The Midland RockHounds hold an 18-14 record so far this year, four games out of the division lead in the first-half standings. Their pitching staff has only been middle-of-the-pack, but recently their unexciting rotation got a jolt with the addition of Top 100 prospect Jesus Luzardo.
It only took Luzardo three starts in High-A Stockton before he was called up a couple weeks ago. That’s an extremely rapid rise for a 20-year-old, and unprecedented in the Beane Era, but the lefty is believed to be on an innings count for various good reasons and the team probably wanted to use those limited innings at the most challenging level possible.
So far, so good. Luzardo has made three starts in Double-A, and each time he’s been sharp. He’s being held to five innings per game right now, but each appearance featured two earned runs or fewer, at least a strikeout per inning, and exactly one walk.
Luzardo, AA: 3.00 ERA, 15 ip, 19 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, 2.45 FIP
Up in Stockton he was striking out nearly half of the batters he faced, and in Midland he’s still fanning nearly a third of them. He’s not dominating against this tougher competition like he did in High-A, but he’s still succeeding.
As a reminder of what Luzardo is working with, here’s a snippet from Melissa Lockard’s interview with A’s Asst GM Billy Owens, at The Athletic:
The biggest thing is that Jesus Luzardo is poised. He’s mature beyond his years. He’s a strike-thrower. His fastball is up to 96-97 but he’ll cruise in that 92-93 range. Plus changeup, good breaking ball.
Luzardo made three major national Top 100 lists last winter, topping out at No. 60 at MLB Pipeline. If he keeps up his current progress, though, he’ll surely be a unanimous pick by midseason and could even find himself in the Top 50 — in fact, in an unusually early list update this week, Pipeline already moved him up to No. 36.
#Athletics No. 3 prospect Jesus Luzardo (@Baby_Jesus9) strikes out seven over five innings for @RockHounds and lowers his Texas League ERA to 3.00.@Athletics— MiLB.com (@MiLB) May 7, 2018
WATCH: https://t.co/SLF3q4cc1X pic.twitter.com/SyncQRxqLd
While we’re on the topic of the starting rotation, there is one more true prospect in the group. Norge Ruiz was a flop last summer in his U.S. debut, but he’s bouncing back this time around. He got torched in his first outing of the year (1⅔ ip, 8 runs), and that disaster will weigh down his season stats for a while yet. However, remove that outlier and he’s been sharp in his last five games:
Norge Ruiz, last 5 starts: 2.40 ERA, 30 ip, 18 Ks, 7 BB, 2 HR, 4.09 FIP
His best appearance so far came in late April, when he tossed seven scoreless frames on the road against one of the most productive lineups in the Texas League. His low strikeout rate means his peripherals are only mediocre, but at least the 24-year-old has taken a clear step forward from last year and is finding success for now.
Tucker Healy released
The Hounds made a move in their bullpen last week, releasing reliever Tucker Healy on May 3. Once upon a time Healy made our CPL, earning the No. 30 spot on the strength of a massive strikeout for Triple-A Nashville in 2016 — he racked up 13 K/9, and 34.6% of batters faced. However, the strikeouts disappeared the next year, with those rates cut fully in half, and with them went his overall effectiveness (ERA and FIP both jumped more than a run).
After his 2017 decline, Healy found himself demoted back to Double-A amid an always crowded bullpen depth chart. His early numbers were fine at the lower level, but clearly he was falling off the A’s radar and now he’s out of the organization entirely. He never quite made it to Oakland, nor even to the 40-man roster, but now he’ll keep trying in the Mariners’ system as he approaches his 28th birthday next month.
In his place, Midland picked up a lefty. Dean Kiekhefer, who turns 29 in June, has a LOOGY profile and stark platoon splits. He spent most of his career in the Cardinals organization and even threw 22 MLB innings for them in 2016, but like Healy he spent two years in Triple-A only to be demoted back down to begin this season. He’s most likely org filler, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the best lefties in an A’s system that doesn’t have any to speak of:
MLB: Ryan Buchter (DL)
MLB/AAA: Danny Coulombe
AAA: Eric Jokisch, filler
AAA: Jeremy Bleich, filler
AA: Cody Stull, career 5.62 ERA in Double-A
AA: Kiekhefer, we’ll find out!
AA: Jarret Martin, career 7.5 BB/9 in Double-A
A+: Andrew Tomasovich and Will Gilbert, (more info)
This video is from May 2016, but you can see his sidewinding delivery and learn to pronounce his name (KEEK-heff-uhr). In his minor league career he’s got a tiny rate of 1.6 BB/9, and in Triple-A it was still as low as 1.8 BB/9. Maybe there’s something here after all?
As for the rest of the pen, no one is standing out with an incredible performance yet. Sam Bragg is doing fine in his third tour of Double-A, but with an uninspiring 4.85 FIP. Nolan Blackwood started the year poorly but is trending in the right direction, having gone scoreless in his last four games. J.B. Wendelken is striking out the world (15 K/9, 37.7%) but allowing too many walks and homers to be consistently effective. The best so far has been 26-year-old John Gorman — he appears to be on a fast track after being delayed by early-career injuries, and he’s got an impressive line in his first crack at the upper minors: 2.57 ERA, 14 ip, 11 Ks, 1 BB, 1 HR, 3.31 FIP.
The Hounds offense is more or less made up of three hitters. Overall the team is below-average in scoring, but these guys are doing their best to carry the load.
Sean Murphy, C: .336/.383/.598, 160 wRC+, 4 HR, 4.3% BB, 18.1% Ks
Tyler Ramirez, OF: .321/.418/.527, 154 wRC+, 3 HR, 11.9% BB, 24.6% Ks
Eli White, IF: .294/.373/.479, 129 wRC+, 4 HR, 10.4% BB, 23.1% Ks
We can put to rest any remaining doubts about Murphy’s power, which has returned in force this year. I’d like to see him walk more, but that’s not a dealbreaker for now as long as he’s keeping his strikeout rate low and turning his contact into a high rate of hits. Ramirez is fueled by an enormous .423 BABIP, but we’ve been waiting seven months and two levels for that to drop and it still hasn’t. White has played three positions (SS, 3B, 2B) and could be hitting his way into full prospect status — if his numbers look like this at year’s end then he’ll be in the running for the 2019 CPL.
No one else in the lineup is above league-average, with Mikey White and his 100 wRC+ being the closest. He’s leading the team with six homers, but striking out far too much to be anything more than noteworthy (32.5%). Richie Martin is doing nothing at the plate, again (70 wRC+).
I dug through for a few more interesting stats on these guys, and here’s what I found:
- Martin won’t stop hitting the ball on the ground. He’s at 64.1%, by far the highest rate on the team (and second in the entire Texas League), and it was the same story all of last year when he also slumped wire to wire. No qualified hitter in MLB was even above 58% last year, and the best comps for such a high rate in the last decade are Ben Revere (poor hitter) and latter-day Derek Jeter (after he wasn’t much good anymore). Martin has no power and merely good speed, so it’s hard to see this all-grounder diet ever working for him.
- Murphy also hits the ball on the ground a lot, more than I would expect for a guy with slugging ability. He’s at 51.2% grounders, but that’s almost identical to last year during his power outage. I’m not drawing any conclusions about this, especially since it’s stayed constant throughout both good and bad splits. It just struck me as odd.
- Although Ramirez’s strikeout rate is higher than you’d like for his high-average, high-OBP profile, he’s actually got one of the lowest swinging-strike rates on the team (10.0%). That suggests to me that his K-rate is more indicative of working long counts than anything else. Murphy is right there with him in terms of whiff rate (10.3%) but with a much lower strikeout rate, possibly because he’s been more aggressive earlier in counts before even getting the chance for a third strike. To drive the point home, Ramirez leads the team with 4.26 pitches per plate appearance, while Murphy’s 3.44 is about as low as it gets (lowest in MLB last year was Yuli Gurriel at 3.43).
- Mikey White jumps out in two areas: significantly increased swinging-strike rate (14.7%), and absurdly high rate of pulling the ball to LF (70.6%, tops in the entire Texas League). Is he simply selling out for maximum power? Worth a try, I suppose, and he’s indeed getting that power even if it’s not yet making him a better overall hitter.
Full slate of action.
Triple-A Nashville: 4:35 p.m., Daniel Gossett vs. Colorado Springs
Double-A Midland: 5:05 p.m., Kyle Friedrichs vs. Corpus Christi
High-A Stockton: 7:00 p.m., Zack Erwin vs. Visalia
Single-A Beloit: 4:30 p.m., Mitchell Jordan vs. Lansing
If Gossett goes through with that start, then we can expect to see Kendall Graveman in Oakland on Friday. Friedrichs carries a 7.03 ERA into his game, which is actually better than his 7.55 FIP.