April 1, 2013
Several of the pitchers considered for the top fastball can run their heaters up to triple digits and beyond, but few do it with such consistency from a starting role. Even late in outings, Ventura’s fastball routinely bumps 99-100 mph and I have seen him as high as 101 in the fifth and sixth innings. Ventura’s velocity is generated with exceptional arm speed and some effort throughout the delivery. Aside from pure velocity, Ventura has above average life on his fastball that makes the pitch appear as if it is jumping at hitters.
Bruce Rondon offers the most impressive velocity of any pitcher in the minor leagues, but that velocity comes with significant control problems and is generated in short bursts out of the bullpen. If the grading for this piece considered only velocity, Rondon would likely have topped the list. Gerrit Cole and Carlos Martinez have both reached the 98-99 mph range consistently and will touch triple digits on occasion, but neither does it as consistently as Ventura. A newer name on the scene, Boston’s Frank Montas can sit in the 97-98 mph range in bursts and has touched triple digits on occasion, making him a name to watch in the coming season.
All-Time Tool: Aroldis Chapman
How to Identify It: The foundation of every fastball is velocity. Even when you can locate impeccably or make it move all over the place, velocity still carries overwhelming importance when grading the fastball. In addition to standing as the foundation for the grade, fastball velocity also offers the most tangible and most easily measured component of the pitch. The standard scouting scale for velocity is as follows:
The basis for application of these 20-80 grades is sustained velocity, not peak velocity. Where a pitcher “sits” or what they average dictates the initial fastball grade. Peak velocity is factored into the equation as the process becomes more involved, and may in fact hint at the velocity projection that may exist. That projection of velocity is the next step in the process. Where does the pitch go from here? A young pitcher with a long, loose arm action and good arm speed will be more inclined to garner significant projection. How the body projects will also factor into velocity projection. A pitcher with an athletic, lean frame that has room for additional strength/mass is more likely to project for additional velocity down the line than a stocky pitcher with little room for physical projection. Once velocity has been used to establish the base grade, adjustments can be made from there based on the difference in velocity from the stretch to the windup, movement and command. A fastball that earns 60 grades for velocity may in fact earn a 65 or 70 grade overall if there is excellent movement and command. On the contrary, a 70-grade heater based on velocity may actually grade down because the pitch lacks life and is too easy to square. In the end, fastball grades are frequently oversimplified and boiled down to just velocity. That should never be the case when other factors such as movement, command, etc., can play such a critical role in the overall effectiveness of the pitch.
Most of the discussion for the best slider in the minor leagues focused on who would come in second behind Archer. Backing up a legit plus-plus fastball, Archer has a low-80s slider with fantastic two-plane break. Archer throws the slider with excellent arm speed and an arm angle that matches his fastball, adding to the deception created by the break of the pitch. His slider can miss bats with ease and may actually be the best breaking ball of any kind in the minor leagues.
When I saw Stroman last spring, I rated his slider as the best I had seen among amateur players. He imparts very tight spin on the ball and the pitch dives hard down and away from right-handed hitters. A true swing-and-miss pitch, Stroman’s slider earns frequent 7s from scouts. Similar to Stroman, Gerrit Cole offers a true plus-plus slider that can miss bats with ease. Cole throws his slider a little harder than Stroman but still generates devastating two-plane break. Allen Webster’s slider consistently earned grades a half tick behind Cole and Stroman, but it is still a high-end mid-80s breaker that will be a hardcore major-league out pitch.
All-Time Tool: Dave Stieb
How to Identify It: First and foremost, the slider tends to be better suited for pitchers with lower arm slots. When pitchers start getting into the high-3/4 arm slot and higher, they tend to gravitate towards the curve, which I will discuss shortly. A good slider will come out of the same slot as the fastball and will have good velocity to it, frequently working in the low- to mid-80s and sometimes running into the upper-80s for pitchers with exceptional arm strength. The lower slot of the arm precludes a pitcher from truly getting “on top” of the ball, allowing the shape of the pitch to take on a more horizontal component. Some of the depth (vertical component) of the pitch is lost and the pitch tends to give the appearance of darting down at an angle with a shorter break than a curveball. The slider’s deception comes from the tight spin imparted on the ball, and when that is combined with the velocity of the pitch it is difficult to differentiate from the fastball. Good sliders will approach the strike zone with the appearance of a fastball and then suddenly dart away at the last second. The later and sharper the movement of the slider rears its head, the more deceptive and effective the pitch will be.
Top Curveball in the Minor Leagues: Jameson Taillon (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Top notch curveballs can elicit strong responses from scouts, and Taillon’s breaker is one of those curveballs. Taillon consistently gets on top of his curveball, helping easily generate tight spin from an overhand release. His curveball is thrown with atypical velocity; often thrown as hard as some sliders. At his best, Taillon produces hard 11-to-5 break and he can finish the pitch both in and out of the strike zone. Overall, his curveball is a truly dominating pitch that can be unhittable at times.
Archie Bradley’s curveball has the potential to rival Taillon’s hammer down the line. Like Taillon, he gets after it and throws the pitch hard with impressive 11-to-5 break. He lacks the consistent spin and ability to manipulate the location of the pitch like Taillon, but Bradley does have the potential to develop a monster curveball. Wheeler’s curveball is more polished than Bradley’s but comes up a little short of the quality of Taillon’s pitch. The break of Wheeler’s curveball will vary from 12-to-6 to 11-to-5 depending on his release, but regardless of the actual break, the pitch can show better than the plus range and will reach the plus-plus range on occasion.
Top Major League Curveball: Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers)
All-Time Tool: Bert Blyleven
How to Identify It: Arguably the more traditional breaking ball, the curveball brings the imposing vertical element to the table that the slider lacks. Often thrown from the higher arm slots, the pitcher brings the fingers over the top of the ball and snaps downward to create hard forward spin. This forward spin generates the downward movement of the ball, or depth as it is often called. Depending on the angle of the arm and the way in which the pitch is snapped off, the break of a traditional curveball will vary from 12-to-6 to 11-to-5 for a right-hander (2-to-7 for a left-hander). While the pitch may approach the plate on the same plane as the fastball, the hard vertical break of the pitch gives the appearance of it “falling off the table” as it approaches the strike zone. The deception of the curveball is rooted in many of the same elements as the slider, including arm angle, tight spin and late break. A good curveball will not unveil its true intent until very close to the plate. On the other hand, a mediocre or poor curveball will come out of the pitcher’s hand hinting at the shape it will eventually take. In young players, the ability to consistently finish the curveball is not always there, but scouts can project on the basis of a pitcher’s ability to spin the ball even if consistency is lacking.
The changeup is often the last pitch to develop for a young pitcher, but Teheran did not follow that model during his development. Since he was a teenager, Teheran has demonstrated feel for the changeup, and as he has developed his changeup has become a very deceptive plus-plus offering. With the same electric arm speed of his fastball and the same arm slot, Teheran’s changeup “wears a fastball disguise” as BP’s own Jason Parks would say. Teheran’s arm speed belies the velocity separation that exists between his fastball and changeup and easily generates feeble swings from hitters.
Traded from Toronto to Miami this offseason, Nicolino carried his title of best changeup from one organization to the other. He has good overall feel for the pitch, including an ability to maintain his arm speed and trust the grip to generate velocity separation. Carlos Martinez consistently draws praise for his ability to generate velocity but he also deserves praise for his plus changeup that has 70-grade projection. He lacks the consistent feel for the pitch to play at its maximum level, but his overall feel for pitching should allow Martinez’s changeup to play at a plus-plus level down the line. Cabrera’s name came up more in passing than anything, but he has drawn praise for a very good changeup in the past and he dominated throughout much of his minor-league career on the back of that changeup.
Top Major League Changeup: Fernando Rodney (Tampa Bay Rays)
All-Time Tool: Pedro Martinez
How to Identify It: The changeup can be the most deceptive of all secondary offerings. Thrown properly, the changeup looks just like a fastball out of the pitcher’s hand, only it approaches the plate anywhere from 7-12 mph slower. An effective changeup is well disguised by maintaining the arm speed and slot of the fastball. Maintaining arm speed may be the tallest order a pitcher faces in developing a quality changeup. To maintain the arm speed, a pitcher must implicitly trust the grip of the pitch to slow the ball, rather than giving it away with a slower arm. On top of the deception offered throughout the release, good changeups will also feature movement; either a sinking action or some life (fade) to the arm side. This movement can elevate the quality of the pitch from a mere “show-me” offering to a weapon that can be relied upon to get hitters out front and in turn miss bats. As the evaluation process moves further away from the big leagues, it is increasingly important to focus on the delivery as the changeup is thrown. The development of touch and feel at a later stage may not matter if the pitcher lacks the ability to sell the changeup from the earliest point of the process. When delivery, trust, movement and command come together, the changeup can become the feature weapon in an arsenal and provide any pitcher with a deadly change-of-pace pitch.
Top Command in the Minor Leagues: Justin Nicolino (Miami Marlins)
One of the most polished young pitchers in the minor leagues, Nicolino shows an advanced ability to command all three of his pitches to all parts of the zone. He has a smooth, clean delivery that makes it easy to sustain a consistent release point and locate the ball. Nicolino’s feel for pitching allows him to place the ball both in and out of the strike zone as necessary. At his best, Nicolino can place the ball to both sides of the plate and work up and down the ladder with ease.
It is easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding Dylan Bundy but it is important to evaluate and acknowledge his tools for what they actually are. Bundy’s command is very good for a pitcher of his age and experience, but he was exposed some at the big league level because he still needs to refine his ability to consistently locate within the strike zone. Among extremely young pitchers, Taylor Guerrieri may actually deserve more credit for his advanced command than Bundy. Guerrieri impressed scouts with his ability to consistently locate his sinking fastball and curveball to all parts of the strike zone. Probably the closest to Nicolino in terms of present command is San Diego lefty Robbie Erlin. Despite missing considerable time due to injuries in 2012, Erlin still showed excellent ability to move his arsenal around the strike zone.
All-Time Tool: Greg Maddux
How to Identify It: Command – of the fastball and the entire arsenal – is the critical component for success at higher levels. The ability of a pitcher to manipulate his arsenal and move it around (and even outside) the strike zone can allow the quality of the individual pitches to be elevated beyond their raw grades. In its most basic form, command can be discovered by asking one simple question and then watching intently for the answer. Did the pitcher throw the ball where the catcher was set up? If the answer to this question is repeatedly ‘Yes,’ even if only for a specific pitch, then it can be said that the pitcher exhibits command of that pitch. That said, command is often one of the last elements of a pitchers skill set to develop. As a result of that, command is rarely seen for more than occasional spurts at the minor league level; therefore projecting command becomes the critical step. To project command, scouts must see consistency in many forms. From the instant a pitcher’s hands break, through the delivery, to the release of the ball, consistency and fluidity is the name of the game. The pitcher that can replicate every step in their delivery will be projected to have command of his arsenal down the line. The pitcher that has a fluid delivery with good balance and tempo from separation, through the back side of the arm action and then as they explode toward the plate and release the ball, will have command projection. While the manifestation of command can be easy to spot, the process of identifying command in underdeveloped players requires time and focus on the little things a pitcher does while delivering the ball.