Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Two Prospects have Dominated in Nationals' System

You know about Bryce Harper. You may not know about Tom Milone.

We'll start with Harper. After spending the first three months of the season dominating in Single A Hagerstown to the tune of .318/.423/.554, Harper was promoted to Double A Harrisburg, skipping High A Potomac. In his double A debut, he went two for three with a walk and a run scored. Remember, Harper doesn't turn 19 until October. For a reference part, an 18 year old hasn't appeared in a major league game was in 1994. His name was Alex Rodriguez.

At this point, unless he completely flunks AA ball, I'd be shocked if Harper doesn't debut in September. He's likely to begin next season in the minors, though if he dominates in AA and hits either in his call up or next year in spring training, that could change.

You probably know all of that already, though. Who's this Milone guy?

Tom Milone (statistics)was just named the International League pitcher of the week. In his two starts, he pitched 14.1 innings, allowing 1 run, 8 hits, striking out 12 and walking nobody, extending a pattern of dominance that could fly under the radar because of some bad luck. Through 15 starts this season, Milone has what may seem like a pedestrian 6-5 record and 3.38 ERA. It doesn't take much digging though to find some truly mind boggling numbers:


Check that again. 101 strikeouts. FIVE walks. His strikout to walk ratio is 20.2. For a point of reference, the career record for K/BB ratio was in the strike shortened 1994 (is this a theme today?) when Bret Saberhagen had 143 strikeouts to 13 walks. Since he surpassed the full-season 162 IP standard, I'm willing to accept this as the record even though the strike shortened the year. If you're not, last season Cliff Lee had 185 strikeouts and 18 walks. The active career leader (min 1000 IP) is Mariano Rivera, at a tick under 4 strikeouts for every guy he walks.

Milone's stuff is considered middling, which is why we don't see him on prospect lists. His fastball is in the mid 80's, reaching 89 on rare occasion. His changeup seems to be regarded as his best pitch, and he also throws a cutter and curveball. He doesn't generate a ton of ground balls, so, considering the rest of his arsenal, I would guess it is likely that his home run rate in the major leagues would approach 1 per every 9 innings.

Still, while the walk number is impressive, it is the International League leading strikeout number that stands out to me. Walking too many hitters is bad, but simply avoiding walks isn't, on it's own, good. The active leader for lowest career walk rate is Carlos Silva, who has an ERA+ of 93, because he doesn't strike anybody out and gives up too many home runs. Combining such a low walk rate with such a high strikeout total though? It's almost impossible not to succeed while doing that. Zack Greinke has been hit hard this year doing it, but he's also a former Cy Young winner. There are 12 active pitchers with 1000 career innings and a K/BB ratio of over 3 to 1 (courtesy of baseball-reference):

Player (age) K/BBERA+
Mariano Rivera (41)3.9669205
Dan Haren (30)3.9444120
James Shields (29)3.7611105
Cole Hamels (27)3.7435126
Roy Halladay (34)3.6753137
Roy Oswalt (33)3.5216134
Zack Greinke (27)3.4694112
Javier Vazquez (34)3.261104
Cliff Lee (32)3.2175113
Jered Weaver (28)3.1667128
Jake Peavy (30)3.0888116
Josh Beckett (31)3.0618115

Nobody on the list lower than a 104 ERA+, ten of the twelve over 112.

So why is Milone's performance so outpacing his stuff? One theory is that minor league hitters do not deal with pitchers, particularly left handed ones, who can locate and mix their pitches well, but major league hitters do. While there is some evidence to this, I'm having trouble finding an example of someone with such an extreme K/BB ratio in AAA. Milone performance is such an outlier that I'm not sure what we can extrapolate from other data sets.

My guess is that Milone will get a chance with the Nationals at some point this season. His performance has been too good to ignore, despite what the radar gun says. If the Nationals aren't interested in giving him a chance, somebody else certainly will. Once in the majors, it's anybody's guess what kind of success he'll have. I'm rooting for him though. One of the things I love about baseball is the fact there are many, many ways one can succeed at it. Maybe Milone can't - maybe he gets hit hard and falls out of the major leagues, and I find this post 10 years from now and laugh. Who knows? Even it's rare for someone with stuff like Tom Milone to excel, perhaps it's simply because there's never been another like Tom Milone.

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