I woke up this morning to find young Mat Latos leading the majors in ERA. Latos, 22, started 10 games at the end of last year for the Padres and has started 26 so far in 2010. He had a 4.62 ERA last year in his 10 starts, but is sporting a 2.21 ERA this year after Tuesday night’s 4-hit, 10-strikeout effort against the Dodgers. I’m curious – who is Mat Latos and how is he doing this?
Latos was drafted in the 11th round by the Padres in 2006 as an 18-year-old. He went to community college in 2007 as a draft-and-follow, then signed with the Padres when he season was over. He then spent the rest of 2007 and all of 2008 in A-ball, pitching 16 games as a professional in 2007 and just 15 games in 2008. After 4 games in A-ball in 2009 (posting an 0.36 ERA), he made the leap to Double-A where he started 9 games. With a 1.91 ERA in the 47 innings in Double-A, the Padres called him up to the big leagues and threw him in the rotation.
Based on some of the lists I found touting prospects, Latos was highly thought of throughout his time in the minor leagues (and at the time of the draft). He had committed to play collegiately at Oklahoma, which might have scared some teams from drafting him. The Padres took him in the 11th round and Latos chose to go to community college instead of OU. Before 2007, players taken in the draft either had to sign before class starts in the fall (before their freshman or senior year) or wait until they were eligible for the draft again; however, there was a loophole for junior college players to be able to sign up until the following year’s draft. Latos, after an impressive junior college season, was projected as a first-round pick (for the 2009 draft, since he was ineligible for the 2007 and 2008 drafts), and the Padres signed him with a 1.25 million dollar bonus before they would lose his rights.
Sidebar: I didn’t know about the draft-and-follow process until I started looking in to Latos’s beginnings in professional baseball. Here’s Curtis Bryant of the San Diego Examiner:
Widely regarded as a first round talent, Latos slid all the way to the 11th round of the 2006 draft and was selected by the Padres as a draft-and-follow prospect. The draft-and-follow program was implemented in 1987 as a way for teams to retain the rights to drafted high school players while giving them another year to develop.
Prior to 2007, high school players and college underclassmen drafted in June had to be signed before they took their first class at a four-year university in the fall. There was a loophole though involving junior colleges. Players could compete at two-year colleges and still sign with the team that drafted them up until one week prior to the next year’s draft.
As far as I can tell, it was a risk for the teams because the player in question has to go to junior college. Not a lot of elite draftees are going to be willing to do that. It was also a risk for the player, because there is no guarantee he’ll be signed, and then he has to wait two more years to be drafted again (not to mention transferring from junior college). In this case, Latos improved his draft stock during his year in junior college and the Padres rewarded him with a bonus commensurate with that of a much higher pick. In 2007, the draft-and-follow was eliminated; now all draftees have to be signed by August 15th. Sidebar ended.
In 2009, Latos was 4-5 with a 4.62 ERA that nearly matched his 4.72 FIP and 4.67 xFIP. He struck out 6.9 per 9 innings, walked 4.1 per 9 innings, and allowed 1.24 home runs per 9 innings in that season. A 0.257 BABIP combined with a 65.8% strand rate suggest that he was excellent with no one on base but struggled after hitters reached; his splits show that with no one on, Latos’s BABIP was only 0.211, but with runners on, it increased to 0.356.
So far in 2010, just about everything is different. The strikeouts are up to 9.4/9 while his walked have decreased to 2.4/9. A 40 percent increase in strikeout rate accompanied by a 40 percent decrease in walk rate? Yeah, that’ll work. Latos has also cut his home run rate by almost 40 percent and has converted 4 percent of his line drives and 5 percent of his fly balls to ground balls, particularly appealing given that he plays in front of one of the best defensive infields in baseball. All four infield positions rank in the top 7 in the major leagues according to UZR, and the defense overall is the best in baseball.
This season he’s also added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire, giving him a fourth pitch and a second type of fastball.
Now, he’s getting more swings on pitches outside of the strike zone (25.5% of “balls” last year were swung at, now 32.8% this year). The command he showed in the minor leagues (less than two walks per nine innings) and the strikeout rate are back, and Latos is showing what all of the hype was about as the Padres push toward the playoffs.