Pitchers Flourishing in Obscurity
I believe it was Confucius who posed the question, “If a prospect flourishes at the minor league level, but he is not a Top 100 prospect, does it even matter?” Many in the baseball community would answer with a definitive “No.” Being a devout contrarian, I set out to find out if the answer might be closer to “maybe.”
After all, this is an important question to answer for dynasty owners drafting in leagues with deep farm systems. Once the upper-crust prospects are gone, drafting minor leaguers can start to feel exactly like taking shots in the dark. There is no shortage of in-depth scouting reports available for elite prospects like Ronald Acuna, Vlad Jr. and Sixto Sanchez, but owners have limited resources to inform decisions when researching most fringe and lower-level prospects. Fortunately, one constant of baseball at every level is the scorekeeper’s ambition to record everything that happens on the diamond for posterity.
Before I go any further, yes, I have heard the Dynasty Baseball Commandment, “Thou shalt not scout a minor league stat line.” Consider this article an exercise in cautious heresy. It is not my intention to blaspheme the Dynasty Gods, but it was with a well-intentioned desire to make a more effective use of the tools we all have readily available–minor league stats—that I built ‘The Dynasty Profiler.’
The Dynasty Profiler
The Dynasty Profiler is no KATOH. (I miss you already, Chris Mitchell!) The Dynasty Profiler is a much more rudimentary tool. Two weeks ago I used the Dynasty Profiler to sift through a heap of minor league batters in hopes of identifying some deep-league stashes. This week, I’m taking a look at some under-the-radar pitchers doing great work to little fanfare. I started by importing the 2017 stats of just over 1,300 minor league pitchers into a Google Sheet. Then I began looking for pitchers who did things well. I was searching for players who met the following criteria:
- Struck out over nine batters per nine Innings
- Had over 3.75 strikeouts for every issued walk
- WHIP lower than 1.1
- Managed the home run ball as evidenced by Home Runs per 9 Innings ratio of 0.8
- Pitched over 90 Innings
- Under age 26, i.e. young enough to matter long-term
The reasoning behind these ranges is simple: many of the best pitchers in the majors have similar profiles defined by strikeouts, control and home run management. Additionally, the stabilization point for most of these measures is below the thresholds I set. For stats like Home Runs per 9, which require a larger sample, it’s at least nice to know that the pitchers we’re looking at have had consistent success limiting home run damage.
With the Dynasty Profiler, I was looking for guys whose pitching profiles potentially deserve more credit. After getting a pool of ‘premier names,’ I created four other buckets to filter out guys who might have also shown an attractive profile during their 2017 season. You can see all five buckets on the ‘Pitcher Highlights’ tab.
After compiling a list of guys who put together admirable minor league stat lines, I graciously patted myself on the back for unearthing studs like Jon Duplantier, Corbin Burnes, Mitch Keller, Triston McKenzie, Walker Buehler, and, of course, my boy Shane Bieber. But what about the other names?
Anthony Shew? Tom de Blok? Scooter Hightower? I did some follow-up research on these guys, and the rest of the highlighted names, in a quest for context. I will not lie: Many of the players The Dynasty Profiler uncovered are not really worth remembering. However, a couple of them might be worth Watchlisting. Check out the highlights, and then see my conclusions below. Did I discover an easy way to identify a breakout pitcher, or do I deserve to be burned at the stake for Dynasty Baseball Heresy?
Nick Fanti, Age: 21, SP Philadelphia Phillies
Why He Matters:
Fanti is, perhaps irrationally, my favorite kind of pitching prospect. Thus far Fanti has managed to use his unique physical tools to consistently throw strikes and produce very similar results to the flashier Sixto Sanchez. Last season Fanti threw 120.1 innings at the Single-A level and finished the year having struck out nine batters for every two issued walks. This helped him achieve a WHIP of 0.96. More impressively, the former 31st round pick pitched one complete game no-hitter, and 8 ⅔ innings of another. Fanti has done all this without an overpowering fastball or repertoire. The lefty uses a fastball/curveball/changeup combination, a deceptive delivery, and a reported high-baseball IQ to keep hitters off-balance and get outs consistently. Can this level of success continue? That remains to be seen. Many in the scouting community are skeptical, but I will be watching him closely to see if there might be more to Fanti’s success than scouts are currently giving him credit.
Why He Doesn’t:
At 6’2” and 185 pounds, some believe that Fanti’s stock has nowhere to go but down due to his lack of physical projection. He should begin the 2018 campaign at High-A Clearwater where he will be teaming with the aforementioned Sanchez. Will hitters continue to be fooled by Fanti’s weaker-than-average offerings? Or will his deception and pitchability continue to keep hitters off balance enough to help him deliver effective starts? If he succeeds at High-A, and possibly even Double-A this year, Fanti could be a player that draws trade interest or provides rotation depth to the up-and-coming Phils over the next couple of years. I will be very curious to see what happens since Fanti is basically non-existent on most prospect lists and costs nothing for dynasty owners looking for a late-round stash.
Tyler Wells, Age: 23, SP Minnesota Twins
Why He Matters:
Tyler Wells fits a more traditional mold as a pitching prospect but has likewise received little to no attention. He is a massive 6’8”265-pound right-hander for the Minnesota Twins. Drafted out of Cal State San Bernardino, Wells has quietly succeeded during his first taste of pro ball. During a 75.1 inning stint at Single-A, he finished with an impressive 10.99 strikeouts-per-9 while only allowing 2.63 walks-per-9. He has also struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings at each of the three stops he has made. Wells is equipped with a four-pitch mix that helps keep hitters off-balance, and he uses a low-80s slider as his out pitch. Unlike Nick Fanti, Wells does have growth to do to fill out his very large frame. As he physically develops it will be interesting to monitor if his low-90s fastball can add a few ticks of velocity. If Tyler is able to fill-out and throw harder while maintaining something close to his current control, I wouldn’t expect this behemoth to go unnoticed much longer.
Why He Doesn’t:
As history has shown, bigger doesn’t always mean better. Pitchers with longer levers tend to struggle to maintain consistent mechanics. It will be interesting to monitor Wells’ consistency as he moves up another level. Additionally, while Wells has maintained a nice K/BB ratio, his stuff has not been untouchable. This is best evidenced by the 63 hits he gave up in 75.1 innings at Single-A, which, when combined with 22 walks, left him holding a 1.13 WHIP. I’d say it is somewhat concerning to see Wells giving up so many hits to low-level hitters. Perhaps hitters are better able to make solid contact against Wells’ repertoire than against a guy like Fanti’s. I also mentioned that it would be nice to see Wells add a few ticks of velocity with maturity. It must be acknowledged that if his fastball doesn’t get better, then even with three other offerings his only hope to reach the majors might be throwing batting practice.
Trevor Richards, Age: 24, SP Miami Marlins
Why He Matters:
Trevor Richards has taken an unconventional route to his first big league spring training. Fortunately for him the results he has posted as a minor leaguer are impressive enough to suggest that he should have always been considered more than an afterthought. The undrafted Richards has ridden an impressive change-up and above-average command through four levels in two seasons. He finished 2017 with a sub-3.00 ERA, FIP, and xFIP after 75.1 innings at Double-A. After his great showing, he was honored as the Miami Marlins Minor League Pitcher of the Year. While that might say more about the Marlins’ system than Richards’ talent, it is nice to know that he plays in an organization that appreciates him. The Marlins also have absolutely nothing to lose by being aggressive with his timeline. As he arrived with an advanced college approach, I will be curious to see how quickly Miami continues to advance a guy who has proven dominant at every level. It might not take long for dynasty owners to get a glimpse of Richards at the pro-level.
Why He Doesn’t:
Richards, like Nick Fanti and similar change-up-plus-deception types, might simply be in for a rude awakening as he continues to face more advanced hitters. Pitches like the change-up can be a lot more successful at the lower levels where the change is not a common offering. Against better-seasoned competition, a weak arsenal will likely lose much of its bite. While some pitchers have proven successful using lower velocities and pinpoint location to induce weak contact and keep hitters off balance, these are still exceptions to the rule. Perhaps Richards will keep defying the odds as a true underdog climbing the ladder, but there are plenty of reasons for skepticism.
Ranger Suarez, Age: 22, SP Philadelphia Phillies
Why He Matters:
Ranger Suarez has been simmering in the Phillies’ system since 2013 and judging by the fact that the Phils added him to their 40-man roster in November it looks like they intend to keep the lefty. Suarez slowly worked his way from rookie ball to High-A Clearwater over this stretch. Last season he finally broke through, finishing the year with solid strikeout and walk numbers, minimal home run damage, and blemishes that look to be the effect of an inflated .382 BABIP. Suarez will return to the Threshers to join a rotation of Sixto Sanchez, the aforementioned Fanti, and a few other promising arms. I think Ranger could make a lot of noise in Clearwater if he is able to maintain the elevated strikeout totals he posted last year. Whether he becomes a future part of the Phillies’ rotation or is shipped off at the deadline remains to be seen. What is certain is that Suarez looks to be a piece of Klentak’s master plan.
Why He Doesn’t:
Not since 2014 had we seen strikeout totals close to what he posted last year, so the first question must be: Was it for real? Suarez has always exhibited great command, but last year was the first time he put it all together. While I’d love to believe he’s legit, it never hurts to be cautious. I will also be interested to watch how quickly–or slowly–the organization continues to advance him through their levels. He’s almost certainly bound to start the year at High-A after having only pitched 37.2 innings there last season. Does he have a chance to finish 2018 at Double-A? That seems unlikely. For dynasty owners with the ability to be patient, Suarez might be a decent stash. For teams that are pushing for a title, add him to your watchlist and keep an eye on his progress. If Suarez is dealt at the deadline, another team with less pitching depth in the pipeline might advance his development to see what he’s really worth. Keep an eye out.
As we learned previously: It does help to listen to professional scouts. Guys who are flourishing at the lower levels might be doing so only because they have a pitch no one else around them does, and some could simply be outperforming their stuff. This doesn’t mean they’re not good pitchers, it just means they need to be exposed to more challenging opponents before drawing definitive conclusions. When looking for context on each of these names, I went straight to whatever scouting reports I could find to determine what, if any, value the players highlighted might deliver in the long-term.
One thing I noticed with this exercise is that there seem to be fewer variables involved in finding value by scouting a pitcher’s minor league stat line than in scouting a batter’s. A batter is asked to hit the ball consistently, hit with power, not strike out too much, take a few walks, find a valuable position, and play serviceable defense; a pitcher is pretty much only asked to throw strikes, keep guys off the base paths and keep the ball in the yard. Yes, some pitchers will appear to be better than they really are, but it appears that pitchers who are able to follow those ‘simple’ steps are perhaps more able to advance up the ladder than hitters who have more variables factoring into their overall development.
Finally, while these pitchers might have a chance to climb the ladder and debut quickly based on their minor league success, I wonder how long their leash might be when they finally reach the major league level. Nick Fanti, for example, will likely not be given the same amount of major league opportunities as a guy like Sixto Sanchez. For one, the team has more invested financially and developmentally in a guy like Sanchez. Second, the whole world is expecting more valuable outcomes from Sixto’s arm than they are from Fanti’s. Third, since no one expects anything from Fanti, it seems likely that the team will ride his arm until he falters, or replace him as soon as a ‘higher-upside’ arm comes down the pipe. It’s a tough world out there for ballplayers, even for guys who have proven themselves quite admirably as pitchers in the minor leagues.