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October 18, 2013

Raising Aces

Bush League: Previewing the Winter's Pitching Prospect Breakdowns

by Doug Thorburn

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The advent of MLB.tv has revolutionized the baseball experience, granting access to the nearly 2500 games that take place each season in the majors and opening many avenues of analysis. But the extensive footage available via MLB's younger brother, MiLB.tv, is often overlooked. Though the video quality may be lacking, the minor-league product offers valuable glimpses of the game's elite prospects.

One of the perks of watching MiLB.tv footage is the chance to witness a lighter side of the game in venues where the fan experience often takes priority over on-field achievement, a trait that is necessary in an environment where the best athletes are likely to move on at a moment's notice. One of my favorite adaptations in a minor-league park is the Batdog, a golden retriever who is responsible for clearing the lumber for the Trenton Thunder, the Double-A affiliate of the Yankees.

Minor-league teams recruit all sorts of sideshow acts to entertain the audience between innings, and with no commercials to fill the airtime on MiLB.tv, we are often gifted with an up-close look at some of these unusual performances. Max Patkin gained national acclaim as the “Clown Prince of Baseball” for his antics at minor-league ballparks as well as his role in Bull Durham, and though Patkin retired in 1995 and passed away in '99, his legacy has since been continued by one Myron Noodleman. Noodleman is the stage name for Rick Hader, who happens to be the uncle of former Saturday Night Live cast member Bill Hader. The Wikipedia page for Noodleman lists him as the fifth such “Clown Prince of Baseball,” and he carries his nerd schtick across the minor leagues.

Goofball antics and crazy dances can be found throughout the minor leagues, not all of which are staged on the field. Sometimes the footage on MiLB.tv will pan to the stands, where eccentric fans have an opportunity to steal the spotlight for 15 seconds of quasi-fame. I came across one such fanatic while watching a recent minor-league game, in which a misplaced Packers fan was showing off his double-jointed dance moves in front of the crowd at a game for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers low-A affiliate).

The chance to catch Batdog, Myron Noodleman, or Packman in-between innings is merely a bonus, because the action taking place center stage on MiLB.tv is easily worth the price of admission (currently $19.99 for off-season access to the library of archives). The participating affiliates include all 30 Triple-A clubs, 21 teams from Double-A, and more than a dozen squads from the various levels of A-ball.

The minor-league games provide a tremendous opportunity to evaluate players’ development as they rise through the system. Just as I did last winter, I will be rolling out another batch of prospect evaluations this offseason in my Bush League series, leaning on video available through MiLB.tv. Let's take a sneak peek at some of the pitchers who will be under the microscope this winter.

Kyle Zimmer, Royals
The number-five overall pick in the 2012 draft, Zimmer had one of my favorite deliveries of the amateur class that year. The University of San Francisco product brought uncommon momentum to the table, with the rare ability to maintain balance through high levels of kinetic energy, the net result of which was a deep release point that gave opposing hitters fits. Zimmer fought through some mechanical issues early in the year but found a happy medium in the second half of the minor-league season, finishing with a torrid 18-inning stretch after his promotion to Double-A. He struck out 140 batters over 108.3 total innings in the minors this year, with 36 walks allowed, numbers that are more indicative of his ability than the 4.32 ERA or 4-8 won-loss record. In the offseason, I will take a look at his 2013 development as he advanced from the Carolina League to the Texas League.

Noah Syndergaard, Mets
Listed at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Syndergaard has an intimidating presence on the mound. Much like Zimmer, he caught fire near the end of the minor-league season and put his best performance on display upon his promotion to Double-A Binghampton of the Eastern League. His overall line for the season included a K-to-walk ratio of nearly five-to-one, and his 3.06 ERA would have been even more impressive if not for a final-game nightmare that included 11 runs allowed (nine earned) in less than four innings.

Syndergaard’s height provides natural downhill plane, while his strong posture allows for repetition and fastball execution, though the early returns indicate a tendency toward excess spine-tilt on breaking balls. Both his fastball and curve are rated as plus pitches, with the heater earning a 7 grade from Jason Parks and the prospect crew, and his changeup has the potential to be another plus pitch for a Mets org that has churned out a number of high-end pitching prospects in recent years. The footage of Syndergaard is limited, and the liabilities of minor-league video are evident in the grated feeds of the following clips.

Robert Stephenson, Reds
The 20-year old rolled through two levels of A-ball before hitting a bit of a wall upon his late-season promotion to Double-A. He carries a massive fastball that earned the rare 8 grade for future potential in the pre-season Top 10s, though his command of the pitch is volatile. Stephenson carries a high angle of shoulder abduction that generates steep downhill plane without sacrificing too much posture, but his inconsistencies stem from issues with balance (due to a severe drop-n-drive) as well as repetition of mechanical timing. The secondary pitches lag behind his explosive fastball, and he leans on the heat when the count falls out of favor. This offseason will present the opportunity to evaluate his development and areas of improvement, with footage available from Dayton of the Midwest League as well as Pensacola of the Southern League.

Julio Urias, Dodgers
Urias might be the most interesting story of the 2013 minor-league season. The international free agent out of Mexico began the year at age 16, yet the Dodgers kick-started his pro career with an almost unheard-of assignment to full-season ball at Great Lakes of the Midwest League. Pre-season reports had Urias sitting in the high-80s with his fastball, but the kid was touching 97 mph in his final start of the season. The southpaw turned 17 on August 12th and is still growing, and there is no telling how high his ceiling might reach. The game footage from that final start is covered in gnats, enough to invoke memories of the 2007 ALCS in Cleveland, but the annoyance is not enough to distract from the brilliance of his skills.

My favorite anecdote from Urias' final outing was not even the velocity, but rather a snap-throw to first base that picked off the first batter of the game following a first-pitch single, definitively demonstrating the degree to which this teenager is advanced well beyond his peers.

Jameson Taillon, Pirates
I previewed Taillon last season, and he was one of the only participants in the Bush League series of 2012-13 that did not make his major-league debut this past season (the other was Danny Hultzen). Taillon has immense upside and an excellent delivery, and the graduation of Gerrit Cole to Pittsburgh places him directly under the prospect spotlight. The second overall pick in the 2010 draft, the right-hander has great stuff and an efficient delivery, but much like his once and future teammate Cole, Taillon's numbers have failed to live up to the hype generated by his prestigious pedigree and multiple plus-plus pitches. This winter we will deep-dive his performance to better understand the context behind the numbers.

Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks
Bradley is similar to Stephenson in that his pitches gain depth thanks to a high angle of shoulder abduction that leads to an elevated arm slot. Bradley's downhill plane impresses because of his consistent ability to locate pitches on the lower shelf of the strike zone, and he earns solid marks for his posture and stability near release point, a dangerous combination that pleases coaches and scouts alike. Both his fastball and curve earn grades of 7 on the 2-8 scale from the BP prospect staff, vaulting Bradley's ceiling to that of a top-of-rotation arm. However, his profile is not without flaws, with inconsistencies in timing creating struggles with pitch command, an element that will be at the top of his developmental to-do list in 2014 and will be put under the microscope when Raising Aces digs deeper in the offseason.

***

The Bush League series will be in full effect once the postseason is complete, with extensive analysis on each of the pitchers listed as well as a handful of other prospects who inspire intrigue. I highly recommend MiLB.tv for those who are keeping warm by the hot stove this winter, both for the entertainment value as well as the opportunities for prospect analysis. Enjoy the thrills of minor-league baseball, and be thankful that we don’t live under the threat of tarpnami warnings in the offseason.

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Prospects,  Scouting

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