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.
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.