February 11, 2015
Baseball Prospectus's mechanical mavens Doug Thorburn and Ryan Parker turn to the AL West as they wrap up their examination of select Top 10 prospects featured in the BP Top 10s (also see their breakdown of AL East, AL Central, NL East, NL Central, and NL West).
Rankings Summary (Rangers Top 10):
Chi Chi Gonzalez had excellent consistency on a game-to-game basis last season. He might have lacked the big-strikeout starts that turn heads (his single-game high was eight Ks) but he was strict with the free pass, as just four of his 26 starts on the season featured three or more walks (one with more than three), and only twice did he surrender four or more earned runs. He has the stuff to raise his ceiling beyond that of an innings-eater, and his delivery features solid mechanical baselines with room to improve.
Gonzalez is stable for most of his delivery, earning plus marks for his balance by maintaining a solid head position in all three planes. He has a small drop to his center of gravity after maximum leg lift, followed by a slight “stay back,” that causes the head to drag a bit during his stride, but the overall balance of his delivery is comfortably above the big-league average and has spiked a 65-grade on his best deliveries. He invokes some late spine-tilt after foot strike, as the rotational elements of his upper half kick into gear, resulting in an average score for posture by the time that Gonzalez hits release point. The posture looks better at full speed thanks to his stable follow through, but taking a snapshot of him at the point the ball leaves his hand reveals the 50-grade tilt.
His average momentum carves out an efficient line to the target, and though his sheer speed down the slope isn't impressive, Gonzalez has mastered the timing pattern of this modest pace to the plate. The first gear of momentum is particularly strong, though it fails to translate to the stride phase of his motion. The torque is plus, fueled by early hip rotation combined with a twist of the upper half and a solid delay between foot strike and his trigger of trunk rotation.
Gonzalez lowers his lift from the stretch, but he avoids the slide step and utilizes a similar speed down the mound as he does from the windup. The matched pace should theoretically help with repetition, but with the shorter lift, he has a tendency to rush the lift-and-stride portion and hit foot strike before his upper half is prepared to fire, resulting in a late arm (aka under-rotation) and pitches that frequently miss up and/or arm side of their intended destinations. This issue will certainly be a focal point of instruction as he completes his minor-league education.
Rankings Summary (Athletics Top 10):
Considered a key piece of the return in the Josh Donaldson trade, Sean Nolin is a leading candidate to round out the Oakland rotation this season, though he will have to battle during spring training to secure the slot. The southpaw has made exactly one MLB appearance in each of the past two seasons, getting hit hard in each of those brief stints, but he will be given a much greater opportunity to prove himself in 2015.
Nolin has shaky balance that was very inconsistent last season, both on a pitch-to-pitch and a game-to-game basis. He features a significant drop after max lift and a lot of variation in the X-plane, with the tendency to lean either to the first- or third-base side as he approaches foot strike. He occasionally displays above-average stability, but more often Nolin struggles to keep his head centered over his center of mass while attempting to manage the plunge after max lift, and it is more common to see 40-grade balance than 50-grade from the southpaw. The same goes for his posture, which can sink down to 40-grade or rise to average levels, but which typically settles in the fringe-average range of spine-tilt.
Nolin has been clocked in the mid-90s with his fastball, but that velocity speaks for his pure arm strength in light of merely average hip-shoulder separation. Most of his torque comes from the lower half, so the timing of his trigger takes on added importance as it determines how much the hips can rotate to coil the spring before he unloads. He also has average momentum, and his release distance is further dented by a closed stride that angles Nolin towards the left-hand batter's box. Such a strategy is common for left-handers, some of whom can line up the gears with the closed angle, but the frequency with which Nolin throws across his body suggests that he strides too closed for his signature.
From the stretch position, the left-hander will sometimes mix in a slide step in order to keep opposing baserunners guessing. The strategy is ill-advised, however, for a player who already struggles to repeat the timing aspects of his delivery, as the additional timing pattern further complicates his delivery. The fact that he's left-handed further solidifies the futility of Nolin's slide step, and that element might just disappear with his new organization.
Rankings Summary (Angels Top 10):
Andrew Heaney just skims under the surface of rookie qualification, having pitched 29 1/3 innings in the majors in 2014, thus preserving his prospect status. The cross-coast trade(s) that brought Heaney to Southern California instantly vaulted him to the top prospect in the Angels system, and he should contribute a good chunk of innings for the pitching-thin Halos this season. Heaney was hit pretty hard in his small sample of the bigs, and though he doesn't have the velocity that typically defines a top prospect, his command and depth of arsenal feed a solid projection at the highest level.
Heaney's stability is already elite, with rock-solid balance in all three planes that earns a 70 on the 20-80 scale. The only thing standing between Heaney and a pristine score for balance is a small tendency to lean laterally (either first- or third-base side) around max leg lift, but the left-hander has the underpinnings of one of the league's most balanced deliveries. He used to lean back toward second base during the stride phase, back in 2012, but he corrected the issue in 2013 and retained the improvement last season. The excellent balance gives way to awesome posture, though he can invoke some late spine-tilt on occasion. He has demonstrated the upside of his stability in the past, including the following pitch from early in the 2014 season:
The torque is efficient, taking some of the kinetic toll off of his throwing arm. He utilizes a 50-50 combination of upper-body twist and delayed trunk rotation to achieve solid hip-shoulder separation that borders on plus. Heaney's consistent timing also allows him to gain extra extension on his pitches with a frequently ideal release point. He has fixed the balance portion of his old “stay back” delivery, yet he still utilizes a relatively slow pace to the plate. The effect is more pronounced when he is pitching from the stretch: Heaney appears to drift backward into max lift, prior to making his forward progress, a strategy that mitigates the timing bonus that he gets with the lower lift.
The upside to his slow pace from the stretch is that Heaney has a very similar timing pattern with the windup, an element which aids his ability to repeat his release point in any situation. That said, it raises the question why he adjusts his lift at all when pitching from the stretch; if Heaney is already slow from the stretch and the goal is to have a consistent timing pattern, then why is it necessary to have a different lift? Throw in the fact that he—like Nolin—is left-handed, and the short-lift tactic becomes even more trivial. —Doug Thorburn
Rankings Summary (Astros Top 10):
Carlos Correa was taken first overall in the 2012 draft for a reason as there is some serious thunder in this young man’s bat. Had he not broken his leg midway through the 2014 season, the buzz around this exciting prospect may have reached a deafening crescendo. Back on two healthy legs, Correa seems primed to take the next step forward on his was from going from prospect to big leaguer.
The depth of Correa’s athletic gene pool is readily apparent when watching him swing. There’s bat speed for days wrapped up in a smooth and balanced movement pattern. Most impressively, his swing always seems to be improving.
As an amateur, he hit from a wide stance with a very deliberate back and forth pattern with his hands. His hands moved back, past his back elbow, before launching forward. It wasn’t a terrible pattern, but it’s a superfluous movement. His lower half was solid, but lacked real intent through his hips. There was very little coil of his hips, making it that much harder to tap into his lower half.
But many of these concerns look to be in the past. Correa has cleaned up his upper half, he still cocks his hands but in a much tidier and compact fashion, and his hands never drift. There is real aggression in torque in his lower half now. Whether he’s using a small leg kick or a controlled double tap, it is easy to see how he engages his hips sooner and more powerfully. Watch how his hips coil inward as he begins to move forward. He is creating tension that is waiting to be unleashed upon the baseball.
While that aspect of his lower half has gotten better, he has a couple movements that may be part of his overall mechanical identity but still aren’t ideal. The first is a noticeable sway backwards to initiate his swing. When he’s locked in, this isn’t a problem as he moves forward enough to not be stuck over his back leg, but it is still something to watch out for. Sticking with his lower body, it’s not ideal how he pinches his back knee under him at the start of his swing. Just like the sway, he moves out of this position to a stronger launching point, but it presents a moment where things could go wrong in his swing.
Both the sway and the pinch are similar in that they happen early and he appears to move into better positions later in the swing. In that sense they aren’t big issues, but if things go wrong these would be the first moves to examine.
That is how good Correa’s swing is, the only way to nitpick is to not point out things that are wrong, rather hypothetical things that could go wrong. It’s hard not to love a player with these characteristics. His bat explodes through the zone with ease and stays there. He’s got great length through the zone. How he launches the bat with his upper body is just about textbook. Watch how his back arm and front shoulder work together in perfect harmony to create the sonic boom that is his bat speed.
Correa is a physically gifted young man with a great swing who only seems to get better. Oh, and let’s not forget that he’s just twenty years old and plays shortstop. Houston, get excited for this young man.
Rankings Summary (Mariners Top 10):
D.J. Peterson’s swing is an awesome blend of power and efficiency. Not only is the swing mechanically solid, but he repeats it so well it’s as if he got stuck on the third instruction on the back of every shampoo bottle (Lather, rinse, REPEAT). That’s not to say his swing is perfect as he’s got a few moments that could improve just a little bit.
Watch Peterson’s hands during his stride. He starts his them below his shoulders and gets them ready to launch very early in his swing progression. It’s a small, controlled movement, but he almost gets his hands primed too soon. Watching hitters like Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout, it’s easy to see how their hands never stop moving. They start slow and then build up intensity throughout the swing. With Peterson, he gets his hands to this launch position, then there is a slight stall in his hands before he cuts the swing loose.
I saw Peterson during his first season in pro ball and one of the notes I put down was how he seemed to just miss pitches when he could have crushed them. The way he gets his hands ready to hit may help explain that inconsistent trigger. He doesn’t necessarily have to change how he moves his hands, he just needs to find a timing method that works for him. Mike Napoli is a good example of a hitter who has found success and has hands that move in a pattern to Peterson’s. Napoli’s is an even more extreme movement, so there is certainly a roadmap for how to make this pattern work, but it’s not the usual pattern seen by high-level hitters.
Truth be told, I really like Peterson’s swing. The hand issue isn’t a significant concern to me because Peterson has the innate skill of knowing how to repeat his swing. He seemed to have found that trigger that was missing when I first saw him. Once he launches the bat it’s almost poetic. From the time he launches the bat to the time he gets to contact, Peterson is one of the best prospects I’ve really put under the microscope. Everything is timed up so well and his bat is smooth and powerful through the zone.
Watch how early his bat begins to flatten out behind him. This is just how the elite hitters in the game get their bats moving. Even his lower body is elite. There’s no big leg kicks or obvious movements, but don’t be fooled, his lower body does exactly what it should to help power Peterson’s stroke.
Peterson is going to hit, the question will be whether his bat will be a nice depth piece for a lineup out of the five hole or the featured attraction of a lineup in the three or four spot? This should be a year where he is challenged by the best pitching possible and the answer to that question starts to become clear. But at the moment, it appears that Seattle has a legitimate hitter waiting to make Safeco his playground. —Ryan Parker
Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @doug_thorburn