Rated Rookies: Late April

Declarative baseball statements on April 24 surely don’t have much of a track record, but let me be clear: this is not, and will not be, the Year of the Rookie. To pretend as though 2013 will hold a candle to 2012 in terms of on-field rookie impact would be a lie. But, our series forges on regardless, and in even in down rookie seasons like this one, there are still phenoms (Jose Fernandez) and there are still great stories (Jim Henderson). Though neither of those solid April performers cracked today’s list.

One thing we have noticed is very strange: the American League offers nothing to chew on. This list contains four names and all are National Leaguers, and frankly, the NL would offer at least 8 rookies before we’d be forced to consider a player from the AL. So, it’s a promise, this list is not biased in favor of the Senior Circuit. It’s just that we’re not yet too excited about Pedro Florimon or T.J. McFarland (your current AL ROY race). Onto this week’s edition…

1. Matt Adams, 1B/PH, St. Louis Cardinals

The key I see from Adams this season is the ability to make adjustments in the middle of an at-bat. Adams has a SwStr% more than five percent above league average, but the bulk of these are occurring early in an at-bat, and oftentimes we’ll see Adams adjust against the same pitch a few pitches later. Let’s track three great examples with the help of the Brooks Baseball Pitch F/X tool.

April 3, against Josh Collmenter. Here, you see four different low-away change ups. Adams swung and missed at the first two. Watched the third go by for a ball, and on the fourth (utilizing a solid two-strike approach), Adams pulled an off-the-plate change to right field for a single.

April 10, against Alfredo Simon. The same pitch three times in a row: an outside corner splitter. Adams swings threw the first two, Simons tries to beat him again, but leaves the pitch a little up, Adams adjusts and sends the ball to right-center for a double.
April 14, against Marco Estrada, who threw Matt Adams fourteen consecutive fastballs spread over his first two at-bats. Adams missed on three of them, including the first two of his second at-bat. After that, Adams was seeing the pitch clearly, watching three balls go by, and fouling off two good pitches on opposite corners. On pitch 14, Estrada made his first mistake, missing his outside location by a foot, and Adams sent it over the center field fence.

When I watch Matt Adams, I see someone who is focused and thoughtful at the plate, and it gives me confidence that he’ll be able to weather the slew of different strategies that teams throw at him this season. For now, the best strategy I could suggest is never throwing the same pitch in the same location in the same at-bat. Adams is too good for that.

2. Evan Gattis, C, Atlanta Braves

When Evan Gattis puts the ball in play within the first three pitches: 12-for-29, and all of his extra base hits, including three doubles and five home runs. When the at-bats go to the fourth pitch: 1-for-23, with 5 walks, an HBP, and not a lot else. In 2013, across all of MLB,only about 58% of extra base hits have happened within the first three pitches of at-bats. Gattis’ early at-bat aggressiveness has been a real boon thus far.

My first instinct was that he was capitalizing on get-me-over pitches, particularly since the bulk of his success has occurred during a 1-1 or 2-0 count. While that’s been the case a few times (the home run versus Halladay in his debut), we have also seen him hit balls out of the strike zone, both high and hard off the game’s premier flame-throwing RHP:


Or, alternatively, we’ve seen him turn low and slow junk from a quintessential “crafty lefty” into a double:


I think we will certainly see game plans evolve to account for this information, and we will see pitchers be a lot more careful when the count runs to 1-1. As a counter, it will be interesting to see how Gattis goes about improving his two-strike approach, or capitalizing on increased information during the course of a long at-bat.

3. Shelby Miller, RH SP, St. Louis Cardinals

In ranking Miller as the third-best prospect in the Cardinals system before the season, Marc Hulet quoted a scout saying, “Hands down his best two pitches are his fastball and curveball.” Clearly, Miller, Yadier Molina, and the Cardinals coaching staff agree. Miller has thrown 404 pitches over his first four starts this season; 301 have been four seam fastballs, 92 have been curveballs.

In total, the changeup that a talent evaluator told Hulet could be “at least an average future pitch” has been thrown just 7 times this season, all to left-handed batters. Miller is attempting to do something exceedingly rare: succeed while essentially throwing two pitches. This season, those pitches represent 97.2% of pitches he’s thrown. The next highest rate among starters is Juan Nicasio, who is combining a four seamer and a slider in 91.5% of pitches. (Note: this assumes that different types of fastballs — 2-seam, 4-seam, cut, sink — are wholly different pitches, which I believe. It also removes knuckleballers.)

I looked back at the last five years, via our Pitch Type database, and found just 14 player seasons where a player’s two favorite pitches represented more than 90 percent of his total pitches thrown.

Name Season 2 Pitches 2 Pitch Pct ERA
Daniel Cabrera 2008 FA, SL 97.9 5.25
Ervin Santana 2011 FA, SL 96.8 3.38
Oliver Perez 2008 FA, SL 96.1 4.22
Alexi Ogando 2011 FA, SL 95.1 3.51
Ervin Santana 2010 FA, SL 95 3.92
Ervin Santana 2008 FA, SL 94.9 3.49
Derek Lowe 2009 SI, SL 94.3 4.67
Wandy Rodriguez 2009 FA, CB 93.9 3.02
Michael Pineda 2011 FA, SL 93.7 3.74
Derek Lowe 2008 SI, SL 93.1 3.24
Josh Johnson 2009 FA, SL 92.9 3.23
Ervin Santana 2012 FA, SL 92.7 5.16
Clayton Kershaw 2010 FA, SL 91.2 2.91
Clayton Kershaw 2011 FA, SL 90.8 2.28

Ervin Santana became the king of this throne in 2008, when he retired the curveball from his arsenal, and survived on four seamers and sliders. In fact, that combination (FA, SL) is fairly popular, while only Wandy Rodriguez had a whole season living and dying on fastballs and curveballs, as Miller has done in April.

Maybe Yadier Molina has decided to hold the change up back for Miller’s second time around the league, or maybe the staff is still developing the pitch in bullpens. It has yet to come back to bite him against lefties, who have just a .233 wOBA through 41 plate appearances, but you can bet they will adjust to the notion that all they’re likely to see are low-away fastballs and backdoor curveballs.

4. A.J. Pollock, CF/LF, Arizona Diamondbacks

The narrative around A.J. Pollock has been, since he was at Notre Dame, that he was a tweener. You always heard that he wasn’t quite fast enough to stick in center field, and not quite prodigious enough to survive as a corner outfielder. In watching Pollock this season, I’m very tempted to change the narrative: I believe he is plenty fast, and instinctive, enough to stick in center. I’m just not sure he’s a long term, or certainly not first division, hitter for any position at the Major League level.

Whether it’s routinely causing close plays at first base, or turning singles into doubles multiple times this year, Pollock has shown plus speed. That, combined with a good first step should be enough to allow him to remain in center until he slows down. Here, you’ll see a play he made in Coors Field last week, where the thin air left a ball hanging up long enough to allow Pollock to show fantastic range. And then we can embed this video of Pollock show a good first step on a play that routinely confuses Major League CFs:

However, onto the bad news. While I can only speak anecdotally, in charting all of Pollock’s pitches seen this year, I find an inordinate number of balls in the middle third of the strike zone. While I admit this lacks completely in way of real data, I tracked 39 of Pollock’s 219 pitches seen as “easy to hit”, be it right down the middle, middle-in, etc. In the case of Jonathan Sanchez, he made the lefty pay with two home runs. But there’s plenty more examples (Josh Beckett, Phil Hughes, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Kintzler, Kyle Lohse) of pitchers that challenged Pollock within the strike zone and lived to tell about it.

In my mind, Pollock’s early season success works in two ways for the Diamondbacks: first, he’s been an actual contributor to the win column this season, but second, I’d imagine he has created some trade value for himself. In watching Pollock on video through three weeks, my advice would be to sell high.

Earning Consideration: Jim Henderson, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jose Fernandez, Conor Gillaspie, T.J. McFarland, Luis Jimenez, Nick Tepesch, Brandon Barnes, Pedro Florimon, Eduardo Escobar, Joe Ortiz, Stephen Pryor.

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Chris K
9 years ago

No love for Conor Gillaspie?

Axis of Honor 25
9 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Smith

Yeah he’s pretty decent. Still needs to learn how to take a walk