It was a far cry from just a few years ago, when AAA was a hopeless, barren wasteland full of veterans hanging on for their lives, draft busts and other non-prospects.
In 2010, six played started at least ten games for the Astros' AAA affiliate, then the Round Rock Express; Andy Van Hekken, Josh Banks, Polin Trinidad, Shane Loux, Wesley Wright and Sergio Perez. Of those six, only Wright is in the Majors; Van Hekken is in Korea, Loux is probably at the end as a 35-year-old on the Giants' rookie ball club, Perez is in an Independent League, and Trinidad is out of baseball entirely. The group posted a combined 4.65 ERA and Round Rock finished the year 57-87.
Four years later, and the seven pitchers who made at least ten starts for the Oklahoma City RedHawks (Rudy Owens, Nick Tropeano, Michael Foltynewicz, Jake Buchanan, Asher Wojciechowski, David Martinez and Alex White) didn't do a great deal better, with a combined 4.56 ERA on the year. A mediocre semi-prospect (Martinez, 5.64) and two guys returning from significant time lost due to injury (Wojciechowski and White, 4.74 and 6.50, respectively) dragged that overall figure down considerably.
Despite the hiccups, especially down the stretch, the team's pitching staff did quite well as a whole; out of 16 teams in the PCL, Oklahoma City finished 4th best in ERA (4.19) and in walks allowed (454), and only the Nashville Sounds allowed fewer homers than did the RedHawks' pitchers (106). The philosophy of keeping it on the ground and limiting walks was evident at the highest level.
And now, a closer look at the individuals who made those strong team numbers possible.
Nicholas Tropeano came into the season a fan favorite, but big media attention and prospect-love had always escaped him. Working with a low-90's heater and a great change up, he's never profiled as a front-line starter, but that's how he pitched in 2014.
NiTro led the league in ERA at 3.03; his nearest competitor was Chris Heston, who owned a 3.38 ERA. He was tied for 12th in the PCL in strike outs (120) despite the piggyback rotation scheme costing him innings; only six men had more strike outs than he did with less than 140 innings to do it in.
Among his teammates; he was, obviously, the team-leader in ERA, and also first in strike outs and K/BB ratio. He was second in innings pitched, and he was the only OKC starter to own a WHIP lower than one (0.987). NiTro's sparkling season earned him a September call up and a few starts for the Big League team.
The Top Prospect
No one on the staff had better raw stuff than Michael Foltynewicz, though in the past he had been hampered by command issues, and those persisted in his first season at AAA.
He whiffed 102 batters in 102.2 innings; while 25 other pitchers racked up more strike outs, all of them had more innings than did Folty, who was called up after the deadline; among pitchers with 105 or fewer innings in the PCL, Folty's 102 strike outs were first.
He was also, unfortunately, 9th in the league in walks, and only two of the guys who did worse had fewer than 125 innings under their belts. His 4.56 BB/9 was the fourth-worst mark among all PCL pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched.
On his own team, he was one of three pitchers with 100 or more innings of work, and led all starters in strike out rate with 8.9 K/9.
Lacking both NiTro's level of success and Folty's hype, Rudy Owens slotted in third in the rotation and provided real value. He led the staff with 135 innings on the mound; only 17 other pitchers in the PCL tossed more frames, which is impressive when you consider that the piggyback rotation system cuts into the innings of the Astros' pitching prospects.
He tied Alex White for the most games among the starters (25), and among OKC pitchers who tossed at least 35 innings, only NiTro had a better WHIP; Owens checked in with a rock-solid 1.252, thanks to a stellar 2.2 BB/9, which itself was second-best of the staff starters.
A 3.15 K/BB ratio and a 42.1% ground ball rate rounded out a, well, a well-rounded season. Though not excelling in any one area, Owens competed admirably in virtually every way, and was the glue that held the pitching staff together throughout the season.
Ground ball specialist, that is. Jake Buchanan plied his sinker ball and his pinpoint control to great effect for the RedHawks in 2014, posting a 60.5% ground ball rate and a 1.6 BB/9, both easily the top marks on the team, before being called up to the Major Leagues to serve as a spot starter and long relief man.
Among the starters who pitched at least 30 innings for the club, only NiTro had a better ERA, and his 2.88 K/BB ratio was the 11th best mark out of all 32 men who pitched for the club at some point during the year.
Of all pitchers who tossed at least 87 innings in the PCL in 2014, only two others allowed as few walks as Buchanan did (16). He posted a 3.87 ERA in 88.1 innings for OKC before he was placed on the Astros' roster for good, and the team surely missed his steady production down the stretch.
The Promising Injured Pair
139.2 of the 1,270.1 innings (11%) that the team pitched together came from Asher Wojciechowski and Alex White, a pair of former-top-prospects that Jeff Luhnow acquired early in his tenure as GM, who he still hopes can figure into the picture at some point.
Wojo entered the year with a fair amount of hope, if not hype, surrounding him. After re-establishing his potential as a starter with a strong performance following the trade during 2012 that brought him to Houston, he had arguably the best season of his career in 2013, dominating AA for the first month of the season before putting together a solid showing during the next four months in AAA.
He seemed poised to earn a call up to the Majors if he could put just a few solid months under his belt in AAA to start the 2014 season, but injuries hit him early in Spring Training, and it wasn't until mid-June that he managed to rejoin the rotation for good.
At that point, the rust was apparent; he posted a 4.74 ERA during his 76 innings of work, despite peripherals that were actually slightly improved from the previous season (his strike out rate remained precisely the same at 6.99, while his walk rate dropped by 0.47). The big change was a much higher BAbip and allowing more homers. Both of these figures are likely to come down some with time, work and further recovery, but for OKC, the lack of Wojo, who figured large in their plans, hurt immensely.
White's struggles were more expected, as he was returning from Tommy John surgery. He hadn't thrown a pitch since September 30, 2012 when he finally took the mound again, and it was far from being as easy as riding a bike again. Despite an ugly 6.50 ERA, though, he did post a solid 7.49 K/9, and there appeared to be several unsustainable factors working against him; a .352 BAbip, a 60.1% strand rate and the fact that his GB was much lower than it usually is, given his powerful sinker, are all strong indications that improvement is likely to come.
After a stupendous breakout in AA, Tommy Shirley earned a promotion to AAA late in the season and pitched in 13 games for the RedHawks down the stretch, mostly out of the bullpen. Whether that means they see him as more of a reliever long-term, or that they just wanted to limit his innings, is unknown. Struggling with walks after the promotion, he compiled a 4.35 ERA, thanks mostly to a seven-earned-run start early on.
Bobby Doran, the Astros' 4th-round selection in the 2010 draft, spent 2014 much like he did 2013; back and forth between AA and AAA. Unlike the previous season, however, he wasn't able to find much success, and was dealt to the White Sox in July for Jeffry Santos, a young infield prospect. He posted a 5.36 ERA in 80.2 innings of work for his hometown club before the trade.
David Martinez has been around a while. He started off on the club's Venezuelan Summer League team all the way back in 2005. That means he was in the system when Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were still on the Astros' active roster. He's stayed semi-relevant throughout his long climb through the system by posting good walk rates and providing decent value as a starter. He soaked up 83 innings for the AAA team this season.
The star of Paul Clemens seems to be fading, but that might be more because he looked so dreadful against MLB competition this year than because of what he did for the AAA club. His walk rate continues to be a problem, but in 46.1 innings for OKC this year, he provided a decent 4.08 ERA and his strike out rate spiked to 8.0 K/9.
Brady Rodgers, Brad Peacock, Brett Oberholtzer, Luis Cruz, Collin McHugh and Ross Seaton also had at least one start each for the AAA team this year.
No man appeared in more games for OKC this year than did Jason Stoffel, who took the mound 54 times. He also led the club in saves with 11, while posting a 3.20 ERA, 9.5 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 in 64.2 innings of work. His career at AAA now totals 127 innings, during which time he owns a 3.33 ERA.
The man with the second-most innings on the club without a start was Jorge De Leon. The converted shortstop racked up 48 innings out of the pen and was actually even better than Stoffel, compiling a 2.62 ERA, 8.1 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. He was called up to the Majors for the second time in as many seasons, tossing 7.1 innings in September for Houston.
Arguably the best reliever on the club, Kevin Chapman restored his stock as a player after being demoted from the Majors early in the season. He tossed 44 innings for the club, posting a 1.23 ERA with 13.1 K/9 before Houston decided he was too valuable to be down in the minors anymore. After being promoted again to the Majors, he walked just two batters in 15.2 innings, giving real hope that his main weakness had been addressed well.
Quiz time; among all AAA club members who tossed at least 25 innings, who led the club in K/BB ratio? The answer is...well, Oberholtzer, 10.33 K/BB but...he doesn't belong down there. Who was second, then? Richard Rodriguez at 3.83! Who? He's been in the system since 2010, and K/BB ratio is his statistical claim to fame; during his 161 career minor league innings, he has a 4.31 K/BB ratio. His walk rate of 1.9 BB/9 for AAA is right in-line with what he can do, and his strike out rate, historically, looks like it could improve as well. He threw 28.1 innings for OKC after being promoted.
Patrick Urckfitz is still kicking around after being an un-drafted free agent signing back in 2008, the year Jason Castro was our first overall pick. There's something to be said for that alone, much less for the fact that he's actually being effective. AAA was unkind to him this season though, thanks to an oddly-inflated walk rate. He posted a 4.10 ERA in 26.1 innings for the RedHawks.
11 other men provided varying numbers of innings out of the pen this year; Rhiner Cruz, Chia-Jen Lo, Josh Zeid, Anthony Bass, Darin Downs, Jose Cisnero, Raul Valdes, Andrew Robinson, Josh Fields, Jose Veras and Frederick Tiburcio.