Stocking Your Scout Team: Starting Pitcher
I love evaluating pitchers and could find a reason to write about any number of prospects but I’m limiting myself to a pair. Let’s get right down to business so we can all get back to our last couple drafts in the run up to Opening Day.
Clayton Blackburn, San Francisco Giants
If I told you there was a prospect with nearly 400 innings of age-appropriate track record that included a career 9.20 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.73 walks per nine, a 2.98 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and an eventual home in a pitcher’s park with an organization known for developing pitching, you’d probably assume that prospect is highly coveted. Yet, here we are with Clayton Blackburn, who finds himself universally behind Kyle Crick, Keury Mella, and Tyler Beede on San Francisco’s prospect rankings and also trailing Adalberto Mejia, Ty Blach, Steven Okert, and/or Luis Ysla, depending on which scout you ask.
To be fair, Blackburn’s positive attributes are mundane: he pounds the zone with above-average command and control, has clean mechanics, repeats his delivery, knows how to sequence his four-pitch mix, and has the build to profile as mid-rotation innings eater. Excited yet?
Scouting reports suggest that Blackburn’s arsenal is major league caliber but not special. He utilizes a heavy, sinking fastball to generate a large number of groundballs. Among Eastern League pitchers who pitched as many innings as Blackburn, his 52.2 percent groundball rate was fifth highest. His curveball is probably his best pitch even if it’s not a true out pitch but Blackburn’s feel for his entire repertoire and the ability to keep hitters off balance has been the primary reason for his impressive minor league performance. His 2.38 FIP in 2014 was the best in the Eastern League by half a run and was far superior to rotation-mates Mejia (3.63) and Crick (3.81), themselves top 20 performers in the league by that metric.
Scouts may not love his stuff but projection systems provide some encouragement. Steamer thinks Blackburn could pitch his way to a 3.65 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 7.46 strikeouts per nine innings and ZiPS projects roughly the same. PECOTA is more pessimistic, forecasting a 4.14 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 6.92 strikeouts per nine innings. I don’t think he’ll log many big league innings in 2015 but if he does, I’d wager on PECOTA’s forecast being closest, which is no slight. That is a useable line in deep leagues and would represent a solid rookie season for a 22-year-old with no experience above double-A.
Investing in Blackburn requires a suspension of the “don’t scout stat lines” mantra that is generally wise to abide but as long as your expectations are for a back-of-the-rotation workhorse and the cost to acquire him is minimal, I’m okay buying the minor league track record here. Blackburn will have to stay in shape to reach his floor, but he’s an undervalued prospect in fantasy and I will be surprised if he isn’t logging productive, if unspectacular major league innings in 2016.
Pat Connaughton, Baltimore Orioles
Baseball was my first true love but I grew up in a time and place where college basketball dominated all else. In the late 80s and early 90s, Duke and North Carolina were perennial national championship contenders and even the region’s third wheel, NC State, had won a national championship in recent memory and featured all-time ACC greats like Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani.
Opening Day is only a week away but we’re right in the thick of the March Madness. If you watched any of Notre Dame’s run to the Elite Eight and the brink of the Final Four before losing to a simultaneously undefeated and overrated Kentucky team, you probably know that small forward Pat Connaughton was drafted last year by the Baltimore Orioles. The O’s allowed Connaughton to return to South Bend for his senior year, where he scored 12.4 points per game and co-captained a team he led in rebounding to its first ever conference tournament title.
That’s all well and good but you’re here to read about what he can do on a baseball diamond, not the hardwood. The fourth round pick’s fastball works in the low 90s with a peak of 96 and features late movement. His secondaries are a slider and changeup that both need work, the former more than the latter. Connaughton’s biggest current issue is his command. In 155 innings during his three seasons at Notre Dame, he finished with 105 strikeouts against 89 walks (1.18 K:BB), including an unsightly 36:40 in his draft year. He did pitch 15 innings in the New York-Penn League after the draft and struck out ten while walking only three but that small sample isn’t enough to ignore his amateur history.
An easy and popular comparison is Jeff Samardzija – another Notre Dame two-sport star whose name I never spell correctly the first time – and perhaps there is some benefit in looking at the former fifth rounder’s track record when trying to project Connaughton’s road to fantasy relevance. Samardzija’s collegiate control problems weren’t quite as severe as Connaughton’s but he did finish with an unimpressive 1.89 K:BB. In his first professional season, Samardzija pitched in high-A and double-A and posted a 1.42 K:BB, followed by a 1.49 in 2008 (AA/AAA/MLB), and a passable 2.21 in 2009 (AAA/MLB), due to gains in his walk rate despite a shrinking strikeout rate. Shark backslid in 2010 (1.27, AAA/MLB) and 2011 (1.74, MLB, exclusively out of the bullpen) before finally putting it all together in 2012 (3.21), his first year as a full-time major league starter. He hasn’t looked back since and walked a career best 1.76 batters per nine in 2014 while achieving a 4.7 K:BB.
The real lesson to extract from the comparison is that patience will be paramount with Connaughton. Samardzija was promoted more aggressively than Connaughton is likely to be and it wasn’t until his sixth professional season that he made good on his athletic gifts and the Cubs’ investment. Connaughton has the size, athleticism, makeup, and raw talent to reach the same peak as Samarzija has but it’s going to be a slow burn. Multiple sources have suggested that his stuff will play up once he devotes himself to baseball full-time, so keep an eye on his first assignment and stick with him even if the early results are poor.