BABIP Case Study: Jake Buchanan

Rick Osentoski

Pack alum positioning himself for a shot at the Show, but has he broken through or just been lucky?

Former N.C. State ace Jake Buchanan recently got bumped up for a second shot at AAA and has a realistic shot at getting a cup of coffee with the Astros before season's end. Buchanan's numbers at Corpus Christi (7-2, 2.09 ERA) make it look, on the surface anyway, as if the pitch-to-contact righty has experienced a breakthrough in his fourth minor league season. However, looking at BABIP numbers reveals that Buchanan has been exceptionally lucky over his 82 AA innings this year. Despite wild fluctuations in his ERA during his minor league career, Buchanan is and has been pretty much the same guy every season.

In 2010, Buchanan had a solid professional debut in low A, posting a 4.28 ERA with a very impressive 1.6 BB/9 rate that allowed him to register a solid 3.82 K/BB ratio despite a middling strikeout rate (6.2/9). Buchanan's BABIP was a slightly unlucky .319, suggesting that with a little luck he could improve in 2011.

He got that luck in his second professional season, as his BABIP was just .280 over two levels of the minor leagues. The decrease in hits led to a 3.80 ERA and Buchanan getting named the organization's minor league pitcher of the year. However, there were signs that Buchanan's performance was unsustainable: not only was his BABIP a bit lower than average, his BB/9 rate increased (2.0), his K/9 rate decreased (5.6), and his K/BB ratio also fell to a more pedestrian level (2.89).

Sure enough, in 2012 Buchanan appeared to go from MPOY to non-prospect, as he got hammered between AA/AAA to the tune of a 5.25 ERA. Once again, BABIP tells the story. Opponents batted an incredibly unfortunate .342 against him on balls in play. His walks did creep up a tad (2.4 BB/9) and his K/BB ratio (2.32) continued to slide, but had opponents hit .300 on balls in play rather than .342, Buchanan would have continued to look like a future serviceable back of the rotation starter.

Buchanan has been spectacular in 2013; he did not allow a single earned run in May and he has yielded more than two runs just once in 18 appearances. His component ratios suggest that the turnaround might be legitimate, as he is walking just one freaking batter per 9 innings, so his K/BB ratio (4.89) is a career best despite a career low in strikeout ratio (4.8/9). However, once again BABIP would seem to explain the volatility in his career performance thus far. Opponents' BABIP is an unsustainable .238 so far in 2013. Eventually his ERA is going to regress in the direction of his 4.01 career minor league mark. And, more than likely, his ERA against MLB competition would be well above that.

Nonetheless, Buchanan has generally kept the ball in the yard in his career (0.6 HR/9) and does not yield free passes, so he may stand a chance pitching in front of a good defense in a big park. Unfortunately, Houston's Minute Maid Park is annually one of the friendliest environments for hitters. I would expect Buchanan to get a couple of unsuccessful shots to nail down a rotation spot with the Astros before eventually resurfacing at AAA in another organization and working his way back to the Bigs. Hopefully it is with a club that plays in one of the pitcher-friendly "co" parks (Safeco, O.co, Petco) or some other canyon. If Buchanan gets the right opportunity he is likely to post a few BABIP-luck-aided seasons that will make him a lot of money. But, while he is the most likely of any N.C. State alum currently in the minors to be the next to make it to the Show, Buchanan does not seem like a good fit for Minute Maid and an awful Astros team that ranks dead last in MLB in errors and 28th according to Baseball Prospectus in defensive efficiency.

***

The last N.C. State player to make it to the majors, Andrew Taylor, was recently placed on the 60-day disabled list with a torn labrum. He faces a long road back to the majors after making three September appearances for the Angels last year.

Eric Surkamp, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, has begun his rehab with San Jose in the California League. He has allowed just nine base runners in 11 1/3 innings so far, with 11 strikeouts and just two walks. In other words, he has looked really good so far and may find himself back in the Giants' rotation by season's end.

Andrew Brackman was recently picked up off the scrap heap by the White Sox and is playing in Winston-Salem for the Dash. He has appeared in one game; it did not go well. He gave up two runs in two innings and served up a home run. More and more, it looks like Brackman's 0.00 career MLB ERA (over two and a third innings with the Yankees in 2011) is safe. That's right, Brackman is the greatest pitcher in Yankee history, and some people say he was a draft bust.

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