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Astros Minors: Solid Lancaster JetHawks pitching staff survives desert en route to championship season

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The JetHawks’ affiliation with Houston started out rocky, but the last three years have proven fruitful for the fans out in the California desert; in 2014, Lancaster captured it’s second League championship in three years, after coming within one win last year of what would have been a three-peat.

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Unsurprisingly, the offense, a collection of high-end prospects bolstered by an extremely-friendly home park, was arguably the most ferocious in the league. It was the pitching, however, that stands out most, considering the aforementioned home park situation, despite playing in one of the minors' most notorious pitchers graveyards, the JetHawks hurlers represented themselves quite well.

As a Group

All told, the 4.75 staff ERA isn't pretty on the surface; indeed, only two of the ten teams in the league finished with a worse mark (High Desert and Modesto, the former under-.500, the latter owning an unthinkable 43-97 record). Considering their park, though, not to mention the fact that the league-average team ERA was just 4.62, and even by more traditional metrics, it wasn't a bad year for the pitchers.

Under the surface, though, things look even better; the JetHawks pitchers combined to walk just 391 batters, second-best in the league behind Bakersfield by just one walk. They also finished in the top five in team strikeouts, and the success in two areas combined to give them a team K/BB ratio of 2.90, the best in the league. They were third in the league in saves as well, with 43.

Kyle Westwood

Leading the team in innings pitched by a wide margin, Kyle Westwood's effective 132 innings (13th-most in the league, which is impressive considering the piggyback system the Astros utilize) acted as the glue; he failed to pitch four innings just once all season, and in fact averaged nearly five innings per outing, a rarity considering, again, the piggyback system.

Command and grounders are his two calling cards; only two players (Chris Devenski and Kent Emanuel) who were primarily starters and pitched in at least ten games for the club did better than Westwood's 1.8 BB/9, and a stunning 62.5% of balls batted against him were hit on the ground. Considering this, his 0.5 HR/9, best on the team aside from three pitchers who combined for just 16.1 innings, is unsurprising.

Josh Hader

Perhaps no prospect in the entire system saw their stock rise as much as Hader's this year. Coming into the season, it was hard to know what to make of him; a young southpaw with funky mechanics and a need for polish in basically every area of his game, no one would have been surprised to see him struggle. Instead, he exploded.

Hader clocked 103.1 innings of work into his time sheet, second-best behind the aforementioned Westwood, making him one of just three men to reach the 100 inning milestone for the club. And they were good innings; his 2.70 ERA, just without saying anything else, is an impressive number. Now throw in the league, the park, and the fact that no other pitcher who logged at least 30 innings for the team bested that mark.

More? Among the 100 pitchers with the most innings in the league, his 2.70 ERA was tied for fifth-best, and the only man ahead of him who pitched even 80 innings was Dodgers' phenom Julio Urias. His K/9 of 9.8 was also behind only Vincent Velasquez and Lance McCullers among full-time starters on his team.

Kent Emanuel

In a similar vein to Westwood, Emanuel soaked up solid innings (third-most on the club with 102), using pinpoint accuracy to survive with mediocre stuff. His walk rate was a hair better than Westwood's, and his strikeout rate was better as well, which gave him a 4.00 K/BB ratio once the dust settled, the second-best mark on the team among pitchers who threw at least 55 innings.

Though not the extreme groundballer that Westwood was, he did generate them nearly 45% of the time, helping him limit homers to a reasonable level and survive in the desert. Despite that, it's notable that, after being promoted to Lancaster, he posted a 7.21 ERA at home and a 2.62 ERA on the road. Just one of his road starts came in High Desert, the other notorious killing fields for pitchers in the California League, so there should be some hope that simply moving up to AA at some point next year could help him see even more improvement.

Vincent Velasquez

There's little question that Velasquez can dominate as good as anyone when he's feeling it; JetHawks radio guru/expert/whiz/overlord/all-around-nice-guy Jason Schwartz even went as far as to say that Velasquez is perhaps the only pitcher he's ever said, on the air, looked completely unhittable.

Indeed, his 7.3 H/9 figure was the second-best on the team among pitchers with at least 30 innings of work. And, while the man above him (Hader, 6.3) was aided by a .266 BAbip, Velasquez had no such fortune; he was simply, legitimately, hard to hit.

On a Lancaster club with some real strike out monsters (11 of the 27 pitchers they had at points during the season posted strike out rates of one per inning or better), Velasquez was the best; his 11.7 K/9 was the third best mark on the club, but the two guys ahead of him were a pair of relievers who each tossed fewer than 15 innings. Health proved to be the only thing that could slow him down; once again, much of his season was lost to injuries, and he's currently in the AFL trying to make up for lost time after completing just 55.1 innings during the entire season.

Others of Note

Lance McCullers jr. at times looked invincible, and at other times, completely lost. Such can be the fate of a kid who's still struggling to command his pitches and figure out a legitimate third one. He also dealt with some injuries (though not as severely as Velasquez) that made life difficult for him. His BAbip was a little high for a guy with his stuff, so if that comes down along with some improved command, he could break out, though his overwhelming fastball/slider mix give him a nice late-inning relief floor if not.

Chris Devenski isn't a guy that anyone expected much from coming into this year, but after posting a 6.42 K/NN ratio in 76.2 innings for the JetHawks, he deserves mention. He was one of seven pitchers to toss at least 70 innings, so despite not finishing the year with the team, he did play a large role in their success, posting a solid 4.11 ERA before moving up to AA.

Anyone else remember Kyle Smith's early run with the team? He posted a 2.60 ERA out in the desert during seven games before earning an early promotion to the Hooks. He was propped up out in the desert by a .221 BAbip, so there was concern, but he only improved, rather than regressed, when he moved up to AA.

And then there's the Mark Appel saga, which I would be remiss to mention. It began with a winter appendectomy and turned into a panic-in-the-streets disaster. Hope turned to disappointment, to despair, and finally to hope again, all in the space of 44.1 innings. The .414 BAbip was a clear indication that luck gremlins and their mischief were afoot, and indeed late in his tenure with the team he turned in a dominant start in Stockton before being promoted to AA, where he posted a 2.99 FIP and returned light to the world.

The other men who worked as starters for the club: Brian Holmes, Zach Morton, Matt Heidenreich, Gonzalo Sanudo, Juan Minaya, Evan Grills and Mike Hauschild.

The Bullpen

Though Daniel Minor wasn't the most elite arm on the club, or even the pen, he was one of the most important. Of all the pitchers who didn't make a single start for the team, he had the most innings of anyone; 53 of them in 36 games. He was solid, if unspectacular, posting a 4.25 ERA and a nice 3-to-1 K/BB ratio.

If you go by saves, the club's "closer" would have been Jamaine Cotton. Given his numbers and his history, he's not the type to stick out as a dominant reliever, though; his 4.60 ERA and 1.93 K/BB are both not encouraging. He did log 45 innings, second to Minor, and save 12 games, though.

Mitchell Lambson, by the numbers, is a guy who had a more closer-esque season; a 3.32 ERA and a stunning 7.00 K/BB ratio make it easy to see why he was promoted to AA (where he pitched even better, incredibly) and is now pitching in the AFL, with an eye towards an MLB career.

Though there was limited time left once the Astros finally promoted Tyler Brunnemann to Lancaster, The Brunnemann still wrought considerable destruction during his 13.1 innings of work, posting a 2.02 ERA while striking out 18 batters. He became a key cog in the playoff run, pitching 6.2 innings with 12 strike outs, a hold and a save, helping the team secure it's championship.

The other relievers: Patrick Christensen, J.D. Osborne, Tyson Perez, Richard Rodriguez, Andrew Walter, Chris Cotton, Austin Elkins and Jobduan Morales.