Last season saw a number of surprising pitching performances from completely unheralded hurlers that likely won a lot of fantasy leagues for the owners lucky enough to scoop them up. Guys like Collin McHugh (11 wins, 2.73 ERA, 157 K’s in 154.2 innings), Matt Shoemaker (16 wins, 3.04 ERA, 124 K’s in 136 innings) and Jacob deGrom (nine wins, 2.69 ERA, 144 K’s in 140.1 innings) not only had great seasons in 2014, they provided their fantasy owners with significantly more value than big-name prospects like Archie Bradley or Kevin Gausman. So what did all those feel-good, out-of-nowhere pitchers have in common?
Well, to be honest… the secret ingredient seems to be that they all survived pitching in high-offense Triple-A home parks the year before.
- McHugh 2013: 3.69 ERA, 88:27 K:BB ratio in 100 innings between Las Vegas and Colorado Springs
- Shoemaker 2013: 4.64 ERA, 160:29 K:BB ratio in 184.1 innings at Salt Lake
- deGrom 2013: 4.52 ERA, 63:24 K:BB ratio in 75.2 innings at Las Vegas
Note that they didn’t necessarily pitch well at Triple-A. None of them put up numbers that would have caused you to give them a second glance if you were just scanning the high minors looking for positive outliers. But they held their own, and for a pitcher who was never a top prospect, who had to claw his way up the ladder one rung at a time, proving you can survive a hostile Pacific Coast League environment like those in Vegas or Salt Lake could be the last piece of the mental puzzle necessary to not just get to the majors, but thrive once you arrive.
So, if this theory is correct, who are some pitchers with uninspiring Triple-A numbers in 2014, and without big-time prospect pedigrees, who might become this season’s deGrom, McHugh or Shoemaker? Here are a few possibilities.
Carlos Frias: If I had to bet on one pitcher becoming a 2015 waiver wire stud, it would be Frias. His numbers in Albuquerque (5.01 ERA, 65:21 K:BB ratio in 91.2 innings) were pretty ugly, but in a September start against the Nationals at Chavez Ravine, he threw six shutout innings with a 4:1 K:BB ratio. Two weeks later, he got a second spot start in Denver and didn’t make it out of the first inning, fragging his final big league numbers. He’s got a mid-90s fastball, a couple of decent breaking balls, good control, and a near guarantee that Dodgers’ projected fifth starter Brett Anderson is going to get hurt at some point. That’s a pitcher worth keeping an eye on.
Juan Oramas: An overlooked side effect of the Padres’ offseason makeover was the need for them to clear roster room for all the new arrivals, and Oramas was one of the first players they jettisoned (coincidentally and possibly ironically, claimed off waivers by Toronto so his spot on the 40-man could be given to ex-Jay Brandon Morrow). He’s already checked one ‘overcoming adversity on his way up the ladder’ box after 2012 Tommy John surgery, and while the 24-year-old had an unsightly 5.61 ERA in 110.2 innings at El Paso, his 93:45 K:BB ratio could have been worse, and his Double-A performance before his promotion (1.05 ERA, 23:6 K:BB in 25.2 innings in 2014, 3.07 ERA, 64:16 K:BB ratio in 55.2 innings in 2013) was outstanding. He’s got three solid pitches, and with the Jays relying on a number of young pitchers in their rotation, the possibility of an opening or two cropping up during the season is higher than it might be with some other clubs.
Charles Brewer: Another player who was essentially given away in the offseason (heading from the Diamondbacks to the Indians for cash considerations), Brewer made a few bullpen appearances for Arizona in 2013, then got smacked around at Reno last season (4.99 ERA, 96:34 K:BB ratio in 126.1 innings) in his third PCL stint. Like Oramas he doesn’t have a big fastball but does have three pitches that grade out as average or slightly better, and while the Indians have a number of starters ahead of him on the depth chart, they really don’t have anyone locked into their rotation other than Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. If the Bauers and Salazars in the system falter, Brewer could get his chance.
That’s by no means an exhaustive list, of course. Plenty of guys had unimpressive campaigns on the mound in the nastier PCL parks, but still retain some reason for optimism in their future outlook. The important thing to take away from last year’s trio of surprises is that if a pitcher gets an opportunity in a major league rotation, and you just take a quick look at his Triple-A numbers without considering the context, you could miss out on a very useful player.
One more thing: if you disregard the “without a big-time prospect pedigree” criteria, there were actually two other guys who might be bumped down on some cheat sheets lower than they should be. Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard are among the Mets’ top young arms, but in a shallow league they might be dismissed as not quite ready to contribute due to their Triple-A numbers. Look again. Despite pitching in Las Vegas, Montero has managed a sub-3.50 ERA over 168.2 innings in the last two seasons, while Syndergaard kept his K/9 over 9.0 last year. That tells me that they are probably more than ready for the majors. In something like a 12-team mixed league, Syndergaard especially is worth gambling on with a later round pick.