Crash Bag Vol. 23: The One About Pitching

The MLB draft is this week. The Phillies will have the 8th overall pick and widely expected to take a college player. No one can really decide on whether it will be a hitter or a pitcher, so we will see some time Monday afternoon what direction they will go. Until then, let’s talk about some players already in the system.

For now the best place to ask questions is on Twitter, either @ me (@Matt_Winkelman or @CrashburnAlley). But you can also reply in the comments here and I will will have some sort of better way for future mailbags.

@twitrunner8: Know we have some high ceiling talent in lower levels, but what SPs above A-ball, have the best chance to be #1 or #2 starters?

I don’t think any of the Phillies starters in AA or AAA have the ability to be a #1 or a #2 starter. I like Drew Anderson, but if everything breaks right he is probably a #3. #3 starters are really valuable, and the Phillies will be very happy if Anderson is a #3, but that isn’t your question. The thing is, front of the rotation starting prospects are rare, and they are especially rare in the upper minors where some off the shine of future projection has worn off. I pulled up Baseball America’s updated Top 100 from May, and went through it for AA/AAA starting pitchers with #1 or #2 ceilings.

  • #10 Alex Reyes (Cardinals) – Reyes is out for the year (and possibly more) with Tommy John surgery, and he did have MLB success in 2016.
  • #17 Francis Martes (Astros) – Was just called up by the Astros on Friday to pitch out of their bullpen. He is still super young and struggled in the high minors/
  • #23 Reynaldo Lopez (White Sox) – His stuff is great across the board, the command probably makes him a reliever.
  • #24 Michael Kopech (White Sox) – He might have the best raw stuff in the minors, but his delivery and command have many evaluators putting him in the bullpen.
  • #27 Jeff Hoffman (Rockies) – I like Hoffman better than many, he has a fastball in the upper 90s and a good curveball, but the combination of Coors and pitcher attrition means he is probably a #3 or a reliever.
  • #37 Kolby Allard (Braves) – Allard skipped hi-A, and what he lacks in fastball he makes up with feel and offspeed pitches. His ceiling is probably a #2, but he may be more of a #3.
  • #40 Lucas Giolito (White Sox) – Giolito hasn’t looked like an ace in years, but the raw stuff is in there somewhere.
  • #77 Walker Buehler (Dodgers) – Buehler had Tommy John surgery immediately after being drafted, and he has been dominant since returning to the mound. The only problem is he has pitched 5 innings only twice this year and has yet to show he can handle a full workload.

There just aren’t many guys in the minors who profile at the top of a major league rotation. This is because of a variety of factors. The most notable of those is that there just aren’t that many great starting pitchers in the majors. There is probably 10-12 #1s in the majors and maybe 20-25 #2s, which means on average you are graduating 3 pitchers of that caliber per year. With pitcher attrition you probably need at least double that in terms of candidates with some wiggle room for late breakouts and freak circumstances, but even with that expansion you are looking at probably 8-10 in the upper minors. Then there is the fact that a lot of pitching development can happen late. With high level pitchers being a bit of an outlier, pitchers who look like the traditional ace, like say Justin Verlander, aren’t the entire ace population. Instead you have guys like Dallas Keuchel in Houston who barely hits 90, but has crazy groundball rates, or Corey Kluber who has ridden a dominant breaking ball to high level success. Lastly, part of being a high level starter is being consistent both start to start and year to year. That means going out and pitching 200 innings every year. It is hard for a pitcher to prove that ability in the minor leagues when they are still young and innings caps.

@joelrineer: Starters all lack an out pitch – can this be taught or is it like control and you either have it or you don’t?

I think for the most part you either have it or you don’t. Sometimes that ability needs to be unlocked, but it seems that some guys have the ability to spin a breaking ball and others don’t. You can also say the same of changeup feel, for some pitchers it dances, but for others it is just a BP fastball. We also have to reconcile this with stories of pitchers picking up a pitch grip from another pitcher and it just magically working for them. It doesn’t seem like any of these pitches are universal, but there is a combination of pitcher and grip that just fits.

The exception to this right now appears to be Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen who has a slider grip that he teaches to all of their hard throwing arms and it is an instant plus pitch. The problem is that you get all of the Mets pitching development which has broken every pitcher it has encountered. There are other pitching coaches with signature pitches, and while they have lists of success stories, there are also pitchers where it didn’t work.

I guess I have kind of talked myself into out pitches being something that can be developed. I don’t think there is a magic answer where you can just teach a pitch and give any pitcher an out pitch. Continued experimentation and repetitions is probably the answer. So don’t hold out hope that any pitchers just have a pitch become an out pitch, but also keep your eyes open for changes, and don’t immediately write them off.

@rjp217: Can Eshelman translate his AAA success to the majors?

Not at this level. At his best this year, his fastball has been 89-91 and none of his secondary pitches are real weapons. What he does really well is keep hitters off balance. He doesn’t quite have pinpoint accuracy (he is also only 22), but he can locate all of his pitches well. It isn’t just hitting his spots, he will move around the zone and will constantly mix his pitches. This takes an arsenal that is more on par with AAA fodder and makes him a viable major league starter. His ceiling is probably something like 2016 Jeremy Hellickson where he could put up 2 to 3 WAR based on pitching near 200 slightly above league average  innings. That is something like a high end #4, low end #3 on cumulative value, where he mostly is pitching like #4/#5 on a per inning basis.

@dannmaal: Looking at the pitching issues, should the Phillies regret letting Alec Asher go? In hindsight, should they have kept him over Adam Morgan?

For those that have not been following Alec Asher in Baltimore, here is his stat line:

14 G, 5 GS, 41.1 IP, 40 H, 6 HR, 12 BB, 34 K, 4.35 ERA, 4.62 FIP, 5.41 DRA

Is that better than Adam Morgan? Yes. But Asher continues to not be left handed, and that is where Morgan comes in, because ultimately the Phillies need to give their LHPs an extra long look because they have no alternatives. In reality the choice was between Asher, Nava, Garcia, and Morgan. The Phillies got to keep one in AAA, DFA one (or not add to 40 man), and keep two in the majors. A quick aside, it is important to remember that the Phillies gained some roster flexibility after they already had made a decision Asher when Buchholz got hurt and Elniery Garcia was suspended. If they had not gone with Nava then Jesmuel Valentin would have been riding the major league bench. Luis Garcia had an implosion lately, but his upside remains higher than Asher. In retrospect knowing what we know now they probably should have kept Asher as an extra arm, but he also would have been a better version of Mark Leiter who they just optioned down. I don’t think he would have survived the year with the Phillies anyway, so no big loss.

@KevinEZRQ: Can Lively develop into a solid 4 or 5 in rotation or will hitters make too much contact in the long run?

Continuing the theme of backend starters we get to Ben Lively. I think he can be a #5, maybe there is the outside chance at being a #4. He will need to either improve a secondary pitch or his command. I won’t say it is impossible for him to do it, but he is also 25 years old. The things is, and you could apply this to Eshelman too, once you go down the “if only his command or secondary pitches improved he could be a grade higher starter” you can start applying the same things to all pitchers and get a similar result, which makes the guy you are talking about, not all that special.

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8 comments

  1. TommyDigital13

    June 11, 2017 01:18 PM

    Almaraz (head of scouting) answered the question of what they are looking for…”there’s a group of elite high school players and a group of elite college hitters and pitchers…we are targeting all of three groups”.
    Man I was down on the Phillies because of their awful performance over the last few year and lack of development, but with a strategy like “targeting elite hs and college players” how can we go wrong? Just curious as to what the strategy was before? Target non elite players?

  2. Romus

    June 11, 2017 02:38 PM

    Hope Klentak and crew take a huge risk and go with 17-year old Texas HSer RHP Shane Baz at 8.
    Kid, at 6’3″, 200 lbs or so, has velo in the 95-97 range with his best breaking ball being a curveball which could be plus. And he is athletic as a a top 3rd basemen in the draft also with power.
    He has a high ceiling….in the mold of a Greinke/Beckett type pitcher. He should be there at 8.

  3. Shane

    June 11, 2017 09:41 PM

    Thoughts on an Out Pitch: I think there is evidence that it can be taught. Matt’s example of pitchers picking up a new pitch because someone showed them a grip, comes to mind. And the Slider example from the Mets coach. However, for a pitch to be an “Out Pitch” it needs to have a complimentary pitch that is also effective. We all remember 2009 when all Lidge had was his Slider. Wasn’t much of an Out Pitch without the Fastball to compliment it. It will also be ineffective if the pitcher has no feel for it and cannot control it. It is very possible that any given pitcher is some adjustment away from developing one. Roy Halliday had to go back to the minors and change his arm slot and just about everything else before he finally go his Out Pitch(s). Sandy Koufax had to learn to not over-throw his pitches before he began to mow down the batters. But it all comes from having a respectable Fastball. And that is the part that you cannot teach.

  4. Epicurean

    June 12, 2017 01:56 AM

    This might be a stupid question, but it’s definitely an honest one: aren’t there 30 #1 starters and 30 #2s in MLB necessarily?

    • Major Malfunction

      June 12, 2017 09:51 AM

      The term is a grading on where that pitcher ranks in terms of ability, not the actual slot in the rotation. Halladay is a #1 and would obviously be #1 in your rotation. Due to injuries and/or lack of talent, you have Hellickson in the #1 slot in the rotation but he’s a high #3 at best.

      So it’s just a grading term not to be confused with an actual rotation slot. Plenty of teams in MLB, Phillies included, don’t have a viable #1 or even a #2. The Nation’s on the other hand have 2 probable #1s in Stratsburg and Scherzer.

    • Steve

      June 12, 2017 10:39 AM

      Theres a best pitcher on every team, but that doesnt make him a #1. Maybe you would prefer term “Ace”
      In addition some teams have 2 true “Aces” even though one is slotted as SP2.

    • Matt Winkelman

      June 12, 2017 12:37 PM

      There is a lot of debate on how to classify what is a #1 and so on in terms of pitcher classification.
      One way is the way you describe, by saying a pitcher is a #1 you are saying he is one of the 30 best, a #2 is in the next 30, and so on.
      The other way, which is the way I classify is that #1, #2, #3, etc. are unchanging pitcher classifications. For example a #1 level starting pitcher for me is a guy who pitches 200 innings every year, is always Top 15 or so in ERA, gives you at least 6-7 innings per start (this goes with the 200 inning thing), and is consistent start to start. There is some wiggle room based on why a guy may have missed time and other factors, and it a lot of it comes down to if you have to question if a pitcher is a #1, they probably aren’t a #1.
      For me this gives a list of #1s of: Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto (who is testing that right now), Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber
      The guys on the fringe (mostly due to injury and recent down years): Noah Syndergaard, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Dallas Keuchel
      Some random #2s: Jose Quintana, Justin Verlander, Marcus Stroman, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Chris Archer, Carlos Martinez (he is rising fast), Zach Grienke, Jake DeGrom

      If you want to argue more up there, I am good with that, I got a bit bored, but I hope that gave a good picture of where I am. The line between groups will always be hotly debated, so know that I won’t really fight you if you think a guy might be a tier up.

      • Steve

        June 12, 2017 01:46 PM

        Injuries make it tough for more than a handful of pitchers to stay in that #1 group. Darvish and Hamels are two guys i would put in that fringe category when healthy. And King Felix and Jordan Zimmerman were there for a long time, but both have been declining the last few years.

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