Prospect Watch: Command Lefties

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.

Frank Lopez, LHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: Low-A  Age: 20   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 32.2 IP, 31 H, 6 R, 36/6 K/BB, 1.38 ERA, 2.62 FIP

A small Venezuelan southpaw, Lopez has command of three solid pitches at a young age.

I should have seen this coming. I saw Lopez last July and noted consistent 87-91 mph velocity, a good curveball, and an easy delivery, but I just put the “organizational arm” tag on him. Part of that was that I caught him at his worst–in that outing, he allowed seven runs (tying a season high) and five walks (setting a season high) in 3 2/3 innings. But he was just 19, he had the mechanics for command, there was some stuff there, and if you take that one outing out of his season, he’d have a 4.13 ERA and 74/30 K/BB in 69.2 IP–not bad for a 19-year-old in full-season competition, and the sort of numbers that–when combined with a reasonable passing of the eye test–portend further rounding into form.

Ten months after that July viewing, Lopez has become the pitching prospect I had wished he was. You can see the dominance in the numbers–and remember, he’s just 20 all year–and it’s backed up by his arsenal and approach. It all starts with one of the easiest motions around:

You can see there that Lopez has a loose, easy arm action and good tempo to the plate, and the ease and simplicity of his motion allow him to repeat his delivery and spot the ball well. Further, the smallish lefthander still manages to get good plane to the plate by utilizing a high arm slot and incorporating his lower half well. With the exception of a couple of breaking pitches that spun out of his hand, he put the ball wherever he wanted in the outing–the changeup was always down, and the fastball was always on the edges of the zone. He threw nothing but those two pitches for the first three innings, and nobody reached base off him in that span–in fact, he retired the first fifteen batters he faced.

Also notable is the fact that the 87s and 88s of 2013 seem to be just about gone, as Lopez worked comfortably at 89-91 mph for seven innings–his last pitch of the game was 91, in fact. Due to the high arm slot, the pitch is fairly straight, and Lopez doesn’t have much projection left, but with his command and secondary stuff, the fastball should play near average.

Lopez’s changeup has made considerable strides from last season and has become his best pitch, parking at 82-85 mph with good fade and sink. He’ll throw it to both lefties and righties, keeping it consistently around the knees and getting players to swing over the top of the ball. The sink on the change is instrumental in allowing him to post a 52.3% groundball rate this year despite his lack of fastball movement. Lopez’s curveball was his best pitch last year, and while it’s been passed by the change, it still has good potential, with upper-70s power and good (if inconsistent) shape. When he has all three pitches working, as he did in the outing I saw, he’s very tough to hit because he can spot three very different pitches in different locations. In particular, he’s not afraid to come inside to righthanders:

Lopez doesn’t have a whole lot of projection, and his modest fastball thus will likely prevent him from reaching the front of a rotation. But with his poise, command, and three-pitch arsenal, it’s not hard to see him as an effective back-of-the-rotation pitch-mixer, and he could also function well in a bullpen role. Not bad for a guy signed for $240,000 with little fanfare and who wasn’t even on Baseball America‘s Rangers org depth chart before the season.

Jon Dziedzic, LHP, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: High-A  Age: 23   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 32.2 IP, 26 H, 8 R, 36/8 K/BB, 1.65 ERA, 2.55 FIP

A late-round find in the 2013 draft, Dziedzic has quickly adjusted to High-A in his first full season.

The above statline is great production for anyone, but it’s even more notable when it comes from an unheralded 13th-rounder jumped straight from the Pioneer League to the Carolina League. The move is actually quite necessary to give Dziedzic legitimate prospect status–he’s 23 years old–but he’s taken it and run with it, posting the third-best ERA in the league while tying for fourth in strikeouts so far.

Like Lopez, Dziedzic is a fairly small and non-projectable pitcher, listed at 6’0″ 200. Also like Lopez, he has a clean, repeatable motion that allows him to spot the ball effectively.

In my viewing (his first start of the 2014 season, back on April 4), Dziedzic worked at 90-92 mph in the first inning and mostly 87-89 thereafter. He does get good running and sinking action on the pitch, and as with Lopez, a high arm slot and good lower half use allow him to drive the ball down in the zone with good plane.

He’s really all about the secondary stuff, though. Dziedzic tosses a 73-76 mph curveball with good shape and bite and a fading 75-79 mph changeup with good speed separation. When he has them working, he can carve up High-A lineups, as you can see in this array of clips:

Dziedzic’s career will likely hinge on his ability to maintain low-90s velocity through his outings. While both of his offspeed offerings are good, neither are the sort of knockout pitches that allow a pitcher to succeed on their own, and he’ll find it increasingly difficult to set those pitches up with his fastball at higher levels if he’s working in the upper 80s. Given that my viewing came in his first start of the year, when pitchers often haven’t fully built up their stamina, I’m not about to say he can’t do it, but it’s something to keep an eye on, regardless. If Dziedzic can average 90 with his heater and make small strides with his consistency and pitch patterning, he could slot in as…well, basically what Bruce Chen and Jason Vargas are, except with the ability to keep the ball on the ground a reasonable percentage of the time.


Christian Jones, LHP, San Francisco Giants (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 23  Top-15: N/A  Top-100: N/A
Line: 27.2 IP, 21 H, 13 R, 31/4 K/BB, 3.58 ERA, 2.59 FIP

This command sidearmer came within five outs of a no-hitter in his last outing and is off to a great start in his first full pro season.

Taken in the 18th round of last year’s draft as an Oregon redshirt junior, Christian Jones entered his first full professional season as a 23-year-old at the Low-A level, a low-profile kid behind the age curve. He was mostly a reliever in college and worked 15 games (19 innings) out of short-season bullpens in 2013, but this year, the Giants made him a starter for the first time since his 2011 sophomore season, and he’s taken to it with aplomb, as his statline shows. In his most recent start (May 10 in Hickory), Jones took a no-hitter through 7 1/3 frames, surrendering just one walk (and getting a double play to immediately erase the baserunner even then) in that span; it was one of the more impressive displays of pitchability I’ve seen.

Watching Jones, the first thing that sticks out is his arm slot. It’s low.

Jones slings the ball from a slot that could be described as either “low three-quarters” or “sidearm” depending on how you’re feeling, and as with most hurlers who deliver the ball in this fashion, he gets good run and sink on the offering. Also like most low-slot guys, he doesn’t have exceptional velocity, but he’s not exactly late-career Barry Zito, either, as he touched 92 mph and held 89-91 mph velocity through much of the outing before tailing off to 87-89 in the seventh and eighth. He does a good job keeping the ball down and moving the ball around, picking up called strikes and getting lots of grounders (59.2% per StatCorner).

The sinking heater sets up a big-breaking 76-80 mph slider that Jones can break off the plate to lefthanders or backdoor to righties. Lefties don’t read it out of his hand, which can make it a devastating pitch to them. Watch how bad it makes Nomar Mazara–a hitter who rarely gets fooled–look in this pair of strikeouts.

And here’s a couple of backdoor strikeouts of righthanders:

It’s easy to imagine Jones wreaking havoc on lefthanded batters out of the bullpen, maybe picking up another tick or two on both pitches and working 90-93 with a 78-82 mph breaker. This year, lefties are 6-for-40 (.150) against him with one walk and 15 strikeouts (34.9% K%). Northpaws, on the other hand, are hitting…well, a still-poor .242/.288/.290, albeit with a much-reduced 24.2% strikeout rate. He does have a third usable pitch, a changeup at 81-85 mph that doesn’t have great velocity separation but does have, as you might expect, good fade and sink. His three-pitch mix, command, and groundball propensity should allow him to stay a starter for a couple more levels (it’ll be interesting to see how impervious his groundballing ways are to the Cal League environs, a question the Giants should seek to answer in the near future), but he may struggle to consistently keep upper-level righthanders off balance. The Giants should let him start until he hits that wall, but the safe bet is that he’ll move to relief around the time he hits Triple-A. Still, this is a potential quality bullpen lefthander at the big-league level, and that’s quite the coup for the 552nd overall pick in last year’s draft.

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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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When you do a “command lefties” post, it shall have Tyler Anderson in it.

Because I said so.

Got it?