Young guns

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Aaron Laffey showing off his two-seam grip. (Icon/SMI)

With spring training games a day away (hooray), I wanted to take a break from the heavy dose of statistical articles the past few weeks and look at a few young pitchers who may play key roles on their teams this year. Because I want to use PITCHf/x data to help describe their stuff, I am going to look only at pitchers who had at least some time in the majors last year.

I also want to mention some comparable pitchers to give you a better idea of what they throw. These comparisons come from my pitcher similarity scores, which measure how close two pitchers’ pitches are. If two pitchers throw the same type of pitches with the same frequency, velocity and movement, they grade out near 100 (exactly the same). If a pitcher has few close comparisons, he will be graded as unique.

Aaron Laffey

Coming into the 2008 season, the Indians certainly figured that lefty Aaron Laffey would spend most of his time at Triple-A, but due to injuries and the C.C. Sabathia trade, Laffey ended up making 16 starts as a 23-year-old in the big leagues. Despite this and his success in the minors at a young age, Laffey hasn’t made much noise as a prospect. The main reason is that Laffey doesn’t strike out many hitters. While he also keeps his walk totals down, you aren’t going to show up on prospect lists if you don’t strike out more hitters.

Laffey has a reputation as a sinkerballer, but he actually throws more four-seamers than two-seamers. However, Laffey’s four-seamer has more downward movement than a league average sinker and his sinker is Brandon Webb-esque with its sink. Laffey also throws a nice slider that has exceptional horizontal and vertical movement and a change-up to right-handed batters that is somewhat a work in progress. For a 23-year-old, Laffey also seems to know how to pitch, throwing no change-ups to lefties and far fewer sliders to right-handed batters.

There are a ton of sinker/slider guys out there, but because Laffey throws a lot of four-seamers he is close to unique. His top comp is Chad Gaudin, with Carl Pavano and Carlos Zambrano both in the top 10.

Laffey throws slower than any of those guys, but has some time to maybe add a mph or two. I think Laffey will be a solid pitcher this year and I am very high on his future. The thing to watch will be his change-up. Because he is a lefty, his change-up will be more important than his slider, since he will face many more right-handed batters. He is getting only about a 5 mph differential between his sinker and his change-up, and his change-up has more rise to it than his sinker does. Laffey is very young, and few young pitchers have mastered the change-up, but all the other tools are there. If he can get his change-up to just a league average pitch, he could be a star.

Jeff Niemann

The young Tampa Bay Rays are in somewhat of a roster crunch. Both Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel (see below) are out of options. The Rays’ top four starters (Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine) are set and they don’t need a fifth starter often in the early going. When they do, they have this guy by the name of David Price who you might have heard of. Neither Niemann nor Hammel is in Price’s league, but then again who is? This will either mean a shift to an already-full bullpen or a trade for one, or both, of these guys.

Niemann is going to be 26 this year, so he isn’t super young, but he has very limited experience in the big leagues. What he does have is a pretty good minor league record and some nasty stuff that has had him on several top 100 lists.

Niemann has a plus fastball that he throws a tick over 93 mph and is somewhat straight. What sets Niemann apart, however, is his excellent array of off-speed pitches, all of which have the potential to be plus pitches. He throws an absolute hammer of a curve, nearly 20 mph slower than his fastball with an outstanding 10 inches of vertical drop. His slider has some of the best downward movement as well, which is especially unusual in a pitcher who throws over the top. His change-up is more than 10 mph slower than his fastball, also with good vertical movement.

Niemann isn’t nearly as unusual a pitcher as Laffey, but his top comps show what kind of talent he has. Joakim Soria (1), Clayton Kershaw (3), Matt Cain (4), Joba Chamberlain (8) and Tim Lincecum (9) make up one of the most talented comps of any young pitcher. Niemann’s ceiling is that of a front line starter, but because of his somewhat advanced age, I think it would be safer to think of him as a very solid middle-of-the-rotation guy. There has been some talk of moving him to the bullpen, which I think would be a real waste of his four-pitch talent.

Jason Hammel

Jason Hammel’s situation is almost identical to Niemann’s and the similarities don’t stop there. Hammel, too, will be 26 this year and is out of options, but he has more experience than Niemann. His stuff is kind of Niemann Lite, and he throws the same four pitches Niemann does. His fastball also averages 93 mph with a little more movement, but all his off-speed pitches are a little worse. His curve has about 8.5 inches of vertical drop, his slider has more than three inches of slide and good downward movement, and his change-up has an eight mph differential from his fastball. All these pitches are slightly better than league average but slightly worse than Niemann.

Hammel doesn’t have the stuff Niemann does, but it’s pretty good. His control also isn’t great, but sometimes bouncing around from starting to relieving can do that. Given a full year in the rotation, I think Hammel could pitch well. His ceiling isn’t that of Niemann or Laffey, but he could provide a team with some quality innings with a chance of being a middle-of-the-rotation guy. Hammel’s comps are mostly guys just like that: Sean Gallagher (1), Kyle Lohse (3), Brett Tomko (5), Jorge De La Rosa (8). If the Rays try to sneak either of these guys through waivers, they will be claimed, so don’t be surprised to see one of them changing uniforms either before the season starts or within the first month.

Dana Eveland

Dana Eveland has bounced around from the Brewers to Diamondbacks and finally to the A’s, where he was given a spot in the rotation last year. He responded with a breakout year with an ERA of 4.34 and an FIP of 4.15. Even though Eveland first was called up in 2005, he still will only be 25 this year. Eveland is a somewhat hefty lefty who I saw pitch a couple of times in the minors. Even against some advanced hitters Eveland looked impressive.

Eveland throws both a two- and four-seamed fastball around 91 and 92 mph respectively. His two-seam doesn’t have a lot of sink, but it does have 10 inches of horizontal movement away from a right-handed batter. Eveland’s best off-speed pitch is his slider, which has more than five inches of horizontal movement away from a left-handed batter, making it an ideal strikeout pitch.

His curve is also a good pitch for him. It is rather slurvy with just about as much horizontal movement as vertical movement and is only 12 mph slower than his fastball. His change-up still has some room for improvement, with less than eight mph difference from his fastball and very similar vertical movement. Eveland is going to be effective against left-handed batters, but he is going to have to improve his change-up or tighten up his curve to be more effective against right-handed batters.

Despite pretty good stuff, Eveland’s top comps aren’t very impressive. It is mostly guys like Paul Maholm, Joel Pineiro and Randy Wolf. I think Eveland probably will be more successful than that group of pitchers but probably doesn’t have the stuff, especially against right-handed batters, to be an elite pitcher. Still, if the A’s are going to make a run at the division in 2009, they are going to need very good production from Eveland.

Wrap-up

These four pitchers are flying below the radar to start the 2009 season, but each might play a key role on a postseason team. All four have solid minor league records and all have the stuff to be in a starting rotation. It certainly looks like Laffey and Eveland will have that opportunity, and if Niemann and Hammel got it, I think they would do well. If I were a rebuilding team like the Pirates, I certainly would be monitoring the Rays closely.

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