A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a two-part series on contemporary minor league stars, who I defined as players with at least 4,000 career plate appearances in the high minors (the AAA and AA levels). The two parts are here and here.
I thought it would also be fun to identify any recent pitchers who have had long and successful minor league careers. Deciding on 1,200 career innings pitched in the high minors as a cut-off (which limits the list to starters and seems to be about the equivalent of my 4,000 plate appearances cut-off for position players), I was able to find only six contemporary pitchers who have accomplished this feat. However, I was able to find an additional half a dozen or so pitchers who have come awfully close.
One final note before getting on with the list — for purchases of AA and AAA performance, pitching in the Mexican League counts, but pitching in other foreign leagues (Japan’s NPB, South Korea’s KBO, Taiwan, Italy, etc.) does not. While this is somewhat arbitrary, it makes it easier to use baseball reference to find the qualifying pitchers, and what I am interested in doing is identifying American minor league stars, rather than Americans who have starred in Asia. Without further ado:
1. Nelson Figueroa (1,470 AAA innings pitched, 266.2 AA, 499 MLB). Leading the list of contemporary minor league aces, Figueroa is a smallish right-hander (listed as 6’1″ and 185 lbs), who has a career minor league of 141-95, by far the most wins and best winning percentage of any recent minor leaguer I could find. He has a career 3.70 minor league ERA with nearly three strikeouts for every walk allowed.
Nelson was originally drafted by the Mets in the 30th round of the 1995 Draft, and he was only just released in late April of this year by the Diamondbacks after getting off to a brutally bad start for the AAA Reno Aces a month shy of his 39th birthday.
Figueroa pitched in parts of nine major league seasons for six different teams mostly as a spot starter/long reliever. While his career major league record of 20-35 is pretty bad, his career 4.55 ERA is hardly terrible.
2. Andrew Lorraine (1,613 AAA, 7.1 AA, 175 MLB). Once a 4th round draft pick out of Stanford, Lorraine has thrown more innings at the AAA level than any other recent pitcher. His minor league career record was 110-89 with a 4.15 ERA.
A left-hander, Andrew pitched in parts of seven major league seasons for seven different teams and invariably got hit hard (career MLB ERA of 6.53). He just didn’t have the stuff to have a successful major league career, but he clearly knew enough about pitching to excel at the AAA level. His career ended in 2009 at age 36 playing in the now-defunct independent-A Golden Baseball League.
3. Jared Fernandez (1,293.1 AAA, 504.1 AA, 108.2 MLB). A big right-hander, Fernandez pitched more innings in the high minors than anyone else on my list. He finished his minor league career in 2007 at age 35 with a 105-100 record and a 4.34 ERA.
Jared didn’t break through to the majors until age 29, and even though he pitched effectively for the Reds in 2002 and the Astros in 2003, he was already past age 30 both of those seasons. Fernandez’s career ended with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s NPB.
4. Chris George (1,244.1 AAA, 97.1 AA, 237.1 MLB). The 31st overall pick in the 1998 Draft out of high school, George got numerous opportunities while in his early 20′s between 2001 and 2004 to establish himself as a starter for the Royals. However, he didn’t have major league command, and he was also hit hard, posting a career major league 6.48 ERA with awful numbers at every pitching category.
Chris then settled in as a journeyman AAA starter. He finished his minor league career in 2012 with an 85-87 record and a 4.70 ERA.
5. Shane Loux (1,143.1 and counting AAA, 157.2 AA, 144 MLB). Still pitching effectively, but unspectacularly, for the AAA Fresno Grizzlies this season at age 33, Loux is now 106-109 with a 4.46 ERA for his minor league career. He was once a second round draft pick.
Shane pitched in the majors in 2002-2003 for the Tigers, 2008-2009 for the Angels and last season for the Giants. Last year’s performance, in which he posted a 4.97 ERA in 19 relief appearances, was probably his best at the major league level.
6. Andy Van Hekken (740.1 AAA, 460.2 AA, 30 MLB). A former 3rd round draft pick, Van Hekken’s only major league experience came in 2002 at the age of 22 when he went 1-3 in five starts for the Tigers. His 3.00 ERA looked pretty good, but his other numbers suggested he wasn’t major league ready.
Andy returned to AAA and never made it back to the Show. His career minor league record of 122-86 and 3.94 ERA look pretty good, but he never had any big years at AAA and had to use the independent-A Atlantic League several times to keep himself in professional baseball.
Andy went to South Korea to pitch in 2012, where he has established himself as one of the KBO’s top starters. He currently has one of the five best ERAs in the young 2013 KBO season.
7. R. A. Dickey (1,079 AAA, 108.2 AA, 1,113.1 MLB). Undoubtedly the best pitcher on this list, Dickey’s career story is well known. He makes this list with more than 1,000 AAA innings pitched because he has had essentially two professional pitching careers, the first as a regular pitcher and the second as a knuckleballer.
8. Chris Michalak (1,048.2 AAA, 78 AA, 191.1 MLB). A lefty, Michalak finished his professional career with the AAA Las Vegas 51′s in 2009 at age 38. He finished with a minor league career record of 93-90 and a 4.14 ERA.
Michalak pitched fairly well for the Blue Jays and Rangers in 2001 and 2002, but he was already over 30 years old in 2001.
9. Randy Keisler (1,027.1 AAA, 116 AA, 150.2 MLB). Another lefty, Keisler has gone 99-77 with a 3.95 ERA in his minor league career. He pitched last year in the Atlantic League at age 36. Keisler pitched parts of six major league seasons for five different teams and almost always got hit hard, posting a career MLB ERA of 6.63 with lots of hits, home runs and walks allowed.
10. Brandon Duckworth (1,014 AAA, 167 AA, 511 MLB). Other than Nelson Figueroa and R. A. Dickey, the only pitcher on this list with a substantial major league career, Duckworth pitched eight seasons in the Show, going 23-34 with a 5.28 ERA mostly as a fifth and spot starter/long reliever. As a minor leaguer, Brandon has a career 110-74 record with a 3.80 ERA.
Duckworth went to Japan late last season and pitched well enough in six starts to return to the Rakuten Golden Eagles this year at age 37. After seven starts this year, he is 2-3 with a 4.30 ERA, not good enough for a highly paid foreigner in pitching-dominated NPB.
11. Brian Cooper (877 AAA, 319.2 AA, 167.2 MLB). A small right-hander whose professional career ended in 2006 at age 31, Cooper appeared in a total of 13 games for the 2004 and 2005 Giants. Given that the Giants are the team I follow, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I don’t really remember Cooper.
Cooper finished his minor league career with an 87-80 record and a 4.61 ERA. He went 15-9 for the 2003 AAA Charlotte Knights, which is a lot for AAA — none of the players higher on this list managed to win 15 games in a single year at AAA.
12. Adam Pettyjohn (788.1 AAA, 367.1 AA, 69 MLB). Once a second round draft pick, Pettyjohn had a career minor league record of 85-74 with a 4.23 ERA. He went 15-6 for the 2008 AAA Louisville Bats.
Pettyjohn pitched briefly for the 2001 Detroit Tigers and the 2008 Cincinnati Reds. His last season was 2010 for the AAA Buffalo Bisons.
13. Derek Lee (450.2 AAA, 732.2 AA, 0 MLB). Last and certainly least on this list, Derek Lee is the only player on this list to pitch more innings at AA than AAA. He never pitched in the majors, which likely also prevented him from making some real money playing in Asia. He finished his minor league career in the Mexican League in 2008 at age 33 with a final record of 81-84 and 3.61 ERA.
Lee played twelve years of professional baseball and probably never made more than $50,000 a year, if that. He’s also unlikely to get a pension in any amount, unlike almost all the other players on this list, who had major league careers just long enough to get some kind of a pension. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair.
If I’ve missed any pitchers who should be included in my list, please let me know.