One Spectacularly Quiet Minor League Season

At what point can minor league numbers be discredited, at least to some degree?  Certainly, players that play in a notorious bandbox like the Stater Bros. Stadium, home to the High Desert Mavericks of the California League, will post better than expected numbers; as will players who generally play against younger competition.  But what about 35-year-old relief pitchers who’ve bounced around throughout the duration of their careers?  Undoubtedly, their minor league numbers should be looked upon with a grain of salt, right?  Well, yes, at least most of the time.  But then again veteran journeyman Scott Atchison is no ordinary 35-year-old either.

Atchison was originally drafted in the 36th round by the Seattle Mariners way back in 1994, but chose not to sign, opting, instead, to attend Texas Christian University.  Four years later Seattle came beckoning again only this time even later in the draft, the 49th round.  He made his professional debut the next season and posted solid, but unimpressive overall numbers, especially considering his polished collegiate background and the fact that he was playing against a level of competition that was almost two years younger, on average.  He did, though, show a knack for posting impeccable command; his strikeout-to-walk ratio was an impressive 85/25.

The following season, 2000, Seattle promoted him to high-A Lancaster, and Atchison, more or less, remained the same type of pitcher, an older-ish starter who held his own against far younger competition.  He did get a brief five-game stint with Triple-A, where his strikeout rate declined to 6.3 K/9 (it was just north of 7.0 K/9 in high-A).  Essentially, Scott Atchison was a non-descript, nothing-to-write-home-about minor league starting pitcher.

He began the 2005 season in Double-A, and with it marked a journey that witnessed the 25-year-old right-hander continue to post middling numbers as a starter, transition into a relief pitcher, get injured, get a couple cops of coffee with the big league club, sign with the Giants (where he pitched 30.2 major league innings), sign with the Boston Red Sox, who released him exactly two weeks later; spend two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers in the Japan Pacific League, and, finally, re-sign stateside with the Boston Red Sox, his current organization, in 2010.  It’s been quite the rollercoaster for Atchison, to say the least, and it all culminated with a spectacular breakout season in 2011, which eventually led to his promotion back to the big leagues.

Atchison, whose first appearance with the Red Sox this season was May 5, bounced between the big leagues – where he was worth 0.5 fWAR (wins above replacement as determined by fangraphs.com) in 30.1 innings – and Triple-A, where he absolutely dominated the competition.  In fact, Atchison’s season with Pawtucket was so absurdly good it’s amazing that he hasn’t drawn more attention, at least for the heartwarming comeback story.

In 61.1 innings with Pawtucket, he struck out 72, walked 9 and posted a solid FIP, 2.55. And he was, simply, flat out unhittable against right-handers – 39 K’s and two walks. How good were his overall numbers?  Well, according to fangraphs.com, his FIP was ninth best among pitchers with 40+ innings in the International League; his 1.32 BB/9 was eighth best, and his strikeout rate, 10.57 K/9, ranked thirteenth among the 173 total qualifying pitchers.  And his success, at least to a certain degree, continued at the big league level too.

Yes, his strikeout rate declined enormously at the major league level, but no other peripheral stats would suggest that the soon-to-be 36-year-old can’t replicate that modest success next season.  His .320 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was actually a bit high (the MLB average was .291), his LOB% hovered near the league average and his SIERA (Skill Independent ERA) was a solid 3.66.  If there’s any reason to believe his 2012 might show some type of decline it can be found in his zero homeruns allowed.  But even taking that into consideration, there’s no reason to believe that this journeyman can’t, at the bare minimum, become a serviceable middle relief pitcher for the Sox next season.

And, just think, it all began with one of the more spectacularly quiet minor league seasons this year.

Topics: AAA, Boston Red Sox, International League, Scott Atchison, Triple-A

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