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September 2, 2007

Future Shock

Mailbag

by Kevin Goldstein

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The last two weeks have been pretty busy over here at KG central, with lots of external distractions, and my county being declared a disaster area. Because of this, I'm fallen behind on my mail, so let's do some catch-up and share with the class along the way.

On Ian Kennedy's Promotion to the Big Leagues

K. writes: My problem is, with all the stats and scouting information you all have at your disposal, you presented no statistical evidence that Kennedy won't be a good major league starter, instead relying on anecdotal evidence. Why not give us some comparisons of pitchers who top out at 90m/h, successful, middling, and unsuccessful--and if you feel as though he will be middling at best--why he compares better to those pitchers who have been average?

First off, I think it's incredibly dangerous to do any kind of prospect ranking or forecasting going only on statistical evidence. Just as important as what a player is doing in the minors is how he's doing it. I would also hesitate to call scouting reports anecdotal, they're scientific in their own way as well. But let's get to the heart of the question--why do I believe that Kennedy, being a six-foot (at best) right-hander who sits in the high 80s won't succeed on a great level? One reason is because of the track record of such pitchers. To help me make my point, Dan Fox was able to pull this out of his magic database. Here are the major league starters who are right-handed, have an average velocity in the 80s, and are six-feet tall and under:


Name           Pitches   Avg  Over90
Elmer Dessens    220    87.4    77
Tim Redding      268    85.9    79
Greg Maddux      626    85.1     0
Woody Williams   683    84.2     1
Yusmeiro Petit   457    83.8    25
Josh Fogg        350    83.7     9

That's a pretty short and uninspiring list to be sure, and even if you want to hold up your Maddux flag, remember that this is the Maddux of the present--in his prime, he sat in the low 90s. Again, I really like Ian Kennedy. I think he's a really good prospect and one who should certainly provide the Yankees with an immediate upgrade over what Mike Mussina has been contributing of late, but his ceiling stops at No. 3 or 4 starter.

J. writes: Is the increase in innings for Kennedy from 2006 to 2007 a cause for concern?

I'm not especially concerned about this one. Obviously, Kennedy did have less of a workload during his college career, which features fewer games and six days rest for the weekend starters. His inning totals for his three years at Southern California were 92 2/3, 117, and 101 2/3. This year, across three levels and entering the season extremely fresh (he basically hadn't pitched for nine months), he's at 146 1/3. That's not a crazy high total, but it's even less so for a pitcher like Kennedy. First off, Kennedy is not exactly a power pitcher, and his mechanics are both compact and smooth. He might not have the best stuff around, but he easily maintains it deep into games.

Secondly, Kennedy's efficiency comes into play. Minor league statistics have improved by leaps and bounds since coming under the command of Cory Schwartz and his remarkable team over at MLBAM, and they continue to improve. It wasn't long ago that minor league statistics were difficult to find even online, yet know we have great ones, and now we even have pitch counts at the Triple-A level. That said, here are Kennedy's six starts for Scranton Wilkes-Barre:


Date   IP   Pitches
7/28   6.0    87
8/3    5.0    86
8/8    6.0    93
8/13   6.0    80
8/18   6.0    70
8/25   5.2    93
Total 34.2   509

Some quick division shows Kennedy averaging 14.7 pitches per inning, and just 3.7 per batter faced. The American League average for 2007 is 16.4 pitches per inning. So, to put it another way, 146 1/3 innings from Ian Kennedy is a far different workload for him than the same number of innings from Daniel Cabrera would be.

All in all, I have no concern over Kennedy's workload, and I would assume that his one to five starts for the Yankees down the stretch will provide no undue burden on his arm, nor should we expect him to pitch tired and be any less of a pitcher than the one we've seen throughout the season. Pitch counts and workloads are important factors in a pitcher's development, as well as his long-term maintenance. However, there are no hard and fast rules that apply to all pitchers, and every individual is different.

On the Center Fielder Rankings

J. writes: My question concerns the Cubs' Felix Pie. It has been sort of a strange season for him considering his shuffling between Iowa and Chicago, but nevertheless his numbers at Triple-A were nothing short of outstanding. Not only that, Felix is clearly an oustanding defender in center fielder, and has long been included in top-prospect lists. I was wondering if there was any particular reason other than his experience in the big leagues this year for his not being on your list of top CF prospects.

B. writes: How would Cameron Maybin, Justin Upton and Adam Jones have ranked on your list (if they hadn't already been promoted)?

To answer J's question, Pie was in the major leagues by the time this rankings were done, so he was ineligible. To combine that answer with B's question--damn you readers, damn you all to hell. When I was doing the rankings, I kept remarking to myself how glad I was to not have to worry much about where to put all of these elite talents that recently got the call, but no, you guys just couldn't be satisfied, could you?

Here's the top six center fielders as ranked:

1. Jay Bruce, Reds
2. Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
4. Desmond Jennings, Devil Rays
5. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
6. Jordan Schafer, Braves

Now, of the four guys we have to fit in (Pie, Maybin, Upton, and Jones), would you take all of them over Jennings, Ellsbury, and Schafer? Based on my conversations with scouts, I certainly would. I would rank the four guys we have to fit in there as Upton, Maybin, Jones, Pie, so let's start there and slot them in. Upton over Bruce? Yes. Maybin over Bruce? No. Maybin over Rasmus? Just by a little bit. Jones over Rasmus? Coin flip, but my gut says yes. Pie over Rasmus? Just a little short for me. Pie over McCutchen? We may have more performance on Pie to bank on, but McCutchen's ceiling is significantly higher and that gives him the slight edge. So there we have it:

1. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks
2. Jay Bruce, Reds
3. Cameron Maybin, Tigers
4. Adam Jones, Mariners
5. Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
6. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
7. Felix Pie, Cubs
8. Desmond Jennings, Devil Rays
9. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
10. Jordan Schafer, Braves

That's one helluva list. Pie and McCutchen are both pretty nifty prospects, but the top five there are all elite talents.

On the Concept of Teaching Tools

B. writes: That's an interesting article. I'd be curious to see what those scouts said about Sammy Sosa's drastic improvements at the plate starting around '97. I believe Jeff Pentland was the hitting coach Sosa credited with teaching him to be more patient at the plate. Am I remembering that right, or was the media perception just different?

You are right in remembering that Sosa's walk rate improved dramatically, but starting in 1998, which is also the year Sammy Sosa went from good to great. Here's the thing--I don't believe Sammy Sosa learned much plate discipline at all, or if he did, any improvements he made were pretty small. Here's a quick look at the great leap forward for Slammin' Sammy's unintentional walks:


Year   SLG  UBB/100AB
1996  .564     5.6
1997  .480     5.6
1998  .647     9.2
1999  .635    11.2
2000  .634    11.9
2001  .737    13.7

So, over a six-year period Sosa saw his walk rate increase by nearly 250 percent. Surely he learned something, right? Well, if he did, it wasn't much. I would contend, based merely on observation, that Sosa's pitch recognition didn't improve much at all, nor did his ability to recognize balls and strikes. Pitchers simply stopped throwing him strikes because his power took such a jump that the men on the mound were afraid to throw him any strike with the fear that the ball would get deposited on Waveland Avenue. In addition, if Sosa really 'learned' better plate discipline, then that skill shouldn't be one that would deteriorate, and he'd still be drawing walks at a high level, despite the fact that he's nowhere near the threat that he once was. Instead, he's a shell of his former self, pitchers aren't nearly as afraid of him as they once were, and Sosa's rate of unintentional walks per 100 at-bats this year is down to 7.4. I think the difference between that and the 5.6 rate before he broke out make for a far better representation of the minimal improvements he made than the raw walk rates of his MVP-level seasons.

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

Related Content:  Adam Kennedy,  Felix Pie,  The Who,  Ian Kennedy,  Sammy Sosa

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Under The Knife: Septe... (08/31)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Future Shock: Ian Kenn... (08/30)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Future Shock: Tuesday ... (09/04)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Under The Knife: Skip ... (09/02)

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