Pitching prospects to watch in 2008by Alex Eisenberg
April 03, 2008
With the Minor League Baseball season opener tonight, I thought it would be appropriate for readers to get to know a few minor league pitching prospects whom I think have a strong chance of seeing their names pop up on various top-100 lists next year.
The criteria I use for this list include prospects who rank in the range of Nos. 5-10 in their organization and are looked at as among the top 120-300 prospects in the game. On a grade scale, these pitchers are in the B-/B range.
With that said, let's get started. (For any of the animations below, if the timing is thrown off you can simply refresh the browser.)
RHSP | Baltimore Orioles (A+) | Age - 22 | Drafted - Round 8, 2005
Spoone has already received some respect from a couple talented observers (Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus) but he still remains under the radar for most people.
Spoone's arm action is his best mechanical quality. He breaks his hands late, lets the elbow pick up the ball and has a clean elbow rotation into release. Frame 25 gives a nice shot of Spoone's scap load, which you can get a full explanation of here. The short version is that scap loading is the horizontal "loading" and subsequent "unloading" of the shoulder and is a major factor in generating arm speed and therefore velocity.
The biggest problem area for Spoone appears to be his front-side mechanics. There are two issues here:
1. He doesn't do a good job of firming his glove up as his front shoulder opens, which is likely a major reason he has suffered from command problems throughout his minor league career.
2. He tucks his glove into his side at release instead of keeping it firm out in front and bringing his chest into his glove. Here is a visual representation that should help—on the left is Ian Kennedy, a pitcher known to have excellent front-side mechanics, while Spoone is on the right:
By keeping his glove firm out in front, Spoone would be able to achieve better upper-body tilt/extension, which would help in adding a little extra sneakiness to his pitches and also help in decreasing his injury risk by giving his arm a little more room to decelerate.
By the numbers
What sets Spoone apart from pitchers with similar strikeout and walk rates is his excellent groundball percentage. In 2005, Spoone had a GB% of 60%. In 2006, his percentage improved to 65%, which gave him the best GB% among all minor league baseball pitchers with 90+ innings pitched.
Digging a little deeper into Spoone's numbers, we can get an idea of the kind of ground balls that Spoone gave up last year:
2007, Frederick (A+)
268 GBs - 52 Hits vs. 216 Outs = .194 Batting Average Against on GBs
Now, is the BAA Spoone showed on GBs in 2007 just luck? You can definitely conclude a lot of it was luck, but Spoone did show the ability to get batters to ground out softly, and I do think that speaks to the quality of his stuff.
Here is a look at a couple other batted-ball figures:
2006 BABIP - .285
2006 LD% - 10.6%
2007 BABIP - .249
2007 LD% - 7.4%
Given what we know about batted-ball data, it is very difficult to say if his ability to limit contact would translate to the major leagues. However, we do know that keeping the ball on the ground is going to limit his HR rate and XBH%.
Looking at more definitive data, we can see the improvement that Spoone made from 2006 to 2007. His walk rate improved significantly even as he struck out more batters. And he was also much more successful against lefties:
2006 vs. LH - 8.27 BB/9, 5.06 K/9, .51 HR/9
2007 vs. LH - 3.80 BB/9, 7.99 K/9, .19 HR/9
Also evident were the tremendous strides that Spoone made with his control:
BB% by Month
April - 13.8
May - 11.7
June - 10.4
July - 9.8
August - 10.3
September - 1.1
Spoone ended the season on a tear with three straight complete games, including two in the playoffs (in the first of those, he was one out away from a no-hitter). In September, Spoone faced 91 batters and walked just one.
Spoone's sinker sits in the mid-90s. His curveball is considered above-average, and his change-up has come a long way but still needs refining. In terms of make-up, Spoone is a smart pitcher with a bulldog mentality. He works hard and has shown the ability to make adjustments.
What's holding Spoone back?
Command is obviously the biggest issue with Spoone, but the improvements that he made last year are extremely encouraging. It would help if Spoone missed a few more bats, but his groundball tendencies help make up for his fairly average K rate.
Also, although Spoone has a strong mental make-up, he can still let his emotions get the best of him. However, he displayed much better composure throughout the season.
Spoone is a workhorse. He'll walk his share of batters, but if he can maintain a solid K rate to go along with the many ground balls he is going to give up, then there is a possibility that he can reach his upside as a No. 2 starter. His mentality and work ethic give him an even better chance of reaching that upside.
RHSP | Los Angeles Angels (A) | Age - 20 | Drafted - Round 3, 2005
A good athlete in a big body that doesn't exactly scream athleticism, O'Sullivan more than held his own in the Midwest League at age 19.
O'Sullivan displayed plus-control, showed the ability to induce ground balls and sported a solid but unspectacular K rate. He was consistent through most of 2007, and he became much tougher to hit as he adjusted to the higher levels of competition. His BABIP Against in July and August was .214 and .204, respectively, compared to .300 and .342 in April and May. Not only was he tougher to hit, but he maintained solid control and saw his K% jump as well.
Stuff-wise, O'Sullivan features a 92-93-mph sinker, a solid-average breaking ball (which is more like a slurve) and a solid change-up. O'Sullivan's stuff plays up due to his advanced feel for pitching.
On the left is O'Sullivan's fastball while on the right is O'Sullivan's curveball:
Cedar Rapids Video Clip Courtesy FutureAngels.com.
Coming out of high school, O'Sullivan showed inconsistent velocity. One possible cause for his inconsistent velocity was that his arm action suffered from a loss of momentum.
This clip of O'Sullivan (bottom) from his draft video, compared to Rick Porcello (top), the phenom drafted by Detroit in 2007, should illustrate what I mean by this:
See in frames 8, 9 and 10 how O'Sullivan's arm is basically hovering as he waits for his front foot to land. By doing this, O'Sullivan is slowing down the momentum of his arm and lessening his arm speed at release. Contrast that with Porcello, who has no noticeable loss in momentum in his arm action.
One way to fix this is to speed up the body, which subsequently speeds up the arm. I believe that O'Sullivan later adjusted his front leg kick into foot plant by eliminating some of the distance his front leg had to cover before planting. I think this also helped O'Sullivan develop a more aggressive move into foot plant, which would also help in terms of velocity.
Compare his draft video (on the left) and video of him from 2007:
In addition to having a slightly faster delivery, O'Sullivan in 2007 is in a more compact, more athletic position, which I generally prefer.
What's holding O'Sullivan back?
Although O'Sullivan has put up solid numbers across the board at a young age, he hasn't really been a stand-out in anything. His GB% is good but not great (55% last year). Same goes for K rate (7.1). His walk rate was excellent in '06 but merely good in '07 (0.9 and 2.3, respectively).
O'Sullivan also doesn't have the great stuff that many top-rated pitchers possess. Mechanically, he still has a couple of issues to iron out, but his adjustments thus far indicate that he can make even more.
Weight is also a concern for O'Sullivan, and he will have to keep his weight in check as he gets older.
At this point, O'Sullivan looks like a No. 3/4 starter, but there is potential to get better. He's still very young and he already shows an advanced feel for pitching. He doesn't have much projection left, but if he commits himself to getting in better shape and losing a few pounds, his stuff could jump another level or two (think Sean Gallagher). However, a very tough hitter's park and league await him this year.
RHSP | Arizona Diamondbacks (A+/AA) | Age - 22 | Drafted - Round 1 (Compensation), 2006
Brown is another pitcher without a lot of hype attached to his name. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid-90s with plenty of sink, and he has an above-average slider. Brown also has an aggressive "step-over move" that kickstarts a forceful hip rotation into foot plant; the step-over is another factor in generating velocity.
On the left is Brown's curveball and on the right is his fastball. Keep in mind that both clips are from Brown's draft video, and they do not account for any adjustments he has made since. However, this will give you a good idea of the type of stuff he possesses:
Mechanically, Brown is solid all-around. Tempo is pretty good, arm action is short, and he firms up his glove while keeping it out in front of his chest. This helps in terms of control and limiting stress on his shoulder.
Brown generates plenty of ground balls, with a GB% of 59% in Single-A Visalia; however, his rate did drop to 50% when he was promoted to Double-A Mobile. Brown has shown strong K rates and good control throughout his professional career, though the consistency of that control goes back and forth. Brown seems to suffer control problems as he adjusts to higher levels of competition before eventually settling down.
It should also be noted that both Mobile and Visalia (especially Visalia) are parks that heavily favor hitters.
What's holding Brown back?
A lot of talent evaluators see Brown as a power arm out of the bullpen. He does need to improve his change-up. His fastball and slider are good but not good enough to be the only two pitches that a starter can rely on.
His control has shown to be solid in the past, but improvements are still necessary. Brown is viewed as a pretty safe bet to become a successful major league pitcher, but in what capacity I am not sure.
The Diamondbacks will keep Brown at starter until he proves otherwise. He needs to show improved control and signs of an improved change-up. He has the upside of a workhorse No. 3/4, but he has to prove to doubters that he can remain a starter at the major league level.
RHSP | Tampa Bay Rays (A) | Age - 21 | Drafted - Round 4, 2005
With so many great pitching prospects in the Tampa Bay organization, Jeremy Hellickson is a guy who easily gets overlooked, but he hopes to change that this year.
Hellickson is a control guy with good velocity and an advanced feel for pitching. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid-90s with decent movement. His curveball is a plus pitch, and his change-up is still developing but has showed signs of improvement.
For the 2006 season, in Short-Season Hudson Valley, his command was excellent—his K% was 31.1% whereas his BB% was just 5.2%. Those numbers worsened somewhat last year in Low-A Columbus, but they were still strong overall.
Hellickson was also tough to hit in both '06 and '07, as evidenced by his BABIP Against of .277 and .273, respectively. We can see why by looking at his mechanics:
The above clip is from Hellickson's draft video. See how his fastball kinda jumps on you? The reasons:
1. Late hand break - makes the ball tougher to pick up out of a pitcher's hand
2. Late body rotation - he doesn't rotate his body until late in his delivery. Combined with a short arm action, the ball looks like it explodes out of his hand, making the perceived velocity higher to the hitter.
It should also be noted how much Hellickson improved as the season went on:
BB% and K% By Month
May - 10.1%, 19%
June - 9.2%, 22.7%
July - 6.1%, 23.2%
August - 5.6%, 29.2%
What's holding Hellickson back?
Hellickson has a height bias against him. In my mind, size matters relatively little; I have seen little evidence suggesting that short pitchers have a higher attrition rate than tall pitchers. That said, Hellickson did experience some arm problems last year. However, those had more to do with his mechanics than with his size.
One thing that I did not like was Hellickson's tendency to land on a stiff front leg at release:
Landing on a stiff leg increases the risk of arm problems because it places unnecessary stress on the arm. One way to remedy this would be to speed up his delivery and get better extension out in front, which would then allow him to land in a more athletic position. As mentioned earlier, an added benefit of that extension is that the perceived velocity of the pitch is heightened in the mind of the batter.
Other potential problems for Hellickson include the need for better control against lefties. His change-up is still a work in progress, but if he can continue to improve that pitch, he will have something to keep lefthanders in check. Also, although his GB% was 58% in 2006, that number dropped to 44% last year. If he can't improve that number, we'll see a higher home run rate than we would normally want.
If Hellickson was 6-foot-5, he would likely rate higher in the eyes of many; however, scouts view his size as a detriment, which is why Hellickson is an undervalued player. Barring health problems, with a couple mechanical tweaks and further improvement of his change-up, Hellickson could develop into a No. 2 starter for the Rays.
Others to watch
RHSP | St. Louis Cardinals (A) | Age - 21
Herron struggled in his debut season in 2005, but he has improved each year since. Last year, his walk rate dropped from 4.9 to 1.7, his K% jumped from 18.1% to 23.4%, and his HR rate went from 2.0 all the way down to 0.5. Herron features a plus curveball to go along with a solid-average fastball and average change-up. He has some projection left to him, and his improvements thus far indicate potential further growth.
RHSP | Chicago White Sox (AA) | Age - 25
Since joining the White Sox in 2004, Egbert has done nothing but improve. He has seen his K% jump from 17.7% in Single-A to 26% in Double-A while maintaining good control. He also keeps the ball on the ground as evidenced by his microscopic HR rate, and this is due mostly to a low-to-mid-90s sinker and an above-average change-up that keeps hitters off balance. Egbert has been old for his levels, but that hasn't stopped him yet.
Next week, we take a look at hitters.
References and Resources
This article is part of the 2008 Prospect Preview Series. You can find other articles associated with that series here.
Minor League Baseball
Alex breaks down major and minor league players by using sabermetric and video analysis at his website, Baseball-Intellect. To get full access to his entire collection of prospect video and scouting reports, you can sign up as a Premium Member. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org