When I was in Arizona a couple weeks ago, I saw San Diego Padres pitcher Anthony Bass pitch against the San Francisco Giants. That performance was the most memorable of my first day in The Grand Canyon State. Was Bass dominant? No. Was he good? Kind of. But it was his fastball-slider arsenal that caught my attention and reminded me of a conversation I once had with a source. Without getting too deep, we talked about how I needed to check in with major-leaguers every once in a while to make sure that my prospect opinions have been accurate.
In Major League Baseball, guys like Anthony Bass can become marginalized. “Soft tosser,” “back-end starter” and “swing-man” are often used to describe these pitchers — those players who generally can fit into a number of big-league roles, but in more of a complementary capacity. Folks like me — who enjoy watching top-level prospects — sometimes struggle to realize that scouts who watch minor league games are hunting for these marginal major-leaguers. In their world, it’s all about finding players who can reach the game’s highest level — whether they be a top-of-the-line starter or the last guy off the bench. That sentiment was reiterated by a scout I chatted with who essentially told me, “You prospect guys need to look at age-versus-level and analyze that sort of thing to write top prospect lists. Me, I just look for major leaguers and write them up.”
For me, that’s a very important distinction. And it’s what makes Bass worth writing about.
The Padres sixth starter flashed a fastball that could hit 94 mph and complemented that with a slider in the 86 mph to 88 mph range. Bass showed a changeup and he liberally threw a two-seamer that regularly hit between 89 mph and 91 mph. Having never really researched his velocity data on FanGraphs, I was pleasantly surprised. But I left thinking about the pitchers I’ve scouted who I projected as future big-leaguers who had less stuff. And if Bass debuted with a underwhelming strikeout rate of 4.47 — versus a walk rate of 3.91 — in his first time in the majors, then should I raise my expectations when I go to the park and watch a particular pitcher?
Spring Training gives us a unique opportunity to see both established major-leaguers and prospects, and often they play together. In terms of physical development, how does Adrian Beltre —an established star — compare with Mike Olt, the prospect who might eventually inherit Beltre’s third base spot in Texas? From a feel-for-pitching standpoint, how does Madison Bumgarner‘s ability to locate, cut and sink his fastball differ from a pitcher like Robbie Ross — a guy who needs to do the same if he wants to have success in the majors?
Sure, the top-100 prospects are easy to identify. It’s not exactly difficult to project Bryce Harper as a superstar or Matt Moore as an impact starter. The challenge comes when you’re trying to figure out who the second lefty out of a bullpen will be. Those instances when one of my sources tells me that an A-ball player — like Atlanta’s Ronan Pacheco — could eventually help his big-league club is a valuable bit of information that makes me want to dig deeper and see what those team scouts are seeing.
So my goal for the 2012 season is to actively scout at least one big-league game per month, in addition to the minor league rounds that I’ve been making the past three seasons. This should be enough to keep my personal compass set correctly throughout the year. My inclination will be to shoot for those sexy pitching matchups, but watching a swing-man make a spot start might prove even more important — especially when the term “mid-rotation starter” is thrown around more loosely than a game of catch between Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch.
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