July 12, 2011
The Future is Now
Sample size or apple pies? You can choose only one. Apple pies—that’s what I thought. A quick glimpse of a prospect might not tell us all we need to know, but it’s still plenty tempting to draw possibly premature conclusions. With that in mind, I decided to watch the Futures Game for the second straight year and make snap judgments on every single pitcher, even though none of them threw more than a couple dozen pitches. Last year, my main takeaway was that Zach Britton was the man. He still is. This year, I came to the conclusion that the only way to top a Bernie Williams rendition of the national anthem is to catch a Sal Fasano first-base coach sighting.
The following table lists every pitcher who appeared in the game, in order of appearance. I’ll tackle them one by one, offering comps to current major leaguers where applicable, as well as links to videos of similar pitches.
I took notes on Tyler Skaggs when he was drafted in 2009 by the Angels. He had three things in his favor—a projectable frame, left-handedness, and a huge curveball. Call it what you will, but that projectability has not resulted in increased velocity, as he still appears to work 88-92, which is perfectly average for a lefty, a trait that still works in his favor. Most importantly, the curveball remains.
Skaggs’ curve is the type that’s fun to watch from an off-set camera angle. He threw one to Yonder Alonso and two to Dayan Viciedo. Viciedo was able to foul both off, but Skaggs’ 1-2 offering was his best pitch of the day, dropping a foot due to spin. Batters who swing at pitches with that much movement whiff 25-30 percent of the time. Nobody throws a curveball consistently with as much downward movement as Skaggs threw his. Barry Zito comes the closest the most often. Here’s an example of what that pitch looks like when he throws it. Skaggs also flashed a changeup and a slider, but I think his curveball would probably be a superior pitch to his slider in all situations.
Teheran started Harper off with a fastball away for a called strike. The pitch was probably a couple of inches outside, but Teheran hit his spot, so he got the call. Teheran then missed low on a change, but he wasn’t afraid to double up with the offering, this time throwing his change at the knees. Harper was way out in front. Up 1-2, Teheran went to the same spot as his first pitch, stretching the zone on the outside corner, and again got the call. From what I can tell, getting Bryce Harper off-balance isn’t overly challenging, but it is imperative, because when Harper times a pitch, he hits it hard. Teheran threw one pitch in the zone for a swinging strike and earned called strikes on two pitches out of the zone. He was in total command of that matchup.
Liam Hendriks was the least notable pitcher of the day for me. He seems like the type who lets the batter put the ball in play, which makes sense, given that he’s a Twins prospect.
It was tough to top Paxton, but that’s what Matt Moore did. The man I call “Matmour” delivered a first pitch to Alex Liddi at 94 with tailing action for a called strike. Fair enough. His next two pitches were tailing at 98, resulting in a swinging strike and a foul. That was even better. Then he broke out the back-foot slider. At that point, you had to feel bad for Alex Liddi, who could do nothing but wave at it.
With two outs and nobody on, Moore got to face a lefty. It wasn’t pretty. Chiang actually put the barrel of the bat on the baseball, but nonetheless, I predict that no more than three lefties get hits off of Moore in his major-league career. Moore is a phenom most similar to his future teammate David Price, who also is capable of throwing awesome fastballs, and who way back when featured a wipeout slider. You can see Moore’s slider as currently thrown by Johnny Venters.
Martinez lost control of one curve, resulting in a hit by pitch, and his overall control has been off this year, leading to 20 walks in 50 innings, but his stuff was probably the best we saw on Sunday. (I have reservations about right-handers being able to hit Moore’s sinker/low arm slot. That’s not to say that Moore isn’t the better prospect, though—I think Moore is the best pitching prospect since Strasburg.)
Martin Perez has been around forever, yet he’s only 20 years old. People used to think that Perez was as good a prospect as Moore. He wasn’t, and he isn’t. My take on Perez is that people overrate youth when it comes to pitching prospects. There may be developmental reasons to believe Perez will harness his abilities, but I don’t think his age is one.
Drew Pomeranz had the ugliest pitching line of the night, but his PITCHf/x numbers were stellar. PITCHf/x recorded 19 Pomeranz fastballs, which averaged 93 miles per hour, two inches of tail, and ten inches of pop. A similar fastball belongs to Clayton Kershaw. Pomeranz’s best fastball was an 0-2 pitch to Yonder Alonso that he painted on the outside corner for a called strike three.
He also threw two breaking balls, one of which might have been the nastiest pitch of the day. It was a 1-1 82-mph slurve to Chiang that was taken for a ball. In the approximately 500 times that a pitch of that velocity and movement has been recorded, roughly two-thirds were out of the strike zone, and the only pitcher to throw a similar pitch more than a handful of times is Gio Gonzalez. Here’s what it looks like coming from him.
Finally, Pomeranz threw a straight changeup that I wasn’t too sure about, although he located it well, and he absolutely grooved a 2-0 fastball to Silverio, resulting in a home run.
Kyle Gibson came in and pulled off a neat trick, featuring his entire arsenal in his first five pitches. First, Jurickson Profar hit a very-well-located sinker for a triple. Gibson then started Reymond Fuentes off with another well-located pitch, this time a changeup, which I marked as the best change of the day. Fuentes swung and missed. Gibson wasted a slider in the dirt before going back away with the changeup for another swinging strike. To finish Fuentes off, Gibson went up the ladder with a four-seam fastball, and Fuentes squared it up, flying out to deep center. Gibson stands 6’6” and threw from the highest release point of any pitcher.
Arodys Vizcaino had the quickest pace of the game. His inning lasted three and a half minutes, during which time he threw six pitches. He threw four fastballs, most similar in velocity/movement to Justin Verlander’s. Verlander is much taller than Vizcaino and doesn’t pitch in one-inning stints, so that’s probably a terrible comp. Vizcaino also broke off two sweeping breaking balls. His performance warrants a debate over who is the best pitching prospect in Atlanta’s system.
Kelvin Herrera did not jump up prospect lists with his Futures Game appearance, in which he allowed three runs, but looking at his overall body of work, I wonder why he’s not already toward the top of them. A 21-year-old with 36 strikeouts to three walks in Double-A, Herrera is embracing his new role as a reliever, and more importantly, as a healthy pitcher. Herrera’s fastball and curveball were just like Cosart’s—the former 96 and the latter some 20 mph slower—but Herrera has Sherzer’s change in addition to his fastball. Herrera K’ed Harper in the same manner as Teheran, keeping him off-balance with the changeup down and the fastball away. I don’t think Herrera or Pomeranz, the two guys who got lit up, pitched all that poorly. Chances are they both pitched quite well.
By the time Jhan Marinez entered the game, I was convinced that these pitchers were coming straight off of an assembly line and that the manufacturers hadn’t even bothered to come up with a real name for this one. Marinez also featured a 96-mph four-seam fastball. Of note was Marinez’s slider, which moves with little to no spin deflection, a la Brad Lidge’s.
Jacob Turner and Matt Harvey closed the game out for the U.S. in the top of the ninth and worked with less velocity than those before them. Their fastballs were perfectly fine. If you couldn’t tell, I have run out of ways to describe fastballs.