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Mound Musings: Making the Crystal Ball Less Cloudy

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Is it easier to spot high ceiling, low ceiling or no ceiling?

Next week, I am going to start taking a closer look at pitchers who could be jumping into the fray in the next few weeks. Arbitration clocks are winding down, and teams with exceptionally talented arms will be more and more tempted to have a look. However, before we head that direction, I was asked an intriguing question earlier this week I really hadn't considered. The person wanted to know if I find it easier to spot players with a very bright future, or if I find it easier to spot the "flavor of the month" guy everyone is talking about but who will soon fade into obscurity. I see both all the time, but I had never thought about which was easier to identify. So, let's take a look ...

He looks absolutely awesome tonight, but will it last ...

The answer to the question actually turned into two answers - I think it's easier to spot high ceiling, but easier predict low or no ceiling. That may sound like a contradiction, but when you think about it, you can usually see signs that suggest a pitcher could be very good at some point in the future, however, reaching that point will often require many refinements and even the addition of skills before it can happen. Since so many things can change along the path - injuries being a big factor, but certainly not the only one - you take a calculated risk every time you predict great things for a player. I can see the potential for a high ceiling, and I can even list the steps required to achieve it, but I need my crystal ball to tell you if, or even when, it might happen.

On the other hand, if you watch a pitcher a couple times and he doesn't show you anything out of the ordinary, you can somewhat safely predict a lower ceiling. Obviously, the pitcher could change things in his delivery, add a new pitch to his arsenal or even rework his whole approach, increasing his ceiling somewhat, but making a major move upward is uncommon, to say the least. A lot of this has to do with the stage of his career. Here we are talking about a professional, albeit a young professional, pitcher. Changing dramatically what got the player to this level is not likely to happen. Certainly there will be tweaks and refinements, but you will not often see a pitcher's velocity jump by five miles per hour, or his breaking pitches move an additional few inches on a more severe downward plane. Perhaps the most difficult part of this side of the equation is the time required to judge potential. I can usually see enough to get me interested in a pitcher in a couple of innings, and they don't even always have to be "good" innings, per se. However, when you don't see anything exciting in a pitcher's performance on a given day, you might need to see him again, and sometimes again, to make fairly certain there isn't anything there. In essence, the more raw the pitcher, the more hidden his ceiling might be.

Therefore, the best answer to the original question is, it is typically easier to spot the high-ceiling potential of a pitcher, but it can be very difficult to predict when or if that pitcher will ever reach that ceiling. And I believe the questioner really wanted to know which was easier to predict. So, when I looked back over many (too many) years of predictions and observations, I saw a lot of high-ceiling pitchers who did eventually reach that level, and quite a few who didn't for a variety of reasons, but I rarely came across a pitcher who I said was not likely ever going to make a huge impact - and many were very hyped - but that pitcher ended up far exceeding my expectations.

Using your crystal ball, and how to make it less cloudy:

Velocity counts a lot. A pitcher who throws his fastball (knuckleballers excused) in the 80s is not very likely to have a high ceiling. He might end up being a decent innings eater, or even modest success at the major league level, but the chances of him becoming an ace are remote.

Command is not such a definitive predictor of ceiling. Improved command is almost always a result of refinements, and these adjustments can often be made without too significantly changing the basic mechanics the pitcher has used for many years on his way to the professional level. Obviously, it's a plus if that big arm can launch a ball in the general vicinity of home plate, but you can be a little forgiving, especially in the minor leagues, if it's not there yet.

Low-ceiling pitchers sometimes produce high-ceiling results when they first arrive in the major leagues. Beware the fraud. Judge critically. If the pitcher displays average (or worse) stuff, but does it with a funky, deceptive delivery, it almost never lasts. Hitters at this level can, and do, adjust. And, they can pretty easily adjust to a deceptive motion, while finding it much more difficult to adjust to the true high-ceiling pitcher's electric stuff.

Finally, never be disappointed if a pitcher you identified as having a very high ceiling fails to reach those expectations overnight. Things will happen, and sometimes the journey can require a lot of patience. However, I would seriously look at my evaluation process if many pitchers I felt displayed little or no potential consistently overachieved.

Some Notable Rotation Happenings

Derek Holland (TEX) -
Here's a high-ceiling special. I have always seen a ton of potential in Holland, but like other young lefties, he was erratic. I pursued him in every league I could this year, and so far it's paying off. He is mixing in more breaking pitches, showing more poise and confidence, and he may just be finding his groove.

Tony Cingrani (CIN) -
He's gotten off to a pretty good start, and he has drawn a lot of attention in fantasy circles, however, he is now suffering from some shoulder pain, and his next start has been pushed back. There is no question he has a live arm, but I still question whether he can enjoy long-term success without reliable secondary pitches.

Jered Weaver (LAA) -
The Angels want him to make a couple of rehab appearances before bringing him back. That's likely a wise decision, but he should be in the rotation in about a week so his owners can rejoice.

Erik Bedard (HOU) -
I watched a couple innings of his last start, and he continues to make me ride the fence. When he throws strikes, especially early in the count, his breaking stuff is devastating, but he still doesn't do that consistently enough.

Jake Arrieta (BAL) -
I remain a believer in him being a serviceable (not top-of-the-rotation) starter for the Orioles. He was scratched from his last minor league start, and Jair Jurrjens is likely to get Wei-Yin Chen's spot in the rotation while he's on the mend, but Arrieta could re-surface before long. Monitor him.

Dustin McGowan (TOR) -
Regular readers will recall there was a time when he was right at the top of my high-ceiling watchlist. Injuries have decimated his career, but word is he has looked very good in his rehab, and that could mean a chance to start in a somewhat depleted Blue Jays rotation. I'd love to see some of his old spark.

Matt Garza (CHC) -
I generally avoid Cubs pitchers like the plague, but Garza is one I have a hard time ignoring. He is getting close to a return, and if he could put the injuries behind him, he can be a very useful fantasy asset.

David Price (TB) -
I'm officially getting a little worried about Price. He had some vision problems, but I don't think those shaved a couple of miles per hour off his fastball, but he hasn't shown his typically pinpoint command, which could be a vision issue. However, he also left his start with a left triceps injury, so check his status.

Scott Kazmir (CLE) -
I watched one of Kazmir's earlier starts, and he looked awful - no zip, no life, no command, nothing positive. I was ready to write him off again. Then I saw a recent outing, and he was completely different. Not quite the old Kazmir, but pretty close. I am certainly not ready to jump onboard, but he has me interested again.

John Gast (STL) -
Here's a reasonable example of a pitcher who might enjoy some success initially, but one who is unlikely to be a positive force over the long run. His "slingy" motion may be a little difficult to pick up, but he has just mediocre stuff, and hitters are likely to adjust fairly quickly.

Endgame Odyssey

Andrew Bailey
is expected back in a few days, and with Joel Hanrahan out for the season, he's the guy in Boston. Given Bailey's injury history, if you won the Junichi Tazawa sweepstakes, you might want to hold onto him for awhile. ... Kyuji Fujikawa has pitched well since he returned to the Cubs. We should only be an implosion or two by Kevin Gregg from him stepping in. ... The Diamondbacks' J.J. Putz may be looking at an extended stay on the disabled list, and Heath Bell gets the nod over David Hernandez. ... I'm a little surprised but the Angels are perhaps making the wise choice and staying with Ernesto Frieri rather than handing the job to Ryan Madson. ... If there was any doubt that Casey Janssen now has a firm grip on the closer's gig in Toronto, Sergio Santos requiring minor elbow surgery should end that discussion for quite awhile.