Prospect Watch: Changeup Artists

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.

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J.B. Wendelken, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 21   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 59.1 IP, 64 H, 30 R, 50/9 K/BB, 3.94 ERA, 3.51 FIP

Summary
This converted reliever has shown some positives and negatives in his first year as a professional starter.

Notes
J.B. Wendelken was acquired by the White Sox from the Red Sox as part of the Jake Peavy deal. I’ve already written about the other two prospects that went from Boston to Chicago in that move–flamethrower Francellis Montas and shortstop extroardinaire Cleuluis Rondon–this year, and Wendelken…well, doesn’t quite carry the excitement of Montas’ mid-90s gas and above-average slider or Rondon’s acrobatic defense, but he does show enough to reveal why White Sox brass would have wanted him in the first place.

A nondescript thirteenth-round pick out of junior college in 2012, Wendelken worked as a reliever in his first two professional seasons, dominating the New York-Penn League in 2012 and turning in a solid 2013 mostly at the Low-A level. The White Sox liked him enough to move him to starting this year with High-A Winston-Salem, and as his numbers show, he’s taken to it reasonably well, cutting his walk rate to 3.6% while maintaining a 20% strikeout rate. At 21 and in High-A, he’s certainly not too old to be a prospect, too.

As the title of this article implies, Wendelken’s big weapon right now is a monstrous changeup that features zone-crossing fade. And when I say zone-crossing, I mean zone-crossing:

The bigtime action on the pitch is paired with excellent velocity separation–early in my viewing, Wendelken’s fastball was in the low 90s while the change was in the upper 70s. He features it heavily to both lefties and righties and isn’t afraid to double or triple up on it if a batter’s unable to pick the pitch up. As you can see, it induces a ton of awkward swings.

So Wendelken has the great changeup, he can touch 94 mph, and he throws strikes. That’s not a bad mix of positives for a 21-year-old High-A starter, but he’ll need refinement on all other fronts to succeed as a major leaguer later on. The first question is his breaking pitch. I saw Wendelken as a reliever before the trade last year, and he flashed a big curveball:

That pitch was all but gone in my viewing this year, though. He threw one at 76 late in the outing that was a “hey, there it is!” moment (and then found out what happens when you go through the batting order a third time with a changeup-heavy approach)…

…but all his other breaking pitches were rolling slurves in the 78-82 mph range that generally weren’t much more than chase offerings. I’m not sure if they’re just overthrown curveballs or a different pitch–a slider–altogether, but whatever the case may be, he’s likely best served with the big curve going forward if he can get reasonably consistent shape.

A second issue is stamina. Wendelken came out throwing 92-94 mph in the first inning, but by the fifth and sixth, he was topping out at 88. His heater doesn’t have much life, so he’ll get crushed if it’s coming in at 85-88 for extended periods of time–particularly, as mentioned above, when hitters have already seen and adjusted to the changeup. To some extent, he can be excused due to his recent conversion to starting, but it bears watching if he can stay in the 90s throughout his outings.

While Wendelken is young and his issues might appear reasonably fixable, it should be emphasized that he’s not particularly projectable. If the stamina isn’t showing up soon, it may never, and that alone would likely preclude Wendelken from starting. While it might be tempting to dream on him as the next Marco Estrada, he’s more likely to fit into a Brad Boxberger/Tyler Clippard role as a reliever who can air it out around 92 mph and throw a nasty changeup 35% of the time. Not all that glamorous, but you don’t really expect glamor from trade throw-ins, so it’s actually a pretty nice outcome if it works out.

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Alex Claudio, LHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 22   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 35.2 IP, 24 H, 6 R, 39/5 K/BB, 1.26 ERA, 2.23 FIP

Summary
The silliest changeup you’ll ever see, and…maybe enough else to make it work?

Notes
I write a lot of words about prospects. Sometimes, though, words are unnecessary. Alex Claudio’s changeup creates exactly this sort of situation:

Not only are words unnecessary to make sense of what you just saw, they’re also hard to find. I’ve had over a year to digest who Alex Claudio is and what he does–I saw him four times last year in Low-A and once this year in High-A–and I still don’t know what to say about this pitch. I’d say it’s the best changeup I’ve ever seen, and I suppose it is, but it’s such a ridiculous pitch that comparing other changeups to it doesn’t even seem right. Changeups aren’t supposed to go that slow–the pitch comes in around 17-18 mph slower than his fastball–and they sure aren’t supposed to move that much. It’s basically a righthanded curveball…thrown by a lefthanded sidearmer…in the mid-to-upper 60s, as if Randy Choate could magically get a ball to move like Joakim Soria‘s curve, or something.

With a pitch this slow and bizarre, it’s easy to see Claudio and brand him a novelty act–the word “eephus” comes up sometimes to describe his changeup, and there’s no precedent (recent, anyway) for a pitcher enjoying lasting MLB success with an eephus as his out pitch. The Puerto Rican southpaw certainly has gotten results, though. In fact, it’s mystifying to me that he’s spent the year in High-A–in the second half of last season, he put up a 2.84 ERA and 3.18 FIP in 21 appearances in Double-A as a 21-year-old. He’s been stretched out some this year, averaging three innings per appearance, but hasn’t made a start, so the organization’s handling of this changeup artist seems a bit strange.

Of course, the changeup is where the superlatives with Claudio end, unless one throws in his always-solid, sometimes-excellent walk rates as a second gold star. His fastball typically resides in the 84-86 mph range–I did see him touch 87 once in the outing I saw earlier this month, the first time I’ve seen him reach that velocity, and reports of occasional 88s exist as well, but he’s certainly not going to have even average velocity. Like many sidearmers, he does get good sink and run on the fastball, which helps offset this deficiency some. He also throws a 72-76 mph slider that he’ll usually use on lefthanders. It was just a show pitch in 2013, but it’s improved to fringe-average this year and could be a functional weapon to southpaws with continued improvement.

Claudio is such a unique pitcher that it’s really difficult to project him. Since he had Double-A success at 21, it’s likely that he’ll master the minors someday, so the question is simple: Will his act play in the big leagues? Some say yes, some say no, and with a pitcher this odd, sometimes it’s better to just wait and see than to pretend there’s a definite answer. If you want to reach for a comparison, probably the best is former Reds southpaw (and Rangers prospect) Danny Ray Herrera, who managed 101 2/3 above-replacement-level innings before being derailed by arm woes. Herrera’s arsenal was somewhat similar, though he threw a bit slower than Claudio, wasn’t quite a sidearmer, and was nine inches shorter. Herrera, however, was an extreme platoon-split guy (MLB RHBs hit .352/.417/.532 off him) despite his screwball changeup, while Claudio has yet to show signs of that weakness (RHBs hit .208/.264/.295 off him last year and are hitting .207/.247/.272 this year). Given his superior size and velocity, he may have a better (and hopefully longer) career. Claudio certainly has limitations and likely will never be a closer or even a primary setup man, but he could be a solid (and wildly entertaining) middle reliever in fairly short order.

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Bennett Parry, LHP, Baltimore Orioles (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 11.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 15/4 K/BB, 0.00 ERA, 2.27 FIP

Summary
This massive lefthander has always had great numbers but has been moved slowly.

Notes
I keep moving down the draft in this piece–Wendelken was taken in the 13th round, Claudio in the 27th, and Bennett Parry in the 40th. Since he was drafted, though, Parry has gotten outs–he owns a career 2.77 ERA and 122/41 K/BB in 120 1/3 innings across four seasons. Even though he had a solid 2013 as a swingman with Low-A Delmarva, the Orioles are having him repeat the level this year, and as you can see by the numbers above, he’s barely let anyone reach base in 2014.

You’d think a big lefty with this sort of track record would start to get noticed at some point, but Parry really hasn’t. He’s not all that old, too, being just 22 and having clearly proven himself at the Low-A level. The focus then turns to his stuff, with the assumption being that there’s not much there. It’s not an entirely false claim, but it’s not entirely true either.

If you look at the above video, you see Parry striking out the aforementioned Cleuluis Rondon, but you might also move to affirm the idea that there’s not much to his arsenal. Starting out 88, 87, 88 from a standard-ish, overhand slot is a good way to induce yawns, and then he gets Rondon out in front of a changeup at 77. Note that the changeup has good arm speed and velocity separation, though.

Parry’s success clearly doesn’t come from the pitch he starts Jeremy Dowdy off with here, though–his curveball is a 72-75 mph pitch that has a soft, rolling trajectory that isn’t going to miss many bats. However, he comes back with 90, 90, and 91 mph fastballs, showing a bit of life on the pitch as well. 90-91 mph heaters with steep downhill plane? What if he could combine that with that changeup?

And here’s where we get a real sense of why Parry is getting outs–he starts this sequence off 77, 91, 76, 92, and the delivery’s the same every time. Parry’s changeup doesn’t have the huge action of Wendelken’s or Claudio’s, but it’s got the same sort of velocity separation, and coming from a 6’6″, big-bodied lefty with some idea of where the ball’s going, that’s not a bad starting point. Parry isn’t likely to dominate hitters to this degree when he hits the upper minors, but if he can keep the fastball in the 90-92 range without so many 87-89s mixed in, he might be able to hold down the fort as a lefty reliever who can work multiple innings if needed.



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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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