Just-Promoted Wieland Paces 2011's Top Minor League Pitching Performers

My biggest strength as a prospect analyst is probably my ability to break down players’ statistics and what they mean. In that vein, I decided to look through the entire minor leagues and make an “All-Performance Team” of sorts, based purely on the statistical performance of players.

It’s a bit more than just a look at the top of leaderboards, however. I tried to account for things like park and league adjustment, so many of the California League’s top sluggers didn’t make the team despite posting better raw stats than many of the players that did. I also looked into the luck of players and corrected for that somewhat. In any case, there were definitely some great performers left off this “team,” but it’s hard to argue that any of the 25 aren’t having great years.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that this list is completely distanced from typical “prospect status” and it’s not meant to necessarily show the best, or even good, prospects. It’s just a look at who’s performing the best statistically.

With that said, let’s look the best minor league pitchers of 2011.

Starting Pitcher #1–Joe Wieland, Rangers

Wieland’s 2.10 ERA is good enough to get him plenty of notice, but it’s the ridiculous numbers under the “K” and “BB” columns that set him apart from every other minor league pitcher this season–96 and 4, in 85 2/3 innings. To throw that many strikes, and still get so many batters to swing and miss, is a remarkable feat. Wieland was deservedly promoted to Double-A today. The 21-year-old definitely is a bigtime prospect–he was in the back half of my Top 100 last year and will certainly move up into the Top 50 if he pitches well after his promotion. His numbers and stuff evoke Tampa Bay’s Jeremy Hellickson.

Starting Pitcher #2–Jake Odorizzi, Royals

I rather controversially ranked Odorizzi as the top Royals pitching prospect entering the year, and that ranking looks less atypical now that he’s struck out 93 batters in 66 1/3 innings. Like Wieland, he’s a 21-year-old in High-A (I should note that age relative to level did not factor into this list, nor did level itself), and while he has more walks than Wieland (20), he’s allowed just three homers all season. Odorizzi is certainly an instance where scouts and stats come together, as he’s sure to be ranked very highly after the season if all goes well the rest of the way.

Starting Pitcher #3–Brad Peacock, Nationals

It shows just how special Wieland’s K/BB ratio is that Peacock’s 114/18 ratio is still in the minors’ top ten for starting pitchers, but is barely a quarter of Wieland’s. The rare pitcher who’s increased his strikeout rate–and dramatically so–as he’s risen through the minors, Peacock’s 114 Ks in 87 Double-A innings should finally and emphatically shed the “performance prospect” label. The 23-year-old righthander has also allowed just four home runs and has a 2.28 ERA.

Starting Pitcher #4–Shelby Miller, Cardinals

Miller came into the season as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, and he’s certainly backed that up with a tour de force 2011 at age 20. Miller struck out 81 batters in 53 High-A innings, forcing his way to Double-A, where he’s got a 25/6 K/BB in 26 more frames. The power righthander looks like he’s on an express train to the majors, as his power arsenal just seems like too much for batters to handle.

Starting Pitcher #5–Tom Milone, Nationals

And you thought getting Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon in three consecutive drafts was the biggest thing the Nationals had going for them in the youth movement? OK, OK, it is…but they also have two of the top five minor league starting pitcher performers in Peacock and Milone, a crafty lefty in Triple-A. Milone is the only starting pitcher in the minors whose K/BB can come anywhere near Wieland’s, as he boasts an 89/5 mark in 81 2/3 innings. Since he doesn’t have plus stuff and is always in the strike zone, it’s a wonder that Milone gets many strikeouts, let alone over one per inning, in Triple-A. A similar approach has worked well in the big leagues for Dillon Gee of the Mets, so perhaps Milone can become a lefthanded version of Gee.

Swingman–Nestor Molina, Blue Jays

Molina’s started eleven times and relieved twice in High-A, and he’s got another great K/BB of 77/8. The 22-year-old’s success in the rotation comes as something of a surprise, as he hadn’t particularly distinguished himself in a relief role in previous years. He follows Joel Carreno as a fringy Blue Jays prospect who’s seemed to break out in Dunedin; Carreno’s carried his success to Double-A this year, so perhaps Molina can do that as well.

Middle Relief–Chris Manno, Nationals

Another Nationals player! Manno’s a 22-year-old in Low-A who makes it here as the second-best lefty reliever in the minors. He’s got a 51/13 K/BB in 33 innings, with just 17 hits, four earned runs, and no home runs allowed, good for a 1.09 ERA. He’s struck out 80 batters in 51 pro innings, so he seems on the fast track to becoming a solid lefty specialist.

Middle Relief–Danny Barnes, Blue Jays

Barnes is a 21-year-old righty out of Princeton with a 54/10 K/BB in 34 2/3 innings in Low-A. Like Manno, he’s a late-round pick from 2010 who’s done nothing but dominate in the pros. Sometimes pitchers like this are steals; other times they’re just taking advantage of inferior competition, and crash in the upper minors.

Middle Relief–Kevin Chapman, Royals

So, the Nationals, Royals, and Blue Jays take up seven of the nine pitchers thus far. Chapman posted 40 strikeouts in 22 1/3 High-A innings before being promoted to Double-A earlier this month. He’s continued to strike out over a batter per inning there. Chapman’s a good example of how luck factored in here–he posted a 4.84 ERA in that High-A stint, but since he allowed just one homer and seven walks, I wasn’t going to count that against him, not when he had a .451 BABIP. He and Tim Collins could ultimately be a devastating pair of lefties in the Royals bullpen.

Middle Relief–Shawn Tolleson, Dodgers

Not to be confused with Triple-A utilityman Steve Tolleson (who’s having a great year himself, by the way), Shawn Tolleson struck out 33 batters in 15 Low-A innings–yes, you read that right–before being promoted to the high-offense Cal League. He responded to that by striking out 17 in 9 2/3 frames and allowing just two hits, giving him a second promotion to Double-A, where he’s finally just struck out 12 batters in 13 1/3. For the year, that’s a 62/10 K/BB in 38 innings, with just 21 hits and three earned runs.

Setup–Heath Hembree, Giants

Like Tolleson, Hembree didn’t let the high-offense Cal League environment bother him–after all, the ball won’t fly anywhere if nobody hits it. He struck out 44 batters in 24 2/3 innings, allowing just two earned runs and one homer. That got him promoted to Double-A recently, and while he’s struggled a bit there with four walks in two innings, he’s still got a 47/16 K/BB in 26 2/3 and a 1.35 ERA for the season.

Closer–Brad Brach, Padres

It’s an all-NL West back of the bullpen with Tolleson, Hembree, and Brach. Brach doesn’t have overpowering stuff, and was thus thought to be the sort of pitcher who wouldn’t survive the jump to Double-A. The 25-year-old proved that wrong, however, by posting a 60/5 K/BB in 40 Double-A innings thus far. He’s been a bigtime stopper his whole career and should wind up as yet another unheralded Padres bullpen asset.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be posting the best hitters of 2011 in the next couple of days.

Tags: Brad Brach Brad Peacock Chris Manno Danny Barnes Heath Hembree Jake Odorizzi Joe Wieland Kevin Chapman Nestor Molina Shawn Tolleson Shelby Miller Tom Milone

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