Young Three Provide Hope for the Reds

“Until you step outside of it, you don’t realize how special it is,” Barry Zito said on the field in Oakland, nostalgia in his voice and touch of grey his hair. He was reminiscing about what it was like to have three homegrown young starters peaking at the same time, back when he joined Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in dominating the American League.

The parallels in Cincinnati are not immediately obvious, nor are they perfectly similar. Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesias, and John Lamb probably won’t turn into the next Big Three, and they aren’t necessarily all homegrown in the stricter definition of the word.

And yet… standing there on that field, listening to Zito talk and thinking of writing this piece, a little dreaming was possible. Could those three young Reds be the backbone of a strong staff as soon as next year? Just look at them sitting there atop the rookie leaderboards.

DeSclafani actually leads all rookie pitchers in wins above replacement, but a homer or two more for him and a homer or two less for Noah Syndergaard might yet change that ranking, and the Red has none of the same buzz about him. No big fastball, no gaudy strikeout rates — he can’t be the ace of this team, can he?

Let’s not forget that this is a 25-year-old trying to adjust back to the league that battered him at first. He has to walk the line between winning the game and getting better — “There’s a fine line between trying to get better and… [having] to prove myself,” he admitted to me before a game with the Giants — and he’s still working at both.

The push is two-parted. After showing good walk numbers throughout his minor league career, the righty spent April and May walking 3.9 batters per nine (10.1%). That’s more than he’s ever walked in a minor league year and nearly three times as many as he walked last year in a short debut.

“I got into a little funk in the beginning of the year, and I racked up a lot of walks,” DeSclafani explained. “I wasn’t commanding my fastball and I didn’t feel good about my delivery.” So he worked with the coaches to improve his mechanics. The trick that did it? “A little something with my hands to get my timing back — an arm swing that helps with my timing to get my arm in the right spot for my delivery.” His walk rate since June first is almost half his rate before that date (2.2 per nine, or 5.2%).

The other part of improving DeSclafani is finding a third pitch. The whiff rates on his fastballs are above average, and his slider has the 20th-best whiff rate in baseball among starters, right there between Dallas Keuchel and Chris Sale.

But he’s struggled with the changeup, despite above-average drop and fade on the pitch. It doesn’t feature a good velocity gap (less than 7 mph, while 8.5 is about average), and the pitcher worries about it. After tinkering with the pitch to slow it down, he thinks arm speed is key. “I was trying to lob it in there real slow, so now I have to try and throw it harder and keep the same arm speed.” It’s gotten harder recently but the whiff rate has gone up as well, so maybe he has something here.

The best news might come from a different pitch. He told me about the curve the last time we talked, but now he’s starting to trust it. “Curve hasn’t felt good all year but it’s felt good the last few starts,” he said. Lately, it’s been harder, he’s using it almost 15 times a game, and it’s inclusion has brought up the whiff rates on all his secondary pitches.

Since he’s started using the curve more, DeSclafani’s been striking out one batter per inning and walking one batter per game. That’s promising.

Also promising is the stuff of rotation mate Iglesias, which is superior even to DeSclafani’s. In the first inning, the Cuban sits 93 with his fastball. His changeup has above-average fade and drop, and his slider gets more whiffs (21%) than DeSclafani’s (17%). He thought his sinker was his out-pitch — the changeup and slider usage changes from game to game depending on the scouting report. “I try to use those pitches according to what I see from other pitchers pitching that team,” Iglesias told me through an interpreter.

The problem has been that the fifth inning. Iglesias was a reliever in Cuba, and transitioning to starter required a two-step weight training process. “Since the beginning of spring training, my main goal was to create more strength in my workout,” he said. “The workout we were doing in the beginning was increasing the strength of my body in order to keep up with the length of the season. By the halfway point of the season, we switched to more endurance and resistance training.”

The change seems to have done the trick, even though Iglesias has been shut down for the season. His fastball velocity late in games trended upwards as the season went on.

Iglesias

What might be most remarkable about Iglesias is that he has any semblance of command with this kind of spread in release points. Shades of Orlando Hernandez here.

chart (57)

The pitcher prides himself on repeating mechanics out of each slot. “If I’m going to go over the shoulder or on the side or lower, I’m going to try and throw every single pitch I have in the same way,” he said. “The exception is the changeup, I try to release that more out front.”

The Reds seem happy to leave him alone. “No pitching coach has told me that I have to keep one angle or release,” he laughed. “On the other hand, it’s something that has actually worked in my favor, because having three of different angles of throwing and four different pitches increases the number of pitches I have. Actually, it’s a benefit for me.”

Take a look at his movement out of each arm slot — he’s right. The pitches act differently in each arm slot, and preparing for him might take that much longer.

Raisel Iglesias‘ Pitch Movement by Arm Slot
Release Point Height Pitch Type Horizontal Vertical
>5.5 feet Four-Seam -4.2 8.7
Two-Seam -7.7 5.3
Slider 6.9 -2.1
Change -5.1 1.3
5.5 > x > 5.0 Four-Seam -5.5 7.9
Two-Seam -8.9 4.5
Slider 6.4 -0.9
Change -7.8 1.9
< 5.0 feet Four-Seam -6.1 6.7
Two-Seam -9.3 3.8
Slider 6.0 -0.6
Change -7.3 1.0
Horizontal = PFx_x or horizontal movement, in inches. Negative is movement to arm side.
Vertical = PFx_z or vertical movement, in inches. More negative means more drop.

Watch the changeup lose vertical movement and gain horizontal movement as his arm slot lowers. The two-seamer also gains a lot of horizontal movement as he moves down the ladder.

John Lamb was pitching that day, so we didn’t have a chance to talk, but there have to be many surprised by his results so far, as well. Regarded almost unanimously as the third piece in the Johnny Cueto trade after arm surgeries and years of struggling in the minors, things have changed for the lefty since he finally got healthy: he’s struck out a batter per inning since he got back on the field at least.

The lefty with the tattoos has average fastball velocity and an inch of rise on his fastball, which can be useful against same-handed hitters. His changeup has a whopping 13-mph velocity differential from his fastball. His 70 mph curveball and 87 mph cutter are decent pieces, too — the change, the curve, and the cutter all get above-average whiffs. But the change is the out pitch. If he had thrown it enough to qualify, it would have the fifth-best whiff rate in baseball.

All three of these guys have stuff to work on. DeSclafani has to iron out the third pitch, Iglesias has to improve his endurance, and Lamb has occasional bouts of wildness that he may need to figure out.

But all three young pitchers have standout pitches and what looks like a good approach. If they answer these things in the affirmative, the Reds may actually have a Big Three of their own very soon. No other team has gotten as much production from their rookie starters, after all.

Rookie Starting Pitcher WAR by Team
Team Rookie SP WAR
Reds 5.8
Astros 3.5
Mets 3.0
Twins 2.8
Rays 2.3
Brewers 2.0
White Sox 2.0
Phillies 1.9
Athletics 1.8
Red Sox 1.8
Diamondbacks 1.7
Angels 1.6
Giants 1.5
Nationals 1.4
Indians 0.8
Marlins 0.8
Rockies 0.8
Yankees 0.6
Cardinals 0.5
Padres 0.5
Dodgers 0.4
Tigers 0.4
Mariners 0.2
Rangers 0.2

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Kyle B
Guest
Kyle B

You’re definitely on to something with DeSclafani and Iglesias, but I don’t think Lamb is the third. I expect it to be either Lorenzen, who has struggled at the Major League level thus far but undoubtedly has the stuff, or Robert Stephenson (in AAA) or Cody Reed (the “sleeper” of the Cueto trade who dominated AA)

Emcee Peepants
Guest
Emcee Peepants

Or maybe Brandon Finnegan, since he is starting now. Nice “problem” for the Reds to have.

James F.
Guest

I’ve watched Lamb in person and thought he had the most upside of all the new arms. Health will always be a concern. He didn’t have the endurance for later innings this year, but we’ll see what happens next. His ability to miss bats far exceeded the others. I wonder if he’d also make a good closer when the Reds let Chapman walk.

E-Dub
Guest
E-Dub

Iglesias has more upside than Lamb, but I agree that Lamb is being underestimated a bit, and he’s decisively ahead of Finnegan and Lorenzen for me. The FB tops out at 91/02, but he spots it well enough that the slider/cutter and change can do their thing. Like most lefties without a knockout FB he needs to locate inside to right-handed hitters, which he has shown he can do in stretches.

Finnegan is a much more likely closer candidate as the FB plays up in relief. Unless you cup of closer tea is Joe Borowski kitchen sink types, Lamb is probably not a great fit.