Down on the Farm – The Big Names Redux


As promised, we’ll continue taking a glance at some of the players working their way towards the big league club, today focusing on The Big Names, specifically, the pitchers. Yesterday I took at look at some of the big name hitters and like many Royals fans, I’m excited.

Mike Montgomery

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Montgomery started the year as the top prospect in the Royals organization according to multiple sources and didn’t disappoint in his opening assignment in High A Wilmington.  His 33/4 K/BB ratio and phenomonal ERA over four starts earned him a promotion to Double A Northwest Arkansas in April.  He ran into some elbow soreness in May that carried into June and has only recently returned after missing all of July.  It wasn’t a serious injury, but the Royals were being cautious with an elite left-handed pitching arm.

Since returning to regular action, Montgomery has notched a 3.09 ERA in 20.1 innings in August.  Most of that came from a four inning start where he gave up six earned runs where gave up only the second homer against him this season.  He followed that up with seven shutout innings where he allowed just three hits (but three walks).

His walks have been up a bit in Double A, but he hardly ever allows homeruns (0.2 per nine innings in his career), so they don’t hurt as much as they may hurt mere mortals.  He’s also given up more hits per nine innings, though not much more than his career rate, and it’s nothing to be alarmed about as he’s had some rough starts in May and when coming back from his extended time on the disabled list.  He’s still an elite talent.

In Double A, Montgomery has been more dominant against righties than lefties.  Mostly that’s due to a higher walkrate (5.87/9) versus lefties than against right handed hitters (1.88/9).  That doesn’t seem to be a trend over his career, though.  In 2009, his walkrate was nearly the same regardless of the batter’s handedness (2.97 vs RH/2.78 vs. LH).

Danny Duffy

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Duffy spent most of the year on the sidelines, as he walked away from the game before the season kicked off. The circumstances of his hiatus weren’t explained at the time, but he was expected to return to the minor leagues at some point.

And it’s a good thing too. Since becoming a professional, Duffy’s had nothing but success at every level he’s been in. After a few stops in the Rookie Leagues to build up his arm strength after his time away, Duffy made a few starts in Wilmington before joining Northwest Arkansas in August. He didn’t miss a beat.

Over 14 innings in Wilmington, he displayed his dominance, striking out 18 batters over that span.  It continued in Double A, as over four starts, he’s struck out 27 batters, a 10.1/9 strikeout rate.

Duffy’s first Double A start was a little rough, as he gave up four runs over five innings, while surrendering 10 hits.  But he only walked one batter and still struck out six.  He quickly shook the bad outing off, as his last three starts have produced a combined three runs allowed over 19 innings.  He’s struck out 21 batters in those starts while walking six.  Duffy looks to be back on track.

With only 46.2 innings pitched in 2010 over four levels, it’s hard to make any reliable conclusions from his splits, other than to point out that left handed hitters have a higher line drive rate than they have had in years past, but Duffy’s only faced 58 left handed batters this season, so it’s tough to make anything of that.  His strikeout rate is consistent against both right handers and left handed batters and he looks to be on his way as a solid left handed starting pitcher.

John Lamb

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Did you know that John Lamb can slay grizzly bears with a glare? Or that he was the original inspiration for A-Team character B.A. Barracus? I didn’t either until 2010 when John Lamb started to show people that even at 19, he’s a man on the mound.

In all seriousness, Lamb tore threw Burlington to start the year with the only blemish being a relatively high 3.8 BB/9.  He balanced that by allowing less hits per nine than he had in his first season of pro ball while maintaining a strong strikeout rate.  His performance earned him a quick promotion to Wilmington.  From there, Lamb’s dominance of young professional hitters continued, as his numbers improved in all areas (except H/9), including a remarkable 90/15 K/BB ratio.

His quick development earned him another promotion, this time joining Montgomery in Double A.

The eye-popping numbers stayed as such, only in the opposite meaning.  Over four starts spanning 17 innings, Lamb has surrendered 15 earned runs, good for a 7.94 ERA to go alone with a 2.176 WHIP.  He’s struck out one batter more than he’s walked.

What happened?

First, Lamb’s Northwest Arkansas performance requires some context.  On July 10, Lamb turned 20 years old.  I don’t know what you were doing when you turned 20, but I sure wasn’t facing Double A batters, some of whom had been professional hitters for a number of years.  As I said yesterday, the jump to Double A is where prospects start to be filtered out into potential pros and roster filler for down the line.  It’s a tough transition to start with, but when Lamb started the  year in Low A ball, it’s even more daunting.

The peripherals show that right handed hitters are beating him up, batting .404 against him with a .413 BABIP.  He’s struck out four of the 57 righties he’s faced while also walking four.  Over his (brief) career, Lamb has given up a line drive 11.2% of the time.  In Northwest Arkansas, batters have hit a line drive 17.6% of the time, accounting for more hits.  And with his walkrate considerably higher in Double A than his career mark, it’s not surprising to see him struggle.

That being said, if you take away his start on August 13 where he gave up six earned runs over two innings (while walking three and giving up seven hits), Lamb’s ERA drops to 5.40.  It’s not good, but it’s better, and more reasonable.  There’s the caveat that it’s only 17 innings, and his other three starts haven’t been as disastrous.  He has the stuff to get batters out, but he’s a little over his head.

From everything I’ve read, though, if there’s a young pitcher who could handle such a jump, it’s Lamb.  It’s easy to forget that the numbers on the page are just numbers, but there are real people out there winding up, delivering the pitch and performing.  Humans make mistakes, they get rattled, they lose confidence in their abilities.  But the reports about Lamb say that he’s got the poise of a major league veteran when he pitches, never allowing himself to get shaken up.  While it’s difficult to see Lamb struggle, it’s also his first brush with adversity as a pro.  He’ll likely be returning to Double A in 2011, but may have learned what adjustments he needs to make while facing failure for the first time.  In the end, that could make him a stronger player.  (Of course, the flip side is true – he may become “gunshy” as Brian Bannister termed it earlier in the year).

There are good signs, though.  Against left handed hitters, Lamb has induced a grounder 54.5% of the time as a Natural.  So there’s something.

Aaron Crow

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I have to include Crow here as a Big Name because, as a first round pick in 2009, he has a large set of expectations on his shoulders. Being a college pitcher (and with time in the American Association after leaving Missouri), some mentioned Crow as a potential bullpen component as early as 2010, at least as a September callup if not earlier. Considering that fellow pitchers from the first round Stephen Strasburg, Mike Minor, Mike Leake, and Drew Storen have all made major league debuts (not to mention 2010 draftee Chris Sale), it’s very disappointing to mention that Crow hasn’t even made it to Omaha yet.

In fact, he’s moving backwards, having been demoted to High A Wilmington at the end of July.

The biggest issue with Crow in Double A was control.  He walked 4.4 per nine in Double A and only struck out 6.8 batters per nine innings while putting up a 5.66 ERA.  It’s not a disaster, but it’s still subpar.  Batters didn’t hit him particularly hard, batting .281 against him over his 119.1 innings in Double A.  He even maintained a strong 60.8% groundball rate on batted balls.  He was a little unlucky in that 16.5% of the flyballs he did give up went over the fence, and when you combine that with a high walk rate, you have a toxic mix on the mound.

Since his demotion to Wilmington, Crow has improved his control and strikeout numbers.  Over 26.2 innings in August, he’s struck out 26 and walked just three.  Yet over that same period of time, his groundball rate has declined to 48.8% and he’s still giving up a lot of homeruns when batters hit a flyball, with 14.3% of flyballs off him going for homers.  He’s given up five homers over those 26.2 innings in the same Carolina League that stunted the power of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer (though they were all surrendered in his three road starts – his one start in vast Frawley Stadium saw no homers against him).

Crow’s a very confusing pitcher to dissect.  He has a high groundball rate, yet gives up a lot of homers.

It’s still too early to panic.  When you take his cumulative statistics on and use their tools to neutralize luck, his adjusted numbers look alright, with a FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching – basically measures those elements a pitcher can control based on normalizing a pitcher’s performance without taking defense into consideration) of 4.07 over both levels of competition.  Which isn’t stupendous, but is much more palatable than the 5.67 he’s looking at for 2010.

It does present the question about how Crow is to be used, as some see him as a bullpen arm and some as a potential future closer if he’s not a starter.  If he can manage to control the walks and keep the ball in the ballpark, his numbers will look better.  You have to wonder, though, how much did it hurt him when he didn’t sign with the Nationals after the 2008 draft, instead opting for a bigger payday after work in the independent leagues?  After his time in college, he only pitched 18 innings before hitting the Arizona Fall League in 2009.  Maybe he’s working off the rust in 2010 and 2011 is his year.

I want to thank for their data, as it’s been very helpful in looking at these prospects.  Definitely check them out if you’re into those sorts of number-ific things.

Tomorrow, we’ll see how the more recent acquisitions have performed in the minor leagues.  I hope you like Mighty Mouse references…

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