Here’s a peek inside the ranking process for the top pitching prospects in the game: we’re throwing darts here. We ranked Alex Reyes as the top prospect in the game before the season because Reyes had it all: 80-grade fastball, killer curve, above-average change, developed command, success against higher-level hitters all the way to MLB, projectability as a durable 200-inning pitcher. He blew out his elbow the day after the list went live. (He was, in fact, such a great pitching prospect that we’re still ranking him as the best pitching prospect in baseball in the middle of Tommy John recovery.)
The simple fact of the matter is that under the umbrella of injury prevention, professional baseball as an industry has decided that good young pitchers are too valuable a commodity to throw very much in the minors. The effectiveness of this is still a matter of enormous debate, but it does mean that our certitude about whether any of these guys can handle a MLB starting assignment has been decreasing over time. We can guess based on injury history, mechanics, build, pitch selection, makeup, and general soothsaying. But simply put, no pitcher on this list has thrown more than 143 innings in any professional season, and one of the most major parts of their placement on our list is their projection to be able to throw 175-200 on a consistent basis. It would be far easier to just rank hitters on one list and pitchers on another list—John Sickels has done so for many years—but the conventions of this operation don’t really permit such an easy way out, and aside from that it’s a challenge worth undertaking.
That all brings us to Sixto Sanchez, the world’s most interesting pitching prospect. It’s difficult to say exactly who was the last cut from the offseason 101, but it was either Sanchez or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Boy, would we like to have Tyler Jay at 98 and Trent Clark at 99 back for those two right now.) At the time we put Sanchez as somewhere around the 103rd-best prospect in baseball, he was sitting 93-96, touching 98, and flashing a plus curve out of the GCL with typical command and change questions. We dropped him off because it was the GCL and the guys who made it with this profile had generally done it a little higher, basically.
Fast-forward to midseason 2017 and, well, that’s not really the profile on him anymore. Sanchez has made nine starts in the Low-A South Atlantic League, and we’ve had three sets of eyes (Jeffrey Paternostro, Greg Goldstein, and myself) combining to get to at least five of them. He is now touching 101 with the four-seamer and 99 with the two-seamer. He’s sat as high as 98-100 for a few innings when he lets the regular fastballs go, but often varies speed to get extra movement, showing rare pitchability for the age. It’s gotten to the point that I’ve written that he throws the kitchen sink, and think that his cutter might be distinct enough to the two normal fastballs to have its own label and grade. He’s developed some of the best fastball command and manipulation I’ve ever seen at the level. His curve isn’t always there for him, and he has an interesting habit of spamming individual secondary pitches for an inning or two in any given start, so it doesn’t always show up, but it flashes as a plus-plus pitch with two-plane break when he’s got it. There’s also a change that we think should consistently get to at least average but has flashed nearly as high as the curve, albeit less frequently, a slider that is pretty cool when it shows up but has only shown up in about half of my looks, and enough variants on the existing pitches that Jeffrey theorized he was throwing up to seven offerings in his look. He’s as crazy athletic as you’d expect for a recently-converted shortstop, and his mechanics are free and repeatable.
Combine that profile with great performance and video game ratios, and it’s easy to start throwing around the word “ace” and comps the likes of which shouldn’t be printed in family baseball publications. (Prime Zack Greinke, better Marcus Stroman, and Kelvin Herrera as a starter all came up in Jeffrey’s piece.) Of course, because it’s 2017 and every pitching prospect has warts, here are Sixto Sanchez’s prospect flaws, laid bare:
– He’ll break his career high of 54 innings in another start or two. The Phillies already started manipulating the shape of his season by giving him a vacation to extended spring for a month when he reported neck stiffness after sleeping wrong on a bus trip. The injury itself isn’t a red flag, and he’s been allowed to throw up to 80 pitches and six innings, which somehow qualifies as moderately aggressive usage for an 18-year-old pitching phenom these days. But we’ve got even less idea if he’s long-term durable enough for a rotation than even most, in part because…
– While Sanchez is listed at 6-foot, I’d be surprised if he was more than 5-foot-10. So there’s generic durability concerns with starting pitchers of that height, and there are also fastball plane concerns as well.
– He’s an 18-year-old pitcher in Low-A. A lot of things happen between there in the majors. We wrote “and he’s a pitcher” in every pitcher’s risk profile last offseason for a reason, friends.
All-in-all, this presents as a fairly unique profile, and positive uniqueness is a point in his favor. But it’s also not totally so weird. In 2015, a similarly built pitcher out of Venezuela—Anderson Espinoza—popped up in the GCL for the Red Sox with great scouting reports, and came into the Sally in his age-18 season, just like Sanchez. Espinoza ranked 24th on the 2016 midseason list with scouting reports and performance in the Sally a notch lower than Sanchez has had, and 24th again on the offseason list after a trade to San Diego. Espinoza also represents the risk, as he’s yet to pitch in 2017 due to a mysterious elbow injury, and fell off this midseason list for lack of guidance. But we’re going to keep ranking guys with advanced stuff this good aggressively until that risk hits.