Throwing strikes is essential to the success of any starting pitcher, so much so that roughly 85 percent of righthanders who qualified for the major league ERA title in the past two decades walked fewer than 4.0 batters per nine innings. In other words, righties who cross that threshold rarely pitch effectively enough to take 30 turns in a big league rotation.
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 while also accumulating at least 100 innings. For this exercise, the first half runs through June 17, the true midpoint of the season, and the second encompasses all games from June 18 to present.
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.
1. Alex Reyes, rhp, Cardinals
One of the top strikeout pitchers in the Midwest League, Reyes sharpened his control dramatically in the second half by improving his direction to the plate at low Class A Peoria. His stuff never was in question. Reyes pitches at 92-95 mph with good life and rotates a power curveball for a second plus pitch. He will need to improve his changeup and keep refining his control, but the 19-year-old has frontline stuff.
2. Mitch Brown, rhp, Indians
A second-round pick in 2012 from high school in Rochester, Minn., Brown bombed out of the Midwest League in 2013, logging an 11.49 ERA in five starts. The 20-year-old didn’t exactly dominate at low Class A Lake County in the first half of 2014, but since mid-June he’s streamlined his lower-half drive and direction to the plate to pitch as well as he ever has as a pro. Brown sits a few ticks higher this season—91-93 mph—and can rear back for 96 when he needs it, complementing his heat with a good curveball and fringe changeup.
3. Nathan Karns, rhp, Rays
Karns turns 27 in the offseason, by which time he probably will have made his debut with the Rays as a September callup. He might have received an audition in Tampa Bay during the first half had he not been fighting his delivery and walking too many batters at Triple-A Durham. Karns rebounded in the second half, though, using a plus low-90s fastball with late sink and a sharp curveball to rank among the International League leaders in strikeouts and opponent average.
4. Tyler Glasnow, rhp, Pirates
The Florida State League leader in ERA (1.67), WHIP (1.05) and opponent average (.167) didn’t pitch in April and spent most of the first half walking the park. Glasnow’s second-half turnaround at high Class A Bradenton has been remarkable, however, as he’s reined in his walk rate by more consistently repeating his long-levered, crossfire motion and finding his release point. The SO/BB ratio is impressive, but then there’s this: Glasnow has allowed two home runs in 22 starts.
5. Kyle Hendricks, rhp, Cubs
Hendricks took a microscopic walk rate and made it nearly disappear in four second-half starts at Triple-A Iowa prior to a callup to Chicago. He tops out near 91 mph, but nothing he throws is straight, he commands two breaking balls and his changeup is a real weapon. Hendricks’ ceiling may not be as high as other young pitchers, but he represents a safe bet as strike-throwing workhorse and a fine return in the Ryan Dempster trade with the Rangers in 2012.
6. Edwin Diaz, rhp, Mariners
When he stays on line to the plate and on top of his slider, Diaz can be tough for batters to handle with a live fastball that approaches 95 mph and a tight power slider. A third-round pick in 2012 out of high school in Puerto Rico, he has improved his direction to the plate and softened his landing to find the strike zone more consistently during the second half at low Class A Clinton.
7. Aaron Sanchez, rhp, Blue Jays
Toronto’s No. 1 prospect entering the season, Sanchez sharpened his control after jumping from Double-A New Hampshire to Triple-A Buffalo. While his control and command remain below-average, his mid-90s sinking fastball and extreme groundball profile (3.1 groundout/airout ratio in the minors this season) are elite. A shift to the bullpen landed Sanchez in the big leagues in late July, where his SO/BB ratio took another step forward through his first dozen appearances.
8. Anthony Ranaudo, rhp, Red Sox
The 6-foot-7 Ranaudo threw more strikes at Triple-A Pawtucket to earn his first big league callup on Aug. 1. The fact that he’s around the zone more often in the second half is evident with his walk rate as much as the six homers he’s allowed in 10 starts (after allowing three in the first half). Ranaudo pitches with a plus fastball and curveball most times out, so all that stands between him and a gig as a midrotation starter is keeping his delivery in sync.
9. Tim Cooney, lhp, Cardinals
Cooney lacks the type of power stuff to thrive with a high walk rate, so his second-half improvement at Triple-A Memphis must be a relief to the Cardinals. He entered the season with 30 walks in 37 career starts, so in that light a walk rate of 3.2 per nine innings seems excessive. The only lefthander on this list, Cooney has the tools to pitch in the majors for a long time, even with a high-80s fastball, because he throws an out-pitch changeup and can command two distinct breaking balls.
Here are five young power righthanders who did not iron out early-season control problems in the second half.
• Chris Anderson, rhp, Dodgers. The 2013 first-rounder from Jacksonville won’t move as quickly as the Dodgers had anticipated—at least not as a starter—after logging a 4.51 ERA and 1.57 WHIP at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga. At the root of Anderson’s problems is a walk rate that has lived north of 4.0 per nine innings on the year.
• Kyle Crick, rhp, Giants. The Double-A Richmond righty can bring 98 mph heat, but he never has shown anything like good control, walking an even 6.0 batters per nine innings in both the first and second halves this season.
• Lance McCullers Jr., rhp, Astros. The hitter-friendly nature of the California League trips up many pitching prospects, but McCullers hasn’t helped himself with poor control. His walk rate at high Class A Lancaster climbed from 4.7 per nine innings in the first half to 5.7 in the second.
• Robert Stephenson, rhp, Reds. The best bet on this “wild” list to become a front-of-the-rotation starter one day, Stephenson has nonetheless struggled to control the ball at Double-A Pensacola, walking just about 5.0 batters per nine innings in both halves. He throws a plus fastball/curveball mix that make him unhittable at times.
• Alberto Tirado, rhp, Blue Jays. The slight, live-armed Dominican teen went 1-2, 6.30 in 13 appearances (seven starts) at low Class A Lansing thanks to a walk rate of 8.8 per nine innings. That didn’t improve much (7.7 BB/9) after a demotion to short-season Vancouver in June.