Let’s take a look at four numbers tonight:
What are those numbers, you ask? They’re the career BB/9 ratios of the four left-handers who threw in today’s Spring Training game. In order, they go Tony Watson (4.1), Jonathan Sanchez (5.0), Justin Wilson (5.8), and Andrew Oliver (6.0).
The numbers come with a disclaimer that not all of the pitchers have the same innings totals. Watson’s walk rate has come after 94.1 innings in the majors. Sanchez has the biggest sample, with 772.2 innings. But Andrew Oliver (31.2 innings) and Justin Wilson (4.2 innings) haven’t spent a lot of time in the majors. That said, both pitchers have experienced trouble with their control in the minors, so it’s hard to just chalk this up to a small sample size.
Now let’s look at the other numbers.
Those are the strikeout numbers, with the order being Wilson, Sanchez, Watson, and Oliver. The 6.5 K/9 ratio from Oliver isn’t dominant, but he has posted a career 8.5 K/9 in the minors. Wilson’s 13.5 came in 4.2 innings, but he has an 8.0 K/9 in 518.2 innings.
In short, the Pirates have four left-handers who walk a batter every other inning, and who strike out almost a batter per inning in their pro careers. That’s very encouraging on the strikeout side, and extremely frustrating on the walks side. Today we saw more of the frustrating side, as Sanchez, Oliver, and Wilson combined for nine walks in 3.2 innings. Frustrating is probably the perfect word for each of those pitchers.
Andrew Oliver was a top 100 prospect heading into the 2011 season. He then started struggling with control problems, possibly due to being rushed to the majors in his first pro season. He’s got the upside of a number three starter, but his control issues have really held him back, to the point where he’s now in danger of being a 4-A starter if he doesn’t right the ship.
Justin Wilson has some of the best stuff in the system, but his lack of control limits his upside. Without his control problems, and focusing only on his pitches, he could be a number two starter. When you add in the control issues, he’s more of a number four starter at best, if he’s even a starter.
Sanchez and Watson are a bit different. Sanchez has had his control issues, but managed to be successful with the walks. The starter combined for a 3.75 ERA in 458 innings between 2009-2011, with a 9.5 K/9 and a 4.9 BB/9 ratio. Those are good numbers, but you’d have to think that he could be an ace if it wasn’t for the walks.
Watson never really had control problems in the minors. In fact, his control was excellent. The only time he had issues was in 2009, and he went down with an injury after just 15.1 innings that year. His control returned in 2010 and 2011 in the minors. Watson struggled once he reached the majors, with a 4.4 BB/9 in 2011. He improved on that slightly in 2012, with a 3.9 BB/9. Both times he put up decent numbers, with an xFIP in the 4.00-4.20 range.
Watson will definitely be in the bullpen this year, and honestly his 3.9 BB/9 ratio from the 2012 season looks like he’s got plus command next to the other guys in this group. As for those other three, they’re all the leading candidates if the Pirates decide to carry a second left-hander in the bullpen. Sanchez probably won’t see any improvements with his control at this stage in his career. Wilson is probably in the same situation after 500+ innings as a pro. The only player who might have a shot at improving his control is Oliver, and to do that the Pirates would probably have to go back and re-learn some basics that he was never taught while rushing past the lower levels of the farm system in Detroit.
If the control doesn’t disappear, all of these guys have the stuff and the dominant strikeout ratios to still be successful. But you’re still going to have those occasional frustrating outings like today, and ultimately you’re going to be frustrated by the fact that each of these pitchers would be better if it wasn’t for the control problems.
I was only at McKechnie today, so all of the photos are from the Pirates game.
Links and Notes
**The story on the potential breakout prospects for the 2013 season will go up in the morning. I’ll also have a story on Jameson Taillon tomorrow. I was planning on that today after his start, but had to follow up on something for the article.