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Trevor Rogers and the recent history of MLB spring training strikeout leaders

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How much weight should we put into Rogers’ 2021 Grapefruit League dominance?

MLB: Houston Astros at Miami Marlins Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

I did not attend Friday night’s Marlins-Astros game and I did not have a television broadcast or a Baseball Savant game feed of it to follow along with. But just listening to Trevor Rogers’ first inning on the radio and understanding what he’s been doing all spring made it easy to predict a big performance from him. His final line: 5.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K.

The old baseball adage is that after repeatedly facing the same pitcher, the advantage goes to the hitter. Well...so much for that. Due to the regionalized MLB spring training schedule, this was Houston’s fourth(!) look at Rogers in the month of March, yet the 23-year-old left-hander still racked up strikeouts in half of his plate appearances.

Rogers skipped the Triple-A rung of the minor league ladder en route to making his Marlins regular season debut in 2020. COVID-19 protocols made him fall slightly behind schedule on workouts this spring, and for all of the promise he showed during his first month in the starting rotation, the raw results were lots of runs (6.11 ERA) and baserunners (1.61 WHIP). Nobody would have been surprised to see him optioned to the minors for some fine-tuning.

Instead, the former first-round draft pick, in a span of just 19 Grapefruit League innings, has forced the Marlins’ hand. Rogers is emerging as a complete pitcher, bulking up to maintain plus fastball velocity throughout his starts while increasing the spin rate on his slider and trusting it more in putaway situations. You can count on one hand the number of active left-handed starters who combine his quality of stuff with elite extension off the mound and reliable command.

Rogers’ skill set and determination to prove himself have culminated in 29 strikeouts this spring, which is the highest total in Major League Baseball entering Saturday. Only a few pitchers still have an outside shot at catching him, including teammate Sandy Alcantara (24 K).

This got me wondering which sort of pitchers have historically led MLB in spring training strikeouts. Is it a crapshoot due to the small samples and low stakes?

I didn’t even bother checking 2020—cancelled by the pandemic with two weeks remaining—but here are the year-by-year kings of exhibition Ks from the 2010s:

Wow. The Marlins would be thrilled if Rogers’ career panned out like most of these guys did. The weakest links are Salazar (rotten injury luck) and Santiago, and he even made an All-Star team at the peak of his powers.

The most appropriate comps for Rogers are Bumgarner and Teheran. Both of them had similarly strong prospect pedigrees and posted gaudy spring strikeout totals in their early 20s leading into their first full-length major league seasons. Bumgarner struck out 191 batters during his 2011 campaign and rated fourth among National League qualifiers in Fielder Independent Pitching; Teheran K’d 170 and finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Taking the MadBum comp one step further, Rogers can hold his own at the plate!

These research findings, while fascinating, don’t really change my Rogers evaluation. The Astros have been a horrific offensive team this spring. Moreover, they will not face the Marlins at any point during the real 2021 season and probably didn’t much effort into gameplanning for him.

Think of MadBum as Rogers’ ultimate ceiling (if everything goes right for him). Statcast identifies Derek Holland as the most similar player to him in terms of pitch speed and movement from 2020. As mentioned earlier, there’s solid evidence that his stuff will be better moving forward, so Holland is more like his floor than a true comp. Health permitting, count on Rogers’ effectiveness being somewhere in between those two.

Previous Marlins leadership was deservedly excoriated for making poor amateur draft decisions in their final years before selling the franchise. However, they hit a home run in getting Rogers at No. 13 overall back in 2017.