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May 10, 2011
The Simpson and Walker Show
The first month of the season wasn't a great one for watching prospects in the Midwest League. First, there was the weather, which involved a nearly daily dose of precipitation in all of its various forms. If there's a physical state that water can be in when it falls from the sky, we got it. Then there were the annually cold temperatures, which leave many teams keeping kids in extended spring training until the mercury finally reaches consistent levels conducive for playing baseball. Lastly, it was just the luck of the draw. Top picks from the 2010 draft like Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado? All in the Sally League, but them's the breaks.
So imagine my excitement last week when Seattle announced that 2010 supplemental first-round pick Taijuan Walker was assigned to Clinton and would be making his season debut in Peoria. Much of my April was spent watching guys throw in the upper 80s, and Walker had been creating buzz all spring by touching 98. Seeing Walker was worth a two-hour drive to Peoria, and the decision was bolstered by the fact that he'd be facing Hayden Simpson, the Cubs’ surprise first-round selection last June.
In the end, the game was a nice lesson in how numbers aren't everything (hell, sometimes they’re not much at all) when it comes to evaluating players in the low minors.
Here are the lines on Walker and Simpson from a rainy Thursday night at O'Brien Field, one of the best Low-A facilities around:
That's obviously a sizable edge to Simpson, but in terms of stuff, Walker not only has an advantage, but it wasn't even close, and in a way that is borderline disturbing.
Walker is the poster boy for the term “dream on” when people talk about a pitcher. You are interested the second he starts warming up. At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, he's the definition of projectable, and the Mariners have already done considerable work in smoothing out his mechanics. He has a more compact delivery that is on a straighter line to the plate, though he still features a heavy landing and headshake.
Walker's first pitch of the night was 95 mph, and he touched 98 later in the first. However, the outcomes didn’t look as pretty. His first five batters went single, single, single, double, single. He was throwing hard, but he was also throwing down the middle and up in the zone, pitches that professional hitters at any level can handle. As the night wore on, his location improved, and he broke out his secondary pitches. By the end of his start, he was nothing short of dominant. Watch what happens when we split Walker's night into two halves:
With his fastball parked more comfortably at 93-95 mph in the later innings, Walker worked both sides of the plate and kept the pitch down, generating ground balls when the pitch was hit at all. His breaking ball clearly flashes plus; he froze two batters for strikeouts with the pitch, but for every 76-80 mph curveball a scout might hang a 60 on, there was a 30-40 version that he'd get around on and flatten. He also surprised with a mid-80s changeup that worked well when he kept it down, but like the curveball, there were plenty of bad ones. I could easily cut a highlight video of Walker's start, and you'd think he was one of the best pitching prospects around, but that would be propaganda. The fact the he can throw in the upper 90s and can throw a plus curve and can throw an average changeup is a wonderful thing, but his overall game offers few guarantees, as most of his breaking balls and changeups were actually below average, and his velocity was often mitigated by the poor command. The range of possibilities for Walker's career is as wide as the Pacific Ocean, but few can match his ceiling. He's the most exciting arm I've seen in person this year, but he's far from harnessing his raw abilities.
Simpson was an entirely different story. The Cubs surprised many last June when they made him the 16th overall pick in the draft out of Southern Arkansas University, a D-II school where he went 35-2 in his three years. Despite being small, Simpson showed big velocity all spring, sitting in the low- to mid- 90s while touching 98, to go with a good breaking ball and developing changeup. I don't know who that guy is, but that's not who I saw on Thursday night.
Just six feet tall, Simpson has a clean, high three-quarters delivery that is a bit long in the back as he rocks and fires, but I say that to be descriptive rather than pointing it out as a concern. The concern is with his velocity. His first fastball registered at a paltry 85 mph on the gun, and for the remainder of the outing, he was sitting at 85-87, while touching 88 mph a handful of times. Some checking in with sources revealed that this is nothing new, as Simpson has rarely scraped 90 at any point in the season, which helps explain why the Midwest League is hitting .311 against him after six starts.
While Simpson signed quickly after being drafted, he did not make his debut due to a case of mononucleosis, and while that's a disease that takes months to recover from, can that really answer this big a drop in velocity nearly a year later?
The thing is, Simpson actually pitched quite well. He gets plenty of sink on the fastball, and generated nine ground-ball outs on the night. He threw a quality curveball with much more consistency and the occasional decent change. It was enough to keep a bad Clinton lineup in check, but at the same time, he signed for $1.06 million for a reason: radar gun readings. A six-foot righty with pitchability, decent secondary stuff, and an 85-88 mph fastball would be lucky to get one-tenth that amount. We have four more months and 15-18 more starts to figure out if this is something to be concerned about, but after being greeted with raised eyebrows based on the selection itself, for Simpson to be a shadow of what was promised puts some unwelcome pressure on the Cubs' scouting and development group.