The St. Louis Cardinals have established proficiency in bringing success out of relievers selected late in the draft. Kevin Siegrist is famously known as the 41st-round selection who exploded on the scene in 2013, becoming a key piece of the St. Louis bullpen. Last year’s The Cardinal Nation Minors Rookie Reliever of the Year, Kyle Grana, was an undrafted free agent. One of the Cardinals’ Arizona Fall League invitees for 2015, Dean Kiekhefer, was a 36th-round pick in 2010. Relievers Lee Stoppelman, Dixon Llorens and Chris Perry were all taken later in the 2012 draft and have shown some success despite also struggling with injury or ineffectiveness at one time or another.
This year’s selection process for the top rookie reliever in the Cardinals system came down to two players drafted this June after one thousand other players had been selected. With innings pitched totals so small for relievers making their pro debut, the focus fell on two big statistics: strikeout-minus-walk-rate and fielding independent pitching. While more traditional statistics such as ERA and WHIP were factored in, those are much more fluid for relievers, especially in smaller sample sizes.
Luke Harrison was selected in the 35th round of the 2015 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Indiana. The right-handed hurler impressed in Bloomington throughout his collegiate career and finished strong in his senior season. Before the Cardinals tabbed him with the 1,061st pick, Harrison pitched to a 2.02 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 49 innings while striking out 61 and walking 13.
After signing with the Cardinals, the front office assigned Harrison to the State College Spikes, and he completely outclassed the short-season Class-A competition. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder tossed 35 1/3 innings for the Spikes and struck out 28 batters. He showed phenomenal command, issuing only three walks to 140 batters faced.
With a 17.86% K-BB%, Harrison put up the second-best rate among rookie relievers in the system, and his 9.33 K/BB ratio was the best by far. For comparison on his command, the only other rookie reliever to match his walk total was his teammate Greg Tomchick, but Tomchick threw just seven innings. Harrison’s excellent command and impressive strikeouts led to a 2.64 FIP, 1.02 ERA, and 0.96 WHIP.
Runner-Up: Chandler Hawkins
Taken two rounds before Harrison, Hawkins landed in Johnson City for his pro debut. There, the former Arkansas State hurler threw 29 1/3 innings, facing 125 batters. The left-hander struck out 32 of them, but his command was less impressive than Harrison’s. Hawkins walked 11 of 125 batters, hit four batters, and threw three wild pitches.
Still, Hawkins was impressive enough to earn a cup of coffee with the Palm Beach Cardinals to close the season. In the Florida State League, he threw 2 1/3 innings, allowing a run on three hits and striking out three of 10 batters faced. Overall, Hawkins put up a 17.78% K-BB% with the best strikeout rate among rookie relievers at 25.93%.
Ben Yokley, Johnson City: 13 1/3 IP, 5.40 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 4.12 FIP, 18.97% K-BB% (best among rookie relievers)
Max Almonte, State College: 15 IP, 3.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 4.32 FIP, 0% K-BB% (walked as many as he struck out, six)
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 organization’s Rookie Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year, up next.
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