I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the past couple of seasons: Some pitchers who excel for the Blue Jays’ Short-Season Class-A affiliate in Vancouver in the Northwest League struggle mightily when they jump to the Jays’ (Full-Season) Class-A affiliate in Lansing in the Midwest League.
Pitchers who have have had enormous success in Vancouver but have struggled in Lansing in recent years include Javier Avendano and Taylor Cole, both of whom were absolutely dominant last year in Vancouver but have been mediocre in Lansing. Neither are/were unusually old or young for their level with Avendano currently 22 years old and Cole currently 23 (although both have birthdays in the next two months). By comparison, the 2013 ace (so far) of the Vancouver pitching staff, Eric Brown, is currently 24.*
Let’s look at some overall stats before we get to looking at some players. Looking back to 2011, the pitching in the Northwest League has gotten better each year. The following graph illustrates the rise of pitching in that league.
In the Midwest League since 2011, the offense have remained pretty stable, although the hitting has improved a little bit as can be seen in the increase in ERA (perhaps fielding has improved as well allowing for fewer unearned runs so far in 2013 leading to a slight decline in Runs per Game). Note that strikeouts are down overall in the Midwest League.
What does this initial overview say about the two respective leagues? Pitching is on the rise in the Northwest League while its counterpart, hitting, is on the rise in the Midwest League. The Blue Jays’ minor league pitchers that are moving up the ladder are coming into a league where their skills are going be tested at to a greater degree and where hitters are less susceptible to the strikeout.
The list of pitchers who were dominant in Vancouver in 2011 and 2012 is a short one. Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard were only there for a limited time in 2011 so the “ace” of the staff that year was Justin Nicolino. Nicolino threw 51 2/3 innings, posting a 1.03 ERA and a staggering WHIP of 0.745 along with only 11 walks and 64 strikeouts (almost a 6/1 ratio).
As we all know, Nicolino made the transition to Lansing seamlessly, throwing 124 1/3 innings walking 21 batters and striking out 119 (again, almost a 6/1 ratio) and had a 2.46 ERA and 1.070 WHIP. While the ERA and WHIP numbers jumped and his strikout ratio dropped, Nicolino maintained his K/BB ratio and his BB/9 ratio actually dropped from 1.9 in Vancouver to 1.5 in Lansing. Nicolino is now in AA (where he hasn’t pitched yet) but has seen a similar drop in strikeout totals in A+ ball in the Florida State League.
We now come to our two 2012 aces in Vancouver, Avendano and Cole. Avendano started the year in relief in Lansing to great success but was demoted to Vancouver to stretch out as a starter. He threw 78 innings in Vancouver and had a 1.27 ERA and 1.000 WHIP with 91 strikeouts to 25 walks. His 10.5 K/9 ratio was similar to Nicolino’s 2011 total of 11.0 but his 2.9 BB/9 ratio was much higher than Nicolino’s by a whole walk per 9 innings. His K/BB ratio was 3.64, more than 2 lower than Nicolino’s but still impressive.
This season, Avendano has thrown 93 1/3 innings in Lansing with a 4.24 ERA and his WHIP has jumped to 1.500. He has 71 strikeouts and 44 walks giving him a 6.8 K/9 ratio, a 4.2 BB/9 ratio and a 1.61 K/BB ratio.
Taylor Cole was even more dominant in Vancouver in 2012, posting a 0.81 ERA and 0.799 WHIP in 66 1/3 innings with 17 walks and 57 strikeouts for a 2.3 BB/9 ratio, a 7.7 K/9 ratio and 3.35 K/BB ratio.
In 2013, like Avendano, he has seen big jumps in ERA, WHIP and walks while seeing a drop in strikeouts. He’s posted a 3.97 ERA, a 1.584 WHIP with 49 walks and 69 strikeouts over 91 1/3 innings. These numbers come out to a 4.2 BB/9 ratio, a 6.5 K/9 ratio and a 1.53 K/BB ratio.
So what’s the difference between Justin Nicolino and Avendano and Cole? Nicolino is talked about as a mature pitcher with low-90s stuff (from the left side) with already very well-developed secondary pitches. Having seen Avendano and Cole personally, I can tell you that, in Lansing, these two pitchers are frequently living on the edges of the strike zone and aren’t able to challenge hitters as much. Avendano throws in the low-90s and when he can paint the corners, he can be very effective but if his control is off, he struggles. Cole throws in the high-80s and is very much in the same boat. Both have been inconsistent this season and both have had a lot of trouble throwing strikes and walking batters trying to paint the corners. A pitcher with better stuff or even more confidence in his stuff doesn’t need to be so fine and can survive more in the middle of the strike zone.
Another case in point is Alonzo Gonzalez. Gonzalez made the jump from essentially pitching in the Gulf Coast League in 2012 (with 2 excellent starts in Bluefield at the end of the season) to pitching in Lansing where he just wasn’t getting the job done. He was recently demoted to Vancouver and has been excellent in his first two appearances there thus far. I can see Gonzalez getting another chance at Lansing next year and having more success.
Who of the 2013 edition of the Vancouver Canadians might be tapped to make the jump to Lansing most successfully next year? I really don’t know at the moment. Brown will probably make the jump, but might not be able to stick as a starter.
Jeremy Gabryszwski has one thing in common with Nicolino that could help his adjustment. He already seems to have impeccable control, walking only 3 batters in 39 1/3 innings in Vancouver giving him a miniscule 0.7 BB/9 ratio. On the flip side, he is posting a K/9 ratio that is less than half of what Nicolino posted, striking out only 22 for a 5.0 K/9 ratio. I’ve been told he throws around 90 mph right now and his biggest issue has been his lack of strikeouts all the way along. His excellent control may mitigate some of those issues and his young age (he’s currently only 20) causes me to believe that, despite the lack of wipeout stuff, he may be able to sharpen a secondary pitch and/or gain a mile or two on his fastball in order to maintain or increase his K/9 ratios.
Who do you think will boom or bust when they get to Lansing?
*Some might see 20 year old Jeremy Gabryszwski as the ace of the staff in Vancouver, and I’ll get to him a bit later in this article.