About a month ago, I wrote about individual home run leaders in the minors. As far as individual stats go, and I agree it's relatively unimportant, the home run leaderboard is the best individual competition to follow for batters. On the pitching side, it's probably strikeouts.
Strikeouts aren't a perfect indicator, but the best prospects tend to rack up a lot of minor league strikeouts. In a lot of cases, it shows that the pitcher has the stuff to get batters out at the next level. Of course, there are exceptions. There are plenty of strikeout pitchers that won't amount to much because of a variety of factors. They're much older than their competition and are naturally better, they have a "trick" such as deception in their delivery or an advanced changeup, or their command doesn't allow them to harness their stuff. The opposite is true too. There are pitchers who can survive without striking out a lot of batters because the movement on their pitches can generate ground balls and weak contact.
The two year reigning strikeout king is Matt Moore
. In this category, he was a beast, even if his overall numbers always weren't. In 2009, he led the minors with 176 strikeouts, six ahead of Anthony Capra
in the Oakland organization. In 2010, Moore decided he wanted to obliterate everyone. He struck out 208 in the regular season, finishing 25 strikeouts ahead of second place, Charlie Furbush
. That was the most strikeouts in the minors since 2002 when Clint Nageotte
struck out at least 214 in the Cal League. And we all remember Clint Nageotte
This year, Moore isn't running away with the crown. In fact, he's not even in first right now. His strikeout rate has dipped from 12.9 per 9 innings in both 2009 and 2010 to a paltry 12 per 9 this season which is a difference of about 12 strikeouts so far on the season. That would give him the lead, but it's not a huge drop. It's not his fault he's not leading at the moment, the competition is just better this year. Who are the leaders this season?
1. Edwar Cabrera
, Asheville/Modesto (Colorado) 175 K
Cabrera has come out of nowhere this year to post some ridiculous numbers. Last year as a 22 year old in the Northwest League, he had a good season despite an awful record. He actually led the league in strikeouts so maybe this shouldn't be such a surprise, but because he was pitching in a short season league, he wasn't really on anyone's radar. Using a really advanced changeup, Cabrera struck out 110 in 86 IP with low-A Asheville before a promotion to Modesto. His strikeout rate has only dipped a little in the Cal League from 11.5 per 9 to 11.1. He's at 138.1 IP on the season now, almost twice his career high. At some point, he'll likely be shut down, and that would obviously dampen his chances of winning.
2. Matt Moore
, Montgomery/Durham (Tampa Bay) 170 K
The scary thing for opponents of the Rays is that Moore is somehow getting better and better. In 2009 and 2010 when he led the minors in strikeouts, he had a bit of a problem. In the first half of each season, he couldn't stop walking batters. Second half surges would always bring his BB/9 down, but in 2009 it was still 5.1 on the year. This season, he was dominant the entire way with an absurd 5.15 K/BB ratio. He has better stuff than Cabrera by far: a fastball that can sit in the mid 90's and maybe the best curveball in the minors, plus an improving changeup. Now that he's developed consistent mechanics, the sky is the limit for Moore, and he has the durability to finish the season and win his third straight strikeout crown.
3. Trevor May
, Clearwater (Philadelphia) 169 K
May is kind of like a watered down version of Moore. His stuff isn't as good, his strikeout numbers typically aren't as good, and he hasn't mastered his command yet. Strikeouts aren't anything new for May, and his strikeout rate is actually improving. In a half season for Lakewood, he struck out 11.1 per 9. Last year for Lakewood and Clearwater, he was up to 12.1. This season, May has inched up to 12.2 and has a shot at 200 for the season. Last year, the problem was walks. A lot of them. With Clearwater for half a season, he walked an astounding 7.8 batters per 9. That's an absurd amount more than twice the average for pitchers, but he has cut down on them a lot this season. With nearly 200 innings under his belt in the Florida State League, he should soon be promoted to AA Reading.
4. Tyler Skaggs
, Visalia/Mobile (Arizona) 158 K
Players to be named later in trades often have the stigma of being throw ins or not very important. In Skaggs' case, he was the key to the Dan Haren
trade last year. What he's done this season as a 19 year old is nothing short of impressive. He struck out 125 batters in 100.2 innings with Visalia, started the Futures Game for the US team in front of his future fans, and then he was promoted to AA Mobile. He's had some growing pains there, but he's generally maintained his very good K/BB ratio. Skaggs needed to improve fastball velocity and holding that velocity coming into this year, and if he maintains has 12 K/9 rate in AA, it's an indication that he's probably been able to do that.
5. Brad Peacock
, Harrisburg/Syracuse (Washington) 152
Peacock was on Baseball America's radar after the 2010 season but not many others' due to a pretty average season. From 2007 to 2009, he only had 215 strikeouts in 295.2 IP, a pretty mediocre 6.5 per 9. In 2010, something changed. Across two levels, he struck out 148 batters in 142 innings. His overall numbers were just mediocre, but that was a drastic increase in stuff, statistically anyway. That trend continued this season with another increase in strikeout rate along with a sharp decrease in H/9. He's struggled in his brief time with AAA Syracuse so far, but he's adjusted to every previous level and should be able to do the same here.
That's the top five, and the rest of the top ten is packed pretty tightly. Shelby Miller
(St. Louis) and Daniel Renken
(Cincinnati) are tied at 150, Chad Bettis
(Colorado) and Ariel Pena
(Anaheim) are tied at 149, and Eric Surkamp
rounds out the list with 147. Among these 10, Bettis is the only pitcher whose K/9 is below 10, but he makes up for it by having the most innings pitched among anyone on the list.
It's likely that only the top three, Cabrera, Moore and May, have a shot at winning the title. My guess would be that Moore is atop the leaderboard for the third straight year when it's all said and done. I think at some point, Cabrera will be shut down for the season, and he'll lose his lead. Moore is a good bet to pitch more innings than May the rest of the season due to better command, and the ability to stay in games longer. It'll probably be difficult for any of the other seven to approach those three, but there's no shame in that. They still strike out more batters than thousands of active minor leaguers.
Next year, it's unlikely that Moore will top the list. Among these 10 pitchers, he's most likely the top prospect (and would top any prospect not on the list.) It's possible that by June or July, even though the Rays remain very patient with prospects, that Moore is pitching in the majors. Shelby Miller
is just a tick behind Moore, and he'll be in the majors sometime next year too. After that, Tyler Skaggs
and Trevor May
make up the next tier in terms of prospect status, and there's probably some separation between those two. Chad Bettis
, Eric Surkamp
, Brad Peacock
and Edward Cabrera could be quality ML starters as well.
Photo: NBC Sports