Let’s Hear From a Pair of Yankees Prospects

Ken Waldichuk has been a strikeout machine in his first competitive professional season. A fifth-round pick in 2019 out of St. Mary’s College, the 23-year-old southpaw boasts the third-highest K/9 in the minors, his 15.8 mark topped only by those of Reid Detmers and Carson Ragsdale. Waldichuk’s dominance, which includes a 1.18 ERA, has come in 10 starts — seven with High-A Hudson Valley and three with Double-A Somerset.

Flying well under the radar entering this season — he’s No. 45 on our Yankees Top Prospects list — Waldichuk was described by Eric Longenhagen as a “lanky lefty who… generates nearly seven feet of extension and has big carry on his fastball.” I asked the 6-foot-4 San Diego native if he agrees with that assessment.

“I do get good carry, although I’m not too sure about the extension,” Waldichuk told me. “I’m not really sure what creates the carry, either. I’m not really too good with all the analytics stuff. But I do understand some of it. The way I spin it makes it play well, up.
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The carry is something Waldichuk has always had. What he’s learned since signing a professional contract is how to better avoid having the ball “spinning more sideways,” as opposed to getting the true backspin he wants. His heater typically sits around 2,400 rpm — “I’ve been as high as 2,700” — and in his penultimate start he “averaged 17 inches of [arm-side] horizontal and 16 inches of vertical movement.” His velocity averaged out at 92.2 [mph].”

Waldichuk also throws a slider, a slurve, and a changeup. Each is interesting in its own way.

“I used to have a depth-y curveball,” the lefty explained. “It didn’t perform as well as the slurve, which was my ‘then slider,’ so this year they taught me a slider in spring training. It’s short, tighter, and quicker. I’ve been using my old slider as my get-me-over, kind of a depthier breaking ball.”

And then there’s his changeup. Infrequently used prior to this year — this despite it being in his bag of tricks since circa eighth grade — the offering has emerged as his main off-speed pitch against right-handed hitters. The grip is atypical.

“It’s more of a Vulcan,” explained Waldichuk, who worked diligently on the pitch throughout the pandemic until it finally clicked. “I grip it between [the ring and middle fingers] on the horseshoe. Those two fingers are completely on the seams, and my thumb is on the side. I push the thumb through, and that pronates it.”

Having a Vulcan to augment a slurve and a sneaky-good heater helps make Waldichuk intriguing. Even so, it’s the eye-catching K rate that stands out the most. I asked the reserved-yet-accommodating hurler if he’s on the mound trying to miss bats.

“Not really,” responded Waldichuk. “We always have a game plan, and I guess the goal is to either get weak contact or a strikeout. So it’s more of what they’re going to chase and what they’re going to hit in the zone. I just try to focus on getting ahead. Once I do get to two strikes, then I will go for the strikeout.”

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JP Sears was referred to as a strikeout machine when he was first featured here at FanGraphs. That was in September 2017, two months before the Yankees acquired him from the Mariners in exchange for right-hander Nick Rumbelow. Seattle’s 11th-round pick that year out of The Citadel, Sears had dominated low-level hitters almost exclusively with heaters, and a dose of deception thrown in for good measure.

Earlier this week, I asked the 25-year-old left-hander if he’s much the same pitcher now.

“It’s been a while — it’s been four years — so I’m definitely different,” responded Sears, who has a 2.37 ERA to go with 47 strikeouts in 30-and-a-third innings at Somerset. “And that’s in a good way. I still have an above-average fastball with ride, and all that, but I’ve learned to pitch better. My secondary stuff is better, and I also spent all of 2020 cleaning up my delivery.”

The boffo strikeout numbers have returned as a result. While not the Bunyanesque 16.6 of his 2017 season, his K/9 is 13.9 on the season, up from 9.0 in ’18 and 8.3 in ’19. Because of that temporary downturn, and an unflattering 4.07 ERA in 2019, Sears came into the current campaign absent from top-prospect lists. Based on how he’s performing against Double-A hitters, that’s likely to change.

Sears couldn’t tell me if his spin rate has changed, but not because he’s ignorant of analytics. Far from it.

“I don’t look at spin rate as much as I look at my break-z and my z-deception,” explained Sears. “Those numbers went down in 2018 and 2019, and they’re starting to come back up in 2021.”

The Sumter, South Carolina native’s fastball hovered in the neighborhood of 91 mph two years ago, and this season it has ticked up to an average of 93.5. He’s been consistently topping out at 95.

The aforementioned deception remains one of the reasons for his success. Sears throws from a low-three-quarters slot with a delivery that, according to hitters he’s faced, causes the ball to get on them in a hurry. While they know he’s fastball heavy — “that’s no secret’ — he’s nonetheless comfortable attacking with old-reliable an estimated 60-65% of the time.

His appearances this year have been a mixture of starts and relief outings, with piggybacks part of the plan. Sears frequently follows or precedes right-hander Janson Junk — a guest on today’s FanGraphs Audio episode — who has a 1.07 ERA on the season. Sears doesn’t mind the usage — “The Yankees just want arms in the big leagues that can produce outs, so I don’t think that they really care if I’m a definite starter or definite reliever” — but he does push back a little at a nickname.

“It’s something he came up with, although he might not admit that,” said Sears, referring to his fast-rising teammate. “He calls us ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ That kind of makes me cringe, because I don’t consider myself thunder or lightning. He might be, though. He has some elite pitches and is having a really good year.”

So is Sears — whether he’s keen on the tandem sobriquet or not.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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diamonddores

gosh St. Mary’s has had some pretty talented pitchers come through lately. Certainly helps to be in a state and region with so much talent