Thomas Pannone was almost an outfielder in the Cubs system. Instead, he’s baffling batters and racking up zeroes for the Lynchburg Hillcats. The 22-year-old left-hander has made four starts for Cleveland’s High-A affiliate and has yet to be charged with an earned run. Stingy to a fault, he’s fanned 31 batters and allowed just seven hits in 20.2 innings.
His scoreless streak — save for one unearned marker on April 12 — is even more impressive when you go back to last year. Counting his final three appearances in 2016, Pannone has now gone 38 consecutive innings without blemishing his ERA.
The Indians drafted Pannone out of the College of Southern Nevada in the ninth round of the 2013 draft. A year earlier, he’d bypassed an opportunity to sign with a team which liked him more for his bat than for his arm.
“I was going to be an outfielder,” explained Pannone, who was selected by Chicago’s NL club in the 33rd round out of a Rhode Island high school. “But between how late in the draft it was, and not being sure I was fully ready to start a pro career, I went to a junior college instead. One thing led to another, and I was drafted as a pitcher the following summer.”
That wasn’t what Pannone had in mind when he went west.
“I thought I could potentially play one year of JC and then get drafted again as an outfielder,” Pannone told me. “That was my main goal. Things just went a little bit of a different way. I got up on the mound and was throwing pretty hard, and I guess scouts liked that I was left-handed and was missing some bats. That got me drafted within the first 10 rounds, whereas I probably would have fallen to a later part of the draft as an outfielder.”
The former two-way player appears to be where he belongs. He remains well below the radar — Pannone is nowhere to be found in prospect rankings — but based on his early-season performances, that might be about to change. The sample size is small, but goose eggs are goose eggs.
He doesn’t cook with gas, but he has added a tick or two to his heater. Pannone sits 89-91, and the 93 at which he topped out in his last outing is an appreciable number. It’s also a nod to improved mechanics.
“I developed a couple of bad habits with my delivery last year,” admitted Pannone. “I was kind of closing myself off with my front leg and wasn’t able to extend as far toward home plate. I’m in a better spot with my delivery now, which is allowing the ball to come out of my hand a little harder.”
Commanding his fastball has been a key. Getting ahead in counts has abetted his ability to keep hitters off balance with a panoply of offspeed offerings, and he’s doing so in spades. On Tuesday, Pannone had nine Ks over four innings before getting lifted after 79 pitches — he’s on an 85-pitch limit — and many were on curveballs or changeups.
If there’s a negative to be found in his early-season performance, it’s an inability to work deep into games. The savvy southpaw isn’t issuing many walks, just seven on the season, but he is finding himself in longer counts than he’d like.
“I can’t seem to get guys out of the box,” said Pannone. “I need to be more efficient and get guys out of there in three or four pitches, and not let them hang around for seven, eight, nine pitches. I’d like to be able to stay out there on the mound longer than I have.”
Whether he’s more of a power pitcher or finesse pitcher is a question without a simple answer. The numbers suggest the former, while his ability to mix and match suggests the latter. He isn’t sure himself.
“I’m getting strikeouts like an overpowering guy, but I’m a left-handed pitcher, so I want to be a little bit crafty,” rationalized Pannone. “I want to be able to throw three pitches for strikes and change speeds. I guess I’m probably somewhere in the middle? I’d like to say I have finesse to my arsenal, but I have some power in it, as well.”
However you choose to define him, Pannone is quietly emerging as a legitimate pitching prospect. The almost outfielder still has a lot to prove, but at the same time, opposing teams aren’t crossing the plate when he’s on the mound. Until that starts to happen, he’s earned the right to be considered one.
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.