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Splitsville: Justin Pope v1.1
First Round Talent: Yankees' fans may not realize that Justin Pope, acquired from St. Louis along with Ben Julianel back in August of 2003 as part of the Sterling Hitchcock deal, was originally drafted by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2001 MLB Draft out of the University of Central Florida. Pope, who entered the 2005 season with a 25-23 record and a 3.40 ERA in his career as predominantly a starter, made his transition to the bullpen for the first time this past season and enjoyed a lot of success.
Avoiding The Big Inning: Posting a 6-4 record with 29 saves and a 2.81 ERA for the Trenton Thunder in his first full season coming out of the bullpen was an amazing accomplishment. But as wonderful as those numbers are, the fact remains that Pope had a hard time avoiding the big inning in the Eastern League this past season. He served up two earned runs or more in 7 of of his 57 games.
In fact, nearly 71% of all his earned runs this past season came in those seven appearances. If you were to throw out his seven brutal games, Pope's ERA would have been a Mariano Rivera-like 0.93! So while his overall numbers were tremendous in 2005, the fact is that he was just a shade less than dominating in just his first year coming out of the bullpen.
Consistency Is The Key: As pointed out above, Justin Pope would get hit hard at times. Conversely, there were times he was virtually unhittable in 2005. In fact, Pope threw 13 straight scoreless appearances in the month of June, not allowing a hit in nine of those games!.
After allowing opposing batters to hit .295 off of him in his first 20 appearances, Pope limited Eastern League hitters to bat just .198 off of him in his final 37 games. That in itself - his strong finish to his first season out of the bullpen - is an encouraging sign of things to come in the future. But as a closer, Pope is going to have to show more consistency over the course of a full season to be as effective as the Yankees would like.
Doesn't Need Help: The fact that the right-handed Pope did just as well, even slightly better, against lefties as he did against right-handed batters in 2005 is a promising sign of his potential as a relief pitching prospect in the Yankees' farm system. While he might not have the dominant stuff of a Major League closer, Pope's success against left-handed batters showed that he could become a solid setup man for the Yankees someday.
Opposing left-handed batters hit just .232 off of him this past season while right-handed batters enjoyed slightly more success, hitting .236. Both home runs served up by Pope in 2005 came off of right-handed batters. Throw in the fact that his ground ball-to-fly ball out ratio was significantly better against lefties (3.00) than it was against right-handed batters (1.18), Pope proved he can be successful against either set of batters.
Water World: Pope enjoyed pitching in Waterfront Park, home of the Trenton Thunder, in 2005. He posted an ERA over one full run lower at home (2.38) than he did on road (3.41) in the Eastern League. Despite the fact that both home runs he allowed and all three wild pitches he served up this past season came at home, the bottom line is that opponents didn't hit him nearly as well at Waterfront Park.
Opposing Eastern League batters hit .246 off of him in visiting ballparks but managed to hit just .227 off of him at Waterfront Park. While there was a significant difference between his road and home appearances, Pope's performance on the road was solid enough not to raise any red flags about his future road performance at the AAA level and beyond.
Inherited Runners Could Be A Problem: If there's one number among his 2005 splits that is somewhat concerning as to Pope's future as a potential closer would be the fact that opponents hit nearly as well against him with runners in scoring position as they did with the bases empty.
Opponents hit .253 off of him with the bases empty and .247 with runners in scoring position. Throw in the fact that batters leading off an inning hit just .180 off of him this past season, there's enough evidence to show that Pope might not be the ideal solution to throw out on the mound with inherited runners. He appears to pitch better when starting an inning on his own.
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