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Prospect Dispatch: Cuban Right-Hander Norge Carlos Vera

On Saturday, I joined upwards of 20 scouts gathered behind the plate at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey to watch RHP Norge Carlos Vera throw live against 12 batters. The 19-year-old Cuban was originally on the list of players who would have been eligible to sign with a major league club on July 2 before the Trump administration reversed the Obama-era United States-Cuba détente.

Vera’s father, Norge Luis Vera, is a former Cuban National Series star who pitched for Santiago de Cuba. He was a member of three Cuban Olympic teams, winning two silver medals (2000 in Sydney and 2008 in Beijing) and a gold medal (2004 in Athens) and holds the all-time Cuban National Series record for postseason wins, with 32. He also got the win in an exhibition game against the Orioles on May 3, 1999 at Camden Yards, going seven innings in a contest that also featured José Contreras pitching for Cuba.

The younger Vera debuted in the Cuban National Series – Cuba’s highest level of professional baseball – as a freshly-turned 18-year-old in August 2018, throwing seven scoreless innings against Granma, a team that had a cumulative wOBA of .372 heading into the outing. He was the second youngest member of the 2019 Cuban National Team that came to the northeast part of the United States to play against independent Can-Am League teams this summer. He defected while in New Jersey in late June or early July, shortly after striking out seven New Jersey Jackals hitters in four innings.

Kiley spoke with an international scout that was one of a relatively few at that start and Vera was 91-94, hitting 96 or 97 mph depending on the gun, mixing four average or better pitches for a starter look. He has since been training in northern New Jersey with former minor league pitcher Doug Cinnella. Read the rest of this entry »

John Nogowski’s Improbable Path

Across all full-season minor league affiliates in 2019, the list of the top three hitters in K%-BB% looked like this:

1) Nick Madrigal
2) Wander Franco
3) John Nogowski

Madrigal, of course, was the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft out of Oregon State and is currently ranked as the No. 26 prospect in baseball on THE BOARD. Franco, an 18-year-old switch-hitting shortstop, was considered the top prospect in the 2017 July 2 international signing class, signed for $3.85 million, and is currently the game’s top prospect. Both Madrigal and Franco are high-profile minor leaguers who have been projected to make a future impact in the big leagues for some time.

And then there’s John Nogowski. Read the rest of this entry »

These Three Marlins Lefties Have Some Funky Fastballs

I confess that I haven’t watched many Marlins games this year. The team is projected to have the third worst record in baseball, potentially losing 100 or more games for just the third time in organization history. They average fewer than 10,000 fans per home game, the lowest in the league in 2019, which would be an all-time low, surpassing the 2018 season. It’s been a bumpy ride for Don Mattingly’s rebuilding Miami club.

But the Marlins do have some interesting players who are capable of doing interesting things not many other players are capable of doing. After Caleb Smith’s solid outing this past weekend, I spent some time perusing Statcast and discovered that, among left-handed pitchers who have thrown a minimum of 50 four-seam fastballs in 2019, Smith’s has the third most horizontal movement in the game. Right behind him is his teammate, Adam Conley. One spot ahead of him is Chris Sale. And one spot ahead of Sale, leading all 113 lefties in this sample in horizontal movement, is Smith and Conley’s teammate Jarlin Garcia.

Three of the top four left-handed big leaguers in four-seam horizontal movement all pitch for the Marlins.

That piqued my interest. In 2018, Garcia was one of the worst pitchers in baseball, carrying a -1.3 WAR and 6.37 FIP in 66 innings pitched. His xwOBA-against and xSLG-against were both in the first percentile in the league. In 2019, Garcia’s strikeout rate is up, his walk rate is down, and as of this writing, he has contributed 0.4 WAR and has a 3.79 FIP. What seems to be the likeliest cause of this improvement? His fastball’s horizontal movement was still 98% better than league-average last year, but its value was -1.57 wFB/C. This year it is 110% better than league average and its value has been 0.86 wFB/C. What changed more than his fastball movement, however, was his slider movement and usage:

Jarlin Garcia Slider Movement and Usage
Year Movement/Usage
2018 Slider Horizontal Movement 3.6 inches
2019 Slider Horizontal Movement 6.6 inches
2018 Slider Usage 22.4%
2019 Slider Usage 41.7%

Read the rest of this entry »

Called Up: Gavin Lux

At the end of June 2017, observers could have seen Gavin Lux’s performance as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League and been underwhelmed. Despite a solid 11.1% walk rate and 18.7% strikeout rate, the 2016 first-round pick was hitting .211/.304/.303. The skepticism that often surrounds high school position players from northern states followed Lux through his amateur and early professional days, and the Kenosha, Wisconsin native did little to allay those concerns.

Meanwhile, believers took a glass-half-full view of his performance at that point. A cold-weather player who shows good plate discipline and bat-to-ball ability in full season ball is nothing to scoff at; a middle infielder with athleticism and feel to play has a high floor. And the makeup for which Lux was lauded was thought to be a potential developmental separator, as the shortstop continued to gain strength and make swing tweaks.

Fast forward to the present day, a bit more than two years later, and the Dodgers have called up the 21-year-old, who notched his first two major league hits in his debut on Monday. After recovering in the last two months of 2017 to hit .244/.331/.362 with 27 stolen bases in the Midwest League, Lux turned on the burners. In 2018, he torched the Cal League through 88 games, hitting .324/.396/.520 with 41 extra-base hits. He made a 28-game cameo in the Texas League that year as well and continued to rake, hitting .324/.408/.495. Read the rest of this entry »

Prospect Dispatch: New York-Penn League

Over the weekend, I saw two New York-Penn League games. The first was Friday night’s matchup between the Lowell Spinners and the Staten Island Yankees; the second was Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the Tri-City Valley Cats and the Brooklyn Cyclones. Below are some notes about players from each game.

Lowell Spinners (BOS)

Noah Song, RHP, Top 100 Rank: N/A, Org Rank: 12

Song graduated from the Naval Academy this past spring with uncertainty surrounding his required military service time, which is the main reason why he wasn’t taken until the fourth round of the 2019 draft as a senior. As of this writing, Song must serve two years of active duty before being eligible to petition to serve the remainder of his time as a reservist. In late June, President Trump signed a memorandum ordering the Pentagon to develop a policy similar to the one in effect prior to 2017 that allowed Griffin Jax to pitch as part of the World Class Athlete Program and could permit athletes like Song to defer their service obligation due to what was described as a “short window of time” to compete. Though no one is certain if or how this proposal will be actioned, if it is, it looks like the Red Sox got a steal.

Song had a record-setting senior season at Navy, leading the nation in strikeouts with 161 in 94 innings pitched. He’s a lean 6-foot-4, with a simple, rhythmic, on-line delivery. He has a short arm action that sees him pinch his arm up near his ear a bit, but it is loose and he repeats it well. His fastball worked 94-97 mph on Friday with good life, showing ride through the zone and some tail. It comes out of the hand well and looks like it might play slightly above its velocity through the zone. He threw two different breaking balls. The slider was too slow, working in the low-to-mid 80s, and had horizontal tilt with proper slider action, but was a short breaker that looked a bit like a cutter at times. It touched average and, if thrown harder consistently, can sit there. He threw just one curveball and it was a 74 mph roundhouse type that was below average, though sources have indicated that they’ve seen better ones. He threw a handful of fading changeups against left-handed hitters that were average as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Yordan Alvarez Has Been A Really Good Hitter

50 games into his major league career, Yordan Alvarez has a 183 wRC+ and has been worth 2.3 WAR. Let’s take a look at what we might be able to reasonably expect from the 22-year-old slugger moving forward. Here is how Alvarez compares to the rest of the league:

Yordan Alvarez, 2019 Batted Ball Data
Barrel % Average Exit Velocity Hard Hit % xwOBA BB%
Yordan Alvarez 17.5% 92.4 mph 48.9% .420 12.1%
League Average 6.3% 87.5 mph 34.4% .318 8.3%

When you hit the ball hard and at a good launch angle often, and draw walks often, good things generally happen in the batter’s box. This has been true for Alvarez thus far. According to Statcast’s Erdős number calculations, among the most similar hitters to Alvarez this year are Christian Yelich, Pete Alonso, and Jorge Soler.

Of course, most of the hitters on the major league leaderboards are several years older than Alvarez. At just 22-years-old, he is currently sixth in the major leagues in barrels per plate appearance, behind such hitters as Mike Trout and Joey Gallo, and ahead of hitters like Yelich and Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger. In barrels per batted ball event, he is ninth. No one above him on either list is his age. Alvarez’s xwOBA (.420) is sixth in baseball and also better than two other young bat-first prospects with above average batted ball profiles. Juan Soto, last year’s offensive wunderkind, currently sits at .410, while Keston Hiura is at .365. Soto, who is younger than Alvarez, doesn’t hit the ball quite as hard or do so as often as Alvarez, but he draws more walks. Hiura, who about 10 months older, hits the ball harder more often, but also draws fewer walks and swings and misses more. Read the rest of this entry »

Called Up: Dustin May

Tonight, 21-year-old Dustin May is set to bring his flaming red hair to Dodger Stadium when he makes his major league debut against the Padres. Every prospect’s journey to the bigs is unique, but they start in similar places, on amateur fields, often under the watchful eye of scouts. May’s path is especially familiar to me; though I was far from the only person in the Dodgers organization involved, I was the scout who signed him.

The funny thing is, I wasn’t especially enamored with May the first time I saw him pitch. It was a little more than four years ago to the day, at the annual Texas Scouts Association showcase game on a characteristically hot July day in San Antonio. May pitched one of the later innings of the day; he worked in the upper-80s with his fastball and threw a sharp upper-70s slurve with good spin. While he pitched well against the high school competition he faced, his stuff didn’t stand out among a crowd of intriguing 2016 high school draft prospects that included players such as Forrest Whitley, Hudson Potts, and Kyle Muller.

Still, May’s prospect status continued to rise at a relatively quick pace following that initial outing. After a solid performance in two separate appearances during the fall of his senior year, he was planted firmly among the list of “must see early” players – a list commonly populated by projectable high schoolers who might make a jump during the springtime. May, who was an ultra-skinny 6-foot-6 with a quick arm, fit the bill well.

By time his senior spring rolled around, May’s velocity had crept up from where it was during my first look. Touching 94 and routinely working in the low-90s with life, he began to morph into a prospect who didn’t seem as far away as he had a few months before. To go along with the increased fastball velocity, the breaking ball, which had always spun well but often got sweepy and had slurvy shape to it, began to develop into more of a true slider.

As an area scout, my responsibility was to gather as much information as I could so the scouting department could make the best decisions possible when choosing among hundreds of options during the draft. It was no different with May. I spent the spring speaking with his coaches, teammates, and teachers, to the college coaches who had recruited him, and advisers who were assisting his family in the process. May was selected in the third round of the 2016 draft as a projectable high school righty with the makings of two pitches that projected to potentially be plus in the future. He was given a $997,500 signing bonus and went straight to work in the AZL.

Between then and now, May has thrown just over 400 innings in the minor leagues, showcasing advanced command and inducing groundballs at an above-average clip. He now works with a four-pitch mix, highlighted by a plus low-90s cutter he added last year. His sinker, which has averaged 95 mph and touched 99, would be among the hardest sinkers major league starters throw. His curveball would be among the highest average spin breaking balls of any major league starter as well. His changeup, still a work in progress, is thrown just over 8% of the time and flashes average.

Beyond being a part of May’s signing process, I also served as one of his coaches – first during Fall Instructional League in 2016, and then again at the end of the 2017 season in his brief but impressive stint in the Cal League. I vividly remember having a conversation with him during instructs after a two-inning outing. He was told to only throw fastballs and changeups during his second inning of work in order to gain reps throwing the changeup, which was developmentally behind his breaking ball. May threw a total of 24 pitches in his two innings – 12 fastballs, 12 changeups. After the outing, he was asked if he intentionally threw the exact same number of each pitch, and if he was aware he could have utilized his breaking ball in his first inning of work. His response was succinct. He explained that he didn’t know it was an exact 50-50 usage split, but that he’d known he could use the breaking ball and decided not to. When asked for his rationale, he said he knew he needed a changeup to get big league hitters out. The coaches who observed this discussion nodded in approval. It’s rare for a teenager to possess the sort of foresight and maturity present in May’s response, one that suggests not only an awareness of what the exercise is intended to achieve in the moment, but also of the purpose it is meant to serve years down the road. It was then that I fully realized that May’s mental makeup would be a strength as his professional career continued.

Coming into the 2019 season, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel ranked May second in the Dodgers system and 21st overall, earning a 55 FV and a report that heralded him as a near-complete prospect, only missing a changeup to round out his arsenal. Their report on May detailed the strength of his curveball and his curls:

May’s flamboyant ginger curls and Bronson Arroyo-esque leg kick are maybe the third and fourth most visually captivating aspects of his on-mound presence once you’ve gotten a look at his stuff. His mid-90s fastball plays up due to great extension, and further incorporation of a running two-seamer has given May’s heater enough tail to miss bats in the strike zone. His vertically-breaking slider (May calls it a slider, but it has curveball shape) has one of the better spin rates in the minors and enough vertical depth to miss bats against both left and right-handed hitters. It’s May’s out pitch, but he also has a developing cutter and its movement is a great foil for his two-seamer. After trying several different changeup grips in 2017, it seems like May is still searching for a good cambio, but his fastball and breaking ball command should suffice against lefties for now.

In 79.1 innings in Double-A this year, May produced a 3.18 FIP, a 19.8% K-BB%, and a 50.5% ground-ball rate. He earned a promotion to Triple-A, an invite to the Futures Game in Cleveland, and a 60 FV, moving closer to fulfilling the promise that had Eric and Kiley describe him as, “what was once a prospect with mid-rotation upside has become one with mid-rotation likelihood.” May is now ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Dodgers system and eighth overall in baseball on THE BOARD.

Now, after a trade deadline that saw Los Angeles decline to make a significant pitching acquisition, May is getting the call. He’s a young pitcher with a unique combination of a high floor and a high ceiling. There’s a strong likelihood that he is a mid-rotation starter – a plus athlete who throws four pitches for strikes and has never had a major arm injury – and the chance that he continues to refine his arsenal and becomes someone featured at or near the top of a major league rotation. He’ll likely contend for a playoff roster spot on the 2019 Dodgers team, and figures to be featured in the rotation beginning in 2020 and moving forward. His path to the bigs might be complete, but his journey is just beginning.

Prospect Dispatch: Cape Cod League

I spent the July 4th weekend in Cape Cod this year, which is far from the worst place to be for that holiday. Beyond the pleasant weather and plentiful beaches there was, of course, lots of baseball being played in the prestigious Cape Code League. Below are some of my observations of a few of the college players I saw.

Harwich Mariners
Daniel Cabrera, OF, LSU

Cabrera opened a lot of eyes as a freshman in Baton Rouge, hitting .315/.405/.525 with 36 strikeouts against 34 walks in 63 games. He followed up with a sophomore campaign that saw him hit 12 home runs but also decrease his walks (24) and increase his strikeouts (54) in 59 games. He steps into this 2019 Cape Cod League campaign ranked 21st on THE BOARD for the 2020 draft.

Cabrera has a smooth and polished left-handed swing with a good path to the ball. He gets into his back hip well and transfers weight quickly, and has a handsy, athletic-looking swing. In my look, he showed solid average bat speed and an aggressive, pull-oriented approach geared for power. Cabrera’s aggressiveness was a negative in this look – he expanded the zone on several occasions against pitchers with below average fastballs – enough so that I think there’s a chance it holds him back from reaching his peak potential hit tool. A swing like Cabrera’s could project as one of an above average hitter, but I think he settles more in the 45-grade hit range with a propensity to swing and miss. However, the power should play at least average and I would be comfortable projecting more. It is likely more 55-grade power than anything above it, but the ball jumps off his bat and his hands’ quickness should allow him to jump on hittable pitches and drive them more often than not. Read the rest of this entry »

Called Up: Tony Gonsolin

As an outfielder for four years at St. Mary’s College, three of which were as a starter, Tony Gonsolin hit .305/.383/.453. During the summer after his junior year, he was an all-star for the Madison Mallards in the prestigious summer collegiate Northwoods League, slugging 11 home runs and hitting .316/.403/.510 with a wood bat. Moonlighting as a pitcher, Gonsolin never struck out more than a batter per inning at St. Mary’s and had nearly as many games saved as he did games started. He was drafted as a senior in the ninth round of the 2016 draft as a pitcher – a decision that was a surprise to some, given his power potential in the outfield and lack of refinement on the mound. In Gonsolin, the Dodgers saw a plus athlete with untapped skills who had immense upside if he focused solely on pitching.

On Wednesday, three years after being selected as a proverbial money saver, the first place Dodgers will call on Gonsolin to make his major league debut against the Diamondbacks. Gonsolin debuting as a big league starter might be even more unexpected than him debuting at all. His first 61 professional appearances were all as a reliever, and it wasn’t until he opened the 2018 season as a member of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes rotation that the transition from outfielder to reliever to major league starter began materializing.

Gonsolin’s professional career began in the hitter-friendly Pioneer League, as a member of the Ogden Raptors in 2016. There, as a reliever, Gonsolin touched 94 with his fastball and worked 89-92, flashing some feel for two different breaking balls. He displayed solid feel for his arsenal but lacked an out pitch. Still, the foundation was there. The delivery was clean and efficient and relatively low effort. The high arm slot with which he released the ball was repeated pitch-after-pitch. The athleticism was evident and the aptitude for adjusting on the mound was growing by the day. Read the rest of this entry »

Ian Kennedy Is an Asset

Some years ago, Ian Kennedy was a reliable mid-rotation starter, utilizing a four-seam-heavy attack and leaning on his ability to generate fly-ball outs for success. Kennedy eclipsed 190 innings pitched in a season five times, highlighted by a 2011 campaign in which he threw 222 innings for the Diamondbacks, finishing with a 2.88 ERA, a 3.22 FIP, 4.4 WAR, and fourth place in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

Kennedy’s fastball has always been his go-to pitch. Since debuting in 2007, Kennedy has thrown a four-seam fastball 61% of the time, the highest percentage among any pitcher with a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched during that timeframe. Kennedy’s fastball has shown flashes of brilliance, with impressive wFA/C totals of 1.43, 0.73, and 0.97 in 2011, 2014, and 2016, respectively.

Of course, someone with such a fly-ball-heavy approach could find himself running into some barriers to success as modern hitters continue to adjust and hit the ball out of the park. Kennedy’s success as a starter in 2016 for the then-defending World Series champion Royals dwindled in the next two seasons as his FIP ballooned and hitters continued to hit the ball out of the park against him. Kennedy’s 2017 and 2018 campaigns resulted in his lowest innings pitched totals in nearly a decade, as well as career-low strikeout rates. During those two seasons, opposing hitters were especially productive against his fastball, putting up a wOBA of .359 and hitting 48 extra-base hits against the pitch. Their average exit velocity and launch angle against fastballs in 2017 and 2018 were 90.7 mph and 24 degrees.

With Kennedy still owed $33 million through the end of 2020, the Royals needed to find a way to once again extract value out of their veteran right-hander and announced in spring training that Kennedy would move to the bullpen. The hope, ostensibly, was that Kennedy’s struggles would diminish as he no longer faced the task of turning over lineups. In 2018, Kennedy’s opponents had a .971 OPS the second time through the lineup, the worst mark in baseball out of 162 pitchers who faced at least 100 hitters a second time through. Opening up rotation spots could afford the rebuilding Royals a chance to challenge some younger pitchers while trying to extract value out of Kennedy in the bullpen. Read the rest of this entry »