Good Friday was pretty decent to the Jays. Drew Hutchison gutted out five and a third mainly good innings, matching his career high for strikeouts with nine, while only making one mistake. He left a full count meatball up and over the plate to Carlos Santana and it was duly dispatched. The bullpen took it from there, a confidence boost given the disaster that was Thursday. And there was a ton to be happy about if you’re a fan of Toronto’s minor league system. If you cheat and include Marcus Stroman‘s start from Wednesday evening (and I’m going to do so) the Jays top three pitching prospects were all spectacular. Good Friday indeed.
When Stroman was sent down to minor league camps this spring, I don’t think there was anyone who felt the right-hander wouldn’t work his balls off to make himself a better pitcher and show the Jays what they are missing. So far he has got the job done:
If you throw out the five walks from that second start (admittedly a stretch) he has gotten better and better. His performance Wednesday was dominant, which caused quite the stir on twitter, including some high praise from Baseball America (courtesy of regular correspondent @stivbators):
1/2 BA chat today asked about Stroman: “He’s ready now. I would be 100 percent committed to him as a starter. Four average to plus pitches”
— Clint (@StivBators) April 18, 2014
2/2 “a huge strikeout rate and potentially plus command”
— Clint (@StivBators) April 18, 2014
Now, there was also quite a bit of chatter about whether Stroman was tipping his changeup with a slower arm speed. He changed his grip in the spring so it is still a work in progress, but major league hitters are there for a reason. If he is tipping it, they’ll hit it. That being said, like BA, I think he is ready now, and will be the first to get the call if something happens……and for the pedants out there, I know J.A. Happ is back with the big club, but he stinks, and Stroman has to be ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s 4 years younger than the average International League pitcher age, 4th in K/9 ratio with 12.33 per nine, and could easily be the Jays 4th starter.
Moving down the ladder, the system’s top prospect, Aaron Sanchez, made his 4th start for New Hampshire as they were in Binghampton to face the Mets. After an average outing in his last appearance, Sanchez was back to his best, going six innings, giving up four hits (two of which were dribblers that hit the mound and bounced over Aaron’s glove) with six strikeouts against two walks.
The walk rate at 4.58/9 is still higher than you would like, and the four hit batters aren’t great, leading to a FIP which is near two runs higher than his era (4.17 to 2.29). Despite that, there are still lots of positives. At just 21, the Barstow, California native is 3.6 years younger than the weighted average for pitchers in the Eastern league (stat courtesy of baseballreference.com) so is generally facing hitters that are quite a bit older and more experienced. He’s striking out near a batter per inning and as per the table above, is getting a lot of called strikes. Aside from the first start, he is generating a high percentage of ground ball outs. With his power sinker, his ground out to air out ratio will be a huge tell as to how he is pitching.
If Aaron continues to throw the ball like this, I’ll be very curious to see if the Jays look to have him join Stroman in Buffalo.
In Dunedin, the Jays third best prospect (according to yours truly), Daniel Norris has emulated the two above him by getting off to a superb start in the Florida State League.
For a guy who has always struggled to repeat his delivery, leading to a career BB/9 ratio which, prior to this year, never dipped below 3.34, this year’s mark of 1.80/9 is a revelation. Add in fact he’s missing bats at a 10.20 K/9 ratio gives Norris a very healthy 5.67 K/BB rate. One more stat I’m impressed with is the left-handers ability to leave runners on. He’s always been susceptible, for whatever reason, to a high Batting Average of Balls In Play. This year’s mark of .294 is more in line with the average but when they get on, he’s leaving them there at a career high 92.3% rate.
Friday’s start was excellent, the one hit he gave up was initially scored an error, which, combined with Kramer Champlin‘s five hitless innings in relief, left the D-Jays one debateable hit shy of a no-no.
According to twitter, Friday’s Lansing Lugnuts game saw a very similar situation. A controversial scoring decision robbed Kendall Graveman of his no hit bid after eight and a third superb innings.
With the prospect capital the Lugs throw out every night, Gravemen has been somewhat of an afterthought. So far he hasn’t pitched like one. An 8th round pick last year, Kendall was a Blue Jays ‘senior sign’ inking for $5,000. At 23 the Alabama native is, by some margin, the eldest member of the Lugs rotation. The Mississippi State graduate has also been the best, leading his younger, more projectible mates in ERA, WHIP, and FIP.
I left the Game Score stat in the table above (a stat designed by Bill James to rank each outing) to show, not only how good Graveman was on Friday, how he has gotten better as the season has progressed. I’m not sure of the Blue Jays strategy with the starters currently piggy-backing but you’d have to think they’ll need their own days when the pitch counts get too high to split games. I’d assumed the first of the three starters with their ‘own days’ to get the call to Dunedin when needed would be Tom Robson. He’s struggled out of the gate though. Given Graveman’s age and performance so far, it may very well be him that joins Norris, Matt Boyd, and Taylor Cole (that’s assuming they’re all still there) in Dunedin.
Friday’s excellent performances aside, the Blue Jays top tier pitching prospects, outside of the kids in Lansing, have been very, very good to start the year. As the season progresses, things may even out, but even so, it will be interesting to see if Toronto gets aggressive and tests these kids against higher competition.