The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.
Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion among the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, John Sickels, and (most importantly) FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel* and also who (b) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing within Longenhagen and McDaniel’s most recent update — and the updates published by Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus and John Sickels at Minor League Ball — have also been excluded from consideration.
*Note: I’ve excluded Baseball America’s list this year not due to any complaints with their coverage, but simply because said list is now behind a paywall.
For those interested in learning how Fringe Five players have fared at the major-league level, this somewhat recent post offers that kind of information. The short answer: better than a reasonable person would have have expected. In the final analysis, though, the basic idea here is to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.
Tyler Ivey, RHP, Houston (Profile)
Josh James, RHP, Houston (Profile)
Framber Valdez, LHP, Houston (Profile)
Ivey and James and Valdez all appear here together both because they (a) have been basically the minor leagues’ best pitchers over the past month and (b) are all members of the same organization — namely, the Houston Astros. This seems important for a couple reasons.
First, let’s just consider some data. Here are the top-10 minor-league pitchers (High-A or above) by strikeout rate since July 10th:
|2||Dylan Cease||White Sox||AA||87||40.2%|
|6||Michael Kopech||White Sox||AAA||123||33.3%|
|7||Darwinzon Hernandez||Red Sox||A+||102||33.3%|
James has been a fixture within this weekly column and currently occupies the top spot on the haphazardly calculated Scoreboard that appears at the bottom of this post. Ivey, a third-round pick in the 2017 draft out of Grayson Community College, was included among the Next Five section of the most recent edition of this column (two weeks ago). In two starts since then, he’s recorded a 30.8% strikeout rate against 39 batters over 10.1 innings. He began the season at Low-A and, since a late-May promotion to the Carolina League, has more or less replicated his numbers from the lower level. His fastball and curveball both receive 60 FVs from this site’s prospect team.
As for Valdez, this represents his debut among the Five in any form. He possesses more obscure origins than either of his organization mates, having been signed by Houston out of the Dominican Republic for just $10,000 as a 21-year-old. Despite the lack of pedigree and a body which, at 5-foot-11, appears to have no room for beneficial mass, Valdez (now 24) has already ascended to Triple-A, at which level he made his debut last night. He has also, as documented above, recorded the highest strikeout rate of all starting pitchers at High-A or above over the last month.
Despite the physical limitations, Valdez possesses average or better arm speed. He hit 93 and 95 mph en route to recording the final out in the eighth inning of his 12-strikeout performance on July 30th (box). To get a sense of his real virtue as a pitcher, however, consider the final pitch from each of his first four strikeouts in that same July 30th appearance:
Each of those is a curveball for a called third strike. Valdez’s fifth strikeout was on the curve, as well (in this case, by way of a swing and miss). It’s a pretty great curveball, and it’s helped Valdez produce pretty great results.
All three of these pitchers have produced pretty great results relative to their pedigrees. That all three of them also play for Houston seems relevant, though. A number of other Astros pitchers have appeared previously in this column who have done little if anything in the majors. Edison Frias, for example. And David Rollins. And Tommy Shirley. The Astros, of course, are known for piggybacking their minor-league starters. Is it possible that the promising statistical indicators of otherwise normal arms are a product of usage rather than pure talent?
I asked lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen about this as he drove from whatever showcase was just held in Long Beach to whichever one is about to be held in San Diego. He said the concern is valid but that, both from his looks and also from conversations with evaluators in the Houston system, there isn’t much indication that the organization’s starters are benefiting much — in terms of stuff, at least — by working in slightly shorter stings. He also noted that, in terms of results, Astros pitchers are probably benefiting from not having to face opposing batters for a third time through the order, which is logical.
However, just as likely an influence on the success of Houston’s pitchers, in Longenhagen’s opinion, is the organizational philosophy on pitch mixes. Ivey, James, and Valdez all rely heavily on a fastball-curveball combination, nor is that unique throughout the org. According to Longenhagen, basically every pitcher in the system features some combination of a high-spin fastball (thrown at the top of the zone) and high-spin breaking ball (thrown just below the zone). In concert, that leads to a lot of strikeouts — not just for minors leaguers.
Zack Short, SS, Chicago NL (Profile)
When Short earned the distinction last year of the batter at High-A whose hitting profile most resembled the sort with which Matt Carpenter and Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner have succeeded in the majors, it seemed like a positive indicator for his future, seeing as he complemented that high-contact, low-ground-ball approach with pretty considerable defensive value. In his first exposure to Double-A at the beginning of this year, however, Short did a lot of swinging and missing. An important part of his offensive value had evaporated.
Of late, though, he has more resembled the 2017 version of himself. In 46 plate appearances since the most recent edition of the Five, he’s recorded an equal number of walk and strikeouts while also producing a .189 isolated-power figure. He also once again appears among the top-10 hitters at his level who most resemble Matt Carpenter — in this case, for Double-A:
|6||Tony Renda||Red Sox||27||108||5.6%||34.9%||1.7||1.1||1.4|
Supplementing the promising offensive approach is Short’s defensive value. Per Clay Davenport’s methodology, Short has recorded the major-league equivalent of +3 fielding runs at shortstop this year in roughly 100 appearances at the position. That’s about +8 total defensive runs after accounting for the positional adjustment, a mark that would place Short about 20th among all major leaguers by defensive value this season.
Mike Tauchman, OF, Colorado (Profile)
Tauchman, who finished second overall last year on the arbitrarily calculated Scoreboard, has been (a) miserable in 37 major-league player appearances this season but (b) largely unassailable in 376 minor-league ones. Implicit to his inclusion here is the premise that the latter sample is more indicative of Tauchman’s talent than the former.
In his 40 plate appearances since the July 27th edition of the Five, he’s been characteristically excellent, recording walk and strikeout rates of 15.0% each and a .324 isolated-power figure while making more than half of his defensive starts in center field. It remains mystifying that a contending club with such an obvious weakness in the outfield wouldn’t consider giving Tauchman a longer trial, whatever his pedigree. That said, much of everything else in the world remains mystifying, as well.
In conclusion, here’s footage of Tauchman hitting a grand slam six days ago
And also three days ago:
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Cavan Biggio, 2B, Toronto (Double-A Eastern League)
Brock Burke, LHP, Tampa Bay (Double-A Southern League)
Nicky Lopez, SS, Kansas City (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Pablo Reyes, UT, Pittsburgh (Triple-A International League)
Breyvic Valera, UT, Baltimore (Triple-A International League)
Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here is the top-10 list of players who have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season. For mostly arbitrary reasons, players are assessed three points for each week they’ve appeared among the Fringe Five; a single point, for each week among the Next Five.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.