This Week's Scouting Tip: "Potential" ... Don't you just hate that word?
Over all the years I have spent analyzing and evaluating pitchers, I will have to say I get the most grousing from readers when I use that word ... potential. You can't blame them. It's understandable. You read about a list of pitchers and at least a few of them are said to have a lot of "potential" while a few have only limited "potential." To be honest, almost any youngish pitcher has at least some potential. Even those well along in their careers could have room to grow. They are human beings and they could always learn something new, or acquire skills they lacked in the past, or just get better at what they already do. So how do you define potential? When you think about it, some pitchers could also have the potential to regress, so it's not always a good thing. Probably the best measurement for "potential" is "ceiling" or the best outcome. Let's take a look ...
Exploring it further:
Projecting a pitcher's ceiling is really just measuring his potential ...
Having a "high ceiling" implies that a young pitcher could be significantly better if he continues to develop. The key to evaluating value, now and in the future, is determining how much better he can become. As I stated earlier, most young pitchers have some potential (or maybe it could better be called upside). The terminology to look for could be numeric - his ceiling is a #2 or #3 - or it could be a grouped classification - something like "top of the rotation" or "back of the rotation." The important thing to keep in mind here is these ratings are generic, not team specific. When we say #2 we are referring to a pitcher who would be considered one notch below a major league ace, not necessarily one notch below whomever is the #1 on any particular team.
Since I play almost exclusively in keeper or dynasty leagues, I am always looking for that high ceiling guy. However, there are plenty of reasons to tirelessly look for those arms when you play in a redraft. At this point, I'd like to make a statement here that I would encourage all readers to keep in mind ... "I would rather have a pitcher with some upside (or potential or higher ceiling) than proven mediocrity." Obviously I would also like to avoid the "potential" guy with an exceptionally low floor (how bad can he be), but I will always take someone who might perform better when the alternative is someone I can be reasonably sure will provide nothing more than mediocre stats. Use that simple premise on draft day and you will have a much better chance of winning your league.
That said, your challenge is to rate the available pitchers. Look at all the things we have discussed in previous Notebooks and apply them to each pitcher you are evaluating. What is that pitcher's ceiling? Could he become a #1 or #2 - a top of the rotation guy, or is he unlikely to ever be better than a middle of the rotation option, or even a fifth starter? Be objective. Avoid giving pitchers on your favorite team more credit than someone pitching for your team's archrival. Time your analysis. How close is he to being that top of the rotation guy? Could he get there this year or is he likely to need several years of development to reach his ultimate performance level. Finally, be ready to adjust. Pitchers can and do move along the rating line. A pitcher who once looked like a back of the rotation guy could make big strides and become a possible #2 or #3 ... and that can happen in reverse too, especially if a serious injury enters into the equation.
Here are things to watch for regarding the timing and placement of strikes:
- Patience. It's the first rule of player evaluation. Nothing could be worse than scouting a guy, grabbing him the draft, and then cutting him after a couple of rough starts only to watch a rival owner reap the benefits. If you are monitoring your guy and you still see the "potential" wait it out, especially in a keeper.
- Ceiling is significantly influenced by physical ability. You can't teach a 100 mph fastball, but a good pitching coach can help a pitcher with great stuff refine his motion or lock in his release point. That guy with an 87 mph fastball will not typically have a very high ceiling.
- Look for progress. While you are being patient, there will often be good stretches mixed in with bad stretches, however you want to see a general trend line that shows progress. Improving command, more confidence in a secondary pitch, or a better strikeout rate can all be signs that the pitcher is moving in the right direction. Conversely, some pitchers will never reach their true ceiling. That's where intangibles like mound presence come into play.
- Finally, as mentioned above, always try to be objective. One of the hardest things to do consistently is fairly evaluating a guy who pitches for your favorite team. Ask yourself if your rating would be the same if he pitched for another club. I used to always include a disclaimer regarding my evaluations, asking forgiveness from readers if I downgraded a pitcher who happened to be their best friend, brother, cousin or just a guy on their favorite team.
Now, let's check this week's Scouting Notebook ...
This continues our weekly feature scouting pitchers of interest. We won't normally cover the elite guys in this column, rather this forum is dedicated to finding pitchers who might help, and more importantly, might be obtainable (as well as pitchers to avoid). All right ... let's get started with this week's featured arms:
Derek Holland (TEX)@ MIN - Given our Scouting Tips topic for this week, it would be difficult to find a better arm to profile. Holland has been alternately cheered and scorned by the fantasy community, and it all relates to his exceptional potential. There's that word again. In Holland's case, it equates to a very high ceiling as a top of the rotation talent. You don't often find left-handed hurlers who can easily sit in the 92-95 mph range, but that's what Holland has to offer. To make it even more appealing, that fastball features plenty of movement. It almost begs the question, why isn't he already a fantasy stud who can lead my team to a championship this year? In fact, he has appeared on more than a few fantasy rosters over the past couples of years carrying just those expectations.
As mentioned, Holland has a lively fastball that sits in the 92-95 range and his somewhat deceptive delivery makes it seem even faster. He also throws a late-breaking, sweeping curve, a decent slider and an improving change-up. That sounds like enough to establish him as a solid fantasy guy. Unfortunately, he doesn't really have the confidence in those secondary pitches and sometimes struggles to spot them well. As a result, he tends to rely too much on the fastball, and he can be vulnerable as many hitters ignore his other offerings and concentrate on timing the fastball, while waiting for one to arrive in a good hitting zone. All too often, that happens at some point during the game.
In our target game, the Twins actually let the first 19 pitches from Holland go by without one swing of the bat. The book on Holland is, get a look, focus on the fastball, and wait for a good pitch to hit. He walked one and struck out three in that first inning, but the plan was taking shape. As is his tendency, Holland threw only an occasional off-speed pitch and he allowed a solo home run on a fastball out over the plate in the second inning, and a three-run home run on another fastball in the fifth inning. He ended up with a no decision, but a respectable line of four earned runs in over seven innings with one walk and 10 strikeouts. That's an especially impressive strikeout total when you consider that the hitters were looking fastball almost exclusively, and getting it. That spells potential.
In summation, you have to like what Holland is flashing. Keep in mind, left-handed pitchers, especially power lefties, often take a bit longer to develop. Holland is just 24 and he will likely harness his secondary offerings, making it virtually impossible for opposing hitters to always sit dead red. What will that fastball look like when you have to be aware of a mid 70's curveball? He's right on the brink of taking the next step, and yes, he has the "potential" to be a solid #2 and maybe even a #1 - that's talent you should feel good about when exercising patience.
Charlie Morton (PIT)@ NYM - Morton is one of those guys who surprises everyone with a great start, and then makes everyone wonder if it will last. Last season, he was nothing short of awful with a 2-12 record to go along with a 1.73 WHIP and a 7.57 ERA over just under 80 innings. Needless to say, he wasn't real high on most draft lists this spring. Then, in 2011, he gets off and running with quality start after quality start, and eventually he becomes a waiver wire favorite. If you own him, you need to know if it's the new Charlie Morton, and if someone else is trying to peddle him, you need to know whether to bite, or at least how much to pay. This game wasn't the easiest to evaluate. It was an ugly line, but in fairness, some shoddy defense and a little bad luck contributed to Morton's exposed weaknesses.
By far the biggest concern is his lack of quality secondary pitches, especially as it relates to him handling left-handed hitters. In the game against the Mets, Morton threw fastballs almost exclusively. When he did throw a breaking pitch, he hit one batter, threw behind another, and hung one up in the zone that a third batter simply missed. He relied very heavily on his sinking fastball for a reason. Now about that sinker - he keeps it down (sometimes too far down) and throws it consistently (probably too consistently) at 90-92 mph. It works well for him most of the time as he induces groundballs on nearly 80% of the balls in play, and he generates a lot of double plays that can get him out of trouble since he does allow a few too many base runners. The downside is, many of those groundballs come on swings at pitches below the strike zone. The Mets (and other more patient teams) are becoming more willing to wait him out, forcing him to get the ball up or allow more walks - neither of which will help him long term.
Sinkerball pitchers are always a little dangerous because if it doesn't sink, it flies, and if it does sink it can be hard to keep right at the bottom of the strike zone. Without reliable secondary pitches, Morton is forced to live and die with the sinker. That makes him vulnerable to more patient teams, those willing to go the other way, and teams capable of stacking a lineup with lefty bats. The new lower arm slot has helped, and he can still be useful against the swing from the heels teams, however I would expect to see his ERA climb somewhat as the season wears on. He won't be as bad as he was last season, but he's probably not going to maintain his early season success.
Jordan Lyles (HOU)vs. ATL - When Lyles took the mound against Atlanta, he was the youngest player currently in the major leagues. However, even though he is just 20 years old, he pitches well beyond his years. And, that's probably what makes him such a highly touted prospect. The Astros have appeared to be hesitant regarding his tenure at the major league level as they vacillate between getting him more experience, and letting him learn on the job in Houston. Lyles features the mound presence of someone much older, and he has a very good feel for four pitches - pretty unusual for someone who is only a couple of years removed from high school. His fastball sits in the low 90's, but it could jump up a tick as he matures physically, and he has a very well-developed change up - probably his best pitch, a decent slider, and a good, albeit inconsistent 12-6 curveball.¬† His fastball runs in on right-handers, and he can comfortably take a little off to add to further keep hitters off balance. The best part is, he understands all of that.
Against the Braves, he displayed a willingness to pitch inside, an aptitude for throwing the right pitch at the right time, regardless of the count, and very impressively, he didn't rattle easily even though he was in and out of jams several times during the outing.¬† His fastball got a little straight at times, and he left one out over the plate that Eric Hinske took out of the yard, but he limited most of the other damage. He struck out five in the game, two of which were on swinging strikes on his sharp breaking curve. Unfortunately, that pitch is still too inconsistent as he threw a few well out of the zone, including one that sailed over Dan Uggla's head. When it worked, it worked well, but it needs more work. His change-up was generally effective throughout and he spotted it very well.
Lyles likes to challenge hitters and he tends to pitch up in the zone a bit too often so he could allow a few more hits than you would like, however he is consistently around the plate and is unlikely to give up too many free passes. The Astros have a poor defense, so that's a downside, but he remained focused even after some rather ugly miscues in the field. The Astros have opted to move Aneury Rodriguez to the pen with Wandy Rodriguez coming off the disabled list, so it appears Lyles will be around a bit longer. He'll need to build stamina (he was clearly running out of gas in the sixth and seventh innings) but he could best help the Astros by reaching his middle of the rotation ceiling sooner rather than later. For fantasy teams, he may be a bit inconsistent this year, but he could evolve into a solid, but not dominating starter as early as next year.
Some short takes:
John Danks (CWS)- It may be too late to pry him away from an impatient owner but Danks is starting to get a few breaks and has won his last two starts. He wasn't pitching badly in the horrendous 0-8 start, but as the White Sox offense heats up he'll get plenty of opportunities to get wins.
Jeremy Hellickson (TB)- He is currently going through the normal adjustment period all young pitchers have to face. The league is adjusting to him and he will have to adjust to their adjustments. He was a bit over-hyped going into the season but he is likely to get through this rough stretch and settle back in as a solid, if not spectacular, starter.
Brian Matusz (BAL) - He is generally considered the top pitcher in the Oriole's stable and they certainly had to be celebrating when he returned from a stint on the disabled list to begin the season. However, in his last start, he never touched 90 mph on the radar gun, and that suggests something is not right. Monitor his status closely right now.
Fausto Carmona (CLE)- He had that horrible opening day and then strung together a few decent starts and some people started to believe he could be a reliable fantasy starter. Don't be fooled when it happens again, and it will. Carmona is likely to always be a ticking time bomb in your rotation so its best to let someone else play with fire.
Dillon Gee (NYM)- He pitched reasonably well last year but the Mets didn't give him a rotation spot until injuries forced their hand. He has run off to a 7-0 start with a very respectable 3.05 ERA, and pitching half of his games at Citi Field will continue to help.
John Lannan (WAS)- His last strong outing was against San Diego so it wasn't too surprising, however Lannan has generally been pitching well. Don't expect great fantasy numbers but he could be useful in a match-up role for an NL only or deep league.
Mike Minor (ATL)- He has pitched pretty well in his spot starts but Brandon Beachy will be returning soon so his opportunities could be limited. Minor is still the long term choice over Beachy, but the Braves have used Beachy's start to play it conservative with Minor.
Bartolo Colon (NYY)- A strained hamstring has at least temporarily derailed his amazing comeback year but he should slot back into the rotation when he gets healthy. The Yankees have few options in their thin pitching staff although Phil Hughes is making some progress in his rehab.
Sergio Santos (CWS) -After being nearly untouchable for two months, he has hit a rough stretch the past few days. He is probably not in much danger of losing the closer's gig just yet but the recent lack of command could be a concern if he doesn't get back on track fairly soon.
Mark Melancon (HOU)- Brandon Lyon is back from the disabled list and the Astros say they want to ease him back into the closer's role. It's a terrible plan, but money talks and they wasted a lot of it on Lyon. Lyon has been torched in his first couple of appearances so if the Astros carry through with the plan, Melancon should be back in fairly soon.
Jonny Venters (ATL)- The Braves are still calling Craig Kimbrel the closer, but Venters has gotten a couple of chances lately (and he has converted). Kimbrel has displayed some command issues lately so this move could turn into a shared end game scenario. Keep an eye on the next few save opportunities in Atlanta.
Kid's Corner ...
Shelby Miller (STL)- He has all the tools and despite his age (he won't be 21 until after this season ends), he is progressing steadily through the Cardinals system. He was promoted to Double-A Springfield earlier this year and it looks like he will be up to that challenge so he could see St. Louis sooner than expected. Late 2012 would likely be a realistic projection, but Miller has the tenacity (and stuff) to push that date up.
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