By The Numbers: Stockton Pitching Staff

For the first half of the 2009 season, the Stockton Ports' pitching staff finished in the middle of the California League in pitching with a 4.60 ERA. Nathaniel Stoltz takes a closer look at the individual pitchers on the Ports' staff to see whose ERAs are an accurate assessment of their performance thus far this season, and whose are misleading.

Scott Hodsdon has posted BABIPs above .330 for three straight years. With that consistency, it's tempting to think he's doing something wrong to be that hittable, but his batted-ball splits actually indicate that he should have BABIPs in the .290 range. Hodsdon's ERA should be a run lower than it is, but that still only makes him a 4.78 ERA pitcher. He may need a move to the bullpen to find upper-level success.

Craig Italiano's ERA is nearly a run higher than Hodsdon's, but he actually has performed almost exactly as well. In contrast to Hodsdon, Italiano is a pure power pitcher (mid-90's fastball, mid-80's curveball) who doesn't have much strike zone command. Italiano has a delivery that resembles Orioles lefthander Rich Hill; he tilts his left (lead) shoulder way up before he pitches, which creates deception but also makes it easy for the pitcher to lose his center of gravity. Like Hill, Italiano suffers from command lapses because of this (5.05 BB/9), but strikes out enough batters to be average overall (8.45 K/9). Italiano has enough pure stuff to succeed with any delivery; he may want to alter his mechanics to improve his command.

Tyson Ross has also been a mid-to-high-4s ERA pitcher. His strikeout, walk and homer rates are all average to slightly above-average, and he gets a lot of ground balls (56.4%) while allowing very few line drives (7.4%). He would look better if he wasn't pitching in the high-offense Cal League with a poor defensive team behind him to boot, and while he isn't dominating, he's still a pretty good prospect.

Mathieu Leblanc Poirier is the first pitcher in this article who has been lucky. A .254 BABIP has helped the Canadian right-hander, who deserves an ERA around 6.00. Given that it's only his first full year of pro ball, and he's a low draft pick pitching in the Cal League, Leblanc Poirier's struggles are to be expected. He needs better command (4.66 BB/9) and more strikeouts (5.44 K/9) to reverse his fortunes.

Derrick Gordon has improved his ability to keep the ball on the ground (50.0 GB%), which has helped his homer rate go from below-average last year to excellent this year. However, he's old for the Cal League at 25, so he really needs to be showing sharper command (4.14 BB/9) if he is going to someday be a lefty specialist in the majors. He's pitched well enough to deserve a sub-4.00 ERA, but at his age, he really needs to excel.

Justin Friend also possesses a stellar groundball rate (53.7%) and homer rate (.45 HR/9), combined with a strong strikeout rate (9.68 K/9) and command problems (4.65 K/9). Friend just turned 23, so he's got more of a leash than Gordon, but the system is stacked with good relievers, so he needs to improve his command soon to stand out in the crowd. His 2.25 ERA is lucky; he deserves an ERA in the mid 3's.

Patrick Currin has been unlucky to put up a 4.91 ERA, as his bad luck with BABIP (.333) and stranding runners (59.5%) inflates his ERA by about a run. Currin has a strong K/BB ratio (2.73) and good homer rate (.70 HR/9). His problem is similar to Gordon's; at age 25, you have to be a dominant bullpen force to get noticed (like Michael Benacka was in Stockton last year), and Currin, while a very good High-A pitcher, isn't quite at that dominant level.

Ben Hornbeck has been the best pitcher in the organization thus far, quite an accomplishment in this deep system. He was lucky in Kane County (deserving an ERA around 2.00 instead of 1.24), but he put up an ace-caliber line of 2.48 BB/9, 11.64 K/9, and .50 HR/9. Promoted to Stockton, Hornbeck saw his ERA take a beating (4.55), but he actually deserved an incredibly low mark around 1.00. His walk, strikeout and homer rates all actually improved from Kane County (2.28 BB/9, 12.64 K/9, 0 HR/9). Yes, he got hit around in Midland, but he deserves an ERA 10 runs lower than 16.20. Stuff-wise, he throws an 84-89 mph fastball, a below-average breaking ball, a nice cutter and a plus-plus changeup. Given that stuff and this utter dominance of the low minors, it's easy to compare Hornbeck to current A's ace Dallas Braden, and Hornbeck could enjoy a similar or better career.

Nick Walters, like Friend, is a 23-year-old with command issues, but in Walters' case, the command issues are so severe that they prevent him from being effective. His 3.67 ERA aside, you just can't succeed in baseball when you walk 7.33 batters per nine innings. Walters gets strikeouts (8.00 K/9) and has only allowed one homer in 27 innings, so he's got some positives, but it's imperative for the lefty to make major improvements in finding the strike zone. If he can't, the high-4's ERA he deserves is about as well as a pitcher can do with a walk rate that high.

Scott Mitchinson is already 24, but he shouldn't be written off. The Australian righty has good command of a four-pitch mix, and has pitched much better than his 4.50 ERA indicates; he deserves almost a run lower, but a .349 BABIP mars his line. Mitchinson has the best command of any pitcher on the staff (2.63 BB/9) except perhaps Hodsdon, but he also (unlike Hodsdon) has an excellent strikeout rate (8.63 K/9). At his age, Mitchinson needs to move quickly, and I'd recommend the organization gives him a Double-A look before season's end, if he remains healthy, which has been his biggest problem to date.

Lance Sewell has taken well to the Cal League, as his Tim Lincecum-esque twisting delivery has baffled hitters, who have trouble making contact (12.43 K/9). Sewell's walk rate looks bad (4.29 BB/9), but it's really not as bad as it looks, as his second outing after coming back from injury (May 25 vs. Visalia) saw him walk four batters in just one inning, which was probably just an injury layoff effect. Other than that, Sewell has walked just 6 batters in 20 innings. An extreme flyball pitcher (36.2 GB%), Sewell has predictably had some homer issues in the Cal League (1.71 HR/9), but that's inflated by an extreme HR/FB figure (19.0%) that's about twice what it should be. He's a good pitcher who's on a path to reach Triple-A and perhaps the majors at some point later in his career.

Leonardo Espinal pitched very well at Kane County to begin the year, deserving an ERA just over 1.00. Of course, dominance of the Midwest League was a must for the 25-year-old sidearmer to stick around much longer. Promoted to Stockton after 9.2 innings, Espinal has continued to get strikeouts (9.39 K/9) and grounders (61.4%), but his control has deserted him (6.46 BB/9). That's a problem Espinal needs to fix in a hurry if he's going to be the next Brad Ziegler. If he can keep the strikeouts up while getting the walks down to 2008 levels (3.36 BB/9), Espinal may be the rare 25-year-old A-ball pitcher with a big league future.

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