It’s not just big league pitchers who are unleashing unhittable stuff. Minor League arms have averaged 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings during the first month of the season, including 10.9 whiffs per nine at the Single-A level.
We’re going to spotlight the hottest Minor League performers every couple of weeks, alternating between hitters and pitchers. Our first look at 2022 mound standouts below includes a number of 2021 Draftees off to fast starts, such as Phillies first-rounder Andrew Painter (zero earned runs in 20 innings) and Guardians first-rounder Gavin Williams and Blue Jays third-rounder Ricky Tiedemann (tied for the Minor League lead with a .101 opponent batting average).
Red Sox: Brandon Walter, LHP (No. 8)
Walter has followed up his 2021 breakout with dominance in Double-A, where he’s leading the Minors in K/BB ratio (39/1 in 29 innings) and the Eastern League in ERA (0.93) and WHIP (0.62). The 26th-round pick as a Delaware redshirt junior in 2019 carves up hitters with a sharp low-90s slider and also features a heavy 92-97 mph sinker.
Yankees: Ken Waldichuk, LHP (No. 6)
After finishing fourth in the Minors in strikeouts (163 in 110 innings) and strikeout percentage (36.0) a year ago, Waldichuk now ranks sixth in whiffs (40 in 23 2/3 frames) and third in whiff percentage (44.9) while sporting a 1.14 ERA in Double-A. A 2019 fifth-round pick out of Saint Mary’s, he gets tremendous shape and carry on his 92-98 mph fastball and also misses bats with a sweeping slider and fading changeup.
Rays: Taj Bradley, RHP (No. 3/MLB No. 72)
What can last year’s Minor League ERA leader do for an encore? A 2.57 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 31 strikeouts and only four walks over six starts (28 innings) seem like a good place to start. The 21-year-old right-hander’s stuff took a jump in 2021, when he posted a 1.83 ERA at Single-A and High-A, to the point where he was sitting in the mid-90s with his heater. Now, he seems to be even better in terms of control with a career low 4.0 percent walk rate at Double-A. That’s a promising step for the next big arm in the Tampa Bay system.
Blue Jays: Ricky Tiedemann, LHP (No. 6)
The excitement around Tiedemann in Blue Jays camp at the start of the spring was palpable, and the 19-year-old southpaw has carried that excitement into the season. Tiedemann enters this week with a 1.44 ERA and 39 strikeouts through 25 innings. He’s allowed only eight hits in that span, good for a .101 average-against which is the lowest in the Minors. Tiedemann has upped his velocity to where he averages in the mid-90s in starts now, while his slider and changeup each get whiffs too. He continues to be a fun follow in his first full season.
Orioles: Grayson Rodriguez, RHP (No. 2/MLB No. 6)
The top pitching prospect in the game had a couple of clunkers closing out April and starting May, but if you take those out, he’s given up just two earned runs in 19 2/3 innings. Even with the rough starts, he has a 12.7 K/9 rate vs. just 2.7 BB/9, while allowing only 6.3 H/9 for a .198 batting average against.
White Sox: Cristian Mena, RHP (No. 29)
Mena’s 7.82 ERA last year belied his Rookie-level Arizona Complex League-leading 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and this year he has posted a 2.86 ERA with a 31/5 K/BB ratio and a .195 opponent average in Single-A. Signed for $250,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2019, he works with a 91-95 mph fastball that should add more velocity and flashes a plus downer curveball.
Guardians: Gavin Williams, RHP (No. 7)
Not only is Williams tied for the Minor League lead in opponent average, but he also has a 1.46 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings while making his pro debut in High-A. Drafted 23rd overall last July from East Carolina, he can maintain a mid-90s fastball deep into games, touch 100 mph and cross hitters up with a solid slider and changeup, both in the mid-80s.
Tigers: Wilmer Flores, RHP (No. 15)
The brother of the Giants infielder of the same name was a pop-up prospect in 2021, after signing as a free agent following the shortened 2020 Draft. Five outings into this season, he’s looking even more like a big name in his own right. The 6-foot-4 right-hander has fanned 29 batters and walked only two through 14 2/3 innings for High-A West Michigan. He owns a 2.45 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in that span. He’s yet to throw more than four frames in an outing, so that deserves following as he makes deeper appearances, but Flores’ impressive velocity, high-spin curve and improving control have him firmly on Detroit’s map.
Royals: Drew Parrish, LHP (No. 28)
The 24-year-old left-hander is on his third Minor League season. He has still to post a seasonal WHIP above 1.00. Parrish enters the week with a 2.61 ERA, 24 strikeouts and that 0.84 WHIP through six starts (31 innings) in his return to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. He’s your typical pitchability lefty with below-average fastball velo but a promising changeup and good overall control. Parrish could stand to get more whiffs, but with his ability to limit hard-hit line drives so far this season, he should be pressing for that jump to Triple-A Omaha soon.
Twins: Simeon Woods Richardson, RHP (No. 7)
Woods Richardson’s stuff backed up in 2021 and he didn’t pitch much with Minnesota after he was traded in the José Berríos deal. The Twins were excited to see his stuff trending back up during Spring Training, and so far, the results have followed. The right-hander is throwing a lot more strikes (2.7 BB/9 vs. 5.7 in ’21), while posting a 1.33 ERA and .133 BAA in 27 Double-A innings so far this year.
Astros: Hunter Brown, RHP (No. 3)
A 2019 fifth-round choice from NCAA Division II Wayne State (Mich.), Brown continues to get better with more pro experience and ranks third in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in both ERA (2.64) and strikeouts (35 in 24 innings). While he has a mid-90s fastball that reaches 99 mph and a mid-80s slider, his biggest weapon is a power curveball with tremendous depth.
Rangers: Cole Ragans, LHP (No. 30)
Ragans missed three years thanks to two Tommy John surgeries and the 2020 pandemic layoff, then bounced back to pitch in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game last year. After tiring late in Double-A in 2021, he owns a 2.25 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 24 innings there this season. The 2016 first-rounder from a Florida high school continues to display a plus changeup and sets it up with a low-90s fastball.
A’s: Grant Holman, RHP (No. 30)
A former two-way player at Cal, Holman came to the A’s as their sixth-round pick in last year’s Draft with size (6-foot-6) and upside. Even with one rough start among his four April outings, Holman had a 21/3 K/BB ratio over his first 21 innings. His 3.43 ERA drops to 2.25 when you take out that one bad outing, but he’s currently on the shelf and meeting with team doctors, so it might be a little while before he can add to his numbers.
Angels: Chase Silseth, RHP (No. 16)
The Angels took nothing but pitching in the 2021 Draft, including going well over slot in Round 11 to sign Silseth out of Arizona for $485,000. They thought his four-pitch mix would play at the next level, and so far they’re right. The right-hander jumped to Double-A for his first full season and has a 1.73 ERA over his first five starts, striking out 12.8 per nine, while walking only 2.4 per nine and holding hitters to a .169 BAA.
Mariners: George Kirby, RHP (No. 3/MLB No. 30)
While it might have been a bit of a surprise that the Mariners sent Kirby to Double-A to start the year, he made quick work of it, posting a 1.82 ERA, 11.7 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 with a .194 BAA over five starts. That was enough for Seattle to feel comfortable enough to bring him up for his big league debut Sunday, where he promptly tossed six shutout innings, striking out seven. And of course, he didn’t walk anyone, with his 1.6 BB/9 rate in the Minors proving not to be a fluke.
Marlins: Max Meyer, RHP (No. 3/MLB No. 33)
After winning Double-A Central pitcher of the year honors in his 2021 pro debut, Meyer is thriving again with a 1.72 ERA, .159 opponent average and 39 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings in Triple-A. The No. 3 overall pick in 2020 out of Minnesota has one of the best sliders in the Minors, not to mention a fastball that can tickle triple digits.
Mets: Calvin Ziegler, RHP (No. 11)
In some ways, Ziegler has been untouchable through the first five starts of his Minor League career. The 2021 second-rounder hasn’t allowed more than two hits in a single outing for Single-A St. Lucie to this point, and he’s fanned 40 percent of the batters he’s faced in the Florida State League. He’s averaged around 93 mph with his fastball while mixing in curveballs and changeups — true to his scouting report coming into 2022. Control has been an issue, however. Ziegler has walked 13 in 18 2/3 innings, causing his ERA to sit at 3.38 ERA, not quite as low as other numbers would have you think but still solid.
Nationals: Cole Henry, RHP (No. 3)
The Nationals are taking it slow with the 22-year-old right-hander out of the gate after an elbow strain limited him in 2021. He’s yet to throw more than four innings or 71 pitches in a start at Double-A Harrisburg. Henry has certainly been effective though. He’s allowed only one earned run over 15 2/3 innings (0.57 ERA) and is holding opposing batters to a .080 average with zero extra-base hits through his first five starts. He was bitten by the control bug last time out on Thursday (five walks in 2 2/3 innings), but Henry’s fastball-curveball-changeup mix are certainly starting-worthy. We just need to see the package in longer stints.
Braves: Jared Shuster, LHP (No. 10)
The Braves’ first-rounder in 2020 pitched his way to Double-A in his first full season in ’21, and clearly he has learned the lessons from his rough three-start stint there last year. His advanced feel for pitching has led to a 1.84 ERA, 10.4 K/9, 1.5 BB/9 and a .175 BAA over five starts. He’s gone seven innings twice and has yet to give up more than two runs in any of his outings.
Phillies: Andrew Painter, RHP (No. 3)
The Phillies’ top pick in 2021 is making the Florida State League look very easy. It’s only been 20 innings so far, but he’s yet to give up an earned run. He’s given up only eight hits for a .116 BAA and has a whopping 18.0 K/9 rate. He’s being treated with understandable kid gloves as a high schooler in his first full season and has only gone four innings more than once in his five starts.
Cubs: D.J. Herz, LHP (No. 9)
The Cubs have seen Herz blossom into one of their better pitching prospects since paying the North Carolina high schooler an over-slot $500,000 in the eighth round of the 2019 Draft, and he’s off to a fast start this spring with a 0.93 ERA, .141 opponent average and 26 strikeouts in 19 1/3 High-A innings. He has developed a wicked changeup to go with his mid-90s fastball and his spike curveball.
Brewers: Ethan Small, LHP (No. 7)
Death, taxes and Small’s low ERA. These seem to be the sure things of life these days. The 25-year-old left-hander returned to Triple-A Nashville to begin 2022 and has begun the season with a 1.98 ERA through six starts. He has fanned 37 over 27 1/3 innings as well, but 18 walks in that time dull the overall profile some. Even so, Small, who drew strong reviews in the offseason for his low-90s deceptive fastball and plus change, owns a 2.02 ERA with Nashville over the last two seasons, third-lowest at Triple-A among the 273 hurlers with at least 50 innings pitched in that timeframe.
Cardinals: Gordon Graceffo, RHP (No. 23)
As with Tiedemann above, there were some rumblings that Graceffo had kicked up his velocity this spring to the point where he was touching triple-digits at times. That has translated into a downright dominant run at High-A Peoria to begin the 2021 fifth-rounder’s first full season. Graceffo leads High-A qualifiers with a 0.56 WHIP through 33 2/3 innings and has also contributed a 1.07 ERA, 46 strikeouts and only two walks in his six starts with the Chiefs. He may have been the first Villanova player selected in the Draft since 2017, but the 22-year-old right-hander might be making a whole lot of clubs wish they had swooped in before the Cards could grab him in the fifth round last July.
Reds: Andrew Abbott, LHP (No. 13)
While Abbott spent most of his career at the University of Virginia as a reliever, he showed starting might work when he moved into the rotation last year. That led to the Reds taking him in the second round and he’s showing that it’s going to stick, giving up just two runs over 27 innings (0.67 ERA). He’s held Midwest League hitters to a .168 batting average while striking out 13.3 per nine and walking only 2.3 per nine.
Pirates: Mike Burrows, RHP (No. 11)
Burrows has made the jump to Double-A look very easy. On a very deep Altoona team, Burrows has stood out with his 1.35 ERA, a .160 BAA and an 11.8 K/9 rate, while giving up just 2.4 BB/9. He’s given up no runs in four of his six starts this year.
D-backs: Blake Walston, LHP (No. 4/MLB No. 95)
We’re throwing out Walston’s Double-A debut (8 H, 7 ER in 2 IP) from last Saturday because the left-hander had done so well to force a promotion. Indeed, Walston became the Texas League’s second-youngest pitcher at 20 years old when he arrived over the weekend. Before that, he was fourth among High-A hurlers (min. 15 IP) with a 1.67 FIP while posting a 2.55 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings for Hillsboro. To put his early Amarillo lumps behind him, Walston will need to show his deep four-pitch mix that has made him one of the most promising lefties in the Minors.
Dodgers: Ryan Pepiot, RHP (No. 6/MLB No. 99)
Reportedly ticketed for his big league debut on Wednesday, Pepiot owns perhaps the best changeup in the Minors, getting top-of-the-scale 80 grades from some scouts on a low-80s cambio that fades and drops at the plate. The 2019 third-rounder from Butler also sits in the mid-90s with his fastball and has an sweeping upper-80s slider, giving him a repertoire that has translated into the second-best ERA (2.05), opponent average (.189) and strikeout total (36 in 26 1/3 innings) in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
Giants: Kyle Harrison, LHP (No. 3/MLB No. 73)
Harrison averaged 14.3 per strikeouts per nine innings while winning Low-A West pitcher of the year honors in his 2021 pro debut, and he has upped that mark to 19.9 (42 in 19 frames) while posting a 2.37 ERA in his first five High-A starts. Signed for an over-slot $2,497,500 in the third round of the 2020 Draft as a high schooler, he pitches mainly off a lively mid-90s fastball and a low-80s slider.
Padres: Robert Gasser, LHP (No. 9)
We’re trying to stick to Minor League performers here. Otherwise, MacKenzie Gore could have been a good shout. Instead, we turn to another southpaw in Gasser, who is off to a solid start with High-A Fort Wayne. The 2021 71st overall pick leads Padres Minor League qualifiers with a 2.49 FIP and 36 strikeouts through 25 1/3 innings. The former stat should be even more promising considering Gasser’s 3.55 ERA looks a little more mundane, though it’s inflated by a high .397 BABIP. Expect the ERA to normalize as the southpaw’s Midwest League sample expands, and he has the three above-average pitches to build on this performance from here.
Rockies: Joe Rock, LHP (No. 15)
The lefty from Ohio University has been dominant in his first full season after the Rockies took him in Competitive Balance Round B in last year’s Draft. In five Northwest League starts, he’s posted a 2.89 ERA and held hitters to a .170 batting average against. He’s gone at least five innings in all five starts, and if you take out one five-run outing, he has a 1.57 ERA. He’s also struck out 10.3 per nine and is throwing more strikes (2.9 BB/9) than he did in college (3.9 BB/9).