Baseball Prospectus intern Hudson Belinsky covers prospects as an associate scout with Diamond Scape Scouting and scouts the minor leagues for Penn League Report, attending minor-league or amateur games roughly five days per week. In this series, he’ll focus on a different minor leaguer’s development every week, incorporating information from team officials, scouts, coaches, and players to paint a complete picture of some of baseball’s most intriguing prospects.
The crown jewel of the 2008 international market for amateur talent was pitcher Michael Ynoa. The 16-year-old checked in at 6-foot-7, 210 pounds. His fastball was already sitting in the low 90s, and he possessed an impressive changeup and a big curveball. When the international signing period officially opened on July 2nd, the Oakland A’s inked Ynoa to a minor-league contract that came with a $4.25M bonus.
Oakland’s pursuit of Ynoa was well-documented. The lanky right-hander and his family reportedly turned down offers significantly higher than Oakland’s from both the Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers because of “Oakland’s positive results developing young pitchers.”
The development of amateurs in the Dominican Republic has evolved over the years, but when the A’s first invested in Ynoa, they got a pitcher who showed plenty of polish but had not logged a lot of innings. “In the Dominican, they don’t have leagues like we do,” one evaluator said. “If they throw hard enough, they get signed.”
When Oakland’s player development staff first got the chance to see Ynoa stateside, they understood where all the buzz from scouts was coming from. He had the power fastball, the height, and the ability to spin a breaking ball. The $4.25 million bonus seemed like a bargain.
Unfortunately for Ynoa, and for the A’s, he’s been able to log only 26 2/3 innings of pro ball over the last four years, as injuries have derailed the Puerto Plata product’s development.
Ynoa didn’t pitch at all last season, but he’s seen action across two minor-league levels in 2012. Rick Magnante, who manages Oakland’s New York-Penn League affiliate, said that “the main goal with Michael is that he stays healthy.” Ynoa’s “learning curve has been slowed by his injury. With basically four years of being [hurt], his development has been somewhat retarded.”
Ynoa has pitched a career-high 17 2/3 innings this season. The 20-year-old didn’t get onto a mound in a professional game until 2010, when he was already 18. After three starts and just nine innings in the Arizona Rookie League, Ynoa was sidelined with arm issues. He subsequently had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2011 season.
“It was hard for me; I was very angry, and very sad at the same time,” Ynoa said of the injury. A few weeks ago, after months of uncertainty, he returned to the mound in the Arizona Rookie League.
“Here I am again.”
The A’s recently bumped Ynoa up to short-season Vermont, and he made a start in Brooklyn this past weekend. The tools and projection that made him the cream of the July crop in 2008 are still present. Resident BP prospect writer Jason Parks spoke to a scout who sees some room for improvement in Ynoa’s fastball (which sits at 91-93 miles per hour) and noted some promise in his breaking ball, though it lacks consistent shape and tight rotation. The scout was unimpressed by the changeup and Ynoa’s lack of command. He was unwilling to offer an overall future projection of Ynoa, as he had seen him only in a small sample.
BP pitching mechanics guru Doug Thorburn weighed in on Ynoa’s delivery, which you can see in the video below.
The fundamental aspects of Ynoa's delivery are outstanding, with plus momentum, solid balance, a strong stride, incredible posture, and massive rotational velocity. He does have a bit of an imbalance where his head trails the center of mass into foot strike, with varying degrees of imbalance from pitch to pitch. His motion is simple and otherwise efficient, and Ynoa is a beast when he lines everything up.
That said, he had a lot of trouble lining up the delivery in the clip, and he struggled mightily to harness the timing aspects. His first pitch to Brandon Nimmo was perfectly executed, followed by a bevy of mistimed offerings. Every pitch had different timing, especially when looking at the degree of momentum and the timing of trunk rotation, where the rare glimpses of stardom were interrupted by bouts of inconsistency. Timing is usually the last thing to come around for a young player, particularly one who is coming off of elbow surgery, so the performance is not as discouraging as it sounds. Ynoa has to iron out the finer details of his delivery, but his baseline mechanics support his lofty ceiling.
It’s too soon to come to any conclusion about Ynoa’s projection. For now, it’s all about logging innings. “The best thing is that he’s getting out there every fifth day,” Oakland pitching coordinator Gil Patterson said. Both Magnante and Ynoa also stressed the importance of additional innings, but that doesn’t mean the A’s aren’t keeping him on a close leash. This season, Ynoa has been held to a strict limit of three innings or 50 pitches per outing, whichever comes first. Next year, he hopes to be throwing five innings and 75 pitches per game. Oakland is comfortable with bumping pitchers up 35-50 innings per season, so Ynoa could be in line for 75-100 innings in 2013.
In addition to trying to keep him healthy and on the mound, the A’s are concentrating on two areas in which Ynoa still needs some work: fastball command, and the changeup.
“I just keep working on my pitches. I think [it’s] going to be great,” Ynoa said of his changeup. “I try to be aggressive with it, and that’s it. I think it’s going to be good in the future.”
The 20-year-old continues to gain confidence, but still comes off as a precocious kid in a foreign land. Patterson added, “The thing I want most for him is to be a fierce competitor.” The pitching coordinator wants Ynoa to act more like a young Jose Valverde on the mound, pitching with his heart on his sleeve every time out.
Ynoa started over the weekend and went just 2 1/3 innings. He was admittedly “lost in the first inning,” and he allowed two walks and a pair of singles in addition to a balk and a wild pitch. In his second inning of work, however, Ynoa pounded the strike zone early in three straight counts and walked away with a 1-2-3 inning that included a strikeout. He struggled in the third inning and was replaced after just one out.
Ynoa’s start over the weekend was a microcosm of his career. He’s been inconsistent and has struggled to stay on the mound, but his tools and projectability (despite his height, he’s probably closer to 200 pounds than his listed 210) continue to remind the A’s why they wanted him so badly four years ago. The injury history is alarming and keeps Ynoa from qualifying as an elite prospect, and the expectations for players who receive bonuses the size of his are always high. Consequently, Ynoa can be considered a disappointment thus far, but six years of big-league control could be well worth the investment if he’s able to put things together. Five years down the line, Ynoa could be a bust, but for now, he still has a chance to boom.