Six Minor League Relievers Join “Century Club”

Lisalverto Bonilla

Lisalverto Bonilla (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

As the Rangers tended to Rule 5 housekeeping on Wednesday, they added Double-A righthanded reliever Lisalverto Bonilla to the 40-man roster, making him ineligible for selection in the draft. The Braves carried out a similar maneuver a few weeks earlier, adding Triple-A lefthanded reliever Ryan Buchter to their 40-man roster, in that case to prevent him from qualifying for minor league free agency.

Neither roster addition generated much in the way of headlines, yet both Bonilla and Buchter belonged to an exclusive group of pitchers that, perhaps, warrant more of our attention. They and four other minor leaguers struck out 100 batters while working in relief in 2013.

Two other members of the “Century Club” notched 106 strikeouts to tie for top honors among minor league relievers—Padres Double-A righthander Leonel Campos and Diamondbacks high Class A righty Seth Simmons.

Mets Triple-A lefthander Jack Leathersich struck out 102 opponents this season, which follows on the heels of his 113-strikeout campaign in 2012. He joins a pair of recent two-timers in the Century Club: lefty Tim Collins, who fanned 116 and 108 in 2009-10 while pitching for the Blue Jays, Braves and Royals organizations; and righty Anthony Slama, who struck out 110 and 112 in 2008-09 in the Twins system.

The final member of this year’s Century Club is Pirates fourth-year righthander Ryan Hafner, who dominated at low Class A in 2013 while improving his performance dramatically with a full-time shift to the bullpen.

This raises the obvious questions. How rare is it for a minor league reliever to strike out 100 batters? And what might it mean for his future potential? We’ll examine the six 100-strikeout relievers in greater detail, but first a few factoids.

• Nearly 43 percent of the 396 pitchers who qualified for the minor league ERA title in 2013—minimum 112 innings—failed to strike out 100 batters.

• By an unofficial BA head count, 45 relief seasons from 2005 to 2013 featured at least 100 strikeouts.

• The honor roll for 100-strikeout minor league relievers includes many tenured big league closers, including Craig Kimbrel (139 career saves), Addison Reed (69), Sergio Romo (55), Jason Motte (54), Santiago Casilla (39) and David Robertson (eight). Casilla reached 100 whiffs twice, in both 2004 and ’05, and here’s the entire honor roll in chart form.

 

BIG LEAGUE CLOSERS WITH 100 STRIKEOUTS IN A MINOR LEAGUE SEASON
Closer Year Age Level(s) G IP SO H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
Kimbrel 2009 21 LoA, HiA, AA, AAA 49 60 103 4.5 0.3 6.8 15.4 2.29
Reed 2011 22 LoA, HiA, AA, AAA 43 78 111 4.9 0.3 1.6 12.8 7.93
Romo 2007 24 HiA 41 66 106 4.7 0.5 2.0 14.4 7.07
Motte 2008 26 AAA 63 67 110 8.6 0.8 3.5 14.8 4.23
Casilla 2005 24 AA, AAA 54 65 103 7.5 1.0 4.0 14.3 3.55
Robertson 2007 22 LoA, HiA, AA 44 84 113 4.8 0.0 3.4 12.1 3.53

 

• Other 100-strikeout minor league relievers currently reside on 40-man rosters (with 100-whiff seasons in parentheses), including Shawn Tolleson (2011), Donnie Joseph (2010), Brandon Gomes (2009), Michael Kohn (2009), Fernando Salas (2008), Jerry Blevins (2007) and Carlos Torres (2007).

• Some other 100-strikeout relievers, such as Cole Kimball (2010),  Robert Manuel (2008), Sammy Gervacio (2007), Jeff Stevens (2007) and Connor Robertson (2005), have logged big league time.

In other words, if you’re looking for a relief sleeper for your fantasy team, then at least consider giving members of the Century Club a closer look.

Key to the statistics below: Strikeout and walk rates scaled by batters faced. The final two categories are ball-in-play rates for batting average (BABIP) and extra-base hits on contact (XBHoC). Major league teams show a clear preference for relievers who miss bats and don’t allow extra-base hits. They’ve grown to accept those with elevated walk rates because poor control and below-average pitchability are common traits among relievers. That’s why they’re in the bullpen in the first place, after all.

Lisalverto Bonilla, rhp, Rangers

Age: 23. Ht: 6-0. Wt: 175.

Acquired: Traded by Phillies with RHP Josh Lindblom to Rangers for 1B Michael Young and cash, Dec. 8, 2012.

2013 Workload: 26 G (43 IP, incl. 2 GS) at Triple-A Round Rock and 21 G (30 IP) at Double-A Frisco.

Split TBF AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SO BB SO/BB BABIP XBHoC
vs Left 144 .248 .333 .438 .771 4 33% 8% 4.00 .371 18%
vs Right 179 .241 .326 .348 .674 4 32% 10% 3.22 .354 8%

 

Repertoire: Plus fastball in low 90s, up to about 96 mph from overhand delivery. Fringe slider in low 80s and reliable changeup as a chase pitch.

Outlook: Bonilla got hammered by Triple-A batters (7.95 ERA, .299 average, eight homers in 43 innings) but settled down after a late-June demotion to Double-A (0.30 ERA, .152 average, zero homers in 30 innings). His arm strength allowed him to miss bats in the high minors in 2013, but he’ll need better command and possibly more life on his fastball to reduce the frequency of hard contact and proneness to home runs, especially against lefthanders.

Ryan Buchter, lhp, Braves

Age: 27. Ht: 6-3. Wt: 215.

Acquired: Traded by Cubs to Braves for RHP Rodrigo Lopez, May 26, 2011.

2013 Workload: 51 G (62 IP) at Triple-A Gwinnett.

Split TBF AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SO BB SO/BB BABIP XBHoC
vs Left 114 .124 .286 .180 .465 1 42% 16% 2.67 .238 5%
vs Right  160 .200 .371 .344 .715 4 34% 19% 1.77 .318 13%

 

Repertoire: Plus fastball with tailing life in low 90s from three-quarters slot. Fringe, low-80s slider.

Outlook: Buchter struck out four out of every 10 Triple-A lefthanders in 2013, while limiting hard contact (.238 BABIP) and allowing just two extra-base hits. He’s a tough look for same-siders with his across-the-body motion, which helps his slider play up, but righties make more contact and more hard contact.

Leonel Campos, rhp, Padres

Age: 26. Ht: 6-3. Wt: 185.

Acquired: Signed as international free agent by Padres from Venezuela, Dec. 21, 2010.

2013 Workload: 28 G (36 IP) at low Class A Fort Wayne and 26 G (31 IP) at Double-A San Antonio.

Split TBF AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SO BB SO/BB BABIP XBHoC
vs Left 114 .185 .315 .272 .587 2 33% 16% 2.06 .278 7%
vs Right 158 .117 .234 .161 .395 0 44% 13% 3.45 .235 7%

 

Repertoire: Double-plus fastball in the mid-90s from high three-quarters slot, with a two-plane breaking ball in the low 80s.

Outlook: Campos signed late and missed all of 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, so ignore his age for a moment. He has big league closer stuff, and the Padres expect him to factor in their 2014 bullpen. Control is an issue, but he has a repeatable delivery, and he decimated righthanders in 2013 (.117 average, zero homers) while not allowing excessive power to lefties (.272 slugging). He’s a recommended speculative play in deep NL-only fantasy leagues because he could be in San Diego, if everything goes well, after a month or three at Triple-A El Paso.

Ryan Hafner, rhp, Pirates

Age: 22. Ht: 6-6. Wt: 205.

Acquired: Selected by Pirates from Lee’s Summit (Mo.) West High in 17th round of 2010 draft; signed Aug. 6, 2010.

2013 Workload: 40 G (87 IP, incl. 1 GS) at low Class A West Virginia.

Split TBF AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SO BB SO/BB BABIP XBHoC
vs Left 166 .285 .373 .368 .742 2 18% 12% 1.50 .345 6%
vs Right 213 .159 .275 .256 .530 4 34% 9% 3.60 .240 9%

 

Repertoire: Solid-average fastball in high 80s to low 90s from three-quarters slot. Tops out near 94 mph. Firm slider up to mid-80s and fringe changeup.

Outlook: A lean, 6-foot-6 righty with a loose arm action, Hafner got hit hard as a starter/reliever in 2012, going 0-11, 7.91 with twice as many walks (75) as strikeouts (36). A full-time conversion to relief in 2013 worked wonders, and he completely stifled righthanders at low Class A (he struck out one out of every three, .159 average). Stay tuned to see how he fares as he advances because the body and stuff make him an interesting follow.

Jack Leathersich, lhp, Mets

Age: 23. Ht: 5-11. Wt: 205.

Acquired: Selected by Mets from Massachusetts-Lowell in fifth round of 2011 draft; signed June 26, 2011.

2013 Workload: 24 G (29 IP) at Double-A Binghamton and 28 G (29 IP) at Triple-A Las Vegas.

Split TBF AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SO BB SO/BB BABIP XBHoC
vs Left 99 .329 .475 .408 .883 1 31% 19% 1.63 .533 9%
vs Right 173 .181 .308 .292 .600 2 41% 15% 2.84 .333 14%

 

Repertoire: Plus fastball up to 95 mph with arm-side life from three-quarters slot. Spins a mid-70s curveball that could be plus with further refinement. Worked as a starter in college, so he has a decent changeup.

Outlook: Leathersich faced 90 righthanded batters at Double-A this year and held them to a .107 average with no extra-base hits. Naturally, he got hit harder by them at Triple-A (.261/.386/.493), but his overall strikeout rate versus both sides gives him major league potential. Walks against lefties need to be reigned in, but Leathersich was victimized a bit by bad luck (.533 BABIP), seeing as he didn’t allow an elevated rate of extra-base hits (about one in 10 balls in play). Fewer walks could mean a set-up role in his future.

Seth Simmons, rhp, Diamondbacks

Age: 25. Ht: 5-9. Wt: 170.

Acquired: Selected by Diamondbacks from East Carolina in 40th round of 2011 draft; signed June 9, 2011.

2013 Workload: 55 G (74 IP) at high Class A Visalia.

Split TBF AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SO BB SO/BB BABIP XBHoC
vs Left 89 .203 .318 .324 .643 2 29% 12% 2.36 .277 10%
vs Right 207 .178 .257 .297 .555 6 39% 9% 4.44 .270 10%

 

Repertoire: Plus low-90s fastball up to 95 mph from three-quarters slot. Hard, low-80s curveball with solid-average potential.

Outlook: Getting out of the hitter-friendly California League ought to help Simmons in the power-allowed department (eight homers in 74 innings), but he’s already adept at missing bats and limiting line-drive contact. Before investing, wait to see how his stuff plays at higher levels, but be warned that one doesn’t find many 5-foot-9 righthanders in high-leverage relief roles in the big leagues. Jason Frasor is the patron saint for this family of pitcher, but the only other righty 5-foot-9 or shorter to make even 10 appearances in the big leagues in the past five seasons is the Mariners’ Danny Farquhar.