[This article has almost nothing to do with the Houston Astros, for whom this blog is explicitly dedicated, but I hope you'll forgive my little detour as I take a look at two former prospects with exceptionally-similar developmental paths, with the hopes that it might teach us something about prospect evaluation.]
2001 was something of a banner year for the Pepperdine Waves. They went 42-18 through the regular season, winning the West Coast Conference regular season title for the first time in six years, and went on to win the WCC tournament for the second time in school history. They roared into the Division-I tournament by sweeping Fresno State before a narrow 4-3 loss to USC pushed them into the loser's bracket in the Los Angeles regional, where Fresno State enacted their revenge, winning 8-6 and ending the Waves' title hopes.
Success rates for AAA prospects based on BB rates
•Beyond the Box ScoreUsing historical prospect lists, which current prospects have helped their chances at Major League success based on their walks, strikeouts, and age?
On the shoulders of that success, Pepperdine saw nine players get drafted that year (though two of them - catcher Ross Mills and third baseman Duke Sardinha - did not sign), led by the lefty/righty starting tandem of Noah Lowry and Dan Haren.
The righty, Haren, was born on September 17, 1980, in Monterey Park, California. Lowry, the southpaw, was born on October 10, 1980 (less than a month later), in Ventura - 72 miles away. Haren attended Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puenta, California, while Lowry was plying his trade less than a hundred miles away in Ojai, at Nordhoff High School.
After three years together at Pepperdine, the two were drafted less than a round apart: Lowry went in the first round (30th overall) to the San Francisco Giants. Haren was taken in the second round by the Cardinals, 72nd overall.
Each made his debut in 2003, at the age of 22 years old, though Haren was called up in June (two years and ten days after signing) and Lowry was a September callup that season.
Now, entering the 2014 season, Haren is the recipient of a one-year, ten-million-dollar deal with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers. He's accumulated 38.8 fWAR, has been named to three All-Star teams, and has been a finalist for two Cy Young awards. Lowry, on the other hand, is out of professional baseball - the part-owner of a sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, California.
Over the next few months, as we analyze draft prospects, we'll pay particularly-close attention to their statistics, comparing them to one another. Lowry and Haren give us a rare look at a pair of players with the same basic development path. They were born in the same geographic area, less than a month apart. They went to college together. They were drafted together. And they debuted within months of one another. Are there any lessons to be gleaned from looking back on their careers together?
1999: We Were Merely Freshmen
In 1999, Dan (then going by Daniel) Haren and Noah Lowry were teammates for the first time - but they weren't yet rotation-mates. Lowry did not make a single appearance for the Waves, while his highly-touted fellow freshman (Haren had been drafted in the 19th round out of high school by the Texas Rangers, but opted to attend college) teamed up with another pair of righties - sophomore Jay Adams and senior Brad Tucker - to lead the Pepperdine rotation.
The trio led the Waves to the Division-I tournament, where they swept Harvard in the Los Angeles Regional before losing to USC. They advanced by defeating Virginia Commonwealth before USC once again beat them to knock them out of the postseason.
Lowry: Lowry did not pitch for the varsity team in 1999.
Haren: As a freshman, Dan Haren already looked like a very good pitcher. His ERA and WHIP were both better than WCC average, and while his strikeout totals weren't great, his above-average command was already on display, allowing him to put together a 2.11 K/BB ratio.
2000: Ain't It Insane That It's Pretense
Lowry stepped into the varsity pitching staff in 2000, albeit largely out of the bullpen. Of his nineteen appearances, sixteen of them were in relief. Meanwhile, Haren continued to shine, leading the team in starts, innings pitched, and strikeouts. The team went 36-23, winning the Western Division of the West Coast Conference, but losing to San Diego in the conference tournament, and missing the NCAA Division-I tournament altogether.
Lowry: Pitching almost entirely in relief, Lowry dominated hitters, striking out more than a batter an inning. But he also suffered with his command, walking almost four and a half per nine innings. Still, even with the high walk rate, his K/BB was better than the WCC average.
Haren: Haren repeated his freshman ERA of 3.08, but he improved in every other area. His WHIP, K/9, and BB/9 were all better than the WCC average, and his K/BB was more than triple that of the league. Though his strikeout rate wasn't elite - and it paled in comparison to his southpaw teammate - it was almost a full batter per nine innings better than the rest of the league.
2001: I Feel a Draft Coming On
In their junior season, Lowry joined Haren at the top of Pepperdine's rotation. The two combined to throw 251 innings - more than the entire rest of the pitching staff, combined. Between them, they struck out 239 batters in that stretch. They also showed identical 1.06 WHIPs.
Lowry: Lowry was able to limit his BB/9, more than halving it between his sophomore and junior campaigns. Though it came at the expense of his K/9 rate, which plummeted to 6.73 (still better than league average), his resulting 3.13 K/BB was a major improvement.
Haren: Haren went in the opposite direction from his southpaw teammate, seeing his K/9 take a massive step forward, though it was at the expense of his BB/9. His K/BB fell from the unbelievable rate he'd shown in 2000, but was still almost double that of the West Coast Conference as a whole.
On paper, it's difficult not to see Dan Haren as a better pitcher than his left-handed counterpart, Lowry. Though Lowry had a slighty-smaller WHIP, it came over just more than half as many innings. Meanwhile, Haren had a better ERA, K/9, BB/9, and K/BB with the Waves.
In fact, Haren also played DH for the Waves that season, hitting .308 with five home runs. He was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, and looked poised for a first-round selection.
Still, there's the fact that Noah Lowry was a left-hander, and the lack of mileage on his arm may have looked enticing to some teams. While he was largely viewed as a second- or third-round prospect thanks to his lack of elite velocity, San Francisco Giants scouting director Matt Nerland was known for his love of drafting pitching prospects early, and he selected Lowry at 30th overall, in the first round.
Haren had to wait forty-two picks before hearing his name called in the second round, where the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him.
After the draft, Lowry and Haren parted ways, with Haren heading to the New York-Penn League's New Jersey Cardinals, and Lowry staying west, with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes of the Northwest League - where he joined a pitching staff with seven other future big leaguers: Francisco Liriano, Brian Burres, Jesse Foppert, Brad Hennessey, Justin Knoedler, Scott Munter, and Jason Waddell (not surprisingly, the Volcanoes won the Northwest League that season.)
Lowry: Once again, Lowry displayed elite strikeout ability, despite his lack of velocity. This would become a trademark of his - despite looking and pitching like a finesse pitcher, he would continue to live on the strikeout for much of his career. In short-season ball in 2001, that was already evident, as he struck out double-digit batters per nine innings, but walked 2.88 - which was still well better than the league average.
Haren: Haren tore through the NYPL batters, both as a starter and as a reliever. He struck out more than a batter per inning while walking fewer than half the league average, giving him a ridiculous 7.13 K/BB. Additionally, he allowed barely more than one batter to reach via hit or walk per inning.
2002: Full-Season Ball
Lowry began the 2002 season with the Fresno Grizzlies of the High-A California League. He threw just 58.2 innings, though, as he sat out much of the season with shoulder soreness.
Haren was promoted a little less aggressively, beginning with the Single-A Midwest League's Peoria Chiefs before moving up to the High-A Potomac Cannons of the Carolina League. He started fourteen games at each of those two levels and threw 193.2 innings total - a shockingly-high amount for a prospect in his first full season, even in 2002.
Lowry: Lowry fared well in the Cal League, with a WHIP under 1, more than a strikeout an inning, and a 2.15 ERA. But walks continued to hound him. Though his 3.07 BB/9 was better than league-average, it was higher than ideal.
Haren: Despite his high pitch counts, Haren fared very well in his first taste of full-season ball. His strikeout rate wasn't elite, but he balanced it with a razor-thin 1.06 BB/9, giving him a 7.42 K/BB - almost three-and-a-half times better than league-average. After his promotion to the Carolina League, his walk rate slipped, but his strikeout rate spiked. Combined, he boasted a 1.08 WHIP on the season. People started to take notice.
2003: Movin' On Up
Both Haren and Lowry began 2003 in Double-A - Lowry with the Eastern League's Norwich Navigators, and Haren with the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League - before being reunited in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where Haren finished the season with the Memphis Redbirds, and Lowry with the Fresno Grizzlies.
Lowry: Lowry spent the majority of the year in Double-A, where his control issues persisted. He walked more than three-and-a-half batters per nine innings, well off the mark of the rest of the Eastern League, but a good strikeout rate helped buoy his K/BB ratio. He put more runners on base than the league average, as well. In his brief Triple-A appearance, his walk rate stabilized a bit, but at the expense of his strikeout rate.
Haren: Meanwhile, Haren continued to pitch very well, destroying Southern League hitting in a small sample. His 0.98 BB/9 - combined with a 8.02 K/9 and a 0.75 WHIP - forced a fairly quick promotion, but once he was in the PCL, he continued to dominate, with above average numbers across the board (except for ERA).
Both players earned callups during the 2003 campaign, though Haren's came in June and Lowry would have to wait until September.
Lowry: Lowry began his professional career the same way he'd begun his college career: Throwing out of the bullpen. On September 5th, with the Giants trailing the Diamondbacks 8-1, the lefty was put on the mound for the ninth inning. He induced a groundout from Matt Kata before striking out Luis Gonzalez, looking. He'd finish the game unscathed, and went on to pitch 6.1 innings in his cup of coffee, striking out 5 of the 24 batters he faced, while walking just two and allowing a single hit.
Haren: On June 30th, Haren made his major league debut, starting against the same team that had drafted Lowry - the San Francisco Giants. He began his career by getting Ray Durham to fly out to right-center, then allowing back-to-back doubles to Neifi Perez and Marquis Grissom to fall down 1-0 before getting Barry Bonds and Benito Santiago to fly out - both to deep center. Every batter he faced in that first inning hit a ball into the outfield. The Cardinals would end up losing the game 5-1, but Haren remained in the rotation for thirteen more starts.
Around this time, Dan Haren began being touted as the Cardinals' future ace, and was speculated to be "untouchable" in trade negotiations. With a staff that included Rick Ankiel, Blake Hawksworth, and Jason Marquis, this was considered high praise.
2004: Big Leaguin' It
2004 was, effectively, the last year for either Noah Lowry or Dan Haren in the minor leagues. Once again, Haren began the season with the PCL Memphis Redbirds. He made a spot start for the big league team in June and was promptly sent back to Memphis, but was promoted to the big league club for good in June.
Lowry bounced back and forth between San Francisco and Fresno. He threw three innings in a blowout loss to the Padres on April 21, went back to Fresno, was promoted for a handful of games in June before going back down, and then got called up for good in early August.
Lowry: Lowry posted good-but-not-great numbers in Triple-A in 2004. His walk rate was still higher than you'd like to see it, but well under league average. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate was solid, as were his WHIP and K/BB. Perhaps most encouraging was his durability. After the shoulder soreness earlier in his career, he was able to pitch effectively as a starter, making seventeen starts, averaging more than five innings a start, and including a complete-game shutout.
Haren: Haren continued to get better and better against premium competition. His exposure to big-league hitting seems to have benefited him greatly, as he blew away minor-league hitters to the tune of 10.5 K/9 - with more than four-and-half times as many strikeouts as walks.
In 2004, Lowry and Haren were both promoted to the majors, more or less for good, and it immediately seemed as if their careers had flip-flopped. Haren pitched largely in relief, displaying a mediocre walk rate and an underwhelming strikeout rate. He also pitched in five postseason games - two dominant innings to earn the win against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLDS (2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K); two troublesome appearances against the Astros in the NLCS (1.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K); and two appearances against the Red Sox in the World Series (4.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 2 K).
Lowry, on the other hand, went 6-0 with the Giants that season, boasting 7 strikeouts per nine innings, a decent walk rate, a 3.82 ERA, and a 1.29 WHIP. On August 3, he went the distance to shut out the Cincinnati Reds. It was one of two complete games he'd throw in the big leagues that season, the other coming on September 22 against the Houston Astros - a 0.335 WPA start against Roy Oswalt for his final victory of the season - and Houston's penultimate regular-season loss.
Lowry: A 7.04 K/9 through 92 innings had San Francisco fans excited for the young lefty, who was even able to limit his BB/9 to 2.74 through that stretch for a 2.57 K/BB. It was a leadup to an incredible 2005 season, which would see Lowry accumulate 3.5 fWAR over 204.2 innings.
Haren: It wouldn't be fair to say that Haren struggled in 2004, but it was a slight disappointment of a season for him, as his strikeout rate fell below league-average, his walk rate climbed to 3.33, and his ERA sat above 4. In subsequent seasons, he'd return to form with the walk rate, and posted seven straight seasons above 3.5 fWAR - though none of it would ultimately be for the Cardinals.
2005: Neighbors, Neighbors, Neighbors. Have I Got Neighbors?
Following the 2004 season, Dan Haren was traded by the Cardinals - along with Daric Barton and Kiko Calero - to the Oakland Athletics for Mark Mulder. Haren and Lowry - who were born, went to high school, and attended college all within a hundred miles of one another - would now play their home games just seventeen miles apart, on opposite sides of a bay.
For the intents of our study, this is where our look at their development ends. But it would behoove us to look at their outcomes, as well. As mentioned above, Lowry got off to a terrific start in his career, but a host of lingering arm injuries - forearm surgery, elbow soreness, and thoracic outlet syndrome - eventually claimed his career. Haren, on the other hand, has remained remarkably durable. He's avoided any significant injuries, and has gone over 200 innings seven times in his career. He's accumulated 38.8 fWAR over his career, and likely isn't done yet.
It doesn't take a great mind to see that Dan Haren's minor league career - much like his college career - bested that of his southpaw former teammate. Over more than +160 innings, he walked fewer batters than Lowry, struck batters out at a much more torrid pace, allowed fewer earned runs per nine innings, and issued fewer walks and hits per inning. But in 2005, you could forgive Giants fans for being bullish on Lowry, who had out-paced Haren as a major leaguer to that point in their careers.
Beginning that year, though, Lowry's old control issues came back, and he would never walk fewer than three batters per nine innings again. In fact, in 2005, he issued the tenth-most walks in the National League - a position he'd best two years later, when he was third in the league at issuing bases on balls. Beginning that same season, meanwhile, Haren would never again walk more than three batters per nine innings. In fact, he never again posted a BB/9 over 2.2.
Even before shoulder injuries ravaged Lowry's strikeout rate, he was never elite in that regard. Neither was Haren, for that matter, though he did show occasional glimpses of powering through hitters. Later in his career, he'd learn to perfect his stuff, finishing 8th and 9th respectively in 2008 and 2009 among all NL pitchers in K/9.
If we only look at the years during which Lowry was active, it's not hard to see that Haren was a much better major league pitcher:
In retrospect, it's easy to see that Haren was a better prospect than Lowry, who struggled with walks his entire career. But if you go back and look at their junior campaigns, not knowing what we know now, it's harder to make a huge distinction. Sure, Haren flashed electric strikeout stuff, but his BB/9 paled in comparison to his teammate over a full collegiate season in the same rotation.
Perhaps more to the point, Haren established himself at Pepperdine as a guy who could handle a large workload with consistent results. He never had flashy stuff - a fastball that could touch the mid-90s, a sinker, a changeup, a curve - but he was able to get a lot of swings-and-misses while limiting his free passes. Lowry, on the other hand, began his collegiate career as a dominant reliever, but was never able to get quite the separation between strikeouts and walks that Haren was.
I would caution readers from drawing too many conclusions from such a small sample, but it is one piece of evidence that, yes, college statistics do matter. Certainly, there are a lot of factors that go into player development, but it stands to reason that starting with better raw skills gives a player a better chance at succeeding.
As is often the case, it is better to examine more data than less. While their junior years were comparable, the totality of Lowry's and Haren's careers at Pepperdine are a bit more telling. Haren got better and better, posting an elite strikeout rate over the course of his college career, while Lowry was something of a slow starter. When his strikeout rate was good, his walk rate was good, and when one was bad, so was the other. Fifty dominant innings as a sophomore reliever buoyed his numbers, but ultimately, he failed to record acceptable strikeout rates as a junior starter.
Without context, Noah Lowry was an under-performing first-round left-hander who came to be worth 7.6 fWAR. He was plagued by walks throughout his minor league career, and then into his major league career, where injuries only served to further his undoing.
Dan Haren, who grew up less than a hundred miles away, pitched alongside Lowry at Pepperdine, and even got promoted around the same time, is an over-performing second-round righty who has been worth 38.8 fWAR over his career - and who has just signed a new contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, while Lowry is running a sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, California.
Though predicting Lowry's eventual injuries would have been difficult, with the full context of their college careers, we can be a little less surprised, looking back, at the paths their different careers took.
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