We come now to the final installment of the Ken Phelps All-Star Team: the pitching staff. This is always the hardest part, because with pitching at such a premium it seems every team is always scouring for arms.
Staff Ace: Aaron Wilkerson, Los Angeles Dodgers
Back in 2017, Carson Cistulli excellently summarized Wilkerson thusly:
What differentiates Wilkerson is the improbability of his journey to Triple-A. A product of NAIA school Cumberland University, Wilkerson has survived a Tommy John procedure and played in no fewer than three independent leagues. Nevertheless, he’s been excellent in affiliated ball, recording strikeout and walk rates of 25.8% and 6.7%, respectively — all while working almost exclusively in a starting capacity.
The arm speed is a concern. Wilkerson rarely tops 92 mph, which was the average velocity among major-league starters last year. But he also possesses a strong overall repertoire and, most importantly, has experienced success at every minor-league level.
Since then, Wilkerson has continued to dominate the upper minors. In 2018, Wilkerson posted a 2.49 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 72 AAA innings. He repeated his success the next year, but threw in a 25.8% K% for good measure. But in 2021, he broke out to the tune of a 27.9% K%, 5.4% BB%, 10.04 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, and league-best 1.09 WHIP across 112 innings and 23 appearances (19 starts). Nevertheless, largely owing to his mediocre fastball, which now sits around 85-88 Wilkerson has seen just 35 innings of MLB action in his career, spread across 2017-19 cups of coffee with Milwaukee.
Still, Wilkerson has shown he can get outs against high-end hitters even without a good fastball. ZiPS projects him for a 4.55 ERA and 4.64 FIP over 91 innings on the back of pretty good strikeout (8.41 K/9) and walk (2.77 BB/K) numbers, whereas Steamer is more optimistic, pegging him for a 4.23 ERA and 4.30 FIP. I personally think the truth is somewhere in between, but believe it or not, that would make Wilkerson an above average starting pitcher in 2022. It’s a coup to have him lead our pitching staff.
No. 2 Starter: Matt Krook
The Yankees plucked Krook from the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 minor league Rule 5 draft, because he’s a lefty with absolutely fantastic stuff, including an upper-nineties sinker and a devastating breaking ball.
Unfortunately, Krook is a lefty with fantastic stuff and no idea where it’s going. Krook has never walked fewer than five per nine over a season of fifty innings or more, and in 2021 at AAA he walked a remarkable 14.8% of all hitters he faced. The good news is that Krook also does a lot well. He misses a lot of bats—he’s never struck out fewer than 23% of hitters at any level, and at AA in 2021 he struck out 38.6% of hitters. He also gets lots of groundballs (62.7% at AAA in 2021) and popups (17.9% at AAA in 2021). He gets so much weak contact and so many swings and misses that even with all the walks, he still posted a 3.78 FIP at AAA in 2021.
Krook clearly has a lot of talent, but MLB hitters will simply let him walk the entire world and never swing. He will be 27 for the entire 2022 season, so time is running out, but his pure stuff is so good that it’s hard not to dream on his arm if he ever finds a way to throw strikes. At the very least, he may be better suited to a bullpen role a la late career Oliver Perez. Still, Steamer projects a 4.75 ERA and 4.70 FIP across 89 innings on the back of an 8.80 K/9 and 5.56 BB/9, which would be worth nearly a full win. We’ll put him in our rotation and see if he can best that.
No. 3 Starter: Frank Duncan
Triple-A Albuquerque is one of the most hitter-friendly parks in all of professional baseball. In 2019, six Isotopes players hit 17 or more home runs there; noted not-power-hitter Pat Valaika hit 22 (in just 350 at-bats!), and career backup catcher Drew Butera hit an lol-worthy .300/.389/.511. In 2019, Chris Rusin led all Isotopes starting pitchers with a 4.93 ERA and still gave up 83 hits and seven home runs in 65 innings, for a 1.583 WHIP. In 2019, Tim Melville gave up 24 home runs in 96.1 innings en route to a 5.42 ERA. Lest you think that was a one year fluke, in 2021 team innings leader Ryan Castellini had a 6.25 ERA and gave up 16 home runs and 71 walks (not a typo) in 95 innings. Former MLBer Jose Mujica coughed up 128 hits and 27 homers in 91 innings for an 8.77 ERA. As a team, the Isotopes gave up 185 home runs and had a 5.98 ERA and 1.57 WHIP.
In 2021, for that Isotopes team, Frank Duncan pitched 80.1 innings with a 3.92 ERA, 23.4 K%, 6.8% BB%, 16.6% K-BB%, and gave up just nine home runs in the best pitching performance at Albuquerque in at least five years. To put in perspective how good Duncan was, he had the lowest WHIP of any pitcher who made multiple starts in Albuquerque by over twenty points. How good was he? In that park, this happened:
Congrats to Frank Duncan on being named Triple-A West's Pitcher of the Week!https://t.co/URMK0GPwRA
— Albuquerque Isotopes (@ABQTopes) July 5, 2021
Duncan is a former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand who has spent his minor league career not walking anybody and keeping the ball on the ground. He also has a funky sidewinding motion that adds deception, especially against same-side hitters. I don’t know if all of that is why the righty became the first pitcher in years to not melt in Albuquerque, or if it was the strangest 80-inning fluke in baseball history. All I know is that if he can get hitters out in New Mexico, he can get them out in the Bigs.
Setup Reliever: Luke Barker
A hard-throwing right-hander out of Chico State, Barker has somehow managed to quietly dominate at every level of the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system. The Chico State grad has been a reliever throughout his professional career, and through 236.1 innings pitched, he has allowed just 164 hits whilst striking out 254 (9.7 K/9) and walking just 55 (2.1/9), good for a 4.62 K/BB and 2.25 ERA. He took things to a new level in 2021 as a 29-year-old at Triple-A, with a ridiculous 33.0 K%, 4.3% BB%, 7.70 K/BB, and 2.35 ERA whilst saving 13 games.
Barker is ready for the big leagues, and ZiPS thinks he could post a sub-4 ERA with better than a strikeout per inning for Milwaukee right now, which would make him a solidly above-average relief pitcher. He’s probably better than the arms in many big league bullpens, but in the Brewers’ stocked arm barn, he may have to begin 2022 back in Nashville.
Closer: Phoenix Sanders, Tampa Bay Rays
In any other system, a right-hander putting up absurd numbers would be an organizational top prospect, even as a 26-year-old reliever. In the Tampa Bay Rays’ stocked system, Sanders is forgotten. A 2017 tenth round draft choice, the right-hander has dominated every level he’s ever played, whiffing more than a quarter of the batters he’s faced and never posting a K/BB worse than 2.48. In 2021, he, too, took his game to a new level, with a 7.27 K/BB on the back of absurd strikeout (32.4%) and walk (4.5%) rates, and a 3.38 ERA that somehow underperformed his 3.14 FIP and 3.05 xFIP.
What makes Sanders especially exciting is that he was actually slightly better against lefties than righties in 2021.
Sanders has a closer’s breaking stuff but not a closer’s fastball. That said, Tyler Clippard made a career out of that exact package, and Sanders can as well. ZiPS thinks he’d be worth half a win out of the Rays’ pen in just 59 innings—high praise for a hurler who has never seen a big league mound.
Artwork by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)