I thought it would be interesting to pick out a couple of today’s young pitchers possibly on the brink of break -out seasons and compare them to some already-established aces. On my list of young studs to keep an eye on this season are the following: Toronto’s Marc Rzepczynski, Florida’s Ricky Nolasco, Oakland’s Brett Anderson, and Minnesota’s Kevin Slowey. I’ll start today with Nolasco and Rzepczynski, and take on Anderson and Slowey in a couple days.
Perhaps the most likely of this group to put up spectacular numbers in 2010 is Nolasco. Nolasco did in fact put un an impressive line in 2008 as a 25-year-old in what could be called his “break out” season, posting a 3.52 ERA and 15-8 record. However, his 2009, 5.06 ERA likely has many Fish fans thinking that 2008 was a fluke. It wasn’t.
At age 25, southpaw Carston Charles Sabathia posted a 3.22 ERA with 172 Ks versus just 44 walks, good for a 3.9 K/BB ratio (the league average is only 2.00). Just two years before that, in his fifth major league season, Sabathia figured out how to keep the ball down, upping his groundball-to-flyball ratio (GB/FB) from below the league average to well above it. Keeping the ball down does two important things: it reduces homeruns and increases double plays. I mean, it’s pretty hard to hit a dinger on a ground ball….These are very important factors to a pitcher’s success, K/BB and GB/FB ratios.
During the season in which Nolasco celebrated his 25th birthday, he sat down 4.4 batters via the strikeout for every 1 batter he walked. During his supposed “down year” the next season, Nolasco struck out…wait for it…. 4.4 batters per every 1 walk issued, this time upping his strikeouts to over 9 per every 9 innings, a rare achievement for starters. Entering his fifth season in 2010, Nolasco’s GB/FB rate of 0.64 rivals that of Sabathia’s first four seasons at 0.68, indicating that the young Marlin is not beyond improving his ratios. After Sabathia’s 3.22 ERA season at age 25, all he did was put up a 5.65 K/BB ratio, helping lead to a 3.21 ERA and 19 wins. Oh, and a Cy Young award. Ricky Nolasco may not be there yet, but despite pitching in a hitter’s ball park, look for an ERA south of 3.7 and a whole lotta strikeouts for the young righty.
As a side note, there have only been 73 pitchers during the last 20 years at least 120 innings pitched and K/BB rates between 4.00 and 5.00. The average ERA of that group was under 3.60.
Marc Rzepczynski, who will go by Rzep for the remainder of this article, has a very small major league sample size to look at, having pitched just over 60 innings in the Show. However, drawing from some from his minor league numbers, there are reasons to be excited about the 24-year-old lefty.
A certain pitcher to be named later put up the following numbers in AAA before joining the big league ball club:
31 IP, 13.4 K/9, 4.2 K/BB, 0 HR
And then recorded these stats as a 23-year-old in his first run in the National League:
146 IP, 9.23 K/9, 2.31 K/BB, 0.74 HR/9, 3.92 xFIP (Fangraph’s ERA estimation controlling for “luck” factors)
Rzep’s last full minor league season at AA and AAA combined:
88 IP, 10.6 K/9, 2.6 K/BB, 1 HR
Rzep then joined the Blue Jays of the American League as a…guess what…23-year-old. His stats were as follows:
61 IP, 8.8 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 1.03 HR/9, 3.70 xFIP
The comparable pitcher in question here is Tim Lincecum. Maybe you’ve heard of him. During his next two seasons, Timmy locked down two Cy Young Awards. No big deal. While Rzep’s K/BB ratio was not quite as impressive during his first major league stint, we have to remember that he pitched in the AL East. The AL East is a land where there exist DHs like Hideki Matsui (28 HR) and David Ortiz (also 28 HR), where as Timmy’s NL West pits him against fellow pitchers about 10% of the time, pitchers that tend to strike out twice as often as the league average. Also, thanks to a heavy sinker and sinking changeup, Rzep was able to post a much higher GB/FB ratio than Timmy during their respective first seasons.
Having only pitched a third of a season at the big league level, perhaps 2011 is a more realistic ETA for Rzep’s breakout season. But when that day of maturation comes, I expect a couple seasons with ERAs under 3.5 for the Blue Jays’ young southpaw.