A PITCHf/x Look At Eight Rookie Starters

DETROIT, MI - APRIL 12: Drew Smyly #33 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in his major league debut in the first inning during the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Comerica Park on April 12, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.The Tigers defeated the Rays 7-2. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

MLB debuts are awesome to see, for a ton of reasons. One of the more obscure reasons for pitchers is that we get to see them under the PITCHf/x microscope and dissect their arsenal scientifically rather than relying on secondhand information. In many cases, the consensus doesn’t match up well with the Pitch F/X information.

To give just one example, let’s take a look at what Baseball America said about Zach Stewart in its past few Prospect Handbooks:

2009: "[His] 93-96 mph fastball and 82-85 mph slider give him a pair of potential out pitches."

2010: "Stewart’s bread and butter is his hard sinker, which sits at 92-94 mph and touches 95. He also offers a sharp 82-85 mph slider."

2011: "His fastball sits in the low 90s and routinely reaches 95-96 mph, featuring above-average sink. His mid-80s slider has depth and misses bats."

Zach Stewart finally made his debut in late 2011, and he averaged 90.8 mph on his fastball that season. This year, moved to the bullpen, he’s seen his velocity decline to 89.4 mph, while his slider has just sat at 82.

Therefore, Stewart has arrived in the majors with significantly less velocity than advertised, which significantly affects how he projects going forward. Long considered a high-upside player, his current incarnation appears to just be a generic sinker-slider pitcher who could be a fifth starter or middle reliever.

With that in mind, I’m going to take a look at eight starting pitchers that have recently debuted and see what pitches they’ve arrived in the major leagues with.

Drew Pomeranz

The 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook was not alone in crediting Pomeranz with good velocity, saying "His fastball sits in the low 90’s and touches 95 mph." I was thus somewhat alarmed when Pomeranz arrived in Colorado last year working at a mere 87-92, averaging 89.6 mph on his fastball.

When I brought this up to others, most wrote it off, mentioning that it was the end of his first professional season, so he was tired, and he was also fresh off returning from an appendectomy. An offseason of rest, they said, would bring his velocity back up.

And it did bring his velocity up…all the way to 89.7 mph. And this is where we need to start worrying.

If you want to be optimistic, you can note that a similar mysterious velocity loss happened to another NL West lefty starter who was a top-10 draft pick, Madison Bumgarner, and ultimately it was just a temporary thing. But if this is basically all there is to Pomeranz, he’s going to struggle. He has a very good curveball that pairs excellent vertical drop with surprising velocity, occasionally reaching up to 81 mph, but he lacks much of a changeup, going to his third pitch just 7% of the time in his young career.

Without big velocity or a changeup to worry about, hitters appear to be focusing on Pomeranz’s curveball when they step into the box, determined not to chase the pitch as it dips below the strike zone. As a result, he has recorded just 54 strikes in 121 curves in his career (44.6%), with just eight (6.6%) being swinging strikes. The pitch is also getting squeezed by umpires a fair amount:

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And if Pomeranz doesn’t have that curveball working, he is essentially reduced to throwing fastball after fastball, a formula that isn’t going to work at his present velocity. He does present good deception and gets solid sink on the ball, and it actually has a higher swinging strike rate than the curve in his MLB career, but only a select few starters can survive with a fastball usage of nearly 75%, and Pomeranz’s velocity limitations would seem to make him an awfully poor bet to do so in the short term (Then again, Bartolo Colon sort of turns that idea on its head, doesn’t he?).

That’s not to write off Pomeranz’s future—we’ve been through this drill before with Bumgarner, for one. In fact, if we want to run wild with comps, Pomeranz’s mechanics bear a resemblance to Cliff Lee’s, which makes this a convenient time to remember that Lee was in pitching purgatory as late as his age-28 season, before finally getting his velocity up from 87-92 to 90-93 and instantly morphing into a Cy Young pitcher. And it’s not like Pomeranz has imploded out there—he actually owns a 3.61 FIP across his nine MLB starts, though he’s been hit around a fair bit (28.8% LD, .328 BABIP). And finally, he’s 23 and has time to try to come up with something else that’ll get his MLB career moving forward. Maybe it’s a throwing program to add velocity. Maybe it’s really working on the changeup. Maybe it’s adding a slider, two-seamer, or cutter.

So, there’s still plenty of hope, but major success is likely to elude Pomeranz until and unless he does show his supposed consistent low-90s velocity or comes up with a third pitch that rounds out his arsenal.

Jarrod Parker

Like Pomeranz, Parker debuted last season; in his case, he started the final game of 2011 as his MLB debut. After four solid starts in Triple-A with his new organization this year, Parker has come up to Oakland and posted a 2.10 ERA in four starts despite barely striking out more batters than he’s walked.

The 2011 Prospect Handbook seems to have overestimated his velocity as well, claiming Parker "sat 94-95 mph and touched 97." In the big leagues, he’s worked mostly at 89-95 mph, averaging 92.1, with his fastball.

The pitch has lacked effectiveness thus far. It does bring solid velocity to the table, but he lacks great command of it:

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Therefore, he only has gotten strikes on 60.8% of the fastballs he’s thrown in his major league career, including a paltry 3.8% whiff rate. The pitch also doesn’t boast huge movement, which has led to a lot of flies and liners in his five MLB starts, with a low 34% grounder rate.

On a happier note, Parker already boasts a legitimate plus changeup as a 23-year-old. The pitch arrives at 79-83 mph with good sink, giving him a fantastic 11 mph separation between the fastball and changeup. It’s an out pitch to lefthanders, who have really struggled with Parker thus far. He turns to it a quarter of the time against them, basically becoming a two-pitch pitcher. The changeup boasts an impressive 18.1% whiff rate in Parker’s young career.

He also throws a slider in the low 80s with impressive tilt and depth, though he’s turned to it just about 10% of the time thus far and uses it almost exclusively against righties.

The three pitches give him enough looks to be an effective starting pitcher, but the question will be how well he can command his stuff. He’s putting a shade under 40% of his pitches in the strike zone, and that’s already started to catch up to him, as his 12 walks in 25 2/3 innings indicates. He’s also getting first-pitch strikes just over half the time, and batters have often been ahead in counts and gotten to sit on pitches. Parker won’t be stranding 86% of baserunners forever, so he’ll need to adjust when his luck inevitably corrects. He has the talent to do it, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily assume he will.

Drew Smyly

Smyly surprised many by winning the Tigers’ fifth starter job, and he’s run with it, striking out 34 batters in 34 innings and posting a 1.65 ERA. Unlike Pomeranz and Parker, he generates a ton of swinging strikes (10.2%), so even if his strand rate luck regresses, he’ll still have great numbers if he can continue pitching at this level.

Smyly comes from a very high arm slot, so his fastball is very straight, but it gives him good leverage and plane to the plate. The pitch has reached as high as 96 mph this year, but it’s averaged just 91.5, as he’ll change speeds anywhere from 88 to 96. Still, he brings the ball with above-average velocity for a lefty starter, and the pitch has been good enough to get a solid strike rate (66%) and whiff rate (6.9%).

Smyly is rather unique in that the horizontal movement of his fastball and slider has a very small separation. His fastball lacks the six inches or so of armside run common to four-seamers, running only an average of three or four inches from right to left. Conversely, his slider does not possess the usual glove-side break, failing to cross the vertical axis and moving sort of like a "sinking cutter." The fastball only has 2-3 more inches of horizontal run compared to the slider, which is probably the smallest difference I’ve seen from any pitcher in that aspect. At the same time, however, the pitches have a 10-inch difference in vertical movement, so the slider is almost like a really short 12-to-6 curveball.

Unconventional as his slider—which arrives at 78-83 mph—is, it has proven to be an effective out pitch for Smyly, who leans on it 24% of the time. It has generated a fantastic 19.7% whiff rate.

Smyly also throws a cutter, which, paradoxically, has no more cut than his regular fastball. It does get more sink, however, and is the main pitch Smyly looks to to get groundballs—12 of the 14 balls in play against the pitch have been on the ground, compared to just 11 of 32 for the fastball. The cutter sits comfortably in between the fastball and slider both in terms of velocity and vertical movement. As with the fastball, he varies the speed, throwing the pitch anywhere from 83 to 90, usually averaging around 86-87.

He also has an occasional changeup/splitter in the mid-80s that is not a major part of his arsenal. It does offer a bit more armside run than his other pitches, but it often comes in too hard and flat at this point.

Smyly is a profoundly odd pitcher on the whole—the horizontal movement on all his pitches is shockingly similar, but the vertical movement is strikingly different and he makes a point to vary the velocity on all of his offerings. It’ll be fascinating to see how hitters adapt to this.

Drew Hutchison

Hutchison has posted some eye-popping numbers in the minor leagues, but he’s been up and down in five major league starts, with a 5.53 ERA and 4.04 FIP. He’s another pitcher who seems to have control but lacks command, as he seems to pound the bottom part of the zone without much regard for exactly where in the zone he is:

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Thus far, he’s leaned very heavily on his fastball, throwing it 77% of the time. He parks the pitch in the 89-94 mph range, averaging 90.9 thus far. The fastball has some sink, but it seems to be otherwise unremarkable; it has a swinging strike rate of 5.5%, which is solid but unspectacular. For all the control greatness he showed in the minors, he’s gotten strikes with the fastball just 59.4% of the time in the majors. Like Parker, he’s only in the zone around 40% of the time overall, with a first-pitch strike rate just over 50%; both of those numbers will need to come up if he is to find consistent success.

Without the luxury of being ahead in the count, Hutchison has shied away from using his slider and changeup. Of the 76 sliders he’s thrown, he has just six called strikes, because he likes to bury the pitch:

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The slider is quite effective in this pattern because Hutchison uses it so judiciously, mainly when he’s ahead in the count. It actually goes for strikes more than the fastball does because batters chase it so often, and it has a 14.5% whiff rate thus far. It’s a power breaker in the 81-86 range, averaging 83.3, and it features good vertical depth.

Hutchison’s changeup is a moving offspeed pitch that lacks good velocity separation (82-86 mph), but does boast plenty of run and sink. He’s turned to the pitch just 7-8% of the time, but there’s reason to think it could play just fine with additional exposure.

In order to become an effective big league starter, Hutchison will need to get better command of his fastball, which will in turn allow him to deploy his secondary pitches with increased frequency and take some pressure off his fastball. Most of the rawness we’re seeing here is probably due to his youth (he’s just 21) and the fact that he’s really just spent half a year above the Midwest League, making 10 starts in High-A and six in Double-A. Give him time and he should be able to settle down.

Joe Wieland

Like Hutchison, Wieland is a guy who put up huge minor league numbers without ever getting credited as having great "stuff." He made five solid starts (24 K, 9 BB in 27 2/3 IP, 4.55 ERA) for the Padres before hitting the DL earlier this month.

Wieland averaged 89.7 mph with his fastball in those starts, but that overall figure is somewhat misleading:

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In his first start, he averaged 91 mph; in his final one, he was down to 88. Given that he’s on the DL with an elbow problem, it’s quite possible that his "true" average velocity is closer to the former number than the latter. The last start’s low number is almost certainly due to the elbow issue; the question is whether the three starts before it are as well.

Wieland’s fastball is unfailingly straight, which comes with the standard problems of hittability and flyball tendencies—he’s already been touched up for five homers. However, he does spot the pitch quite well, and hasn’t had the same problems Hutchison has despite coming to the big leagues with only 14 starts of upper-minors experience. He has a 65.7% strike rate with the fastball, getting ahead in counts and being able to turn to his secondary pitches frequently (57.3% fastball usage).

Wieland’s main offspeed weapon is a two-plane curveball in the upper 70s that he likes to bury to the glove side:

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Wieland repeats his simple delivery well, so his curveball comes out of his hand looking like a fastball, making it tough to lay off of in two-strike counts. It’s already a huge weapon, generating swinging strikes 19.1% of the time.

Wieland also throws a short low-80s slider and a sinking changeup that both look to be usable offerings, with the slider serving as a third pitch to righties and the changeup as a third pitch to lefties. Since he doesn’t have anything that runs back in on righties and his best pitch is the curveball, he should be a platoon-neutral or even a reverse-platoon-split pitcher, which does seem to be borne out in his splits thus far.

Wieland should be able to succeed in the majors as at least a #4-type starter thanks to his control, platoon neutrality, and curveball. Depending on how hard he ends up throwing and how well he learns to locate within the zone, he could reach higher.

David Phelps

I have said since late 2010 that David Phelps should be the Yankees #5 starter, but it took a year and a heck of a lot of pitching turnover for the 25-year-old righthander to get his shot. He lasted all of two starts, with the following line: 8 2/3 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 1 HR, 4 BB, 8 K. That’s not bad, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Yankees from pushing him back to relief due to the return of Andy Pettitte. Certainly, he’s probably first in line when the inevitable next injury hits.

Phelps usually worked in long stints in the bullpen, so he saw no loss of velocity in his two starts. Like Hutchison, he works at 89-94, averaging 91. Unlike Hutchison, he has good command of his fastball and does a good job pounding the glove side with it:

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This results in a 65.2% strike rate with the pitch, including a 27.3% called strike rate and 6.1% whiff rate.

Phelps had a reputation for being mostly a fastball guy who lacked a put-away offspeed pitch, and that seems to largely be true. He does have a curveball, a cutter, and a changeup, and these pitches significantly lessen the pressure on Phelps’ solid-average, but not excellent, fastball—Phelps has gone offspeed 43.3% of the time this year. None of the three offerings, however, has a whiff rate higher than the curve’s 11.4%, so he doesn’t have a bigtime "out pitch." The curve is a surprisingly hard (78-82 mph) breaker, and Phelps pounds the zone with the cutter (72.1% strikes), so he’s been able to coax some value out of those two offerings. Like Smyly, the changeup is a distant fourth pitch that is used exclusively to opposite-side batters.

It all adds up to a guy who is more than the sum of his parts; none of Phelps’ pitches wow you, but he’s got three solid pitches and a fourth usable one, and he commands all of them and doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses. The Yankees have high standards, but for almost any other team, Phelps would be a great guy to plug into the back of the rotation.

Pat Corbin

Another pitcher that skipped Triple-A, Corbin has made three decent starts for Arizona, with a 4.50 ERA and 4.20 FIP to go with a 12/5 K/BB in 16 innings. That screams "competence, but not domination." What a weird thing to scream.

Anyway, Corbin is another pitcher who has turned to his fastball over 70% of the time thus far. Unlike Pomeranz and Hutchison, however, Corbin shows as throwing both a four-seamer and a two-seamer on Pitch F/X; perhaps it’s no coincidence he has a 48% groundball rate in his three starts. However, neither pitch (if they are two different pitches) shows a whole lot of sink, but both show excellent armside run. Both pitches sit in the 88-92 mph range, averaging right around 90. The "four-seamer" is listed as going for strikes 59.1% of the time, with the "two-seamer" at 74.4%; they combine to be at a solid 65.8%, though neither generates much in the way of swinging strikes (3.6%).

Corbin throws a soft, slurvy slider in the upper 70s that he has struggled with in the big leagues, often putting it in some downright silly locations:

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The pitch doesn’t have much going for it to begin with, so in a way, Corbin is cutting his losses with it, where the worst that can happen is that it goes for a ball. However, often it seems that the best outcome it can generate is a ball, which is a problem, given that the slider is his primary offspeed pitch. This is the sort of pattern you see a lot with guys who skipped Triple-A—Double-A batters might chase a bunch of these pitches, but major league hitters won’t, and Triple-A exposure gives pitchers a bit of a "bridge" between the two to at least somewhat adapt to that reality. Corbin doesn’t have the benefit of that bridge, so he hasn’t made this adjustment yet. Even when he does, it may not be for the better in the short time, because the slider needs a ton of tightening to be effective against big-leaguers.

Corbin also throws a nice running changeup in the 78-82 mph range that has had far more success than the slider in a tiny sample (17 of 25 strikes, four swinging strikes). He’d be far better served making that his primary offspeed offering for the time being, especially against righties.

There’s a fair amount to like here. Corbin presents a good, repeatable motion that features good deception, he gets great running action on his pitches, and he has above-average command for his age. The big question is if he’ll be able to come up with a breaking pitch that can really round out his arsenal. With it, he could be a solid #3 starter; without it, he’ll be pushed toward the back of a rotation or even to situational work.

Christian Friedrich

I suppose it’s appropriate that Pomeranz and Friedrich are the bookends of this piece. They’re both big lefties who were first-round picks whose scouting reports boiled down to "hellacious curve and solid fastball," and they both pitch for the Rockies. In a lot of ways, Pomeranz is Friedrich 2.0, and that’s probably how most Rockies fans think of them. Friedrich is nearing his 25th birthday and is about two years removed from being highly-touted, as strings of injuries and mediocre performance stalled his career in the upper minors. Pomeranz, on the other hand, sped to the majors in his first pro season and is seen as a rising star.

If you’re jaded by what I wrote about Pomeranz above, you’ve probably long given up hope on Friedrich turning into much of anything; after all, just last year, the guy had a 5.00 ERA in Double-A. How could he possibly succeed in Coors Field?

The lefthander made his MLB debut earlier this month, and to date, that’s his only MLB start, so I’m working with a tiny sample here, but here’s the stunning thing: Not only does his stuff appear to be better than Pomeranz’s, it appears to be superior than that of all the other seven pitchers on this list. And that, of course, includes impressive names like Parker, Smyly, and Hutchison.

Friedrich’s fastball, unlike Pomeranz’s, actually does sit in the low 90s. It averaged 92.4 mph in his start, which automatically excites me; the pitch was in the 91-94 range consistently. As with most high-slot pitchers, the pitch lacks sink, and perhaps we should worry that this is a Colorado pitcher who only saw four of the 15 balls in play against him stay on the ground, but for now, that’s a minor quibble. Friedrich did a great job throwing the pitch for strikes:

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With the fastball going for strikes 39 of 53 times, including five whiffs, Friedrich could turn to his other three pitches to put batters away.

The offering Friedrich is best known for is his curveball, a truly jaw-dropping mid-70s offering that presents an incredible 23-inch vertical movement difference from the fastball. He threw 15 of them in his start, getting just one whiff (from the opposing pitcher) and seven strikes, but it’s a weapon that hitters will always have to step in looking for, which creates some value even when the results of the pitch itself aren’t particularly good.

In his start, Friedrich got more out of his slider, which drew three whiffs in ten pitches. It’s a short mid-80s pitch which presents a dramatically different look than the curve, almost like a big cutter.

To top it all off, Friedrich has a fading changeup he can dial down to the low 80s, giving him yet another speed and giving him a pitch that really tails away from righties.

All three offspeed pitches have a lot going for them, and the fastball is good in its own right. As long as Friedrich continues to pound the fastball in there and get ahead of hitters to set up the offspeed pitches, he’s going to be a heck of a pitcher even if he occasionally hangs a curve and watches it get blasted up into the thin Colorado air. The fact that he’s suddenly arrived in the big leagues totally intact and then some after all the stagnation is a huge boost to the Rockies franchise, and Friedrich could be a bigtime impact pitcher if he can stay healthy and he retains this sort of fastball velocity and command.

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I hope that was an enjoyable look at what these eight guys bring to the table right now and where that might lead them in the future. In future pieces, I’ll look at some of the rookie relievers, and perhaps even some comeback players. Of course, none of this work would be possible without the great Pitch F/X databases at Texas Leaguers, Brooks Baseball, and FanGraphs.

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