Hidden Gem: Ramon Troncoso

Last week, the Dodgers decided not to tender an offer to Takashi Saito, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball since coming over from Japan in 2006. The elbow problems that sidelined him for two months certainly played a factor, as did the presence of Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chi Kuo, and the surprise of the ’08 bullpen, Cory Wade. With those three youngsters all coming off wildly successful seasons, the Dodgers were willing to let Saito go, believing that they had capable late inning relievers already on the roster.

However, there may be another reason they were willing to part with Saito – Ramon Troncoso. He doesn’t have the prospect pedigree of Broxton or Kuo or the shiny 2008 ERA of Wade, and if didn’t follow the Dodgers closely last year, there’s a good chance you may have never heard of Troncoso. However, if I was going to pick one guy who had a chance to emerge as the Next Big Thing from obscurity, I’d go with Troncoso – he’s the hidden gem of young hurlers right now.

Troncoso’s big weapon is a heavy power sinker, and it’s one of the best in the game. The average velocity on his fastball was 92.8 MPH last year, which is outstanding velocity for a sinkerball pitcher. 17 major league pitchers sported a GB% of 60% or higher last year, and only Troncoso, Fausto Carmona, and Brandon League had an average fastball velocity of 92.0 MPH or higher.

Carmona’s actually an excellent comparison for Troncoso, skills wise. Both throw something that could be considered a turbo sinker, pounding the strike zone with high velocity sinkers that both cause groundballs and cause hitters to swing and miss. In 2006, when Carmona worked mostly in relief for Cleveland, he posted a 59.6% GB% and hitters made contact 76.8% of the time. Last year in Los Angeles, Troncoso posted a 60.8% GB% and hitters made contact 74.5% of the time.

Carmona was viewed as something of a disappointment in 2006, as his ERA was driven up by a .341 batting average on balls in play and a 13.8% HR/FB rate, both of which were mostly out of his control. His home-run adjusted FIP was 4.46, a full run lower than his 5.42 ERA, and suggested that his debut season had been quite a bit better than most people believed. Obviously, we remember his breakthrough 2007 season where he took his power sinker to the rotation and became one of the best young pitchers in baseball.

Troncoso seems to be going through a similar period of a lack or recognition for his ’08 campaign. His 4.26 ERA doesn’t draw amazement, especially for an NL relief pitcher, but that’s based on a .336 batting average on balls in play – his 3.00 FIP is tremendous, especially for a kid making his major league debut. It’s pretty amazing that there’s such a little amount of talk about a 25-year-old who just posted a 9.00 K/9 and a 3.44 GB/FB rate simultaneously in his major league debut and has the stuff to back it up. For comparison, hitters made contact against Tim Lincecum 74.1% of the time and Derek Lowe had a GB% of 60.3%. I’m not sure you can invent a better combination than Lincecum’s swing-and-miss rate and Lowe’s groundball rate, and that’s effectively what Troncoso posted in 2008.

The Dodgers have sent Troncoso to the Dominican Winter League to work on his curveball and get some action in, and he’s actually working as a starting pitcher for Aguilas and dominating in the role. In 16 innings, he’s allowed 14 hits, walked 1, struck out 11, and is posting a 3.24 GB/FB rate. While winter ball stats don’t mean much, the fact that he’s able to shut down professional hitters while working in five inning stints is worth taking note of. Perhaps, instead of replacing Saito in the bullpen, the Dodgers should look into having him replace Derek Lowe in the rotation?

No matter where he ends up, Troncoso has shown all the skills necessary to be a terrific major league pitcher. Just on the strength of his sinker, he’s going to be a nightmare for right-handed hitters, and his slider and curve have made enough progress that he’s a legitimate option as a potential relief ace or a starting pitcher. For whatever reason, the world hasn’t jumped on the Ramon Troncoso bandwagon yet, but I’d imagine that will change twelve months from now.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Fantasy alert? 🙂