Manny Banuelos (Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE)

Martin Perez, Manny Banuelos, and the ARL Dilemma

Yesterday, I looked at Reds outfield prospect Yorman Rodriguez through the lens of examining comparables for his age, level, and overall performance. Today, I’m going to do a similar thing with Triple-A pitchers Martin Perez of the Rangers and Manny Banuelos of the Yankees.

Perez reached Double-A back in 2009 at the tender age of 18, but he struggled to make progress there and didn’t get a shot in Triple-A until he had 44 Double-A starts under his belt. Even then, he ended up with a 4.74 ERA and 3.9 BB/9 in his Double-A time. In a late-season look in Triple-A, he made ten starts and got lit up, allowing 72 hits in 49 innings, struggling to a 6.37 ERA. Part of that is due to a .385 BABIP and the PCL’s tough environment, but Perez’s strikeout rate was just 15.6%, so he certainly wasn’t dominating.

Banuelos also hit a wall when he made it to the upper minors, which in his case was late 2010, a year later than Perez. His ERA didn’t take as much of a hit, but his walk rates in Double-A and Triple-A have been between 4.7 and 5.0 BB/9, around double his numbers from the lower minors. Banuelos, like Perez, made it to Triple-A in the second half of 2011 and wasn’t particularly good, with a 31/19 K/BB and 4.19 ERA in 34 1/3 innings. The two had almost identical FIPs (3.90 for Banuelos, 3.98 for Perez) in Triple-A.

The question at hand is, of course, where do they go from here? Both Perez and Banuelos have moved quickly, they’re well ahead of the age curve, and they have enough good scouting attributes to consistently rank in the top 50 prospects on most lists, including my own (Perez 25th, Banuelos 26th, for what it’s worth). However, each has run into significant roadblocks in the upper minors, as Perez has been very hittable and Banuelos has walked far too many. So, how much does the age/level factor wipe away these concerns?

As with the Rodriguez piece yesterday, what I did was look over the 1990-present era and examine all 20-year-old Triple-A starting pitchers (excluding players who made merely spot starts). The list:

Wilson Alvarez, 1990
Steve Avery, 1990
Roger Salkeld, 1991
Pat Mahomes, 1991
Jeff Juden, 1991
Johnny Guzman, 1991
Pedro Martinez, 1992
Kurt Miller, 1993
Ismael Valdez, 1994
Rick Gorecki, 1994
Jeff Suppan, 1995
Jose Pett, 1996
Kerry Wood, 1997
Dennys Reyes, 1997
Roy Halladay, 1997
Gil Meche, 1999
Ruben Quevedo, 1999
Matt Riley, 2000
Bud Smith, 2000
Chris George, 2000
Ryan Anderson, 2000
Jon Garland, 2000
Carlos Zambrano, 2001
Nick Neugebauer, 2001
Jerome Williams, 2002
Oscar Villarreal, 2002
Jacobo Sequea, 2002
Edgar Gonzalez, 2003
Edwin Jackson, 2004
Zack Greinke, 2004
Matt Cain, 2005
Yusmeiro Petit, 2005
Joel Zumaya, 2005
Will Smith, 2010
Madison Bumgarner, 2010
Jordan Lyles, 2011
Jacob Turner, 2011
Julio Teheran, 2011
Martin Perez, 2011
Manny Banuelos, 2011

A truly eclectic list. Some of the most dominant pitchers of recent times are on here (Halladay, Martinez, Wood, Greinke) as well as some very solid pitchers (Cain, Zambrano, Garland, Jackson, Meche, Bumgarner, etc.), some relief converts (Zumaya, Reyes), some busts (Anderson, Pett, Neugebauer, Bud Smith, Riley, etc.) and some guys who never really were great prospects in the first place (Will Smith, Sequea, Guzman).

It is a more informative group than the one I compared Rodriguez to, because being in Triple-A at 20 says some implicit things about a player’s developmental path that being in Low-A at 18 doesn’t; furthermore, these players are obviously closer to the majors, so it is thus easier to intuitively translate their statistics to the MLB level. However, this still isn’t a particularly helpful group—saying “He could be anything from Pedro Martinez to Jacobo Sequea” is probably less specific than whatever preconceived notions we started out with.

Part of that is the fact that we’re looking at 38 players here, so they’re bound to cover a very large range of outcomes just because that’s the way statistical distributions of a sample work. But let’s narrow the focus a bit. Here’s a grouping of the 40 players into three groups—those who had K/BB ratios above 2.4 in their age-20 Triple-A stint, those whose K/BB ratio was between 1.6 and 2.4, and those who had K/BB ratios were under 1.6. Those might sound like weird cutoffs, but what they do is basically split the group into thirds.

Above 2.4

Jacob Turner, 2011, 6.67 (just 17 1/3 innings)
Zack Greinke, 2004, 3.83
Jeff Suppan, 1995, 3.56
Steve Avery, 1990, 3.29
Ismael Valdez, 1994, 3.00
Nick Neugebauer, 2001, 2.89
Ruben Quevedo, 1999, 2.88
Madison Bumgarner, 2010, 2.68
Ryan Anderson, 2000, 2.65
Jerome Williams, 2002, 2.60
Julio Teheran, 2011, 2.54
Jordan Lyles, 2011, 2.47
Edgar Gonzalez, 2003, 2.46
Matt Cain, 2005, 2.41

1.6 to 2.4

Joel Zumaya, 2005, 2.33
Yusmeiro Petit, 2005, 2.33
Carlos Zambrano, 2001, 2.28
Bud Smith, 2000, 2.27
Pedro Martinez, 1992, 2.18
Jeff Juden, 1991, 2.04
Will Smith, 2010, 2.00
Matt Riley, 2000, 2.00 (only seven innings)
Jon Garland, 2000, 1.97
Gil Meche, 1999, 1.85
Martin Perez, 2011, 1.85
Oscar Villarreal, 2002, 1.82
Manny Banuelos, 2011, 1.63
Roger Salkeld, 1991, 1.62

Below 1.6

Kerry Wood, 1997, 1.54
Jacobo Sequea, 2002, 1.45
Dennys Reyes, 1997, 1.36
Chris George, 2000, 1.35
Edwin Jackson, 2004, 1.27
Rick Gorecki, 1994, 1.22
Roy Halladay, 1997, 1.21
Jose Pett, 1996, 1.19
Pat Mahomes, 1991, 1.14
Johnny Guzman, 1991, 0.78
Wilson Alvarez, 1990, 0.69
Kurt Miller, 1993, 0.56

I’ll break down the trends by group.

The top tier had six unquestioned successes (Greinke, Suppan, Avery, Valdez, Bumgarner, and Cain). Of the remaining eight players, three (Turner, Teheran, and Lyles) had their seasons in 2011, and it’s thus too early to render judgment on them. That leaves five “busts”:  Neugebauer, Quevedo, Anderson, Williams, and Gonzalez. Neugebauer and Anderson were basically undone by injuries, so nobody could have predicted their demise. Quevedo and Gonzalez were never really considered great prospects—Quevedo had prohibitive homer rates (2.2 HR/9 in the season in question), while Gonzalez was just a strike-thrower with little strikeout ability (4.8 K/9 in the season in question). Clearly, they were two examples where the K/BB didn’t tell the whole story, and given this extra information, their MLB struggles should not be surprising.

That basically just leaves Jerome Williams, who had an unlikely renaissance in 2011 with the Angels, as the one player whose outcome was really surprising. A three-time top 50 prospect according to Baseball America, he basically didn’t improve from age 20 to age 30, with the only notable change being a loss of velocity (that suddenly and dramatically vanished in 2011, as Williams threw the hardest of his career).

The lesson here: If you put up a K/BB over 2.4 at age 20 in Triple-A, none of your peripherals look terrible, and you stay healthy, you’ll probably evolve into at least a Suppan/Valdez type pitcher.

By contrast, over half of the bottom tier (Sequea, George, Gorecki, Pett, Mahomes, Guzman, Miller) busted, and most of the failure could be attributed to performance rather than injury. Reyes has pitched in 673 big league games, but it took him nearly a decade and a conversion to short relief for him to get his ERA under 5.00 with any consistency. Jackson also had an atypical career path, seemingly regressing until he hit his mid-20s and then finally living up to his potential. Wood’s K/BB ratio wasn’t good, but it doesn’t tell the whole story—his K/9 was 12.5 and his BB/9 was 8.1. His high-walk, high-strikeout years as a starter thus come as no surprise.

That leaves two confusing cases—Halladay and Alvarez. Halladay evolved into a master of command, but he looked far from that form at 20, and he infamously went on to allow 80 earned runs in 67 2/3 innings—a 10.64 ERA—in the big leagues as late as age 23. Suddenly, then, at 24, he turned into the starter-kit version of the dominant ace we know him as today.

Alvarez was horrendous, as his 0.69 K/BB indicates, but he would get things together enough to win over 100 major league games. His command problems did foreshadow him walking 90 batters or more four times. He managed to outpitch his FIP and xFIP by nearly half a run of ERA over his career, which made him more of a solid back-of-the-rotation starter than a generic one.

So, assuming K/BB ratio is an accurate reflection of a player’s ability and that there aren’t any unforeseen injuries, players with K/BBs above 2.4 in Triple-A at 20 will likely succeed, and those with sub-1.6 K/BBs will likely struggle, especially in the early portion of their careers—of the inferior group, only Wood did much of anything notable before age 24.

Of course, the players that inspired this article—Martin Perez and Manny Banuelos—sit in the middle tier, which is part of the reason that it’s so difficult to discern their potential. Excellence at a young age in the highest level of the minors portends MLB success, and struggles, even at that age, are a bad omen—but what does holding one’s own translate to?

It probably comes as no surprise that the middle group had a wide range of outcomes. Pedro Martinez became the most dominant pitcher in baseball, Carlos Zambrano had several excellent years, and Jon Garland has been a dependable starter for over a decade. Meche had an up-and-down career with a lot of injuries, but he turned out reasonably well.

Zumaya’s power arm led the Tigers to move him to relief, where he was solid (and still is) but riddled with injuries. Petit is just another Quevedo, as a big-bodied deceptive soft-tosser whose extreme flyball tendencies killed his career. Bud Smith was an injury bust, and Will Smith, being just 22 now, hasn’t definitively proven his worth one way or the other. Salkeld, Riley, Juden, and Villarreal all busted, although injuries can be partly blamed for Riley and Villarreal’s attrition.

So, overall, this middle group looks closer to 50-50, which is, I suppose, rather fitting.

Given all the comparables outlined here, my best guess on Perez and Banuelos, provided they stay healthy, is that they’ll take several years to adjust, much like Meche, Jackson, and Halladay. None of the pitchers with K/BBs under 2.00 succeeded right off the bat, save for Wood, who had a ridiculous strikeout rate, and Villarreal, who moved to relief.

Given that Banuelos is in the pressure cooker of the Yankees, and Perez is in a pitching-stacked, competing-now organization in Texas, I would look for both to struggle in their initial exposure and eventually end up as change-of-scenery guys like Jackson. Given that they’ve held their own to this point and they boast impressive arsenals, they could well turn a corner in their mid-20s and (reasonably) fulfill expectations. As rare as it is to be even decent in Triple-A at such a young age, they are far from sure bets, as players like Salkeld, Juden, George, and Gonzalez indicate, not to mention the injury busts like Anderson or Bud Smith—still, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic for the (very) long term.

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Tags: Manny Banuelos Martin Perez New York Yankees Round Rock Express Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees Texas Rangers

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