In a South Atlantic League environment where upside and velocity are rampant in starting pitchers, the pitchers who don’t fit that profile stand out. Mets farmhand Taylor Whitenton, though, stood out in a positive way and is recognized as the number two starter on our S2S South Atlantic League All-Star team.
Name: Taylor Whitenton
Age: Turns 24 on February 20th
2011 Team: Savannah Sand Gnats (NYM)
Basic Pitching Stats: 5-5 record, 2.49 ERA, 119 strikeouts (9.6 K/9), 48 walks (3.9 BB/9), 6 home runs allowed (0.5 HR/9), 1 save, and 4 games finished in 22 starts (1 complete game), 4 relief appearances, and 112 IP
Whitenton was originally selected in the 40th round of the 2007 draft by the Atlanta Braves coming out of Heritage High School in Georgia, but after two underwhelming years at Darton Community College in Albany, Georgia, he was selected just one round sooner in the 2009 draft, in the 39th round by the New York Mets. He took a long time debating whether to sign or transfer to a bigger-time college baseball program, limiting him to just 4 relief appearances at Rookie ball before the 2009 season ended, and then he pitched to a 4.57 ERA and 3.88 FIP in 2010 at Low-A Savannah before being reassigned to Savannah for 2011. Little was expected of Whitenton to begin with, and after his struggles at Low-A the previous season, next to nothing was expected from Whitenton for Savannah in 2012.
The big breakthrough for Whitenton in 2011 was his walk rate: he cut his BB/9 to a horrendous 5.6 mark in 2010 to 3.9 in 2011. He was able to do that while keeping his homer rate at 0.5 per 9 innings and upping his strikeout rate slightly, from 9.4 per 9 to 9.6. Between all that, he was able to post a 3.19 FIP, 4th-best in the Sally League, and according to Minor League Central, a 3.45 SIERA, which ranked 7th. But delving a little bit deeper into the batted ball and pitch data that MLC provides tells us some interesting things.
Whitenton’s walk rate was 3.9 per 9 innings, relatively far above the 3.3 league mark. Interestingly though, he actually threw pitches within the zone at a rate solidly better than the league average, 71.4% of his pitches compared to the 68.7% league average. Among Sally League pitchers who threw a minimum of 100 innings, Whitenton ranked 18th in zone percentage but just 32nd in walk rate. What could that mean? That has a lot to do with the underlying factors relating the Whitenton’s strikeout rate. Considering his 9.6 K/9 was well above the 7.8 league mark, it makes a lot of sense that hitters made contact on just 48.7% of their swings against Whitenton compared to the 59.2% league average. On pitches Whitenton threw within the zone, hitters made contact just 47.6% of the time compared to the 58.3% league average. But on pitches out of the zone, they actually made contact at an average rate, 66.7% of their swings, a tick above the 66.4% average. In addition, hitters swung at just 15.4% of pitches that Whitenton threw outside the strike zone, significantly below the 24.6% Sally League average. All those numbers tell us that while hitters had difficulty making contact with Whitenton’s pitches, they really weren’t fooled by them and didn’t swing at them very often when they weren’t strikes. There’s a reason we consider walk rate a much more important statistic than zone percentage: limiting walks has a lot to do with forcing hitters to expand their strike zones and getting themselves out. Whitenton could not accomplish that.
And when hitters did put the ball into play against Whitenton, they didn’t have success, but in all probability they should have. The league allowed a 16.4% line drive rate among batted balls, a 42.6% groundball rate, a 29.2% outfield flyball rate, and a 7.2% pop-up rate. Whitenton’s batted ball ratios were a lot worse. He did limit line drives to 15.7% of the batted balls he allowed, but he posted just a 36.6% groundball rate and a 30.3% outfield flyball rate. He did post a 12.5% pop-up rate, but more advanced hitters would have turned those pop-ups into outfield flyballs and burned Whitenton with them. Whitenton allowed just a .095 ISO on the season, third among Sally League pitchers minimum 100 IP, but that was by virtue of luck alone. Just 6.9% of the outfield flyballs that Whitenton allowed went for home runs, not a small margin below the league average of 9.1% considering how many flyballs he allowed. Whitenton’s xFIP on the season was actually 3.92. Often xFIP mirrors SIERA, but not this time. There’s no way to deny that Whitenton was lucky in 2011.
It was a good step forward for Whitenton that he improved his walk rate while keeping his strikeout way where it was, but he was lucky to put up the SAL All-Star season that he did.
Following the Sally League season, the Mets sent Whitenton to the Arizona Fall League, and there his luck returned actually went in the opposite direction as he went 1-2 with a 4.76 ERA but a 3.02 FIP in 10 relief appearances spanning 17 IP. That’s a very small sample size, but that is enough for us to get some solid Pitch F/X data on Whitenton, especially since he pitched for the Peoria Javelinas, who play in one of the two AFL ballparks that run the Pitch F/X algorithm. That data, which I got from Brooks Baseball, will help us gain further insight on Whitenton’s pitches.
(If you’ve never seen a graph like this before, please see here for a simple explanation while for more information on the topic of Pitch F/X along with an explanation of the graph, I recommending clicking here.)
There’s a reason Whitenton was able to force so few groundballs: he threw his fastball with little to no sink two-thirds of the time. Whitenton’s fastball forced swings and misses with its nice horizontal movement, but when hitters did make contact, they were able to elevate the ball because the pitch dropped basically purely due to gravity. The data from Brooks tells us that the pitch yielded just better than a 1 to 4 groundball to flyball ratio, counting line drives and pop-ups as flyballs, and that’s execrable at best. His other pitches did feature some sink. When Whitenton mixed in his changeup a little more than once every ten pitches, he was able to post a 3 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio, but that was more because he used his fastball so heavily rather than because of the changeup’s own merits. His changeup was a solid pitch, but it had just a 6 MPH difference with his fastball and almost functioned more as a sinker than a changeup. It did look similar out of the hand of Whitenton, but the difference in movement wasn’t enough to fool hitters to swing and miss. The changeup actually had a lower swing and miss rate than his fastball, 5.3% of the times it was thrown compared to 7.4% for his fastball.
Whitenton’s money pitch was the red line, the pitch that Pitch F/X identified as a slider but looks a lot more like a 12-to-6 or slight 11-to-5 curveball. Whitenton’s breaking pitch generated a nice 11.8% swing and miss rate. But again, that was only because he used his fastball so incredibly often. For a pitch with less than an inch of horizontal movement, Whitenton’s curveball didn’t have very much vertical movement. It was significantly more than any of his other pitches, but especially in this day of advanced scouting reports, the sharp movement in just one direction didn’t make the pitch very dynamic. Even though it forced quite a few swings and misses, hitters hit more flyballs against it than they did groundballs. In addition, Whitenton had trouble locating it.
The final pitch in Whitenton’s arsenal is his cutter, which pretty much was the antithesis of his fastball, featuring little horizontal movement but much better sinking action. Among the 6 times Whitenton threw it during his time in the AFL, just 3 times was it a strike. It was something completely different compared to Whitenton’s fastball and changeup and it had a nice speed differential with his fastball, but it looked different coming out of its hand, limiting its effectiveness. Compounding the pitch’s problems is its almost complete lack of horizontal movement, little velocity, and even though it had some nice sink, it wasn’t late-breaking, sharp sink that would have negated other factors and made it more dynamic. Whitenton’s cutter does force hitters to have another thing in the back of their minds, always a good thing, but it isn’t the kind of pitch he’ll be able to rely on.
A big problem with the data that we see here was that Whitenton was working out of the bullpen in the AFL. That means that his fastball is more in the high-80′s to 90-91 MPH as a starter rather than the near 93 MPH mark that he put up in the AFL. If Whitenton is going to be a successful pitcher at higher levels, he’s going to need to get more sink on his fastball because it doesn’t have the velocity to consistently force weak contact as he moves up levels. That lack of velocity could relegate Whitenton to the bullpen sooner rather than later, and once he’s there he’s still going to have to get the most out of his secondary pitches because his fastball isn’t good enough at this point for him to throw it two-thirds of the time.
Taylor Whitenton definitely showed improvement in 2011, but he’s going to need to take several more steps forward to make it to the big leagues in any capacity.
It’s very strange to see a pitcher in Whitenton who uses a fastball-curveball combination rather than sinker slider despite the fact that his fastball doesn’t have sink or elite velocity and while his curveball is a solid pitch, it’s nowhere near plus. Whitenton needs to make an adjustment to more of a sinker-slider kind of pitcher because his current arsenal isn’t good enough for him to succeed anywhere above Low-A. It’s a good sign for Whitenton that his control problems are mostly dealt with, but he has enough negative qualities in his arsenal that average control won’t negate the fact that his stuff simply isn’t up to par right now. Whitenton will take on High-A in 2012, but without a major adjustment, the results could be disastrous.
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