Prospect Watch: 2014 Improvement

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

In this installment of the Prospect Watch, I examine three players who have improved markedly from my viewings in 2013 to 2014.

Robinson Leyer, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 21  Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 62.2 IP, 72 H, 35 R, 43/21 K/BB, 3.16 ERA, 3.97 FIP

Leyer brings easy heat and knows where it’s going, and his game has taken a quantum leap forward in the past year.

I first came across Robinson Leyer last July in the Rookie level Appalachian League. I was interested in what he brought to the table mostly because his older brother, Euclides Leyer, is also a White Sox farmhand. I had seen the elder Leyer (pronounced “layer,” for those curious) several times and was intrigued by his raw stuff–a 91-95 mph moving fastball and a hard curve that flashes plus–so I was curious what the younger sibling–who bears a striking resemblance to his brother, more so than most non-twin siblings–had to offer.

What unfolded that hot July day was one of the odder outings I took in last season. For the first three innings, Robinson Leyer looked like a non-prospect. He touched 92 mph with his fastball, which isn’t half-bad for an Appy League starter, but it was anywhere from 86-92 and often slid into the lower end of that range. His curveball mostly just spun, his changeup wasn’t particularly interesting, and his control was below-average even for the Rookie level. He looked like the sort of pitcher who would…well…post a 6.35 ERA and walk almost as many batters as he struck out, which is exactly what he did that year.

And then, suddenly, in the fourth inning, Robinson Leyer started to look interesting. His velocity jumped to the low 90s, and he even touched 95 once, his offspeed pitches were occasionally solid, and he started to pitch with confidence and aggressiveness. I can’t recall another outing where a pitcher suddenly found a bigtime extra gear like that so late in his outing, but I was intrigued by it. Needless to say, that form clearly was absent more than it was present last year, judging by his subpar statistical output.

Leyer got a chance to follow his brother’s path and join the Low-A Kannapolis rotation this year, and early on, it seemed like he was as ill-prepared for that task as you’d expect a poor Appalachian League hurler to be. In his first two starts, he allowed twelve earned runs on fifteen hits and five walks in six innings. Inconsistency has been a big issue for Euclides, and it looked like Robinson was going to fall prey to some of the same issues.

Since then, though, the younger Leyer has figured things out in a way his brother–who was moved to relief this year with High-A Winston-Salem–hasn’t, putting together a 1.59 ERA over his last ten starts. He hasn’t been quite as dominant as that seems–he’s allowed more unearned runs (13) than earned runs (10) in that stretch, and batters are hitting a reasonable .262/.315/.350 off him–but he’s throwing strikes (6.8% walk rate) and keeping the ball in the park (3 HR).

More importantly, his stuff is vastly improved from the 2013 version. I took in Leyer’s most recent start on Tuesday–his best of the year (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 K)–and was very pleasantly surprised on a number of fronts.

His days of throwing in the upper 80s are over. Leyer worked at 93-94 mph into the seventh, with a few 92s and 95s mixed in. He even touched 96 once, here:

Leyer didn’t need much more than the fastball to keep a talented Savannah lineup–featuring first-rounders Dominic Smith and Gavin Cecchini, SAL batting leader Jeff McNeil, and 2013 Appy League top prospect Amed Rosario, among others–at bay. The pitch gets on hitters quickly because of the deception on the backside of his delivery and his quick tempo to the plate, and he was aggressive with it throughout the night. He’s not quite a command artist, but he’s usually on the corners with the heater, and the majority of his misses were just overthrows that hit the dirt rather than mistakes in the zone that hitters could damage.

Leyer appears to have ditched the subpar curve he threw in 2013 for a true slider that arrives anywhere from 78-83 mph. It’s not consistent right now, to the point where it actually looks like two different pitches. At 78-80, it’s a soft, slurvy spinner that isn’t any better than his old curve, but at 82-83, it’s a power pitch with some tilt, grading out as an average offering. About three in every five fell into the latter category; given that the offering is fairly new to him, he should gain further consistency with the pitch and see it develop into a solid complement to the fastball.

Leyer’s third pitch is an 82-86 mph changeup that has similar inconsistency–sometimes it has nice sink and some fade, while other times it’s just flat. He doesn’t seem to trust it as much as the slider, and there weren’t as many good changeups in the outing as there were good sliders, but the pitch is far from hopeless. Here he uses it extensively to strike out the heralded Smith:

Given that he’s a smallish guy with a big fastball and inconsistent secondary stuff, the easy bet is that Leyer follows his brother to the bullpen, though his solid control and the intermittent effectiveness of his slider and changeup make him at least somewhat interesting as a starting pitcher. Further, he’s come a long way in the past year, and at 21, he may not be done developing. This is the sort of pitcher who could start climbing prospect lists, starting…right now.


Kelvin Vasquez, RHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 21   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 51.2 IP, 44 H, 26 R, 58/18 K/BB, 4.35 ERA, 3.32 FIP

A massively improved breaking pitch and better pitchability have helped turn Vasquez from a raw power arm into a real prospect.


At the outset of 2013, the Rangers decided Kelvin Vasquez was advanced enough to go straight from the rotation of their Dominican Summer League team to that of their Low-A affiliate in Hickory. The then-20-year-old had been one of the better pitchers in the DSL the prior year, and he touched 95 mph, so it wasn’t hard to grasp the organization’s enthusiasm for the young hurler; however, it was readily apparent that he was not ready for the challenge. I took in three of the seven starts he made before he was sent back to extended spring training due to ineffectiveness (6.49 ERA, 6.18 FIP, 19/18 K/BB in 26 1/3 IP), and Vasquez was maddening to watch. This still takes the cake for the worst pitching plate appearance I’ve ever seen (at least in terms of results):

That’s a wild pitch, a missed tag, a wild throw, and a homer allowed, all in one plate appearance (against a player who hit .221/.271/.329 and was released the next spring)–a pretty impressive cornucopia of bad in such a compressed timeframe. And even when he wasn’t making such copious mistakes, Vasquez spent his outings fighting himself. Sure, he worked at 90-94 mph and touched 95, and he had a good frame, but that was the sum of his skills. His breaking ball couldn’t decide if it was a curve or a slider–the only thing about it that was consistent was that it didn’t bite. He hardly ever threw a changeup, and when he did, he made you wish he didn’t. His delivery, while reasonably sound, was too deliberate, causing him to frequently lose his balance point, causing a cascade that ended in him missing his spot badly. And with poor control and only one good pitch, he didn’t have much confidence, losing his poise as the baserunners, runs, and bad outings mounted.

Still, the kid was undoubtedly rushed, and as frustrating as it was to watch those outings, I wasn’t going to write him off. I figured Vasquez would go down to short-season ball, maybe recover some confidence, and come back the next year more prepared to face Low-A batters. After all, once in a very long while in those Hickory outings, Vasquez would do things right besides throw hard. While the vast majority of his breaking pitches were formless slurves, he did throw a couple big power breakers, and every now and then, he’d (probably accidentally) throw a pitch with a quicker tempo and much better drive to the plate. I figured that if Vasquez could do both of those things more than twice a game, he’d be something.

Vasquez went down to short-season Spokane and dominated in the second half of last year (2.13 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 26.7% K%), indicating that he was ready to try Hickory out again. And wouldn’t you know it, he showed up in 2014 having made exactly those two adjustments, and the results followed.

Vasquez appears a bit quicker to the plate in 2013, and he’s improved his leverage by driving off the mound more consistently with his back foot. He worked at 91-95 mph, touching 96, in the relief outing I saw, with the ball coming out of his hand easily and getting on hitters quickly. The curveball has turned into a hard biter at 80-82 mph that grades out as average to solid-average, giving him a second weapon to go with the heater; it could turn into a plus offering in time. He didn’t show a changeup in the outing I saw, and reports are that it’s still not much more than a show pitch, but it’s telling that he’s largely succeeded as a starter this year even without an effective third pitch.

The lack of a changeup is likely going to confine Vasquez to a relief role in the long run, but he could be a high-leverage guy if he commands his two quality offerings. He’s got plenty of projection left, so he could work more comfortable in the mid-90s as time goes on. Unfortunately, he was placed on the DL with elbow issues earlier this week, and it remains to be seen if he’ll need surgery. While that would obviously be a major setback, Vasquez is still quite young and has plenty of time to overcome the obstacle, and the Rangers will likely have plenty of patience with his live arm.


Stephen Perez, SS, Washington Nationals (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 23   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 253 PA, .293/.398/.389, 1 HR, 35 BB, 32 K

Perez is a switch-hitter who can hit a little, take some walks, and hang in in the middle infield.

I don’t have an extended story about what Stephen Perez was like last year like I do with Leyer and Vasquez, largely because when I watched Stephen Perez play last year, I didn’t see a compelling reason to pay particularly rapt attention. Leyer was interesting because I found his brother interesting, and Vasquez was interesting because he touched 95 and made a two-level jump, but Stephen Perez was a 22-year-old Low-A shortstop who usually hit ninth in a fairly mediocre Hagerstown lineup and produced a .236/.303/.326 line while getting caught stealing on nine of his sixteen attempts. It was hardly a great first full season for the 2012 eighth-rounder.

But Perez is rolling this year, having managed to turn his K/BB ratio from the 3/1 neighborhood to better than even. In fact, after posting a 14/4 K/BB ratio in April, he posted a 14/27 one in May–chew on that split for awhile. He’s also suddenly 17-for-20 in basestealing attempts. Switch-hitting shortstops who post 127 wRC+s and can run don’t exactly grow on trees.

Here’s what Perez looked like in 2013:

And 2014:

Look at how much better the 2014 swing is. It’s not a power cut by any means, but Perez keeps his hands back well, and there’s so much less pre-swing movement. He also keeps a better, more level plane. Perez wasn’t ever going to be a big power threat anyway, so he might as well give up the pseudo-uppercut and the load of his 2013 hitting mechanics. Heck, his ISO hasn’t been affected at all–it was .090 last year and .096 this year.

When you combine a lefty stroke built for contact with good pitch-recognition skills in a switch-hitting middle infielder, you get a player worthy of at least some consideration. Unfortunately, Perez isn’t a great prospect, largely because his range and arm fit best at second base rather than shortstop. A switch-hitter who can hit, say, .255/.310/.330 isn’t a bad reserve if he can play second, third, and shortstop well–Nick Punto‘s made a hell of a career out of it–but Perez is likely going to be stretched at short in the long term and he doesn’t project to stand out at either of the other infield skill spots. He does play the game hard and has clearly made great strides in the past year, so he can’t be counted out entirely, but the margin between long MLB careers and eternal Triple-A work for players like this is rather thin. Still, this is a player who looked to be on his way to release a year ago, but now it looks like he’s got a real shot to still be in organized baseball at age 30, and he has a fighting chance to make the big leagues. That might not seem like much in the grand scheme of the upside-crazed prospect world, but it really is quite something in its own right.

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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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Twinkies Jose Berrios has had a nice season and has looked improved overall.