The best control pitchers in baseball are not necessarily the most effective pitchers. Furthermore, issuing a walk typically is the least harmful outcome for a pitcher in the event he fails to retire the batter. That’s because walks, unlike hits, do not advance other baserunners, so the base on balls tends to yield fewer runs than other undesired pitching outcomes.
At the same time, most successful starting pitchers possess at least average control, as measured by walk rate, because an overall ability to throw strikes keeps the pitcher in advantage counts more frequently and, by extension, helps him even the count in the event he does fall behind early. So while good control may not be everything, it is an important ingredient.
For that reason, we like to see young starters improve their control as they progress through the season. In this piece, we'll take a look at nine such prospects who improved their walk rates from the first half to the second. For this exercise, the first half runs through June 23, the true midpoint of the season, and the second encompasses all games from June 24 to present. Several pitchers we highlighted last year have taken nice steps forward in 2015, including the Cardinals’ Alex Reyes, the Rays’ Nathan Karns, the Pirates’ Tyler Glasnow and the Blue Jays’ Aaron Sanchez.
Fielding-independent pitching (FIP) expresses strikeout rate, walk rate and home run rate on an ERA scale and indicates the quality of a pitcher's peripheral statistics, which in turn indicates where his ERA should settle.
1. Luke Weaver, rhp, Cardinals
The Cardinals’ first-round pick last year from Florida State, Weaver began the 2015 season in extended spring training before joining high Class A Palm Beach in mid-May. He hasn’t moved as quickly as recent St. Louis first-round college pitchers such as Michael Wacha or Marco Gonzales, but Weaver has sharpened his control in the second half of the Florida State League season, when he has walked just seven batters in 11 starts.
2. Braden Shipley, rhp, Diamondbacks
While Shipley, a first-round pick in 2013, didn’t pitch particularly effectively at Double-A Mobile in the first half, he has quietly righted the ship in the second to go 6-3, 2.10 in 12 appearances. Underpinning the turnaround is dramatically improved control that has Shipley back on track, with three major league-caliber pitches playing at peak quality.
3. Henry Owens, lhp, Red Sox
Owens seemed to find a handle on the strike zone in 2014, when he walked 3.3 batters per nine innings at two stops, but he backslid in the first half of 2015 at Triple-A Pawtucket. A second-half surge earned him a callup to Boston on Aug. 4, and he has turned in three good starts in four tries in the big leagues, holding onto his control gains thus far.
4. Blake Snell, lhp, Rays
What makes Snell’s control refinement notable is that he has thrown more strikes even as he faced more advanced batters on his trek from high Class A Charlotte (4.7 walks per nine innings) to Double-A Montgomery (3.8) to Triple-A Durham (2.1). His ability to miss bats makes him even more dangerous now that he’s working ahead in the count more frequently.
5. Jake Stinnett, rhp, Cubs
A college senior drafted last year out of Maryland, Stinnett had trouble finding the plate in the first half of 2015 as a 23-year-old at low Class A South Bend, but his heavy fastball, plus slider and now adequate control have produced a second-half turnaround in the Midwest League.
6. Chi Chi Gonzalez, rhp, Rangers
Incorporating a breaking ball into his repertoire helped Gonzalez, a first-round selection in 2013, reach the majors in late May, and he perfected his pitch sequencing while at Triple-A Round Rock following a demotion seven starts later. He throws a strong fastball he can cut and sink and pairs it with an excellent changeup. Now, Gonzalez’s improved feel for spin and sharper control have him back in Texas after another Pacific Coast League sojourn.
7. Luis Ysla, lhp, Giants
The 23-year-old Venezuelan lefty throws a fine changeup, can run his fastball up to 94 mph and won the ERA title in last year’s South Atlantic League. Despite all this, Ysla fared poorly through his first five appearances at high Class A San Jose this season (14.14 ERA, .456 opponent average) to earn a banishment to the bullpen. He resurfaced in the rotation in mid-July, and from that point forward he has a more manageable 4.20 ERA and 42-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 innings.
8. Luke Jackson, rhp, Rangers
Long projected as a future reliever, Jackson finally saw that reality come to pass this May at Triple-A Round Rock. After running up a 5.64 ERA and allowing 40 baserunners in 22 innings through five starts, Jackson shifted to the bullpen and has thrived with his power fastball/slider repertoire and fringe-average control. As a reliever this season, he has struck out 32 percent of batters while allowing a .206 average and only one home run through 33 appearances.
9. Alec Asher, rhp, Phillies
Asher joined the Phillies organization on July 31 as one of the six players the Rangers traded to acquire Cole Hamels. He locates a low-90s fastball all around the strike zone but lacks plane on the pitch or an outstanding secondary offering, which makes him reliant on pinpoint control—which he has shown in the second half at Triple-A stops in Round Rock and Lehigh Valley. Susceptibility to the long ball—he has allowed 22 home runs in 24 starts—limits Asher’s upside and inflates his FIP reading to unsafe levels.