This offseason, I remember cautiously mocking the Rays signing Fernando Rodney. Fernando Rodney was a hilariously bad pitcher for the Angels, earning a .1 WAR in 100 innings over two years (according to Fangraphs). In 2011, he walked more hitters than he struck out, 7.88 per 9 innings! The Rays gave Rodney 2 million dollars guaranteed (when you include his buyout clause for his option year).
This was widely seen as bizarre, especially by me (I was one of the biggest Fernando Rodney critics ever, and had created the hashtag #58feet to mock him). At the same time, the Rays make all kinds of weird signings that work out for them. I remember seeing Fernando Rodney in the Dominican Winter League after he was signed by the Rays. He had one extremely awful outing where he gave up 2 hits, 3 walks, for 4 runs in .1 inning to blow a save.
Over at DRaysBay, a convincing argument was made for why the Rays wanted Fernando Rodney:
“on all 424 non-changeup pitches in 2010, Rodney threw a strike 57.5% of the time, got a called strike 15.8% of the time, and got a swinging strike 4.9% of the time. When batters did swing, they missed it 11.8% of the time. Compare that to the changeup, which he threw for a strike 61.3% of the time. He got a called strike 20.6% of the time, a swinging strike 14.9% of the time, and when batters did swing, they missed a whopping 37.2% of the time.”
His changeup movement compared to other Rays pitchers (courtesy of DRaysBay again):
The god of the Rays (technically the Executive VP of Baseball Operations) Andrew Friedman said at the time of the signing “Fernando’s pure stuff is top-notch”. No one disagrees with him, just not many people believed that he had any ability to harness it. The Rays moved him on the rubber (I doubt the answer was this simplistic) and now he is amazing, with a 7.9 K/9IP, 1.32 BB/9IP, .66 ERA, and 1.85 FIP (these numbers were going into May 9th, so they don’t include his two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Wednesday). Now I just watch in amazement as Fernando Rodney does his best Apollo impression, and shows off his incredible defensive skills (for some reason you need to click on the GIFs to make them work).
Aroldis Chapman was signed out of Cuba by the Reds, most likely because he throws 100 MPH.When he first came to the big leagues, he struggled with control, walking nearly 20 percent of batters last year. So far this year, he hasn’t given up an earned run, and has a FIP of .56 (these numbers are going into May 9th). He has walked just 2.45 per 9 innings. He is basically pitching like a control pitcher with amazing stuff (I preface this by saying that both Chapman and Rodney could sour this year and be terrible the rest of the year. I don’t think this will happen, but I don’t know, and the point of the argument is not to give high fives to Chapman and Rodney, as you will we see).
He now has the highest rated changeup when it comes to vertical movement. Thanks to Brooks Baseball, we compare his movement to other pitchers. Chapman is the first one, Brad Ziegler, who has the least amount of vertical movement on his change, is the second, and Rodney is the 3rd one (the different pitches are coded on the graphs).
So using the examples of Aroldis Chapman and Fernando Rodney, two guys with filthy stuff who had major control problems, I wanted to look at other pitchers who have great stuff but have had little to no success. These are guys who could eventually break out, if they ever harness the stuff they have.
For me, I think Pedro Strop is on the verge of becoming an elite relief pitcher. I have believed this personally since the first time I saw him in 2009. He hasn’t been bad in the Majors, with a 3.53 FIP, but he has walked over 5 batters per 9 innings. High walk rates followed him in the minors, but so did high strikeout rates. He really seems to have already turned the corner in the Majors as well, with a .9 WAR in his last 39 innings. He combines good velocity with really good movement, and gets a really nice ground-ball rate (much better career rate than celebrated ground-ball/mediocre stuff guy Mark Buehrle). When you look at vertical movement, Strop compares pretty well to some of the elite relievers in the game:
Another pitcher that has some really good stuff but no control is Yankee prospect Dellin Betances. I like Betances a whole lot less than Strop, and his delivery is an absolute travesty. He throws about 93 MPH on his fastball on average, with a 90 MPH cutter with decent movement. He is another guy that has given up a bunch of walks but has also struck out a lot of hitters. He has been awful in AAA so far, but he did strikeout 7 and walk 2 in 8 innings on Wednesday.
A while back, I was curious as to whether simple control stats (like walks per 9 innings, HBP, and wild pitches) in the lower levels of the minors was predictive for future success (especially compared to standard numbers like ERA and K/9IP). I never really finished it or published it, but I think there is some relevancy here:
In 2005 in the New York-Pennsylvania A league, 4 of the top 20 ERA pitchers were big leaguers, while 5 of the bottom 20 in ERA were big leaguers, and 6 out of the bottom 23. Wild pitches were pretty unhelpful as well, as 3 of the bottom 12 (the least wild pitches) in wild pitches became big leaguers, while 2 of the top 20 in wild pitches (that is, the most) became big leaguers. Hit by pitches were equally unhelpful in this example, as 4 of the best 17 (least wild pitches) became MLBers, and 4 of the worst 20 also became big leaguers. Walks were more helpful, as none of the worst 14 in BB/9IP made the big leagues, and just 3 of the worst 30 became MLBers. 5 of the best 13 players in BB/9IP became big leaguers. 4 of the top 16 and 5 of the top 22 in K/9IP became big leaguers, while 1 of the worst 15 strikeout guys made the majors, and 3 of the worst 20. K/BB was more helpful, as 6 of the best 17 made the majors, while only 2 of the worst 30 made the Majors, and they were both below replacement level in the MLB.
In 2004, the worst 20 pitchers in ERA included Kyle Kendrick and Jair Jurrjens with 18 non big leaguers. The only big leaguer in the top 20 in HBP was Anibal Sanchez, who was 20th with 6. Harvey Garcia was the only big leaguer who was in the top 20 in wild pitches. He has 12.1 career innings in the MLB, all in 2007. The top 20 in strikeouts (per 9 innings pitched) had the same amount of big leaguers (2) as the bottom 20. The 20 pitchers that had the best BB/9IP ratio had 4 big leaguers, while there was just one who was among the worst 20 in walks, and he was a position player who happened to throw 5.1 innings. HR/9IP was unhelpful as well, as no one who was the in the best 20 became big leaguers, while 3 of the worst in the league became MLBers. The best indicator may have been innings, as no MLBers (unless you count that position player) were in the bottom 20 in innings, while 5 big leaguers were in the top 20. The reason for this is pretty obvious, you want your best prospects getting the most work.
In the Northwest League (another short season A-ball league) in 2004, 3 of the top 9 in strikeouts became big leaguers, but there wasn’t a 4th until the 37th best. ERA proved to be better, as 5 of the top 20 and 6 of the top 23 were future big leaguers. 5 of the best 24 BB/IP guys became big leaguers, but 4 of the worst 11 walk rates also became big leaguers. Steven Register (a guy who threw 11 below replacement innings in the bigs) was the only big leaguer in the top 29 in HBP. 4 of the bottom 20 and 5 of the bottom 24 in HBP made it to the big leagues. Only 1 pitcher that was in the top 49 in wild pitches made the big leagues, 6 of the 21 pitchers that threw the least amount of wild pitches made the big leagues.
In 2006 in the NYPL, 5 of the top 22 in K/BB became big leaguers, 5 of the top 21 in ERA, 5 of the best 25 in BB/9IP, 3 of the best 18 in HBP, and 2 of the best 18 in wild pitches became big leaguers. It would definately be a stretch, at least in the examples I saw (a more comprehensive study would be welcome), to say that control stats (or really any minor league pitching stats, even though we saw a correlation between high level ERA and level projections and MLB success, as I talked about in the Robbie Ross post) in lower levels predict MLB success. This plays into the logic that pure stuff without success can possibly lead to future success (this would also be consistent with the finding that college pitching stats don’t matter).
So I wanted to find some minor leaguers that embodied this Rodney/Chapman/Strop type with nasty movement, stuff, or (preferably all 3) velocity. These will be guys that one should keep an eye on, even if their stats are terrible. The majority of these will most likely flame out, but they have big league stuff. So I asked two people that watch more minor league baseball than I do (I only watch it to keep up with Corky Miller):
Marc from USS Mariner:
Chris Withrow was the 48th best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America to start the 2010 season. The former Dodger first round pick responded by walking 4.8 hitters per 9 innings and posting an ERA an Altuve under 6. This is his 6th year in the minors, so he can be a free agent after the year, and despite the walks and lack of success (1.512 career WHIP in the minors), he strikes out more than a batter an inning and has some good stuff.
Tyler Matzek was picked in the 1st round in 2009 (get used to the theme of 1st round picks) by the Rockies. His control problems have been ghastly, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He actually walks more batters than he gives up hits. He strikes out almost 10 batters per 9 innings and is a starter, so the stuff is obviously there, but he is walking nearly a batter an inning so far in 2012.
Ethan Martin is another Dodger prospect who is struggling after being picked in the first round. His 5.19 ERA and 1.58 K/BB just isn’t getting done. But again, he strikes out over a guy an inning. In 6 AA starts this year, he is giving up just 5.7 H/9IP, but 5.2 BB/9IP. He is keeping the ball in the park and has just 2 wild pitches, so maybe he is turning a corner (3.12 ERA).
Phillipe Aumont was picked in the first round by the Mariners and after a couple trips to the DL and hit and miss results, Aumont was included in the Cliff Lee deal. His first year in the Phillies organization was miserable, as Aumont walked nearly 6 guys per 9 innings with 12 HBP and 17 wild pitches. In 2011, he was shifted to relief role, and benefited greatly from it, reaching AAA and dominated there (37 strikeouts in 22.2 innings!). He has had a really rough start to the year, but has thrown just 9 innings, so it’s a small sample size.
Jason Cole of Lone Star Dugout pointed out these guys for me:
Trey Haley: A second round pick of the Indians in 2008, Haley has been both a reliever and a starter. He has a comically high walk rate of 6.7 BB/9IP with quite a bit of wild pitches and hit by pitches. He has shown the ability to strike people out though, getting nearly 10 batters per 9 innings in 2011. He is still in A+, but he is only 21.
Jeremy Jeffress: A former 1st round pick of the Brewers, Jeffress joined the Royals organization in 2011. He was once rated as the 100th best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, but has been extremely disappointing with a 4.28 career ERA and 1.78 K/BB ratio in the minors. On the other hand, he clearly has swing and miss stuff, with 10 K/9IP in his career and just under 9 in his PCL career for the reliever.
Tanner Scheppers: A former first round pick/top prospect starter, Scheppers has since dropped his arm angle and become a reliever. He has impressive minor league numbers with 9.7 K/9IP with less than 4 walks per 9 innings pitched. In 15 innings pitched in AAA this year, he has been absolutely dominant, and he could be brought up during the year for the Rangers, even with their loaded bullpen.
Chris Carpenter (Red Sox): Acquired in the Theo Epstein compensation package, Carpenter has been known to hit 100 MPH. He has had a short cup of coffee in the big leagues, and is currently injured. In 30 AAA innings with the Cubs last year, Carpenter had a 5.21 FIP with almost 7 walks per 9 innings. However, he struck out almost 9 batters per 9 innings, and struck out 7.52 per 9 innings with a solid FIP as a starter in AA in 2010. A lot of his future will have to do with how healthy he is.