In previous years it wasn’t difficult to pick the Pitcher of the Year in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league system. Kyle McPherson was clearly the winner last year, posting a 2.96 ERA and a 142:27 K/BB ratio in 161 innings. Rudy Owens ran away with it in 2010, posting a 2.46 ERA in 150 innings at the Double-A level, with a 132:23 K/BB ratio. This year there was a little more competition, which led to a tougher decision.
The group this year was led by three starting pitchers who all posted good strikeout numbers, and ERAs under 3.00. Those three starters were Gerrit Cole, Phil Irwin, and Jeff Locke. Vic Black also gained some consideration for his work out of the bullpen in Altoona, although the starters had more of an advantage since they posted their numbers while having more than twice the innings Black had. Luis Heredia, Clay Holmes, and Tyler Glasnow all had great numbers in the lower levels, but the fact that they were pitching in the lower levels, plus their lack of innings, eliminated them from consideration. It came down to Cole, Irwin, and Locke, and the winner of the Pirates Prospects 2012 Minor League Pitcher of the Year award goes to Jeff Locke.
Locke made 24 starts in Triple-A, putting up a 2.48 ERA in 141.2 innings. He had an 8.3 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 ratio in those innings. Locke gained points over Cole and Irwin since all of his innings came in the upper levels of the minors. Cole spent some time in high-A, and Irwin spent most of his time in Double-A. The numbers from Locke were more than deserving on their own. His 2.48 ERA was the best mark of all pitchers in the minor league system with 80 or more innings. He finished with the third most strikeouts in the system, behind Justin Wilson and Cole. He moved on to the majors, where he put up a 5.50 ERA in 34.1 innings, although his time in the majors didn’t factor into this award. His FIP of 3.24 in Triple-A was higher than his ERA, which is what brought him closer to Cole and Irwin. However, Irwin also had a higher FIP in Double-A, and Cole spending half the season in high-A hurt the value of his ERA and FIP.
Cole showed why he was the top prospect in the system this year, putting up a combined 2.80 ERA in 132 innings between the top three levels. He had a 136:45 K/BB ratio, with his strikeouts rating second in the system. The right-hander had a 2.69 ERA in 67 innings in high-A, then moved up to Double-A where he posted a 2.90 ERA in 59 innings. Cole made one regular season start in Triple-A, giving up three runs in six innings. Prospect-wise, there’s nothing wrong with Cole’s path this year. For the purposes of this award, he loses points simply because he was pitching at a lower level, and there was a guy in the upper levels with better numbers.
For the second year in a row, Phil Irwin was a darkhorse candidate. Irwin is rarely talked about among the top prospects in the system, but his numbers have ranked at the top for the last two years. Last year he was the only pitcher with comparable numbers to McPherson, but McPherson had better numbers in Double-A to give him an edge. This year he had comparable numbers to Cole, posting a 2.83 ERA in 130.1 innings, along with a 117:24 K/BB ratio. Irwin’s 1.7 BB/9 ratio was the second lowest among starters in the system, falling behind Kyle McPherson’s 1.2 BB/9. The right-hander spent most of his time in Double-A, where he had a 2.93 ERA in 104.1 innings. Irwin moved up to Triple-A for a few starts, posting a 2.57 ERA in 21 innings, along with an impressive 28:7 K/BB ratio. He fell behind Locke due to pitching most of the year in Double-A, and because of his 3.40 FIP at the lower level. His FIP in Triple-A was 2.30, which was lower than his ERA. Had he spent more time in Triple-A with those numbers, he could have won the award.