Over the past few seasons, I've watched a game where the manager left every reliever except one off the lineup card (which frankly is weirder than leaving them all off), a perfect game taken into the ninth that ended 8-7 in the 10th, and a two-out, two-strike, walk-off straight steal of home by the slowest player on the field. All of these happened in the same place. Welcome to the Appalachian League.
The Appy League can be a strange one to scout (for the teams that even bother doing regular coverage of it). Most of the organizations also have short-season A ball and complex league affiliates, and generally their top few rounds of college picks go to the former, prep picks to the latter. In between is a mishmash of interesting international free agents coming stateside (and less interesting ones in their second season in rookie ball), late-round college picks, earlier round senior signs, and the odd junior college guy. It is a long, long way from the majors, but unlike the complex leagues, there is at least a good faith attempt to approximate professional baseball.
Some demographic background might be helpful. A rather unscientifc survey of a late 2000s Kingsport Mets team suggests that the odds of an Appalachian League player making Double-A is a bit better than one in four, and of making the majors a bit worse than one in 10. In most cases the major leaguers are up-and-down relievers or extra bench bats (or Jacob deGrom, which, as I have previously discussed, is not something you want to go out and project). Even the Double-A guys are more likely to be second catchers, extra outfielders, and anonymous middle relievers, than good organizational guys.
In this installment, I want to focus on the types of pitchers you see at this level, and how I approach evaluating them. Here are a few useful categories.
The Big Arm With a Bit of a Clue
This is usually a JuCo kid with a bit of draft pedigree or an IFA with a few years of professional experience in overseas summer leagues and/or the complex leagues. I should note that the line between "big arm with a bit of a clue" and "big arm with no clue" isn't drawn with a broad, felt-tipped pen, and there are far more of the second group. I had a scout remark to me this summer that he had never seen so many pitchers with 20 command and with no real shot at improving on that grade. I think this was around the fourth or fifth walk of the inning.
While I may not reach the same level of “velo whore” as previous writers that have inhabited this space, I like a hot radar gun reading as much as the next dude in a dri-fit polo. One thing to keep in mind is that while a plus fastball is unusual at this level, it is much more pedestrian in say, a Double-A bullpen. So 93-95 by itself doesn't really get my attention. Can he throw it for strikes? That seems simple enough, but isn't all that common. Can he throw it for good strikes? How about a good 0-2 waste pitch? I'm not looking for all four quadrants at this point, but can he change eye levels with the fastball?
Does he show some feel for the breaking ball? Does the shape stay more or less consistent, or are two out of every three slurvy or flat? You are going to be projecting this pitch a lot in most cases, and flashes plus is not plus. And frankly, it probably only flashes average at this point.
The Case Study: Jandel Gustave (HOU)
So there are plus fastballs and then there is what Gustave was throwing was when I saw him for Greeneville in 2013. It was an easy 70, touching 98 mph regularly with some explosive life arm-side. The slider was short more often than not, but facing a Kingsport lineup gearing up for a fastball they had never seen before, the velocity separation alone made it effective. The frame and mechanics screamed reliever even then, and the sequencing was about what you would expect (fastballs to get ahead, fastball out of the zone, or slider way out of the zone when going for the strikeout), but in the end it was a borderline elite heater with some life and command. This is not a hard scout. It was reliever-only, but a potential impact bullpen arm with some further command and breaking ball refinement
Gustave also fits into the "IFA that took a while to figure it out" category. In 2011. the year before he came stateside, he walked almost 30 percent of the batters he faced and uncorked 21 wild pitches in 19 innings. That's textbook "big arm with no clue.” He ironed some of it out in the Gulf Coast League the season before I saw him, and afterward moved into "acceptably wild" territory. He transitioned to a full-time reliever in 2014, and a scout who viewed him this year saw a potential late-inning arm touching 100 and showing a solid slider. He's already spent a year in Double-A and seems a good bet to be a major-league contributor, maybe even a significant one. The slider developed, and the plus-plus fastball played up even more in short bursts.
The older arm with a 'good' off-speed pitch
These guys dominate the league, and we are talking about video game numbers here. Usually a late-round college arm from that year's draft, maybe a smaller school's Friday night starter. Sometimes it might be an older IFA. Either way, there's a hook or a change and some pitchability to go with it. The fastball maybe cracks the 90s on occasion, so it's easy to dismiss them with a couple glances at the radar gun and an admonition not to scout the stat line. Still, I do think there is some value in finding the org arms here, and a lot to learn about projecting and grading off-speed pitches. I've seen a lot of short-season baseball, plenty of Penn League to go along with my yearly Appalachian League trips. Heck, let's throw in the South Atlantic League as well. I can count the number of present-day average off-speed pitches I've seen on one hand. When I say 'good off-speed pitch' above, most of time it is a 40 at best. And it will induce some of the worst swings you will see at any level.
This category of pitcher is pretty comfortable throwing his below-average breaker in a variety of counts and situations, and that makes it an even more effective weapon. They don't even have to start it in the zone most times. Maybe the better ones run off the outside corner into the opposing batter's box to same-side hitters. To opposite-side hitters, you might see them change the shape a little bit to try and backdoor it. To both sides, plenty will get buried in the dirt. I recently heard a fun stat via an A-ball hitting coach: He said that 75 percent of the pitches at his level are on the outer half or away. I think breaking balls drive that number to a certain extent. If you see a pitcher backfoot a slider or curve to an opposite-side hitter at lower levels, that merits your attention. More likely that pitch starts far enough in that even an inexperienced hitter can spit on it, or it never gets there and instead gets a lot of plate. Likewise, you don't see too many arms throwing the big front-door breaker that the same-side hitter gives up on.
The one question I want to answer with these types is “can they throw a good strike one with their fastball?” It's good to be able to work backward on occasion. It's good to be able to throw your off-speed stuff for strikes in hitter's counts, but ultimately there has to be enough fastball, or at least enough fastball command to consistently get ahead of higher level hitters. The bad swings at breaking balls dissipate quickly as you move into full-season ball and up the minor-league ladder. Even in a potential major-league relief role where you can lean heavily on that now solid-average or plus breaking ball, you will still need to get ahead with the fastball.
The usual outliers
Funky lefties with a hitch or a bit of a crossover, college sidearmers, or any other category of pitcher your average good 19-year-old hasn't seen much of. This is a close cousin to the previous group and can be evaluated similarly.
One thing they don't tell you when you start writing about prospects is that you will quickly develop an acute awareness of your now rapidly aging self. Mike Cameron's son is high on draft boards? Weren't you just watching Mike Cameron play baseball? Oh, this July 2nd shortstop sounds interesting. Wait, he was born in 2000? Ah, of course he was. The same month The Moon and Antarctica came out. Great. Meanwhile, while you were listening to Isaac Brock's wailing, an entire generation of Dominican pitchers were growing up trying to emulate Pedro Martinez. Frankly we should all try to emulate Pedro as much as possible, but very few of us have the changeup or sartorial courage to make it work. It's quite unlikely we will get another Pedro out of the batch of course, but I do appreciate the aesthetics inherent in the attempts.
The case study: Harol Gonzalez (NYM)
Harol Gonzalez certainly looks the part of Pedro, albeit in 7/8 scale. He's listed at six-foot, 160 pounds. That is not accurate. The scout section couldn't agree on his actual measurements, but it ranged from 5-foot-10, 130 to 5-foot-11, 150. My wife thought he was the ball boy. He has the wispy mustache and the makings of a curly 'fro. He throws two different changeups and showed good feel for both. Neither is Pedro's, but come on now. The fastball touched 91 and had some late life glove-side. It's sneaky fast. He showed some feel for the breaking ball as well, and very advanced command and sequencing for a pitcher at this level and with his limited professional experience. He's one of the few bona fide starting pitching prospects I've seen in the league over the last few years. It probably doesn't get there because I can't think of another starting pitcher in the majors with that build, but this is more than the usual cover band Pedro.
An Introduction at the end
This is my first article at Baseball Prospectus as a member of the prospect team. I have spent the past five seasons writing about New York Mets prospects for Amazin' Avenue. My background is in filmmaking with a particular fondness for experimental documentary. I was a pretty good tennis player once upon a time. Obviously I did not have a scouting or high-level playing background when I started doing this. I followed the script straight out of Up and In. I went to as many games as possible and talked to as many people as possible, but I was never quite going to fit within the lines of a traditional evaluator. I'm drawn to the almost formalism inherent in the questions we ask. What is this player now? How does he do what he does, and why does it or doesn't it work?