathianel Stoltz is a statistics minor at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the creator of the "Ultimate Value Index" or "UVI" baseball statistic. He hopes to some day work in the front office of a major league team. You can e-mail him with questions or comments by clicking here.
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