Prospect Watch: Pitching Behemoths by Nathaniel Stoltz May 9, 2014 Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list. *** Jake Johansen, RHP, Washington Nationals (Profile) Level: Low-A Age: 23 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A Line: 26 IP, 28 H, 20 R, 23/16 K/BB, 5.88 ERA, 3.80 FIP Summary Johansen has premium size and arm strength, with enough supplemental skills to make him very interesting. Notes The 68th overall selection in the 2013 draft, Johansen blitzed through the NYPL after signing with a 1.06 ERA, but his superficial statistics have taken a dive in his first full season. I saw him throw yesterday afternoon, though, and he put together an extremely impressive outing, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning and dominating the Hickory lineup with a premium fastball and three offspeed offerings that were good enough to keep hitters off balance. This is how Johansen began the game: Three 98s and a 99 to the first batter of a game is a nice cue to pay rapt attention, and while he never hit 99 again, he held 93-98 mph velocity through an entire 5 2/3 inning start–his last pitch was 96. The fastball comes out of a very easy motion, with great plane from Johansen’s large 6’6″ frame. With his size, stamina, and delivery, he projects to be able to handle large workloads. It’s not just the velocity that’s notable with the fastball, too–the pitch often gets some running and sinking life, helping him post strong ground ball rates so far in his minor-league career. It’s somewhere in between a 70 and 75-grade pitch, which is a heck of a thing to base one’s arsenal around. The rest of Johansen’s stuff consists of an 81-85 mph slider, 90-93 mph cutter, and 86-89 mph changeup, all of which have moments where they look like near-average pitches. Of them, the change is the least advanced, as it often comes in hard and flat, though he did manage to toss in a few with late sink and fade. He likes to throw both the cutter and slider down and away to righthanders and shies away from using them to lefties, and as a result, he’s had big platoon splits in his career–last year, righthanders managed just a .147/.189/.172 line against him with 33 strikeouts and five walks, while southpaws hit .240/.387/.347 with an even 18/18 K/BB. He’ll need to get his changeup to move more consistently or figure out a way to utilize the breaking pitches against opposite-side hitters in order to reach his ceiling. Johansen is 23 years old and in Low-A, and before yesterday, he hadn’t thrown particularly well (he came in with a 7.52 ERA). Whatever issues caused those struggles sure weren’t present in my viewing, though, and it’s foolish to write a guy off when he shows the attributes Johansen does, and when he can do this: And this: And this: *** Aaron Slegers, RHP, Minnesota Twins (Profile) Level: Low-A Age: 21 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A Line: 35 2/3 IP, 28 H, 11 R, 33/6 K/BB, 2.52 ERA, 2.78 FIP Summary He’s 6’10”, which is fun in its own right, but Slegers is more than a novelty. Notes 6’10”, 250. Just seeing that listing on a roster is intriguing–there aren’t many baseball players with those dimensions. Aaron Slegers also carries a fifth-round pedigree, so he’s not solely a size curiosity in the way that, say, Joe Melioris was. One might expect a hurler of Slegers’ size to be a wild power arm, but he’s quite the opposite. He utilizes a balanced, deliberate motion and does a nice job of hitting his spots, as evidenced by his career 51/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. However, I saw Slegers throw twice in the Appalachian League last year, and he worked at just 87-90 mph in the first and 89-92 in the second, also working in a slider at 78-80. Note that those appearances were out of the bullpen, which makes the velocity readings even less impressive. Slegers’ lack of a quality changeup also gives him issues against lefties–he has a 26/1 K/BB vs. RHBs this year but just 7/5 against portsiders–and he’ll need to master one more effectively in order to remain a starting pitcher and raise his profile. Even so, he has top-of-the-scale size, surprising command, and two reasonable pitches. If that sounds a lot like 2005-07 era Chris Young…well, it does, doesn’t it? *** Jason Knapp, RHP, Texas Rangers (Profile) Level: High-A Age: 23 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A Line: 6 1/3 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 8/6 K/BB, 1.42 ERA, 6.33 FIP Summary It’s just nice to see Knapp on a mound again, but he might be more than just a temporarily fun story. Notes If you don’t know the story of Jason Knapp…you should. A second-rounder in 2008 who threw gas and two promising offspeed pitches, he struck out 111 batters in 85 1/3 innings in Low-A as an 18-year-old, enough to make him arguably the key piece in the trade that sent Cliff Lee from Cleveland to Philadelphia. However, he would only make thirteen more professional starts following the trade (in which he struck out another 57 in 40 frames) before succumbing to shoulder problems in 2010 that led to two surgeries. He never pitched for the Indians organization again, was released in late 2012, and appeared never to return, until news surfaced this past offseason that he was attempting a comeback. He signed with Texas in February and has been handled extremely cautiously, working just seven times out of the bullpen, all on at least three days of rest and for no more than a single inning. A month in, he’s still standing, and while it’s not much, it’s still great to see him out there giving it a go. That’s all well and good, but does Knapp actually have anything left? Here’s his full last outing: Well, that’s something. 96 is something, especially when it’s got great downhill plane and comes out easy. A 78-79 mph curveball with power and bite is something, even if Knapp didn’t seem to have any feel for it in this particular outing–a hard fact to hold against him, given that this was his seventh time on a pro mound in four years. Does it go anywhere? It’s hard to say, because there are so many variables in play. What is easy to say is that the fastball-curveball combination will definitely play if Knapp is healthy and has reasonable command, but neither of those are givens. While his delivery is fairly easy overall, it doesn’t seem particularly easy on the shoulder, and even if it was, pitchers break all the time. As far as command goes, Knapp was never cited as a particularly polished pitcher in his pre-injury days, and he now has a lot of rust and lost years of development time, so it’s anyone’s guess where his walk rate will end up. But the stuff is still there and he’s just 23, so if it’s smooth sailing from here, Knapp certainly has the potential to make a big league impact, even if “quality reliever” wasn’t what we all hoped he’d be five years ago.