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.
Brock Burke, LHP, Tampa Bay (Profile)
A third-round selection out of a Colorado high school in 2014, Burke has had the capacity to hit 95 mph for much of his professional career but has struggled to consistently hold his velocity from start to start. “I’d be down to 87-90 at times,” he told FanGraphs’ David Laurila in a post from June. “Now I’m more consistent with ranges, and my velo isn’t dropping at the end of games.”
Burke attributes at least part of his development to a Driveline Baseball program in which he participated with other Rays pitchers. “It was definitely beneficial,” said Burke. “It got me in better body shape, which has helped my accuracy and my velo.”
Whatever the cause, Burke has been excellent of late. Following an early-July promotion to Double-A Montgomery, Burke has recorded strikeout and walk rates of 33.6% and 6.2%, respectively, in 36.2 innings. The differential of 27.4 points between those two figures would represent the highest such mark among qualified Double-A pitchers. Burke was characteristically strong in his most recent start, recording an 8:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 28 batters over 7.0 innings (box).
Burke seemed to have the most success with his fastball in that start earlier this week. Here, though, is footage of the one his better curveballs:
Joe Dunand, SS, Miami (Profile)
The prevailing wisdom regarding Harrison Bader when he was selected out of the University of Florida in 2015 was that, while he likely possessed the capacity to play center field occasionally, he was more well suited defensively to a corner spot. Because he also had some swing and miss in his game, though, the prospect of a future role as a fourth outfielder seemed possible if not probable.
The prospect of a future role as fourth outfielder seems much less possible for Bader now — not because he’s failed to develop, but rather because he’s currently second among Cardinals position players in WAR and has assumed starting center-field duties following the trade of Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay. While the offensive profile remains basically identical to the one he possessed at Florida, Bader is much more well acquitted by the defensive numbers than seemed likely when he became a professional. In 421.2 major-league innings as a center fielder, Bader has recorded a +15 DRS and +4.4 UZR. Even heavily regressed, those numbers are promising.
Bader’s present is possibly relevant to Dunand’s future. A shortstop in college, Dunand has been a candidate for a move to third base ever since he was selected in the second round out of NC State in 2016. Of the 113 defensive starts he’s made as a professional, however, none of them have been at third — and, in fact, all of them have been at shortstop. The advanced numbers suggest he probably deserves the opportunity to remain at the position for the moment, as well. Doing so would put less pressure on Dunand’s bat — which, like Bader, is characterized both by swing-and-miss and also power on contact. In 22 plate appearances since last week’s edition of the Five, he’s benefited from more of the latter, recording walk and strikeout rate of 4.5% each while also producing a .450 isolated-power figure.
Tyler Ivey, RHP, Houston (Profile)
Ivey appeared here last Friday, as well, accompanied by two other pitchers in the Houston organization (Josh James and Framber Valdez) who have authored seasons beyond what their respective pedigrees might suggest. He’s made two appearances in the meantime and been excellent in both cases, recording a 10:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 38 batters in 9.0 innings. He appears in this edition of the Five not in recognition of his strong week but also so that the author — who has other work he should be doing, like editing posts and probably finishing a podcast — can justify the time spent watching video of Ivey’s appearance from July 15th at Winston-Salem, one of the few Carolina League parks that features a camera.
Ivey struck out seven of the 17 batters he faced in that outing. And it’s the right-hander’s curveball that typically earns higher marks, it was his slider with which he seemed to experience greater success in this case. Below are three examples of that same pitch.
Zack Short, SS, Chicago NL (Profile)
It isn’t particularly daring to suggest that pitch selection, in some form or another, is important for every batter. Even those hitters (Vladimir Guerrero, an earlier version of Pablo Sandoval) who seem to possess a preternatural ability to barrel anything are likely to do their best work against a middle-middle fastball.
Selectivity is a greater asset for some than others, though. A hitter with 20 power, for example, needn’t exercise much selectivity: pitchers are going to throw him strikes. This is why Nori Aoki leads all batters in zone percentage over the last three years (minimum 500 plate appearances). It’s also why some hitters who record high walk rates in the minors don’t necessarily duplicate that feat in the majors: where, in the minors, they’ve probably faced a number of pitchers with subpar command, the majors offer no such luxury.
Zack Short has recorded one of the highest walk rates across all Double-A this year. He did the same thing last year at both Low-A and then High-A, actually leading all hitters in the former level by that measure (minimum 200 PA). Short possesses sufficient power on contact, however, for that patience to translate to the higher levels. Since last week, he’s recorded walk and strikeout rates of 19.2% and 11.5%, respectively, plus a .286 ISO in 26 plate appearances.
Lewis Thorpe, LHP, Minnesota (Profile)
Thorpe might not make another appearance among the Five. While he’s recorded excellent numbers in the minors this season, he also possesses a merely average fastball, suggesting that his success — in part, at least — is a product of polish and command rather than arm speed, etc. In this way, if in no other, he bears some resemblance to other left-hander Jalen Beeks, who has recorded rather pedestrian numbers with Boston and (now) Tampa Bay after producing one of the best strikeout- and walk-rate differentials in the minors this season.
Like Beeks, though, Thorpe merits attention for what he’s done — and what he’s done, in particular, is to reach Triple-A at 22 years old despite missing the entirety of his age-19 and -20 seasons (2015 and -16) to Tommy John surgery et al. Beginning the campaign with Double-A Chattanooga, the Australia native produced the second-best K-BB% mark in the Southern League over 22 appearances and 108.0 innings and earned a promotion to the International League, at which level he made a successful debut this past Wednesday, recording a 9:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 26 batters over 6.1 innings (box). Eric Longenhagen addressed that start in yesterday’s installment of the Daily Prospect Notes. What the present author will add to the conversation is the following video footage of Cleveland shortstop prospect Yu Chang kneeling out of respect following a swinging strike on a Thorpe fastball.
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Mandy Alvarez, 3B, New York AL (Double-A Eastern League)
Nathaniel Lowe, 1B, Tampa Bay (Triple-A International League)
Danny Mendick, SS, Chicago AL (Double-A Southern League)
Luis Rengifo, 2B/SS, Los Angeles AL (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Chuckie Robinson, C, Houston (High-A Carolina 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.