To quote quite possibly the greatest baseball movie ever made, Bull Durham, “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. You got it?”
Kevin Slowey – A 2009 Breakout Pitcher?
For all of the wisdom that pitching coaches try to impart on their young gunslingers, the keys to being a successful moundsman are no more complicated. 1) Have confidence in your pitches. 2) Throw them for strikes, especially on the first pitch. 3) Throw them without letting the batter hit them well. While we will dig deep into the data, it is with these simple guidelines that we evaluate a breakout candidate for 2009 – Kevin Slowey.
Slowey is only 24 years old. He breezed through the Minnesota Twins minor league system in 2005 and 2006 and dominated at AAA Rochester with a 1.54 ERA before making his major league debut mid-2007. But while 23 year old prospects typcially see their first major league action based on power and potential, Slowey took a path more uncommon for his age – control, discipline, patience.
As a 21 year old in his first year of professional ball, Slowey struck out 84 batters in 72 innings. More impressive was that he only walked 8, equating to a 10.5 K/BB ratio. It goes without saying that Slowey will never match this high an indicator of control at any level. But he would still go on to target the strike zone as few in any league could. In 2006, he took on batters with High A Fort Myers and AA New Britain, striking out 151 and walking 22 (6.9 K/BB) in 148 2/3 innings. As a 22 year old at AAA Rochester a year later, he put up 107 K’s and 18 walks (5.9 K/BB) in 133 2/3 innings in between his two stints in Minnesota. Slowey faced major leaguers for the first time in ’07, but his addiction to strikes continued with 47 strikeouts and 11 walks (4.3 K/BB) in 66 2/3 innings. In his second year in the majors, 2008, Slowey’s control improved with 123 K’s and 24 walks (5.1 K/BB) in 160 1/3 innings.
In a recent posting on RotoAuthority, David Chase details the different signs a pitcher can break out. His first two signs, “Age Relative To Level” and “Pitching Peripherals”, match this stingy 24 year old rather well. But the next sign, “Pitch Velocity”, is not his style.
Slowey is anything but overpowering. He features four average pitches – a fastball that hovers around 90 mph, a tight mid-80′s slider, a good changeup that he throws in the low 80′s, and a slow mid-70′s curveball. But he can throw each pitch for strikes and does so often. Last year, Slowey led all pitchers with over 160 innings in the percentage of pitches that crossed the strike zone – 58.1%. He made his pitching coach happy, also throwing enough first-pitch strikes (67.2%) to place second in the majors behind now-retired Mike Mussina. What’s more, when he did throw strikes, he used his varied arsenal to change speeds and keep hitters off balance. When hitters swung at his pitches in the strike zone, they made contact 85.7% of the time, good to tie him for 15th place.
Many people have looked at Slowey’s arsenal, style, and competitiveness and made the comparison to former Twins starter Brad Radke. Apt as though it may be, a more appropriate one might be 1988 NL Cy Young winner, Orel Hershiser. Both feature the same sets of pitches, the same superior control, and the same strike out rates. And given his talent and age, the future might be just as bright. But where they differ exposes Slowey’s biggest weakness. As a pitcher who focuses heavily on the strike zone and relies more on fly balls for outs than grounders, he is susceptible to the long ball. In his rookie season, he gave up 2.2 home runs every 9 innings. To give you perspective, in 2007 Woody Williams led all pitchers with enough innings to qualify with 1.7. Slowey improved on that in his second year with 1.23 per 9. But that still kept him in the top 20 and kept his ERA unnecessarily high.
In 2007, Slowey topped 200 combined innings between the minors and majors. Were it not for a biceps injury sustained the first game of last year, he would have matched that total. If he can keep the ball down this year, maintain his superior control, and continue his improving strike out rate, Slowey is in for a great year. Projections looking something like this would be altogether reasonable: 200 innings, 166 strike outs, 32 walks, a 3.40 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, and 15 Wins.
Baseball is a simple game. And mastering the basics might just make Kevin Slowey a star.