The Dunedin Blue Jays are off to a great start in the Advanced A Florida State League. Like their parent organization they are currently on a winning streak, which they extended further last night. Yet, unlike their major league counterparts in Toronto, they lead their division with a 24-8 record and a large part of that success is due to their outstanding starting rotation.
Matt Boyd was a big part of the rotation early on. The 23-year-old left-hander and recent draftee from Oregon State University threw a shutout on opening day for Dunedin and never looked back. Over 31 innings of work he cruised to a 0.29 ERA, collecting 37 strikeouts and four wins in the process. Although he recently received the call up to the Double A team in New Hampshire, he was absolutely instrumental in leading Dunedin through a great April. Kendall Graveman, the 8th round draft pick from the 2013 draft, has been called up to Dunedin to replace the recently promoted Boyd in the rotation. He earned the call-up from Class A Lansing after coming two outs away from his first career no-hitter and, although he has only made a couple starts so far, Graveman looks to be another solid addition to the pitching staff.
Another left-hander, promising prospect Daniel Norris, now leads the rotation. He too has been off to a phenomenal start. After a single start in Advanced A ball last season, Norris has picked up right where he left off. He has posted a 0.63 ERA and carried his team to three wins personally, although that total is somewhat low considering his outstanding performances. In his last start Norris did not pitch enough innings to earn the win, even though he struck out a career-high 10 batters and did not allow an earned run over 4.2 innings. All told, pitch counts have limited Norris to just 28.2 innings but he has made those innings count by collecting 36 strikeouts.
Supporting Norris are his rotation mates from Class A Lansing last year, Ben White and Taylor Cole. White, the soon to be 25-year-old right-hander from Temple University, posted a pedestrian 4.33 ERA for the Lugnuts last year, but the 3.34 ERA he has posted so far this season has been much improved. He seems to be benefitting from the pitching-friendly environment in Florida, as implied by his improved 0.61 HR/9 rate, and an increased walk rate, as signified by his miniscule 1.52 BB/9 rate.
Cole is another right-hander approaching the ripe old age of 25, but unlike White he has been a strikeout machine. The Brigham Young University graduate, and 29th round pick in the 2011 draft, has supported his outstanding with 2.50 ERA with a league leading 51 strikeouts over 39.2 innings. His current K/9 rate of 11.57 is nearly double his collective rate from Lansing last year, so it’s fair to assume he is outperforming his career norms. However, it is also interesting to note that he is actually underperforming his 1.91 FIP (as supplied by Fangraphs), meaning there may actually be more in the tank for the former Topps Northwest League Player of the Year.
Another right-hander, Jesse Hernandez, is the most senior member of the staff and the only member to spend the entirety of the past season in Dunedin as well. Hernandez’s performance so far has been roughly equivalent to his performance from last season, solid but inconsistent. One thing he has been able to do exceptionally well this season is limit walks, as he has only allowed a total of three free passes over 27.2 innings. Either way, the collective 3.58 ERA he has posted over five starts has been more than enough to support the back end of Dunedin’s rotation thus far.
Overall, the Dunedin rotation has been the toast of the Florida State League. While the aforementioned Cole is leading the league in strikeouts, Boyd and Norris remain in the top 4, while the team as a whole also leads the entire league in strikeouts. They have done this while allowing a league-low of 71 earned runs, which is over 20 less runs than the second lowest mark posted by the Brevard County Manatees. It is no surprise then, that the Dunedin Blue Jays have also collectively lead the league with a 2.29 ERA that is nearly a full run lower than the 3.01 ERA also posted by the Manatees.
Individually, there is an interesting lesson to be learned from the Dunedin starters. Besides Norris, the rotation lacks prospect power, yet they still manage to get the job done behind him. Gutsy pitching performances have been the trademark of this rotation, and have proved that pure baseball smarts can occasionally match natural skill on the diamond. Day in and day out, it seems like Mark Buerhle is proving a similar ideology in Toronto – I only wish the Blue Jays front office would take notice and support their outstanding lineup with some starting pitchers who can just get the job done!