Why 2011 Shouldn't Drop Matt Lollis' Stock

Entering the 2011 season, few Padres prospects were generating more buzz than righthander Matt Lollis, who was coming off an excellent age-19 season split between the Northwest and Midwest leagues. Baseball America ranked him as San Diego’s #5 prospect, behind Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, Simon Castro, and Reymond Fuentes. On the other hand, I had him as the Padres’ #2 prospect and #44 overall, behind only Jaff Decker (#30) in the system.

A year later, San Diego is right in the discussion for the deepest system in baseball, and I think one could make a reasoned argument that they boast the most impressive collection of talent. Lollis thus appears to be a forgotten man; John Sickels listed him outside of the Padres’ top 27 prospects, and he fell well out of Baseball America’s top 10 despite the four players ahead of him prior to the season all taking significant steps backward in 2011.

Lollis also slipped some on my rankings, dropping 30 spots on my top 100 to #74 and falling to sixth on the Padres, behind Robbie Erlin, Joe Wieland, Rymer Liriano, Jonathan Galvez, and Keyvius Sampson. San Diego has done a ton of wheeling and dealing of late, acquiring guys like Erlin and Wieland, and certainly Liriano and Sampson broke out in 2011, so it makes sense that they passed Lollis. But, of course, the question becomes: Why did I drop Lollis so little compared to others?

Lollis was the third-youngest pitcher to throw 100 or more innings in High-A this year, as he was 20 for the entire regular season. Just holding his own at the level would be enough to make him a pretty solid prospect, especially when you consider his stuff. With a huge build, low-to-mid-90’s heat, and a very solid curveball, it looks like Lollis’ downside is something like Jeff Niemann‘s career, barring injury or complete stagnation/regression. We’re not talking about a pure finesse pitcher here; that’s for sure.

Now, one thing that immediately jumps to mind as to why Lollis’ stock dropped is his ERA. Check out his ERAs by level:

2010 (Short-season): 2.86
2010 (Low-A): 1.66
2011 (High-A): 5.35

That looks like he hit a wall. With so much else to focus on in the San Diego system, it’s easy to forget about a guy posting an ERA above 5 in A-ball, so Lollis became something of an afterthought. But consider his FIPs by level:

2010 (Short-season): 2.59
2010 (Low-A): 3.09
2011 (High-A): 4.05

A downward trend, to be sure, but this does two things: 1) It gets rid of the unrealistic expectations created by a 1.66 ERA, and 2) It makes 2011 look like much less of a disaster. In fact, he has an upward trend in strikeout rate:

2010 (Short-season): 18.5%
2010 (Low-A): 20.7%
2011 (High-A): 21.3%

So what made his 2011 so much worse than 2010? A few things.

2010 (Low-A): 6.0% BB
2011 (High-A): 8.4%

2010 (Low-A): 0.50 HR/9
2011 (High-A): 0.91

2010 (Low-A): 86.5% strand rate
2011 (High-A): 60.7%

2010 (Low-A): .286 BABIP
2011 (High-A): .350

The first two numbers explain why Lollis’ FIP jumped a run, and the last two explain why his ERAs were so far apart. Obviously, as a sabermetrics guy, I see no reason to believe that Lollis is going to have such bad luck in stranding runners or preventing hits on balls in play going forward, just like I wouldn’t have said he was going to sustain the good luck in those areas that he had in 2010.

There’s also, of course, the rather important factor of the league he played in. The California League is the most hitter-friendly league in the game, inflating both home run production and batting average on balls in play. Here’s a look at the comparison of CAL stats compared to High-A as a whole (comprised of the CAL and two fairly pitcher-friendly leagues):

CAL: 0.95 HR/9
High-A: 0.76

CAL: 10.8% HR/OFB
High-A: 8.85%

High-A: .315

So, as it turns out, Lollis’ 0.91 HR/9 and 10.6% HR/OFB, while they appear well worse than average for a High-A pitcher, were actually better than average given the league he played in. CAL homer rates are 25% higher than in High-A as a whole, so in an “average” High-A environment, Lollis would’ve allowed nine or ten home runs rather than twelve. That’s significant, because it lops another 0.26 or so off of his FIP, which would put him around 3.80 in that category for 2011–hardly a disaster. In addition, his .350 BABIP looks less crazy when you consider that the CAL as a whole had a mark under 20 points away from that. Certainly, his numbers still are not quite on par with his earlier efforts, and that explains why he dropped 30 spots on my top 100 prospects from 2010 to 2011. But he’s still an excellent prospect.

When you consider that Lollis deserved an upper-3’s ERA in High-A despite being one of the youngest starting pitchers at the level, he looks far more impressive than his actual ERA shows. Certainly, statistics aren’t the only thing of importance for a prospect, especially one this far from the big leagues, but it’s not like Lollis’ stuff is questioned very much, either. If you’re not paying attention, he might sneak up on you in 2012.

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Tags: Lake Elsinore Storm Matt Lollis San Diego Padres

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