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Biddle Me This

Jesse Biddle was ranked the #1 prospect in the system by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus prior to the 2013 season and he certainly looked the part in April when I wrote this. As the year progressed, Biddle did not.

You’d need a harem of interns to keep track of the times I’ve had people in the business utter this sentence:

“If you’ve seen it, it’s in there.”

With Biddle, I’ve seen plus fastball velocity with plus command and great downhill plane, a plus curveball and a fringe average changeup. If the changeup comes along a little bit and the secondary, less sexy parts of the game mature then you’re looking at a #3 starter. That’s been his ceiling and continues to be his ceiling and you should read the report I filed on Biddle in May because just about all of it still holds true. There are, however, things we saw this season in regards to Biddle that suppress my optimism about him getting to that aforementioned ceiling.

As the season wore on Biddle’s control/command came and went. Mostly, it went. Both his fastball and curveball were suddenly wild mustangs instead of the well-trained colts they’d been early in the year. Pitch after pitch from Biddle was up at the throat, well out of the zone. He’d have games where he’d walk half a dozen batters in just a few innings of work before he was mercifully removed. By mid-summer people in the game were asking me if I knew why Biddle kept sweating so much and wanted to know if I’d heard anything about him drinking to excess. I had not heard that and have not heard that. He looked haggard, weak and beaten on the mound. It surfaced that Biddle was diagnosed with whooping cough in late April and pitched through it the rest of the year. By the end of the season things had gotten marginally better. The curveball was back to being a consistently plus pitch and was being thrown for strikes while the fastball control was still poor. He was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis toward the end of the season and, after walking seven batters over three innings in front of me and most of the Phillies front office on August 28th, did not make his final start of the 2013 campaign.

It was a tremendously difficult year for Biddle who is as charismatic and gregarious a young man as I’ve encountered in the minors. I have sympathy for him and what he’s had to deal with this year but I have to evaluate what I saw on the field. And, while plantar fasciitis, which is extraordinarily painful, presents a valid explanation for Biddle’s athletic struggles, I just don’t know how whooping cough can impact one’s control/command to such a degree. I’m not saying it didn’t cause problems, nor am I dismissing the idea that it hampered his effectiveness. Rather, it’s a foreign affliction whose impacts on athletic machinations are unbeknownst to me.

The reality of Biddle’s struggles as it pertains to his development are this: He was constantly falling behind in the count and failing to get himself into counts where he could work on his changeup, the pitch he really needed to work on coming into this year to take that next developmental step. He also wasn’t able to polish up things like his pitch sequencing and his pacing and everything else hurlers need to grasp before they’re ready for the Majors because he had no choice but to whittle things down to the absolute basics and try to get his fastball over, pitch after pitch.

But I have seen it. I’ve seen Biddle pump fastballs at the knees to both corners with impunity. I’ve seen hitters flail at curveballs they knew were coming and I’ve seen weak groundballs induced by a decent changeup that had fastball-sitting hitters out on their front foot. I just saw it in April and haven’t since. So the ceiling is still that of a #3 and I still think he falls a tad short of that, as I did in May, and becomes a workhorse #4 starter. I just think that, after a season of essentially treading water, the latter outcome is more likely than it was before. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, an innings-eating fourth starter is a terrific asset to have. But I worry that common misconceptions and assumptions about the “#1 Prospect” label will negatively impact the way the media and fanbase interact with a young man who is likely to fall short of unrealistic expectations.