Astros Minor League Review: Lancaster Jethawks Pitching

Lancaster was one of the toughest parks for pitchers in the minors. How did Astros farmhands do there this season?

Lancaster is one of the Astros affiliates that I have followed the least the past couple of seasons. The main reason for this is because very few of their games are televised on milb.tv, so I don’t have a chance to get familiar with any of the guys. Another reason for this is that in past seasons the Astros seemed to shy away from sending pitching prospects to Lancaster which didn’t bode well for the pitching fan inside me. The California league has the reputation of being an extreme offense-oriented league. This can be evidenced by glancing at the California league leaderboard in pitching stats where you will find that only seven of the qualified starting pitchers in the league were able to post an ERA under 4.00 (the lowest Jethawk was David Martinez at 4.38.) However, with the increased depth in the system via the trade deadline, and the promotion of one TCB favorite, the Jethawks acquired some intriguing arms and made it fun to follow Jethawks pitching this year. Next year’s team looks to have an equally promising crop of young guys on the pitching staff, and I will definitely be following the affiliate more closely from now on.

As a team the Jethawks staff had a tough go at it and finished second to last of the ten team California league in ERA by posting a 5.00. Inducing groundballs and recording strikeouts is a good blueprint for success in Lancaster. I had trouble finding team groundball stats, but the Jethawks finished last in the Cal league in strikeouts with 987. They did show decent control and finished third in the league in walks allowed with 426. They were also third in saves with 35, but finished eighth in holds with 31. After the jump we will take a look at a few individual performances, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen that were noteworthy.

Starting Rotation

Though I didn’t single him out below you can’t talk about the Jethawks rotation without mentioning David Martinez. He was the most consistent performer in the rotation all season long, and recorded a 4.03 FIP in 161 innings pitched this season. He posted an above average groundball rate of 49.40%, avoided line drives, and only allowed 1.85 walks per nine innings pitched. At age 24 the age relative to league disclaimer applies, but he filled a need in the Jethawks rotation this season. I also didn’t mention Nick Tropeano and Colton Cain as they will be hit in more detail later in the week.

Tyson Perez

Making his professional debut last season for the Greeneville Astros, Perez came out of extended spring training this season and made the jump to Lancaster. He struggled off and on throughout the season with consistency and finished the year with 120 innings pitched and a 5.03 ERA. His FIP of 4.87 and his SIERA of 4.36 offers some hope for improvement next season. Perez induced groundballs 47.70% of the time which was above the league average of 44.10%, and also posted a nice walk rate of 2.4 BB/9. However, his strikeout rate of 5.93 K/9 left something to be desired. It’s worth noting that he finished the season strong and posted a 3.12 FIP in 37 innings pitched in Aug/Sep, and was particularly strong in the playoffs.

Blair Walters

Walters, one of the pitchers acquired in the Brett Myers trade, was an 11th round pick from the University of Hawaii in 2011. He was a reliever in college but the White Sox moved him to the rotation in pro-ball. He dominated the South Atlantic League as you would hope a college draftee would, but struggled in his promotion to High-A ball. Overall he posted an ERA of 5.00 in 136.2 innings pitched with a 2.4 BB/9 rate and an 8.4 SO/9 rate between Low-A and High-A ball. He really struggled in his 39 innings pitched for the Jethawks this season and posted a 7.62 ERA, though it was only eight starts and a relatively small sample. Walters was more effective against left-handed hitters than right handed hitters this season and posted a 3.25 FIP with a 10.10 K/9 against lefties versus a 4.34 FIP with a 7.55 K/9 against righties.

Ruben Alaniz

Alaniz got off to a great start for the Jethawks this season and was announced as the Astros pitcher of the month in April at Lancaster for going 2-0 with a 2.90 ERA and recording 26 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched. That ERA increased to 4.31 in May before ballooning to 8.74 in June and 6.75 in July. Alaniz last appeared in a game on July 26th for the Jethawks, and was placed on the 7-day disabled list on the 27th where he would remain for the rest of the season. He ended the season with a 5.04 ERA, a 4.32 FIP, and a 4.16 SIERA in 100 innings pitched for the Jethawks. He had an average groundball rate of 45.80%, and posted an excellent walk rate of 2.34 BB/9 though his strikeout rate was below average at 6.3 K/9. At age 21 Alaniz was the youngest pitcher in the Jethawks rotation and there’s still plenty of time for the former 2009 undrafted signee to improve.

The Bullpen

Just like with the Jethawks rotation there is also quite a bit of interesting relief arms to talk about as well. Jorge De Leon and Zachary Grimmett both had disappointing seasons, but they also spent the first half of the season piggybacking each other in the Jethawks rotation and figure to be more effective out of the bullpen. This was especially true for De Leon as he only allowed four earned runs (three in one game) over his final eleven relief outings spanning 07/31-09/03. The guys that we are going to look at in more detail here are Andrew Robinson, Chia-Jen Lo, Patrick Urckfitz, and Kenny Long.

Andrew Robinson

Robinson threw a total of 59.2 innings for the Jethawks this season and though his ERA was a mediocre 4.37 his FIP was a much better 3.13. His strikeout was an equally impressive 11.01 K/9. Robinson got much better as the season wore on. After posting an ERA of 14.09 in April, He posted a 3.38 ERA in May, 2.40 ERA in June, and a 1.35 ERA in July before fading down the stretch with a 7.11 ERA in Aug/Sep. Robinson induced groundballs 48.50% of the time and struckout 28% of the batters he faced. His walk rate was a little high at 3.92, and the majority of that came against righties. He allowed 18 walks in 34 innings to right-handed hitters versus just 8 walks in 28 innings against lefties. He only allowed four homeruns all season and all four of those came against left-handed pitching.

Chia-Jen Lo

After a very impressive debut in the Astros organization in 2009, Lo was hounded by injuries that limited him to just 17 innings over the next two seasons. This year he looked to make some progress in the health department as he logged 30 innings pitched between the GCL and Lancaster. He struck out more than a batter per nine innings (9.47), and only walked 1.89 batters per nine innings. He was particularly good in Lancaster where he had a strikeout rate of 10.06 K/9 and a walk rate of 2.12 BB/9. In his only other healthy season he had a walk rate of 4.62 BB/9, so it’s nice to see him improve his control after missing the past two seasons. He only allowed one homerun in his 30 innings pitched this year. Health is the biggest thing for Lo going forward and hopefully at age 26 he can probably put the health issues behind him and build on his 2012 season next year.

Patrick Urckfitz

After a difficult 39 innings in Corpus Christi last season Urckfitz rebounded in his demotion to Lancaster this season. He pitched 68.1 innings and posted a 3.56 ERA, 3.39 FIP, and had a 8.17 K/9 rate and a 2.90 BB/9 rate. Prior to this season he had never recorded a groundball rate higher than 36.1%, but this year he posted a 46.3% groundball rate for the Jethawks. Urckfitz’ was very good against lefties this year and posted a 2.39 FIP in 27 innings pitched while striking out 28 and only walking five batters.

Kenny Long

Long made a very impressive debut in pro-ball this year and dominated Tri-City before being called up to Lancaster towards the end of the season. The sample size is small at both levels so we will know more about Long next season, but he could be a fast-riser through the system. Just for fun, in his 7.2 innings pitched at Lancaster Long posted a -0.45 FIP. As Reillocity mentioned in several of the recap comments Long dominated left-handed hitters this season and only allowed one hit against a lefty during the regular season while recording 27 strikeouts to only three walks.

Overall even though the combined ERA for the Jethawks pitching staff was disappointing, there were a few individual performances throughout the season that were promising. Andrew Robinson took a big step forward and hopefully he can continue his success next season for the Hooks. Chia-Jen Lo was back on the mound and hopefully he can continue that trend next season as well. Jethawks starters struggled for the most part this season, but Nick Tropeano (who will be discussed later this week) was a bright spot in the rotation and continued his strong season. The Jethawks should have quite a few pitchers to follow on the staff next season as well with the farm system’s added depth.

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