From the first round to the Cactus League

The 2009 Arizona Fall League featured the debut of two new PITCHf/x installations. With the advanced pitch tracking technology available in Peoria and Surprise, we had a chance to learn a lot about some young pitchers. Of particular interest were firs- round picks. Led by No. 1 one pick Stephen Strasburg, we also covered Mike Leake, Drew Storen, Mike Minor and Aaron Crow.

Jump ahead to 2010 spring training. With two clubs apiece in Surprise and Peoria, a wealth of interesting information has become available. For our current purposes, it’s the re-appearance of two first rounders from the AFL whom we haven’t covered and the PITCHf/x debut of two more first-round picks. While the top 12 picks were the target of the fall coverage, it’s time to extend our reach to the supplemental round.

Pitcher Team R #
Alex White Indians 1 15
Garrett Richards Angels 1s 42
Brad Boxberger Reds 1s 43
Tanner Scheppers Rangers 1s 44

Scheppers and Boxberger signed early enough to pitch in the AFL, so we have more PITCHf/x data—by a longshot—than on the newbies. They’re also closer to the major leagues.

Garrett Richards

Richards got in to his Spring A game action when Ervin Santana was scratched. Richards has impressive stuff, but an unimpressive college record. Somehow he went from walk machine to clean machine in the Pioneer League.

Garrett Richards walks and strikeouts per nine innings

Year  League   IP     K/9   BB/9
2007  Big 12   30.0   7.2   4.2
2008  Big 12   20.2   7.8   7.4
2009  Big 12   75.0  10.2   4.6
2009  Pioneer  35.1   7.6   1.0

Who, what? Did wait to turn pro before finding the strike zone? If he keeps his walk rate below four per nine innings, he could be well worth the early-ish draft pick.

It seems Richards does not throw a straight, or four-seam, fastball. If he does, it has a lot of cutting action. Our brief look at Richards’ stuff covers 34 pitches. He threw 21 sinkers and five cutters. Both averaged 93 mph, so his cutter will remind some of you of Jenrry Mejia‘s, or Mariano Rivera lite. Richards rounds out with an 87 mph slider and an 85 mph change-up. None of that matters if his control is more 2008 than 2009. Right now I’m not sure if he’ll be a Quake or a Kernel to start 2010. I’m hoping the latter. Richards has electric stuff, I’d drive a couple hours to one of several Midwest League parks to see him.

Alex White

White, a three-year college pitcher out of UNC, is headed for Kinston in the Carolina League. MLB.com’s Jonathon Mayo reported on his six pitches in this video clip, but White threw just four of them in his lone PITCHf/x appearance. I won’t hold it against him: It was an 11-pitch outing.

With those six pitches (fastball, sinker, slider, curveball, change-up and splitter), White finished with two straight seasons of 3.7 walks per nine and nearly identical 10.0 and 10.2 strikeouts per nine. He did average a wild pitch per start last year, maybe just a passing case of The Marmols. In his sip of Cactus coffee, White threw a handful of fastballs (93 mph), a couple of sinkers (90), a trio of splitters (85) and a lone slider (79). For all I know, that slider was just a really awful curveball that possessed backspin instead of topspin. It was thrown below slider speed, so I’m not sure what to make of it.

Tanner Scheppers

Not a shortstop. A pitcher, and a very impressive one. Drafted out of high school by the Orioles, Scheppers went to Fresno State and got hurt, but was still drafted in the 2008 second round by the Pirates. He waited until 2009—and threw four times in independent ball in St. Paul—to be re-drafted and moved up four spots. He wasn’t taken earlier because of continued questions about the integrity of his pitching shoulder. But that’s just the short of it.

The Orioles apparently named him as a pitcher when drafting him—that’s pretty good scouting considering he didn’t pitch until his senior year of high school and went to Fresno as a shortstop. He was converted to a full-time pitcher as a sophomore. Scheppers is headed to the minors—for now. He’ll work out of the rotation every five days. He’ll pitch only a couple of innings each time, leaving room for a late season call-up to the Texas pen. This plan will keep him under 100 innings, get him used to a professional starter’s schedule, and eke some possible value out of him in the AL West race.

If you haven’t seen Scheppers pitch, you should/will. He throws both a two- and four-seam fastball, averaging 97 mph with both. His change-up is 89 mph and his curveball has two-plane movement at 82. His stuff reminds me of Strasburg’s, but probably a touch slower. Command and finesse are probably still on back-order, but he could be this year’s Neftali Feliz.

Bradley Boxberger

A USC product, Boxberger joined Scheppers in the AFL in 2009. Even before being drafted, Boxberger looked suited for relief. His performance improved in 2009, but the question around his future role seem to come up regularly. He is a four-pitch pitcher, which puts him in the rotation or Jenks/Soria territory.

Boxberger is a hard thrower, but he has a slow curveball and change-up. Boxberger has averaged 93 mph on his fastball, 84 on his slider, 79 on the change-up and 78 on the curveball. That puts his change-up about 8 mph below (on average) the typical gap from his heater. So far, from what is available in PITCHf/x, Boxberger throws 63 percent fastballs and just 8 percent sliders. He didn’t throw many change-ups to right-handed batters. In either case, he’s able to show hitters three speeds.

If you haven’t noticed, the Reds have a wealth of young starting pitchers. That’s another reason to look at Boxberger as a reliever, but that book is still wide open.

On to the future

Look for these guys in the Futures Game during the All-Star break, and Scheppers already seems to have a path to the majors in front of him. For now, head to a minor league park to get in on the action.

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM and Sportvision. Batted ball data from MLBAM. Pitch classifications by the author. College data from The Baseball Cube.

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