Two Prospects, Both Alike in Big-League Readiness

On paper, Glenn Otto and A.J. Alexy have a lot in common. For one thing, they both found their way into the Rangers system as key prospects in packages exchanged for blue-chip major leaguers – Alexy in 2017 as part of the deal that sent Yu Darvish to the Dodgers, and Otto in this year’s Joey Gallo trade. Moreover, they’re both righties who work exclusively from the stretch and feature a low-90s fastball. And at the end of last month, following a spat of positive COVID tests that depleted the Texas rotation, they added one more shared accomplishment, both making their big-league debuts within three days of one another.

Even their lines in their respective debuts look strikingly similar, with each pitcher throwing five innings of scoreless baseball. But drilling down just a bit further reveals the important differences between the two hurlers, and by extension, their distinct paths to success as major leaguers.

Let’s start with their mechanics. I mentioned above that both Otto and Alexy pitch exclusively from the stretch, having eliminated their windups during their time in the minors. But in Alexy’s case, that isn’t the only obvious change he’s made to his delivery since being drafted out of high school in 2016. As Eric Longenhagen has noted, he’s shortened his arm action, eliminating the violence it once featured.

Here’s a look at Alexy from March 2019:

And here’s one from this past Monday:

Comparing the two side-by-side, the changes to his arm action become unmistakeable. I’ve added freeze frames here to isolate the point at which his arm is at its very lowest and make it even more obvious:

Unlike Alexy, Otto’s delivery remains as long and violent as it has always been. That makes sense: this type of mechanical change is often made in order to refine a prospect’s command, and Otto’s professional career hasn’t been characterized by the same command issues that Alexy has experienced.

Before they were called up, both pitchers had produced impressive numbers at Double- and Triple-A this season, but they had done so in distinctly different ways. Prior to his promotion, Otto had been a strikeout machine, totaling 134 Ks in his 16 starts and one relief appearance (95.2 IP), while walking just 24. Alexy saw several more relief appearances than Otto, resulting in fewer innings of work (65 in total), but more walks (27) and not nearly as many strikeouts (76). And while both pitchers feature four-seam offerings that sit in the low-to-mid 90s, Alexy’s higher arm slot allows him to create more ride on his fastball and effectively work up in the zone, getting hitters to swing under the heater for weak fly ball contact and producing a consistently low BABIP, which hasn’t risen above .300 since 2018. The effectiveness of Otto’s fastball, meanwhile, relies less on ride (though it does have some), and more on his ability to command it and pair it with his slider to induce groundball outs — when he’s not fanning hitters, that is.

That brings us to those deceptively similar debuts. Otto’s came first on August 27 and he had his work cut out for him, tasked with facing the Astros, who came into the game ranked first in the majors in team average (.268), OBP (.340), OPS (.781), and runs per game (5.4). But Otto seemed unfazed, offering up first-pitch strikes to all nine batters in his first time through the Houston order. He didn’t issue any free passes in his five innings of work, and struck out seven Astros, including Alex Bregman, who has proven to be one of the most difficult batters to strikeout in 2021 with a K-rate of 14.8%, which is well below the league average of 23.3%):

Otto’s first pitch in the sequence was a generous called strike; the second was a curveball that didn’t quite reach the plate (of his pitches, his knuckle curve is the one most in need of further refinement, sitting at a virtually identical velocity as his slider, but with a much more vertical shape, which he has yet to prove he can fully control). But he followed up those first two pitches with a pair of well-placed sliders on the outside corner before getting Bregman to foul off a belt-high inside fastball, finally inducing an uncharacteristic flail from the two-time All-Star with an untouchable slider that was placed further off the plate than any of his previous offerings in the at-bat.

It’s not easy to get Bregman to chase like that. It’s a huge credit to Otto and speaks to how deceptive his mix of slider and fastball are when the 25-year-old has a feel for both offerings. By the end of the night, Otto had pulled off a tremendous 78.1% strike rate (57 of his 73 total pitches), the highest for any pitcher in a major league debut of 70 or more pitches since 1988.

Alexy’s debut came a few days later on August 30, making him the third starter to debut for the Rangers in the span of just six days (southpaw Jake Latz’s first big league start had preceded Otto’s by two days, though he’d since been recalled to Triple-A). At 23-years-old, Alexy was also the youngest of the 14 rookie pitchers who have taken the mound for the Rangers this season (only the Orioles have topped that number in 2021 with 17). But despite it coming against the markedly less imposing lineup of the Colorado Rockies, his strike rate was only 53.1% (43 of 81 total pitches), which not only pales in comparison to Otto’s debut, but is significantly lower than the league average of roughly 64%. He did dole out four strikeouts, but all four came on full counts. In fact, of the 18 batters who faced Alexy, 10 saw three-ball counts.

But those numbers imply a much less formidable performance than the one actually put forth by the young righty in his first big league outing. The only hit he allowed was a fly ball off the end of C.J. Cron’s bat that landed for a double despite a 2% hit probability. All in all, it was a performance that was more or less on-brand for the fly ball pitcher, but it was also clear that his fastball control was still his main area of focus. Meanwhile, his strikeouts were against some of the best hitters in the Colorado lineup, including two against Trevor Story and one against Charlie Blackmon, whose 13.5% K-rate in 2021 is even lower than Bregman’s.

Here’s Alexy fanning Blackmon for his first career strikeout:

In that at-bat, Alexy illustrated both the good and the bad, inducing only one whiff on the heaters he offered above the zone (and missing badly with the others), but also proving unafraid to throw his off-speed stuff to miss bats in the zone, even in hitters’ counts. He ultimately emerged victorious, though he drove up his pitch count in the process.

In their respective second big league starts, both pitchers faced the Angels. Their performances diverged from the standards they’d set in their debuts, with Alexy improving upon his first game in key ways, and Otto taking a few minor steps backward. Alexy was able to ward off the three-ball counts that had dulled the shine of his first outing, which in turn allowed him to mix in his secondary pitches at a higher frequency, resulting in a better strike rate (62.4%) and an increase of his CSW from 22% to 31%. He again managed to issue multiple strikeouts to his most threatening opposing batter (this time, Shohei Ohtani). But while it’s very reassuring to see Alexy show an ability to make adjustments at the big-league level, there’s always room for improvement, as evidenced by his two walks, one of which was issued to Jo Adell, whose walk rate is among the majors’ lowest. Still, Alexy was tremendously efficient, throwing only four more pitches than in his debut, and squeezing a full extra frame out of it, finishing his night after six innings, for his longest outing at any level since 2018.

While Alexy managed to do more with less in his second big league start, Otto did less with more, lasting a third of an inning shorter, and throwing 11 more pitches than in his debut. A disproportionate 36 of Otto’s 84 total pitches, as well as three of the four hits he allowed, came in the first inning, and though he settled down after that, the early stumbles were enough to force him to default to his fastball much more often. His effectiveness relies largely on his ability to keep that slider-fastball mix as even as possible; in his first showing, he was able to throw an equal number of sliders and fastballs, each one making up 41% of his pitches on the night. But this time, by the end of his 4.2 innings of work, he’d thrown his fastball 52% of the time compared to just 29% sliders (his curveball and changeup usage remained more or less the same). Even still, he ended his night with an impressive 72.6% strike rate.

Otto’s second start is no real cause for alarm given his demonstrated ability to calm down and maintain his composure, and, of course, how early it is in his major league career. To that same point, it’s probably a bit too early for celebration when it comes to Alexy’s success, though it is quite promising and was historic in its own way:

Once you get past their superficial similarities, Alexy and Otto are in fact quite different as pitchers. There is, however, one more important commonality between them: neither has fully established whether he’ll be better suited to a starting role or be relegated to the bullpen. For Alexy, it’ll depend on his ability to refine that fastball control to support a general increase in his use of his secondaries. Otto’s outlook will have more to do with his ability to keep his fastball and slider usage even, in order to translate his astronomical minor league strikeout rate to the majors (a more trustworthy curveball would go a long way, too). It’ll take more than two starts before those questions are answered, so for now, there’s no harm in simply enjoying the fact that these two young Rangers have been able to not only survive their promotion, but have hit the ground running as major leaguers.





Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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steveo
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steveo

The question with Otto is can he develop an out pitch against lefties? That slider is death on righties, but on lefties not so much. He needs to develop that curveball or change. Preferably the changeup, as it could potentially tunnel nicely with that slider, but since it’s so bendy, I’m not optimistic. His hellacious slider kind of makes it tough for his changeup to tunnel well imo. If he can work it out somehow, he’s a mid-rotation guy. If not, he’s a backend guy. Which is still super valuable, and you need those guys. If the Rangers had rotation depth, they could put him in the bullpen and he could be a late inning guy like Ottavino (not a ringing endorsement, but he’s got good #s). As a 3rd piece in the Gallo trade, you feel pretty good about that.