As a starting pitcher, your goal is two-fold: throw as many innings as possible and to keep the opposition from scoring. In the minor leagues, the first part is complicated by developmental goals – specific inning goals or pitch counts are more important to the organization than a win or a loss for either the team or the pitcher. However, keeping the other team off the board is still of paramount importance. But a starter knows that he will eventually give up an earned run or three. It is an inevitability of the position. Two starting pitchers, however, are attempting to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.
Gregory Soto – West Michigan WhiteCaps (A-Ball – Detroit Tigers)
Left-hander Gregory Soto began his professional career in the Dominican Summer League as a teenager, going 1-2 with a 4.82 ERA in his first year in 2013. The 22-year-old returned to the DSL in 2014, made the move to the Gulf Coast League in 2015, and last season he proceeded up the ladder to the New York-Penn League. While Soto has made a steady climb up the ladder, at no point did he demonstrate any long term dominance.
In Soto’s two seasons in the DSL, he put up a 3.89 ERA and a 1.489 WHIP. While he showed a lively arm, striking out 108 batters in 88 innings, accuracy was a concern, with 72 men reaching first via base on balls or hit by pitch. The results in his two seasons in the Rookie Leagues of the US showed similar characteristics: in his 17 games, Soto put up a 3.56 ERA and a 1.486 WHIP with 67 whiffs and 40 walks.
This year, Soto was promoted to West Michigan of the A-Ball Midwest League, and in five outings, he has yet to allow an earned run. His first three games in a full-season league were a revelation. In his first start of the season, Gregory yielded only one hit and two walks in five innings. In his second start, he gave up two hits and a single walk in a six-inning outing. In his third game, he finally picked up his first win of the season with a three-hit, two-walk start where he showcased his strong arm, striking out eight. It was the first time in his career that he had not given up a run of any type in three consecutive outings.
In his final start of April, Soto had his worst performance of the season. In the fourth inning – after 24 consecutive scoreless frames to begin the season – the Lake County Captains pushed one unearned run across thanks to a pair of walks, a throwing error by shortstop Daniel Pinero, and a passed ball by catcher Drew Longley. It was the only run Soto would allow in his five-inning start – a game where he yielded four singles and five walks while tossing 90 pitches.
One week later, Soto continued his streak of no earned runs with a fourth appearance with no runs allowed. On May 7, Soto gave up three hits and five walks in his six-inning start against the Kane County Cougars. He also continued to showcase his whiff potential, striking out eight for the second time in three games.
Can Soto continue the streak of zero earned runs beyond the 28 innings he has started the season with? With only 13 hits given up thus far this season, the Midwest League batters have not yet been able to size him up. However, with ten walks over his last two games, his command appears to be wavering. While the Tigers can not expect these results to continue unabated, it is not the first time Soto has been dominant. Over a five-game stretch last season for the Connecticut Tigers (July 29-August 20), Soto allowed only four runs on 20 hits and and nine walks over 29 innings.
Thomas Pannone – Lynchburg HillCats (A+ – Carolina League) / Akron RubberDucks (AA – Eastern League – Cleveland Indians)
Pannone, the 23-year-old southpaw, also began his professional career in 2013, tossing 16 innings in relief with the Arizona Indians in the Arizona Rookie League. His 9.00 ERA and 2.062 WHIP gave the teenager much to work on as his career progressed.
In 2014, Pannone began his career in earnest with 45 innings mostly as a starter, putting up a 3.20 ERA and a 1.244 WHIP. In 2015, Pannone made the ascension to full-season ball, tossing 116 ⅓ innings with Lake County of the Midwest League. Although his ERA jumped to 4.02, the portsider’s WHIP went down to 1.160 as Pannone continued to improve his control – with his BB/9 lowering to 2.9 from 4.8 the previous season.
Pannone started 2016 with the Captains for a second season, putting up a 3.02 ERA and a 1.097 WHIP in 17 starts, once again lowering his walk rate (to 2.5). The Indians finally moved him up to High-A Lynchburg, where he concluded the season with eight appearances for the HillCats, yielding only eight earned runs over 43 ⅔ frames.
This season, Pannone started the season in fine form, pitching five no-hit innings in his debut against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The lefty wasn’t quite perfect, walking a pair, but did showcase his arm with eight strikeouts. In his second game of the season, the Salem Red Sox started the game with a walk and a single. Pannone then picked up nine consecutive outs. A double by Josh Tobias and an error by right fielder Andrew Calica opened the fourth inning for Pannone, who then proceeded to pick up another nine consecutive outs before exiting. Unfortunately, the second out was a sacrifice fly and an unearned run was placed on Pannone’s record. One week later, Pannone went back to his no-run ways, holding the Carolina MudCats to a single and two walks over 5 ⅔ scoreless. After punching out eight in his first two games, Pannone only whiffed a sextet.
On April 25, Pannone walked back to the mound and had the most unusual outing of his season. Facing off against Salem for the second time in the season, Pannone picked up the first four outs without consequence, three by way of the K. He then gave up consecutive doubles to Austin Rei and Mike Meyers; but Rei had to hold on the sharply hit Meyers line drive to center, advancing just one base. A strikeout and a ground out ended the inning. In the third, Pannone yielded a single while striking out two. In the fourth inning, Pannone played Houdini once more. After beginning the frame with a strikeout, Pannone again faced the troubling duo of Rei and Meyers, walking them both. Thomas would strike out the next batter before giving up an infield single to Jose Sermo to load the bases. But no runners would come in to score as, on his 79th pitch of the game, Pannone whiffed Chad De La Guerra – ending the inning and the lefty’s night. Pannone gave up four hits and two walks while striking out nine of the dozen batters he put out.
The southpaw quickly put that mediocre start behind him and began May with his longest outing of the season, a seven-inning appearance against the Winston-Salem Dash. Pannone started the game by striking out the side in the first and by getting the first ten Dash men out before relinquishing a double to Ronald Bueno in the fourth. He would get seven more consecutive outs before Luis Alexander Basabe reached on an infield pop-up single in the sixth. Pannone would give up a double in the seventh as well; but the lefty did not allow a single runner beyond second base in his outing. It was also his first game of the season where he did not dole out a walk and the fourth time he struck out at least eight. It was also his final game in A-Ball.
One week later, Pannone made his AA debut for the Akron RubberDucks with a 27 ⅔ inning streak of not allowing an earned run to begin the season on the line. The change in competition did not phase the portsider. Facing the Trenton Thunder, Pannone struck out the first two men he faced in AA before giving up a ground ball single to Gleyber Torres. A pop-out ended the inning. After a comebacker started the second frame, Pannone put himself into trouble with a ground-ball single sandwiching a pair of walks. However, with the bases loaded and one out, the left-hander simply struck out Devyn Bolasky and induced Thairo Estrada to ground out.
Pannone would pick up five more consecutive outs in the third and fourth before relinquishing his third and final hit of the contest, a two-out triple by Billy McKinney. The man on third did not phase Thomas, as Jorge Saez flied out to end the inning. He would then get three quick outs in the fifth and two more in the sixth before Mike Ford picked up a two-out base-on-balls. It would be his last man, as Cole Sulser came in, inducing a groundout to end the inning. It was his longest outing of the season by pitch count, giving up the ball after 91 pitches.
While Thomas Pannone has been a consistently improving pitcher in his professional career, his start this season is almost certainly unsustainable. Giving up only 13 hits in 33 ⅓ innings is far below his career average of 7.1 H/9. Eventually a team is going to break through when he loads the bases. But if he can continue to strike out eight or nine batters every time he toes the rubber, his ascension up the ladder may not end in Akron this season.