The Dominance of the 2010 Altoona Rotation

Locke led all Altoona starters with an 8.7 K/9 ratio in 2010.

When I was looking at the 2010 Altoona rotation for yesterday’s preview of the 2011 Altoona starting pitchers, I noticed a trend.  Every one of the top starters at the level had a strong K/9 ratio, in the 8.0 range.  Rudy Owens was the only starter below an 8.0, with a 7.9 K/9 ratio.  Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, and Tony Watson each had an 8.5 K/9, while Jeff Locke led all starters with an 8.7 K/9.

A lot of expectations are placed on these starters, mostly due to the fact that they’re the first wave of pitching prospects expected to reach the majors in this current rebuild.  However, the struggles of past top pitching prospects for the Pirates has some people worried that this group will be just another group of Zach Duke and Ian Snell type pitchers.

The high strikeout rates were significant, mostly because it’s something that has been rare in the upper levels of the minors for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It’s also something that is desirable from a pitcher.  The more strikeouts a pitcher gets, the less that pitcher has to rely on his defense.  The less the pitcher relies on his defense, the less prone he is to bad luck.  I’ve done several articles looking at how the success rate of a pitcher increases with high strikeout numbers.  To illustrate just how rare this group of pitchers was, let’s look at the other Altoona rotations in the last decade, focusing on guys who made 10 or more starts.

2009: Michael Crotta, Daniel Moskos, Kyle Bloom, and Yoslan Herrera all had a 6.1 or smaller K/9 ratio.  Brad Lincoln had a 7.8 K/9 ratio.

2008: Out of Derek Hankins, Kyle Bloom, Yoslan Herrera, Josh Hill, Corey Hamman, and Jimmy Barthmaier, only Hankins, Bloom, and Barthmaier finished above a 5.6 K/9.  Hankins had a 6.7, Bloom had a 7.6, and Barthmaier had a 7.8.  Bloom and Barthmaier both had horrible walk rates, over a 4.0 BB/9 ratio.

2007: No Pirates’ starter finished above a 5.9 K/9 ratio this year out of the six guys with 10+ starts.

2006: The Pirates had Landon Jacobsen, Mike Connolly, Matt Peterson, Jason Roach, Wardell Starling, Josh Shortslef, and Shane Youman.  Only Connolly, Peterson, Youman, and Shortslef finished with a 6.0 K/9 or better.  Only Shortslef (7.4) finished with a K/9 better than a 6.6.

2005: Tom Gorzelanny finished with an 8.6 K/9 ratio.  Paul Maholm finished with an 8.3 K/9 ratio. Hansel Izquierdo and Eddi Candelario were the only players who finished higher than a 6.4 K/9, and those two players were 28 and 27 respectively.

2004: Ian Snell and Mike Connolly were the only two players who had a K/9 higher than a 6.9.  Snell had an 8.5 and Connolly had an 8.2.  For all of you “Rudy Owens is the next Zach Duke” fans, Duke had a 6.3 K/9 ratio.

2003: Three pitchers finished in the 7.0-7.8 K/9 range: John Van Benschoten, Tom Fordham, and Ben Shaffar.

2002: Mike Gonzalez finished with an 8.6 K/9 ratio, although he had a horrible 5.0 BB/9 ratio.  Adrian Burnside finished with an 8.4 K/9 ratio, although he had a 4.6 BB/9 ratio.  Aside from Ben Shaffar’s 7.8 K/9, no pitcher finished above a 6.3.

2001: Carlos Alvarado had a 7.9 K/9.  John Grabow had a 7.5 K/9, and a horrible 6.9 BB/9.  Mike Gonzalez had a 6.8 K/9, and no other starter was above a 5.7.

A look at the 2010 Eastern League starters with 10 or more starts shows that the Pirates had some of the best strikeout prospects in the league last year.  Jeff Locke finished fourth out of 74 pitchers.  Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris tied for 6th, and Rudy Owens tied for 13th.  The only comparable team was Trenton, the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees, and the team that Altoona beat in the Eastern League playoffs.

It’s not just the strikeout rates that are impressive.  It’s also the control.  Rudy Owens had the second best walk rate in the Eastern League.  Jeff Locke had the eighth best.  Bryan Morris came in around 40th, in the middle of the pack.  Justin Wilson finshed 63rd out of 74 players, which is why I’m not as high on him as the other three.

15 pitchers in the Eastern League with 10+ starts had a 7.9 K/9 or better last year.  Of those 15 pitchers, only 12 had a 2.0 K/BB or better.  Of those 12, 10 had a HR/9 ratio below 1.0.  Out of the 10 pitchers in the Eastern League in 2010 with 10 starts, a 7.9 K/9 or better, a 2.0 K/BB ratio or better, and a HR/9 ratio below 1.0, the Pirates had three starters: Owens, Locke, and Morris.

Success at the AA level is great to have.  If you have the talent to succeed in AA, you have the talent to succeed in the majors.  Obviously no prospect is a guarantee, and the 2010 Altoona pitchers are no exception.  There’s always the issue of making the proper adjustments, and utilizing the talent you have in the upper levels.  For now, it’s a great sign to see the Altoona pitchers not only putting up dominating numbers in AA, but being some of the best pitchers in the league.  It doesn’t guarantee success, but it does reflect talent.

  • tim, great article. Love any reason for optimism…..I have heard this theory before about succeeding in AA can often times lead to success in the Majors (save for Ian Snell), but I was wondering if you could shine some light on this for me. Clearly theres no clear cut formula and I understand that, but there seems to be a belief about succeeding at AA/majors

    • Snell actually did have success in the majors. In 06 he had a 4.58 FIP with a K/9 of 8.18 (which I’d say is somewhere around #4 quality numbers), then in 07 he had a 4.01 FIP with 7.66 K/9 in 208 IP. That’s 3rd starter territory, which is a pretty big compliment. What happened after that is nothing that could have been foretold from seeing his success in AA, but came as much from between his ears as it did his shoulder.