The Brandon Webbs of the Near Future by Carson Cistulli December 29, 2014 At the end of last week, the present author examined the unusual career arc of former excellent right-handed pitcher Brandon Webb. Never regarded as a top prospect, Webb debuted at the beginning of 2003, led all rookies (including both pitchers and hitters) in WAR that season, and then proceeded to become one of the sport’s best pitchers over the next five years — despite a fastball that, whatever its other virtues, featured average velocity at best. Certain readers expressed some interest in identifying who, among the league’s current pitchers, most resembles Webb — and, indeed, Dallas Keuchel (a name invoked by more than one commenter) appears to be the most obvious choice, insofar as he led all qualifiers in ground-ball rate by a wide margin while also producing an average fastball velocity of 89.7 mph (even as the league average among starters in 2014 was 91.4 mph). The strikeout and walk rates are both similar and, as for pedigree, Keuchel was a seventh-round selection out of college. Webb, meanwhile, was an eighth-round pick, also out of college. Keuchel, like Webb, never appeared among Baseball America’s top-100 prospects. So, really, except for handedness, the two feature decidedly similar profiles (except, one hopes, the injury profile). For many similar reasons, Cleveland left-hander T.J. House, who posted a 60.5% ground-ball rate — distinguishing him as the only other pitcher with 50-plus innings as a starter to break the 60%-ground-ball threshold in 2014 — qualifies as a possible heir to Webb’s legacy. House, for his part, recorded almost identical strikeout and walk rates to Keuchel over his 10 starts this year and wasn’t selected until the 16th round of the 2008 draft. So those are two active pitchers who possess more than a passing resemblance to Webb — and who, should they retain their health, ought to exceed by a considerable margin the production expected of players drafted in their respective rounds and throwing fastballs at their respective velocities and having been absent from top-propsect lists. Of perhaps more interest for me, personally, is the idea of possibly identifying those Webb comparables who lack a body of work at the major-league level yet — or at least one as relatively substantial as either House or Keuchel. To do so requires first examining Brandon Webb’s minor-league resume and then extracting from that — plus from other more qualitative information — a set of criteria which, when met, ought to produce something like a modern day Webb. Fortunately for this sort of endeavor, Webb wasn’t promoted in the middle of his minor-league seasons, so there exist two large samples — his 2001 season in the High-A California League and 2002 in the Double-A Texas League — from which to draw. There are no ground-ball rates — or even ground-ball/fly-ball ratios — extant from these years. We’ll deal with that in a moment. For now, however, it’s at least possible to make observations about Webb’s strikeout and walk rates relative to his peers. Below are the basic numbers from Webb’s two main minor-league seasons. Note that zK% and zBB% denote Webb’s z-scores both for strikeout rate and walk rate among those pitchers who both (a) recorded starts in at least 50% of their appearances and also (b) faced 100 or more batters over the course of the season. Year Lev Lg G GS GS% IP BF K% BB% zK% zBB% 2001 A+ Cal 29 28 96.6% 162.1 711 22.2% 6.2% 0.27 0.73 2002 AA Tex 26 25 96.2% 152.0 647 18.9% 9.1% 0.44 -0.33 What one finds is that — so far as strikeouts and walks were concerned, at least — that Webb was pretty average. By neither measure did he ever finish more than a standard deviation from the mean of the aforementioned sample. If one is searching for a comparable to Webb, then, it makes sense to search for those pitchers who were relatively average by this measure — or, certainly not much worse (say, by a standard deviation) than average. Webb actually produced pretty decent strikeout numbers as a major-league pitcher — better relative to the league than he had as a minor leaguer. But it wasn’t the skill on which his success was most immediately built. His greatest skill was inducing ground balls. As I note above, there isn’t any ground-ball data available from the minor leagues from 2001 or -02. That said, there are two clues which might inform his ground-ball ability as a minor leaguer. First, there’s his major-league performance. Between 2003 and -08 — which is to say, his entire career except for 4.0 innings — Webb recorded a 64.3% ground-ball rate. That was the highest mark not only among qualified pitchers, but among all 512 pitchers who threw at least 20 innings in a starting capacity over that six-year interval. Below are the top-five ground-ball pitchers from that era, with their numbers as a starter only. Each metric preceded by a -z- once again denotes the relevant z-score for that metric — in this case, among those pitchers who threw 20-plus innings as a starter between 2003 and -08. # Name Team IP TBF K% BB% GB% zK% zBB% zGB% 1 Brandon Webb D-backs 1314.2 5491 19.3% 7.9% 64.3% 1.13 0.30 3.13 2 Derek Lowe – – – 1232.1 5241 14.8% 6.8% 64.0% -0.02 0.75 3.08 3 Roberto Hernandez Indians 372.2 1595 13.7% 9.3% 62.9% -0.30 -0.27 2.92 4 Sergio Mitre – – – 282.0 1270 12.8% 7.2% 60.5% -0.53 0.59 2.58 5 Chien-Ming Wang Yankees 623.1 2586 10.8% 6.8% 60.5% -1.04 0.75 2.58 As noted, Webb finished with the highest ground-ball rate among the relevant population — roughly 3 standard deviations better than the mean. That’s one clue as to Webb’s probable ground-balling skills at the minor-league level. If he was the best in the majors, then it stands to follow that he was probably pretty decent as a young pitcher in the minors, as well. While no ground-ball data exists from the minor leagues from 2003 or before, it does exist (care of Stat Corner) for 2007 and later. And here we find a second clue as to Webb’s possible ground-ball tendencies as a minor leaguer — for, as he attempted a return to the majors in 2011 with the Texas Rangers, Webb recorded 12.0 innings with that club’s Double-A affiliate, the Frisco RoughRiders. This, of course, was not the strongest version of Brandon Webb. Indeed, it was a broken version of Brandon Webb capable, as it turns out, of throwing only 12.0 innings. Still, he resembled that healthy version of Webb enough to induce ground balls at a more frequent rate than almost everyone else in the Texas League. Below are Webb’s numbers from that small sample compared to those other pitchers in the Texas League in 2011 who (a) worked primarily as starters and also (b) faced 100 or more batters over the course of the season. # Name Team BF GB% zGB% 1 Joe Gardner Drillers 151 69.2% 2.96 2 Kevin Thomas Cardinals 336 62.1% 2.12 3 Brandon Webb RoughRiders 62 59.2% 1.77 4 Jeremy Jeffress Naturals 129 57.0% 1.51 5 Jarred Cosart Hooks 157 57.0% 1.51 The exact rates oughtn’t be the focus here: the minor-league play-by-play data presents challenges to precision so far as that’s concerned. Relative to other pitchers in the league, however, one finds that disabled Brandon Webb — separated by more than two seasons from the best version of himself — still recorded a ground-ball rate nearly two standard deviations better than league average. That’s the worst-case scenario for a Brandon Webb comparable, in other words. That mostly established, it’s possible to produce some basic guidelines for identifying those minor leaguers who most thoroughly resemble the Brandon Webb of 2001 and -02. For the purposes of this study, then, I searched for pitchers who: Faced 100-plus batters in High-A or above in 2014 and recorded more than half of their appearances in a starting capacity; and Recorded a ground-ball rate two-plus standard deviations better than league average (using StatCorner’s data); and Recorded strikeout and walk rates no worse than one standard deviation below average; and When starting, would be unlikely — based off of extant scouting reports — to produce an average fastball velocity above major-league (currently 91.4 mph); and Have never appeared among Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list. Applying those five criteria to every pitcher in the eight minor leagues at High-A or above, one finds the 13 pitchers (or 12, because of Scott Copeland’s two appearances) below. Players are sorted by zGB% — i.e. ground-ball rate expressed as standard deviations from the relevant leauge’s average for starting pitchers. Age denotes age as of June 30, 2014. Org denotes the organization to which the relevant player belonged at the end of the 2014 season. FB? represents the best guess as to average fastball velocity based on available reports. # Name T Age Tm Lev Lg IP K% BB% GB% zK% zBB% zGB% FB? 1 T.J. McFarland L 25 BAL AAA IL 24.0 23.8% 7.6% 73.3% 1.36 0.19 3.76 88-91 2 Charlie Leesman L 27 CHA* AAA IL 68.0 22.4% 10.8% 68.6% 1.02 -0.96 3.16 86-91 3 Kendall Graveman R 23 TOR* AAA IL 38.1 15.2% 3.4% 64.8% -0.69 1.67 2.67 90-92 4 Scott Copeland R 26 TOR AAA IL 25.0 15.8% 6.9% 64.5% -0.53 0.43 2.64 90-93* 5 Dylan Floro R 23 TBA AA SL 178.2 15.0% 3.2% 61.6% -0.50 1.77 2.49 88-92 6 Mark Blackmar R 22 BAL* A+ Car 130.1 15.9% 6.1% 64.7% -0.54 0.51 2.49 87-90 7 Tony Bucciferro R 24 CHA A+ Car 129.1 17.4% 3.0% 64.0% -0.23 1.45 2.39 88-91 8 Jesse Hahn R 24 SDN* AA TL 42.1 22.1% 8.7% 59.2% 0.57 -0.23 2.32 90-92 9 Matthew Bowman R 23 NYN AA EL 98.1 22.1% 6.5% 62.2% 0.97 0.40 2.32 90-93 10 Scott Copeland R 26 TOR AA EL 139.2 14.8% 8.0% 61.4% -0.68 -0.15 2.21 90-93* 11 Tyler Danish R 19 CHA A+ Car 91.2 20.6% 6.1% 61.6% 0.44 0.52 2.08 88-92 12 Kyle Westwood R 24 HOU A+ Cal 132.0 15.9% 4.7% 58.5% -0.65 1.10 2.04 ???* 13 Dallas Beeler R 25 CHN AAA PCL 124.1 16.6% 6.4% 58.1% -0.42 0.62 2.02 89-91 There are a number of caveats to make regarding this list. The most urgent among them are as follows: While he’s already recorded more than 130 innings as a major leaguer, left-hander T.J. McFarland has only made two starts at that same level — this, despite having made 112 of 122 (92%) appearances in the minor leagues as a starter. The following players (each marked by an asterisk in the Org column) no longer player for the organization listed: Mark Blackmar (traded to Chicago White Sox), Kendall Graveman (traded to Oakland), Jesse Hahn (also traded to Oakland), and Charlie Leesman (released). Besides McFarland, four other pitchers have made appearances in the majors: Dallas Beeler, Graveman, Hahn, and Leesman. Hahn was the most successful of the group in 2014, producing strikeout and walk rates of 22.9% and 10.5%, respectively, plus a 50.3% ground-ball rate in 73.1 innings (12/14 G/GS). Relative to major-league starters who threw at least 10 innings, Hahn’s ground-ball rate was (only) 0.8 standard deviations better than the mean. So, not really along the same lines as Webb, even if his (i.e. Hahn’s) minor-league numbers were similarly impressive. There’s a case to be made that Tyler Danish doesn’t belong among the pitchers listed here, on account of he was selected in the second round — that is, among that group of players from whom more is expected than in the eighth round (where Webb was selected) — of the 2013 draft. Also, he earned a promotion to High-A as just a 19-year-old. There’s no precise velocity readings available for Scott Copeland. Jay Blue of Blue Jays from Away does mention Copeland sitting in the “low-90s,” however. With regard to Kyle Westwood, meanwhile, one report, courtesy Anton Joe of Astros Daily from August of 2013, cites Westwood’s fastball as sitting in the 88-92 mph range. A more recent reports, however — this from Ron Cervenka of Think Blue LA — quotes right-hander Lindsey Caughel saying that Westwood’s fastball “hits 97.” The latter velocity, while intriguing, would eliminate Westwood from consideration here; however, given that Westwood was entirely omitted from Kiley McDaniel’s report on the Astros farm, it’s also probably fair to say that he’s also not the hottest of commodities right now. Among those pitchers with zero major-league experience, probably Mets right-hander Matthew Bowman’s profile most favorably compares to the 2001-02 era Brandon Webb. A 13th-round selection out of Princeton in 2012, Bowman recorded strikeout and walk rates in 2014 that were both better than the Eastern League average for starters. Moreover, his ground-ball rates have frequently hovered around 60% throughout his minor-league career.