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Mike Minor’s Up and Down Debut

Mike Minor is a perfect example for why draft day armchair analysis doesn’t work. In 2009, the Vanderbilt lefty went seventh overall to the Braves, amid fairly consistent criticism from pundits. His fastball, at the time, graded out below average for some scouts, and his breaking ball was inconsistent at best. Everyone agreed that Minor had a good (great?) change-up, but while the comparisons people made to Jeremy Sowers would have once been a compliment, Minor seemed more like a late first round pick than someone that should be drafted ahead of Aaron Crow, Alex White, or Kyle Gibson.

Then, suddenly, Minor wasn’t the same pitcher anymore. Or, maybe he was exactly who Braves scouts thought he could be. This kid that wasn’t “dominant” in college — striking out just one batter per inning, and holding an ERA around 4 — was leading the minor leagues in strikeouts. Once a command specialist, who had a 1.89 BB/9 as an SEC freshman, Minor was now wild, with a walk rate of 3.5. Explanations were hard to come by. I assumed it was a mastering of his curveball, a pitch that college coach Tim Corbin told me on draft day last year was quickly becoming a weapon for him. It wasn’t until even later in the season that we found out his velocity had taken a step forward. In the Futures Game, he touched 95 mph. And by that point, Minor was dominating Triple-A.

Yesterday, the Braves called up Minor to open their series against the Houston Astros. I’m a geek for Major League debuts, and seeing as though Mike Minor was opposite Bud Norris — a former breakout prospect of mine, and current xFIP underachiever — it was must watch television for me. Ultimately, and probably unsurprisingly, it was a pretty sloppy game. The Astros won 10-4 after a seventh inning Braves bullpen implosion. Minor certainly gave the team a chance to win: six innings, one walk, five strikeouts. He did find that even Major Leaguers aren’t immune to ball-in-play variance, as two bloop hits and one Alex Gonzalez error were responsible for three of his four runs allowed. Given the overall success of the outing, his FIP (2.44) tells a better story for the start than his ERA (4.50). But that’s hardly a surprise.

Minor was a good study in the difference between control and command: he wasn’t wild, but he wasn’t hitting Brian McCann‘s glove behind the plate, either. In Minor’s problem inning, the fourth, his first run came on a bloop double by Carlos Lee. McCann set up further in and up than where the pitch ended up, and while Minor probably didn’t deserve the run, 92 mph belt-high and middle-in won’t get it done at the highest level. Two batters later, his worst pitch of the night came to Brett Wallace, and by his reaction, Minor knew it. Wallace stung the down-the-middle offering, but with topspin, preventing the first home run of both their careers.

Even with the addition of velocity — Minor was 92-94 mph early on, touching 95, before pitching at 89-91 in the 5th and 6th innings — it’s hard to see it becoming a dominant Major League offering. According to Texas Leaguers (I should note that I have some problems with their pitch classifications after one start — what they list as two-seam fastballs were actually changeups), Minor’s whiff rate on his fastball last night was just 3.4%. In multiple at-bats, the southpaw struggled to put batters away with his fastball, giving up a huge percentage of foul balls. Perhaps if he can maintain consistent 92-95 mph, that will change, but we’ll first need to see it to believe it. This was an Astros lineup, after all, that featured Angel Sanchez and Jeff Keppinger hitting second and third, respectively.

But there are positives to take away from this start; namely, that Minor showed a fantastic change-up. The whiff rate of that offering was somewhere north of 25%, and, while he elevated a few, had pretty solid command of the pitch low and away to right-handed hitters. It’s a weapon, and dare I say, it has the opportunity to be one of baseball’s best. He’s a better pitcher than Jason Vargas or Wade LeBlanc, and a different pitcher than Ricky Romero or Jaime Garcia, but the strength of those change-ups is what I’m trying to convey.

In conclusion, while we have to adjust Minor’s long-term projection as a result of the first four months of his minor league season, I don’t want the numbers to have expectations too high. Minor is still more of a #3 starter than anything else, and there’s work to be done on his game. His breaking ball needs work, even though there are signs of a plus pitch there. His fastball is a bit of a tweener: not consistent-enough velocity to blow people away, not good-enough command to hit all his spots. He is close to being pretty damn good, but there is still work to be done. And with the Braves in the height of a playoff race, I’m not sure now is the time to be learning.