‘It’s Just Absurd’: Double-A Tulsa Starters Having Banner Season In Dodgers Organization

Image credit: Nick Frasso (Tim Campbell/Tulsa Drillers).

At minor league stadiums across the country, scouts and front office officials are buzzing about the starting rotation at Double-A Tulsa.

Tulsa, the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate, features a six-man rotation that has torn through the hitter-friendly Texas League this season. Righthanders Emmet Sheehan, Nick Frasso, Landon Knack, River Ryan, Nick Nastrini and Kyle Hurt have made every start for the Drillers and combined for a 2.78 ERA. The rotation with the league’s next-lowest mark, Padres affiliate San Antonio, has a 4.29 ERA. Tulsa’s starters are holding opponents to a .197 batting average. The next-closest rotation, Astros affiliate Corpus Christi, has allowed a .240 opponent average .

 But it’s not just what Tulsa is doing. It’s how the Drillers are doing it.

Led by its rotation, Tulsa is tied for the hardest-throwing team in professional baseball—majors or minors—with an average fastball velocity of 94.9 mph, according to front office data provided to Baseball America. The Marlins are tied with them for first at 94.9 mph. The Yankees are third at 94.8 mph.

“Me and the other guy that really makes the engine go here, (co-pitching coach) Durin O’Linger, we have these conversations all the time about how amazed we are that all six of these guys are performing to the level that they are,” Tulsa pitching coach Ryan Dennick said. “But it’s also the competition that those guys breed amongst themselves and the camaraderie those guys have amongst themselves to push each other to get better each time out. They see how one guy goes about his business, another guy steps up his game and the next guy steps up his.”

Rank Team Level Org #P Avg. Velo Velo (Max) Vert
T-1 Tulsa Drillers AA Dodgers 4071 94.9 101.0 17.7
T-1 Miami Marlins MLB   4524 94.9 100.3 12.6
3 New York Yankees MLB   4720 94.8 100.2 13.3
4 Chicago White Sox MLB   5367 94.7 103.1 15.1
T-5 Baltimore Orioles MLB   4723 94.5 101.9 14.8
T-5 Chattanooga Lookouts AA Reds 3695 94.5 101.2 19.1
7 Rancho Cucamonga Quakes A Dodgers 5600 94.3 99.9 16.1
T-8 Pittsburgh Pirates MLB   3948 94.2 101.0 13.5
T-8 Los Angeles Dodgers  MLB   4501 94.2 100.4 14.6
T-10 Seattle Mariners MLB   4665 94.1 101.1 13.2
T-10 Philadelphia Phillies MLB   4811 94.1 101.4 13.7
T-10 Northwest Arkansas Naturals AA Royals 4376 94.1 101.8 14.5
T-10 Houston Astros MLB   4621 94.1 100.8 14.8
T-10 Texas Rangers MLB   4226 94.1 101.2 13.8

Through June 11
Source: MLB Internal Data

Sheehan (1.86 ERA, 14.9 K/9), Frasso (1.69 ERA, 12.7 K/9), Knack (2.20 ERA, 9.6 K/9), Ryan (3.05 ERA, 9.8 K/9), Hurt (3.47 ERA, 15.6 K/9) and Nastrini (4.03 ERA, 9.0 K/9) all range from 94-100 mph on their fastballs and have at least one secondary pitch that earns above-average grades. They have struck out a combined 296 batters in 229.2 innings and have a 1.09 WHIP, tied for the lowest mark in the minor leagues. As a group, they have allowed three earned runs or fewer in 51 of their 57 starts.

While history says it’s unlikely they will all become major leaguers, evaluators who spoke to BA on the condition of anonymity said they wrote up all six as not only potential big leaguers, but potential starters in a major league rotation.

“I’m not a big ‘Alabama football could have beaten the Jacksonville Jaguars three years ago’ type of guy, but them versus the A’s rotation is a real conversation,” one National League scout said. “And it’s not just the starters. It’s their bullpen, too. You can go in there for six days and not see a single bullet under 94 mph.” 

Tulsa’s success is driven by more than just raw velocity. The Drillers excel at movement and control, too.

Tulsa pitchers have averaged 17.7 inches of vertical movement on their fastballs this year, second-highest out of the 10 hardest-throwing teams in professional baseball. The only team averaging more is Double-A Chattanooga in the Reds organization, which plays in the Southern League with the “enhanced grip” baseballs that have caused spin rates and vertical movement to skyrocket.

As a team, Tulsa is averaging 4.13 walks per nine innings, second-lowest in the Texas League. Drillers starters are averaging 3.41 BB/9 and have the league’s best strikeout to walk ratio (3.40).

In short, Tulsa’s staff is throwing high-octane stuff with elite movement for strikes to a degree unmatched by any other team in professional baseball.

“We’re pretty decently well into the season at this point in time and still almost every night in my head I’m like, ‘Jeez, dude what’s going on?’ ” Frasso said. “Sheehan’s throwing 100 or River’s throwing 100 or Knack just struck out 10. Like, it’s just absurd.”

All six of Tulsa’s starters entered the season ranked among the Dodgers Top 30 Prospects, but none had a vaunted pedigree. Knack is the highest drafted of the group as a second-rounder in 2020, and he was a senior sign who received an under-slot bonus. Frasso (Blue Jays, fourth round), Hurt (Marlins, fifth round) and Ryan (Padres, 11th round) were acquired in trades for role players Mitch White, Dylan Floro and Matt Beaty, respectively. Nastrini and Sheehan were the Dodgers’ fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2021, respectively, after college careers plagued by wildness.

But the one thing they all had in common was a powerful four-seam fastball with analytical traits the Dodgers felt they could work with. Under the Dodgers’ instruction, they have flourished.

“The hardest thing to really develop, honestly, is a quality four-seam fastball, and it kind of builds from there,” Dennick said. “Those guys in the draft that can create ride or have big extension numbers, we have that obviously in spades in Tulsa, but it’s also taking a look at video and what aspects of the throw they can improve upon. Is it their lower half? Are they not fully getting into their back leg enough? Are there inefficiencies with shoulder separation? Are there inefficiencies with arm action? What’s the little thing these guys have before they get to us that we go ‘We can correct that?’ Whether it’s drills or work in the weight room or in the training room, there’s little things that we can look at that create the guys that we have now.”

“They just helped me find what works for me in terms of my pitch arsenal and situational pitching,” Frasso said. “I know what pitches work best to certain swings and certain hitters. They’ve just kind of helped me unlock all of that.”

The question now is what the Dodgers will do with their wealth of arms. They have an acute need for pitching with starters Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Dustin May on the injured list, Noah Syndergaard ineffective and injured and the bullpen sporting a 4.76 ERA, 27th in the majors.

Under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers have shown a strong preference for their pitchers to have Triple-A experience before bringing them to the majors. Homegrown starters Urias, Buehler, May, Tony Gonsolin and Bobby Miller all spent at least one month at Triple-A before their first big league callups.

As Dennick noted, there are important nuances the Tulsa group still needs to master before they can have sustained major league success, especially to the standards the Dodgers demand.

“Making sure we’re not giving anything away in terms of tips, making sure that we’re working on the things we need to work on in the running game, our times to the plate, are our holds good?” Dennick said. “You get to a certain point here where those become the forefront of what we need to work on.

“The stuff is great. They’re getting a bunch of outs. Now when you get to the major league level, are you giving anything away with your pitch tips? Are you giving anything away with the running game? Those are the main focuses that those guys have right now to be options at the major league level, because that’s extremely important to our front office that we take care of those things.”

Dennick highlighted Sheehan and Knack as being the furthest ahead of the group in those regards. The two reportedly received promotions to Triple-A Oklahoma City over the weekend, although no official moves have been made yet.

In the event Tulsa’s starters aren’t able to help the Dodgers directly this year, all are popular trade targets highly desired by other teams. The Dodgers have generally held on to their top pitching prospects, but they have shown a willingness to trade some in deals for marquee players, such as when they sent righthander Josiah Gray to the Nationals in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deal and righthander Dean Kremer to the Orioles in the Manny Machado deal.

The Dodgers also could choose to keep the Tulsa starters and deal from their depth of arms across the organization. Their Low-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga is the seventh-hardest throwing team in professional baseball, and the only team below Double-A in the top 10.

“It’s amazing watching their organization how much arm strength they have,” said a rival American League pro scout. “Just as an organization, it’s amazing. It’s scary looking at them because they have all this young pitching.”

Whatever happens next, whether it’s broken up through promotions or trades, Tulsa’s rotation has forever seared itself into the minds of those who saw it this year.

With their combination of stuff, movement and control going six-deep, it’s the type of minor league rotation coaches and evaluators aren’t sure they’ll ever see again.

“Durin and I just sit back and sometimes watch the show and watch those guys go at it,” Dennick said. “That’s really fun in itself, just the group of guys that we have. There’s no one individual, there’s no egos, they all push each other. They honestly want all of those guys to go up together to be the next wave that goes to L.A. and win another championship for the city of Los Angeles, and that part is really cool to see.”

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