The Graduates: Pitchers

Joe Kelly rejoices. For he is no longer a rookie. - Dilip Vishwanat

No longer rookies, we review the seasons of two pitching prospects: Joe Kelly and Barret Browning. And some notes on Trevor Rosenthal who will still have rookie status in 2013.

Last week, we reviewed the seasons of three hitters who graduated beyond rookie status, and now we'll take a look at pitchers who have done the same. Here's a reminder of the rules from MLB:

A player shall be considered a rookie unless, during a previous season or seasons, he has (a) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues; or (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit (excluding time in the military service and time on the disabled list).

Full disclosure: Time spent on the active roster was somewhat tedious to determine since it can (as far as I can tell) include previous seasons but excludes the month of September. I did my best to sort through the Cardinals' list of transactions and count the days between promotions and demotions. Feel free to call me out if I've made the bone-headed mistake of forgetting someone. By my count, two pitchers graduated beyond rookie status this season: Joe Kelly and Barret Browning. Kelly was drafted by the Cardinals while Browning came up through the Angels' system.

Player IP K% BB% GB% BABIP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Kelly 107.0 16.4% 7.9% 51.7% .306 3.53 4.00 4.03 0.6
Browning 19.1 13.1% 8.3% 50.0% .250 5.12 4.39 4.41 -0.2

*I used Baseball Reference's WAR. Read about it and how it differs from FanGraphs here.

JOE KELLY

Back in April at FR's old site, I asked which starting pitching prospect would be first in line to graduate to MLB. In triple-A, Kelly's strikeouts took a hit but he improved his control and continued to generate ground balls, so he got the call when Jaime Garcia went down with an injury. At the time, Shelby Miller was slumping and Trevor Rosenthal was still in double-A.

Kelly's emergence allowed the Cardinals to withstand Garcia's injury, and his performance as a reliever helped strengthen a bullpen that only found traction in July. His results (3.53 ERA) were better than you'd expect based on his peripherals (4.00/4.03 FIP/xFIP), but more than half of the balls put in play against him were grounders, so he delivered in that respect.

It's hard to digest Kelly's below average strikeout rate (16.4%) considering both his fastball and sinker averaged 95 mph (according to Brooks Baseball's player card). Tease out his performance as a starter and reliever and things start to look a little different. As a starter, Kelly struck out 15.1% of batters to go along with a 6.7% swinging strike rate, but those numbers ballooned to 24.2% and 10% as a reliever. That said, he faced 391 batters as a starter but only 66 batters as a reliever, so we still probably have to expect more of the former and less of the latter... even if he does end up in the bullpen.

In the playoffs, Kelly pitched 7.2 innings spread across 7 games. He made 3 NLDS appearances against the Nationals and 4 NLCS appearances against the Giants. Overall, he had a 2.35 ERA while allowing 6 hits, 4 walks, and 5 strikeouts. He hadn't allowed any runs until Matheny called on him to relieve Lohse in Game 7 of the NLCS, as assignment that might not have best fit Kelly's skill set, as pointed out by Dave Cameron at FanGraphs.

BARRET BROWNING

Although Browning only pitched 19.1 innings for the Cardinals in 2012, he used up his rookie status by spending 55 days on the active roster (6/30 - 8/24). The Cardinals called upon Browning to be their second LOOGY only after J.C. Romero and Sam Freeman's first audition didn't work out. And then they gave up on him right about the time Sam Freeman's second audition wouldn't count towards his service time. Things went pretty well at first as Browning only allowed 3 runs in his first 10 innings, but his overall numbers were pretty ordinary, even for a pitcher that is supposed to be a team's second best option for facing only one batter at a time.

TREVOR ROSENTHAL

Rosenthal didn't amass enough innings or service time, but his contribution to the team, both throughout the regular season and October, was significant enough to mention here.

Of those in the bullpen with at least 20 innings pitched, Rosenthal was 2nd in K% (28.1%) to Jason Motte and 2nd in FIP (3.09) to Edward Mujica. He basically accomplished that with only two pitches (according to Brooks Baseball): a 4-seam fastball thrown 80% of the time averaging 98.53 mph and a curveball thrown 13% of the time averaging 81.28 mph.

This was all impressive enough but then October happened and he threw even harder. Rosenthal allowed just 2 hits, 2 walks, and was unscored upon in 8.2 innings. Oh, and he struck out 50%(!!!) of the 30 batters he faced.

Rosenthal's late season success reminded me of the Cardinals' approach with Adam Wainwright in 2006, Lance Lynn in 2011, and the Rays' use of a very inexperienced David Price in 2008. I'm sure there's other examples, but those are just a few off the top of my head.

Could it be that some playoff teams believe they gain a competitive advantage by adding a stud pitching prospect in the waning days of a season? This makes intuitive sense for a couple of reasons. Assuming the prospect gets promoted in September, the team wouldn't be charged with any service time, meaning they wouldn't risk losing a year of control on that player. And perhaps opposing teams would struggle to hit a pitcher they haven't seen before and who there's very little video to study.

What do you think? Is this a trend that's developing? Am I just noticing it? Or is this all in my head? Maybe, just maybe, Carlos Martinez will play a similar role in 2013.

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