Coming into the year, there were a handful of lefthanders who projected to be major league aces.
The Rays' David Price, the Athletics' Brett Anderson, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, and the Orioles' Brian Matusz had a ton of buzz going into the year. Other lefties such as the Rangers' Derek Holland and the White Sox's Aaron Poreda were highly touted as well.
While Matusz and Bumgarner have been great in Double-A, and the other four lefties have begun productive major league careers, another future star star lefthander has emerged.
Normally, when I'm talking about notable prospects, I say "don't forget the name." But I don't even need to tell you that, because you're never going to forget a name like Marc Rzepczynski.
The Blue Jays' left-hander, currently pitching for Triple-A Las Vegas, was the team's fifth-round pick in 2007.
He was thought to be a decent prospect entering the year, as Baseball America ranked him the ninth-best prospect in the Toronto organization, but only the fourth-best lefthanded pitcher, behind Brett Cecil, Brad Mills, and Ricky Romero (all of whom have spent time in the majors in 2009).
While Romero has dazzled, Cecil has emerged as a fifth starter, and Mills has made two big-league starts, Rzepczynski may wind up being the best of the four lefties.
Rzepczynski took well to short-season A-ball in 2007, posting a 2.81 FIP. In 45 2/3 innings, he walked 17 batters and struck out 49. Baseball America ranked him as the Jays' No. 21 prospect following the season (they also misspelled his name in their scouting handbook). Baseball America said the lefty's ceiling was as "a No. 4 or No. 5 starter."
Seeking to up his profile, the then-22-year-old Rzepczynski went out and dominated Low-A in 2007, striking out 124 and walking just 42 in 121 innings, en route to a 2.60 FIP. Baseball America bumped him up twelve spots in their Blue Jay prospect rankings, but still said his upside was "at the back of the rotation or as a middle reliever."
Baseball America had two chief criticisms of Rzepczynski:
"He's 23 and he has yet to pitch above low Class A, so he needs to stay healthy and get going."
"Though he got plenty of swings and misses in low Class A, Rzepczynski lacks a true out pitch."
Well, let's see how he's doing on those two fronts three months into 2009:
He's anchoring the Triple-A rotation at age 23. Twenty-three is about the average age for a Triple-A prospect, so he's facing mostly players his age and older.
He blew away Double-A hitters with 88 K's in 76.7 innings, a career-high 10.33 K/9. He's upped that to 12.71 K/9 in two Triple-A starts.
Yes, Rzepczynski skipped High-A to begin 2009 and immediately was one of the best pitchers in Double-A. He had some command issues early on, but eventually got his walks down to a decent rate (4.23 BB/9). Again, Rzepczynski posted a stellar FIP (2.64).
Called up to Triple-A, he's struck out 16 and walked four in 11 1/3 innings, with a ridiculous 1.44 FIP. He's clearly just about ready for the big leagues.
You're probably thinking: "Okay, this guy's a nice prospect, maybe he'll be a third starter instead of a fifth starter. He's got nice numbers. What's the big deal?"
Here's the big deal.
The strikeouts aren't Rzepczynski's most outstanding stat. What is?
He's only allowed five homers in 254 2/3 minor league innings.
That's one homer per 51 innings.
And it's no fluke.
Rzepcyznksi's career minor league groundball percentage is 64.4 percent. To put in perspective how incredible that is, consider that this year's leader (for qualified pitchers) in GB% is Joel Pineiro, at 61.9 percent.
Among all pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched, seven have GB% figures higher than 64.4 percent: three sidearmers (Brad Ziegler, Cla Meredith, Peter Moylan), two sinker-only, ground ball-oriented, low-strikeout guys (Alberto Arias, Brian Bass), one fluke (Jeremy Affeldt), and one excellent pitcher (Chad Qualls).
Other than Qualls, all of these pitchers use strategies that basically are designed to produce nothing but grounders. Rzepczynski, on the other hand, gets a ton of strikeouts as well as the grounders.
Rzepczynski has managed to post a strikeout rate and a ground ball rate higher than any starter in the majors. Of course, he's doing it against Double-A and Triple-A competition, but this sort of dominance in those two categories at any level hasn't been seen since Felix Hernandez's first big league season.
Even more incredibly, Rzepczynski gets a good number of pop-ups (7.4 percent career) and 71.8 percent of balls hit off of the lefthander are grounders or pop-ups.
This leads to a very low line-drive rate (12.7 percent career) which suppresses batters' ability to hit for average, and a very low flyball rate (20.2 percent career), which suppresses their ability to hit for power.
Since he strikes out a little over a batter an inning, the only way you can score off the lefty is hope you can get a walk and two ground-ball singles before he can get a strikeout and two groundouts. The odds of that are very low, which leads to the FIPs in the 2.50 range.
Rzepczynski's nearly unprecedented dominance of batted-ball numbers and strikeout numbers obviously doesn't match his lack of fanfare.
If you've never heard of him before, you probably think I'm about to open up the "actually, he throws an 81 mph fastball" line on you. You might think this is another Mark DiFelice/Danny Ray Herrera/R.J. Swindle story.
But it's not. Rzepczynski isn't exactly Tim Lincecum when it comes to stuff, but he's no slouch. He throws an 88-92 mph fastball with good sink (what a surprise), a plus slider, an average-plus changeup, and an average curveball.
While that may not sound overly impressive, consider Brandon Webb, who, with a 58.3 GB% and 7.26 K/9 for his career, is a decent comparison for Rzepczynski. Webb throws an 88-mph sinker, an plus curve, and an average change.
Rzepczynski actually throws a little bit harder, his changeup's a little better, and he has a second breaking ball. He's also left-handed, whereas Webb's a righty, and lefties tend to throw softer than righties: an 88-92 mph lefty fastball is like a 90-94 mph righty fastball.
Given Rzepczynski's incredible groundball and strikeout rates, his good control, and his average-plus stuff, he may be Brandon Webb 2.0. Webb's won a Cy Young and has a 3.50 career FIP, and Rzepczynski could do better than that.
And he could be doing it soon.
Look out, because any day now, Marc Rzepczynski will be confusing major league hitters every bit as much as his name confuses broadcasters.