In 2015, the Palm Beach Cardinals had arguably the best pitching staff in the Florida State League. En route to leading the entire league in ERA, WHIP, fewest home runs allowed, and a whole host of other categories, a number of starting pitchers stood out as exceptional.
In fact, five come to mind without any effort at all, and that is after excluding Daniel Poncedeleon’s 1.49 ERA because he only threw 42 innings with Palm Beach. It’s unfair, really, to leave out a performance of that caliber, but you have to be unfair to somebody when you have as many impressive performances as the Cardinals had this past season.
Now let’s take a look at the five top candidates for Palm Beach’s Pitcher of the Year Award and see if we can’t be unfair to a few more of them.
The first name that jumps to mind is Rob Kaminsky. The 21-year-old had a stellar season, posting a 2.09 ERA while striking out 79 over 92 1/3 innings. I can complain that his K/9 was low at 7.51, or that FIP didn’t think he was quite as good and suggested he should have averaged 2.51 earned runs per nine innings, but those are trivial in the grand scheme of things.
Kaminsky was phenomenal for Palm Beach and certainly should have a claim on Pitcher of the Year. But he can’t have it. My reason is once again unfair, but the lefty was traded to Cleveland in July and did not finish the season with the Cardinals. So, on a technicality, the impressive Rob Kaminsky is removed from the competition, leaving us just four candidates.
Between May 19 and June 26, right hander Trey Nielsen was nearly untouchable. He gave up just four earned runs over seven starts, averaging 6.7 innings per start and going 5-1 over the stretch. Although his season numbers aren’t quite as impressive, a 2.59 ERA is nothing to scoff at, and combined with a month-long period of absolute dominance, it’s easy to see why he’s being considered for Pitcher of the Year.
Relegated to the bullpen to limit his workload late in the season, however, Nielsen wound up throwing just 14 innings after July. Additionally, although his ERA looks nice, it’s actually the second worst of the five candidates, and his FIP of 3.11 is the worst by nearly a quarter of a run. And so, outstanding June aside, Trey Nielsen will not receive Palm Beach’s Pitcher of the Year Award for 2015.
Next up is Corey Littrell. Sporting the worst ERA of the lot (an “atrocious” 2.69 mark), it seems easy to dismiss Littrell off hand as unworthy of this award. Acquired in the Lackey trade with Boston in July of 2014, the 23-year-old lefty improved drastically this season, but certainly he can’t claim to be the best pitcher on Palm Beach’s staff, right?
Well, two things stand out about Littrell’s numbers. First, his 2.77 FIP suggests that his 2.69 ERA was entirely real, and not the product of some underlying luck. While most of the other candidates had FIPs nearly half a run worse than their actual ERAs, Littrell’s numbers match up almost perfectly.
The second point in his favor is the second half of the season. Over the first half, Littrell had an ERA of 4.28. Over two incredible months, he dropped that number over a run and a half by posting an ERA of 1.55 over 11 second half starts. Even more impressive, after putting up a 5.76 K/9 in the first half, he improved that number to 6.90 in the second half. His strikeout-to-walk ratio rose from 3.18 to 5.80.
In short, the lefty figured out how to strike out a lot more batters without raising his walk count. Unfortunately, he still has the worst ERA of our candidates, and that’s enough to keep him off the podium this year. Better luck next time, Corey.
Now that we’ve gotten the honorable mentions out of the way, it’s time to get to the star of the show. The kid with 100 mile per hour heat and a nasty curveball. The young, tall, righty who is blowing away scouts, batters, and (rather quickly) the minor leagues themselves.
I am talking about Mr. 13.57 K/9 himself, Alex Reyes. Just to take a step back, who strikes out 96 batters in 63 2/3 innings? To put that in perspective, if Clayton Kershaw had struck out batters at Reyes’ rate this year, he would have finished this season with 345 strikeouts instead of 301. And Reyes did not slow down when he hit Double-A, either, posting a nearly identical K-rate there.
While the rest of Palm Beach’s rotation was getting lucky, outperforming their FIPs by about half a run on average, Reyes was getting beat around to the tune of a 2.26 ERA. Even with a BABIP north of .370 and generally awful luck, the flamethrowing righty was still nearly unstoppable.
Sure, you can complain that he walked 4.38 per nine innings, but when he pitched for Palm Beach, there was a better than one-in-three chance that any given batter wasn’t even going to have the opportunity to run to first base. That came with a 12% chance that he’d get to walk there, but anytime 37% of hitters strike out, you’re doing something incredible.
Reyes is a special talent. I’m not sure if it comes through clearly in my writing, but I’m a teensy bit enamored. It’s hard not to be, and there’s no doubt that Reyes had an incredible performance for Palm Beach this past season. If he had pitched 30 more innings, or had a lower walk rate, or the second half of the season just didn’t matter, I’d hand him the trophy right now. If anyone wants to give the trophy to him right here and ignore the rest of this piece, I certainly won’t complain. But I just can’t do it.
Luke Weaver is my choice for The Cardinal Nation’s Palm Beach’s Starting Pitcher of the Year Award in 2015. He beat out one of the best pitching prospects in baseball and the rest of an incredible starting rotation to earn the award.
And let there be no doubt, the 2014 first rounder earned it. His ERA was an amazing 1.62, the best among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in the Florida State League by about eight tenths of a run. His 2.28 FIP was also the best in the league, and it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the lefty was not just the best of Palm Beach’s pitchers, but the best pitcher in the entire Florida State League.
Weaver’s sterling second half stands out even more than his season stats, as he posted a 1.12 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and struck out 62 in 72 1/3 innings. He was recognized as the organization’s Pitcher of the Month in July. Weaver was not as flashy as Reyes, but the young righty put up incredible numbers over the course of the season, and (incredibly) out-pitched the rest of his teammates.
As I said in the beginning, we had to be unfair to quite a few of these young pitchers, and all of them deserve due recognition for their roles in Palm Beach’s incredible rotation. In the end, however, Luke Weaver deserves the title more than anyone else.
Link to master article with all 2015 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that includes our selections as the Palm Beach Cardinals Relief Pitcher and Player of the Year.
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