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September 25, 2013

Fantasy Fool's Gold

National League Starting Pitchers

by Craig Goldstein

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With the position players over and done with, it’s time to start taking stock of the pitchers. I’m going to kick us off with some National League starters that would deceive the box-score scout and might be receiving a bit too much hype. As always, this doesn’t disqualify them from prospect status so much as it is a reality check on the type of prospects they truly are. While you might think that starting pitching would provide a deep reservoir of names to pull from on a project like this, it turns out that like the author, it was actually shallow and disappointing. Rather than forcefeed you a fifth name, below are four prospects who we deemed less than the sum of their stats.

Once again, the BP Prospect Team has gone above and beyond in responding to inquiries on players, and the information they provide is invaluable. It allows us to give a lot of depth and history to the players mentioned, and that’s important in an industry that focuses so much on the present.

David Holmberg, Arizona Diamondbacks
If I told you about a pitcher in his age-21 season (July birthday though, so 22 for about half the season) put together 157 innings of a 2.75 ERA at Double-A, you’d probably have your interest piqued. Now, it might not scratch you right where you itch, but it’s pretty good. If I told you he struck out 18 percent of batters and walked just under eight percent, you might stick out your lower lip with a bit of a frown, as if to say “it’s not bad, but I’m not in love. Perhaps dig a little more and discover that as recently as 2012 this player was striking out 28 percent of batters while walking only five percent at High-A, and that given his age relative to his level this past year, it’s not inconceivable that he could return to his previous dominant form once he adapts to the level.

Drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft by the Chicago White Sox, David Holmberg was included as a secondary piece in the trade that sent Edwin Jackson to Chicago, with Daniel Hudson the headliner to Arizona. Holmberg has moved quickly with the Diamondbacks, actually breaking through to the major leagues this season, though it was a rough outing (3 ER in 3 2/3 IP). So while this has all the markings of a successful prospect who is flying under the radar and could prove to be a sneaky grab… therein lies the deception.

Despite firming up his body, Holmberg remains a below average athlete on the mound. He’s praised for his poise and his control, deservedly so, but what doesn’t seem to make the rounds are that it’s great control of below average stuff. His dominant pitch is his change up, and we’ve seen what comes of change up artists who have dominated the minors when they arrive at the major league level (Edwar Cabrera, for one). The change is obviously an important part of any pitchers’ arsenal, and especially southpaws so I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the pitch. However, when it’s surrounded by an upper-80s fastball and no other pitches to miss bats, major leaguers won’t have any trouble teeing off.

Ty Blach, San Francisco Giants
When one comes upon a 2.90 ERA with a 2.66 FIP in the California League, well they probably keep on living their life, but a raised eyebrow might occur. Especially when the owner of those numbers was mentioned in the “On The Rise” section of his team’s top 10 prospect list and received a positive write up in a June Monday Morning Ten Pack. Obviously with a FIP that low, the peripherals are strong, but given the high octane environment of the league they still pop off the page with a strikeout rate of 22 percent compared to a paltry three percent walk rate. The raw numbers are more staggering: 117 strikeouts in 130 innings, against 18 walks. That’s a 14.6-to-1 K:BB ratio. So, given the preseason sentiment that he could explode and then the subsequent explosion in a hitter’s paradise… it might seem odd that he lands on a list about Fool’s Gold. Seems more than anything that he might be the real deal.

Indeed, I’d wager he is close to the real deal in real life. Unfortunately value in the real world and value in the fantasy world can swing wildly based on the profile of the player in question. First, a cause for proceeding cautiously optimistic on his real world value: age relative to level. The 22-year-old Blach was a bit old for the level, which does take the shine off the apple a bit. Another aspect that separates his real world value is the arsenal with which he’s compiling statistics. His fastball sits in the high 80s/low 90s and he commands it well. His secondaries feature a slurvy breaking ball that arrives in the low 80s and a change up that works better than the breaking ball. Our prospect team noted that while his command was remarkable the stuff would be an issue up the chain and profiled him as a reliever in the mold of Tony Watson. Being a lefty helps his chances of sticking in the rotation, but even if he does, he’s not going to be the dynamic strikeout artist he was at High-A. Blach is an interesting guy for the Giants, but for fantasy purposes, he is best left in the free agent pool.

Tanner Roark, Washington Nationals
Roark (pronounced Row-Ark for some reason) has taken the National League by storm in his 47 innings this season, and it’s not entirely smoke and mirrors either. Roark’s 7-1 record out of nowhere may call to mind the random “dominance” of Aaron Small or any other number of starters that pop up for a string of solid starts before fading into oblivion. The same can’t be said for Roark. While Small couldn’t crack five strikeouts per nine innings, Roark is up over seven per nine and has his strikeout rate just a tick under 21%. He limits free passes as well and limits the long ball (2.9 percent HR:FB), so even if the sparkle on his 1.74 ERA isn’t legitimate, his 2.38 FIP is deserved. The question of course is whether Roark has the stuff to replicate, or even produce a reasonable facsimile of this production going forward.

To answer this question, I once again leaned on the expertise of the BP Prospect Team, who had seen Roark since his time in the Texas Rangers organization. Roark is throwing harder now than he was a few years ago, averaging 92 MPH and touching 94 when 92 was previously the upper end of his fastball range. While he previously displayed a show-me curveball and a decent slider, with the change up ahead of the two, Roark has seen positive return values (per FanGraphs) on every single pitch in his arsenal at this point. Despite the improvements in the quality of his offerings, scouts still see Roark as a fifth starter/long man more than the ace his numbers say he is or the mid-rotation arm some are dreaming of.

Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
Leave it to a curmudgeon like me to rain on Hendricks’ parade. The reigning Chicago Cubs minor league pitcher of the year, Hendricks compiled a 2.00 ERA in 166 innings across Double- and Triple-A in 2013. He accrued 128 strikeouts in those innings, walking only 26 batters. While the strikeout rate isn’t elite, it’s more than enough to get by when you can limit the free passes like Hendricks can. Despite working only 40 innings at Triple-A, Hendricks could be a possibility for the Cubs rotation out of Spring Training this year, depending how what they do in free agency. He’s a polished pitcher who arrived in the Cubs system along with fellow probability type Christian Villanueva in exchange for Ryan Dempster in 2012.

Despite the impressive stat line and the solid peripherals, this is another case where the scouting report just doesn’t back up the production. Hendricks doesn’t pack a punch stuff-wise, instead using excellent command to locate the ball exactly where he needs to. Obviously a pitcher with this profile can succeed in the major leagues, but the margin for error is drastically reduced when you can’t get away with mistakes due to velocity or hard break or what-have-you. That doesn’t mean Hendricks isn’t a valuable asset for Chicago though. He’s dropped his curveball from his repertoire, opting instead to go with a slurve that has been more successful. Adding a breaking pitch he can use was important to Hendricks as it gave him another weapon to go with his ability to sequence well on top of his overall pitchability. He could see the majors in 2014, which will allow him to carry value in deep deep mixed or NL-only leagues, but even in those he is more of an in-season add than someone to go after in the offseason.

Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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