September 23, 2015
The View From Behind The Backstop
The Pitchers You Meet in the Appy League
Over the past few seasons, I've watched a game where the manager left every reliever except one off the lineup card (which frankly is weirder than leaving them all off), a perfect game taken into the ninth that ended 8-7 in the 10th, and a two-out, two-strike, walk-off straight steal of home by the slowest player on the field. All of these happened in the same place. Welcome to the Appalachian League.
The Appy League can be a strange one to scout (for the teams that even bother doing regular coverage of it). Most of the organizations also have short-season A ball and complex league affiliates, and generally their top few rounds of college picks go to the former, prep picks to the latter. In between is a mishmash of interesting international free agents coming stateside (and less interesting ones in their second season in rookie ball), late-round college picks, earlier round senior signs, and the odd junior college guy. It is a long, long way from the majors, but unlike the complex leagues, there is at least a good faith attempt to approximate professional baseball.
Some demographic background might be helpful. A rather unscientifc survey of a late 2000s Kingsport Mets team suggests that the odds of an Appalachian League player making Double-A is a bit better than one in four, and of making the majors a bit worse than one in 10. In most cases the major leaguers are up-and-down relievers or extra bench bats (or Jacob deGrom, which, as I have previously discussed, is not something you want to go out and project). Even the Double-A guys are more likely to be second catchers, extra outfielders, and anonymous middle relievers, than good organizational guys.
In this installment, I want to focus on the types of pitchers you see at this level, and how I approach evaluating them. Here are a few useful categories.
The Big Arm With a Bit of a Clue
While I may not reach the same level of “velo whore” as previous writers that have inhabited this space, I like a hot radar gun reading as much as the next dude in a dri-fit polo. One thing to keep in mind is that while a plus fastball is unusual at this level, it is much more pedestrian in say, a Double-A bullpen. So 93-95 by itself doesn't really get my attention. Can he throw it for strikes? That seems simple enough, but isn't all that common. Can he throw it for good strikes? How about a good 0-2 waste pitch? I'm not looking for all four quadrants at this point, but can he change eye levels with the fastball?
Does he show some feel for the breaking ball? Does the shape stay more or less consistent, or are two out of every three slurvy or flat? You are going to be projecting this pitch a lot in most cases, and flashes plus is not plus. And frankly, it probably only flashes average at this point.
The Case Study: Jandel Gustave (HOU)
Gustave also fits into the "IFA that took a while to figure it out" category. In 2011. the year before he came stateside, he walked almost 30 percent of the batters he faced and uncorked 21 wild pitches in 19 innings. That's textbook "big arm with no clue.” He ironed some of it out in the Gulf Coast League the season before I saw him, and afterward moved into "acceptably wild" territory. He transitioned to a full-time reliever in 2014, and a scout who viewed him this year saw a potential late-inning arm touching 100 and showing a solid slider. He's already spent a year in Double-A and seems a good bet to be a major-league contributor, maybe even a significant one. The slider developed, and the plus-plus fastball played up even more in short bursts.
The older arm with a 'good' off-speed pitch
This category of pitcher is pretty comfortable throwing his below-average breaker in a variety of counts and situations, and that makes it an even more effective weapon. They don't even have to start it in the zone most times. Maybe the better ones run off the outside corner into the opposing batter's box to same-side hitters. To opposite-side hitters, you might see them change the shape a little bit to try and backdoor it. To both sides, plenty will get buried in the dirt. I recently heard a fun stat via an A-ball hitting coach: He said that 75 percent of the pitches at his level are on the outer half or away. I think breaking balls drive that number to a certain extent. If you see a pitcher backfoot a slider or curve to an opposite-side hitter at lower levels, that merits your attention. More likely that pitch starts far enough in that even an inexperienced hitter can spit on it, or it never gets there and instead gets a lot of plate. Likewise, you don't see too many arms throwing the big front-door breaker that the same-side hitter gives up on.
The one question I want to answer with these types is “can they throw a good strike one with their fastball?” It's good to be able to work backward on occasion. It's good to be able to throw your off-speed stuff for strikes in hitter's counts, but ultimately there has to be enough fastball, or at least enough fastball command to consistently get ahead of higher level hitters. The bad swings at breaking balls dissipate quickly as you move into full-season ball and up the minor-league ladder. Even in a potential major-league relief role where you can lean heavily on that now solid-average or plus breaking ball, you will still need to get ahead with the fastball.
The usual outliers
The case study: Harol Gonzalez (NYM)
An Introduction at the end