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, I examine three interesting groundball prospects who most have probably never heard of.
Level: Low-A Age: 23 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 84 IP, 71 H, 29 R, 73/18 K/BB, 2.46 ERA, 3.23 FIP
Newell’s exceptional plane and solid slider have allowed him to carve up Low-A hitters.
Ryan Newell certainly defies expectations. For one, he played college baseball at Georgia’s Shorter College, a school that (not including him) has produced just three MLB draftees since 1990, all three selected in the 25th round or later. The last time a Shorter player had been selected in the top ten rounds was 1978, until Newell went in the seventh round in 2012.
Second, many of Newell’s basic attributes as a pitcher are quite generic. He’s listed at 6’2″ and 215 pounds, and that height might be an inch generous. His fastball typically arrives in the 88-92 mph range, which isn’t awful but certainly isn’t anything beyond ordinary for a minor league righthander. And despite his lack of size or plus velocity, he’s carving up the Low-A South Atlantic League this year.
Finally, Newell employs a high overhand arm slot. In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. However, most pitchers who use high overhand deliveries tend to throw straighter, flatter fastballs than those who use lower-slot motions. Ryan Newell‘s defiance of this rule is what makes him a prospect.
Because higher arm slots tend to produce straighter fastballs, most hurlers are faced with a choice: plane or sink? They can throw from a low arm slot, getting little downward plane but making the ball move more, they can throw from a high slot, getting excellent leverage but little movement, or they can elect to get a little of both from a three-quarter angle. At 6’2″ (or 6’1″), Newell’s use of a high slot allows him to get better plane than most pitchers his size, but he somehow finds a way to get plus sink on the baseball as well.
That was Newell’s first batter faced in his last outing, and you don’t need a whole lot more than that to see why he gets outs. His fastball may only have average velocity, but it’s an absolute bowling ball that’s very tough to lift. StatCorner has Newell down for a 55.1% groundball rate this year. Further, he throws a surprisingly powerful slider that has good late snap, giving him a bat-missing pitch. And finally, it all comes out of a smooth delivery that allows him to spot his pitches. Tons of grounders, reasonable strikeouts, and few walks? That’s a winning combination.
Another intriguing thing about Newell is that while he mostly worked in the 88-92 mph range, he threw a couple of pitches that touched higher. This sequence goes 89, 91, 95:
That was his only 95 of the night, but Newell did have a couple 93s and 94s and several 92s, and he didn’t seem to need a huge amount of extra effort to get there. The extra gear had me wondering what would happen if Newell goes to the bullpen–could he start throwing, say, 90-94 touching 96?
The bullpen question is a salient one with Newell, because while his sinker and slider are above-average offerings, his 83-86 mph changeup is a fringy pitch. As a result, he has a huge platoon split–righties are hitting .181/.228/.256 off him, while southpaws are hanging in for a .281/.321/.403 line. Given that Newell turns 23 tomorrow and is in his third professional season, his lack of a quality third pitch can’t be chalked up to mere inexperience–it likely never will be an average offering.
If he can get the change to come around, Newell would be a very valuable innings-muncher at the big league level. If not, though, his sinker/slider pairing could make him a very solid middle reliever, especially if those 94s and 95s start showing up with more frequency.
Level: Double-A Age: 23 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 65.1 IP, 49 H, 18 R, 48/16 K/BB, 1.93 ERA, 3.05 FIP
Perez’s combination of sink and pitchability has put him on the brink of the big leagues.
Like Newell, Williams Perez is not a particularly flashy pitcher. At a generous 6’1″ and 230 pounds, he’s not a physical specimen, and he works mostly at 88-92 mph. But, as the title of this article implies, he gets good sink on the ball, and that makes a world of difference.
Unlike Newell, Perez is more of a 3/4 angle pitcher, so he doesn’t get the same extreme tilted plane that Newell does. His fastball is more of a running pitch with some sink than a real vertical mover, but it still has allowed him to post groundball rates between 50 and 55% over the last three seasons, per StatCorner.
The advantage Perez has is that in addition to his sinker–a pitch that traditionally boasts a large platoon split–he has a solid changeup. It arrives at 76-80 mph, giving it about 12 mph of speed separation, and like the fastball, it has solid movement. The pitch has allowed him to silence lefties (.224/.286/.263) about as much as righties (.206/.268/.252) this year. Perez also throws an inconsistent slider from 75-82 mph that’s a reasonable second offering to his fellow northpaws.
It’s all added up to a very strong introduction to the upper minors for the Venezuelan righthander, who owns a sub-2.00 ERA and has allowed just two home runs all season. He just turned 23 last month, so he’s not old for the level, and he may bring his sinking mix to the majors in the near future given the success he’s had. With his groundball ability and the changeup that can keep lefties from teeing off, he’s a good bet to be a functional if unexceptional big league starter for several years, assuming health.
Alex Smith, RHP, New York Yankees (Profile)
Level: High-A Age: 24 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 34.1 IP, 29 H, 10 R, 31/9 K/BB, 1.83 ERA, 2.79 FIP
With two strong offerings, Smith is an intriguing relief sleeper.
If I’ve acquired any sort of reputation in my prospect writing that isn’t related to long-windedness, it probably has to do with my talking up of seemingly random sleepers. Alex Smith would seem to be exactly this sort of player. He’s a relief pitcher in High-A ball who turns 25 in three months, and he’s not even striking out a batter per inning. Who cares about that?
National prospect circles never will, and understandably so. But that doesn’t mean that Alex Smith doesn’t have some very interesting attributes.
For one, he has even better groundball rates than Newell or Perez. He’s at 65% this year in that category, which is a truly elite mark. Combine that with typically strong walk rates, and you get the picture of a hurler who’s difficult to beat unless his opponents get lucky by getting several straight grounders through the infield.
When I saw him last year, though, what stuck out to me most about Smith was his curveball:
Smith’s arsenal is mostly made up of a low-90s running heater and the big upper 70s breaker. He throws from a high slot and gets good leverage to the plate, doing a nice job of keeping the ball down, and the curve can function as a great groundball pitch when hitters do hit it. His changeup lags behind the other two offerings, but it can be a functional pitch to lefthanders, and as a reliever, Smith doesn’t need it.
Since signing with the Yankees as an undrafted free agent, Smith has consistently put up strong numbers–his age relative to the level is more a function of his signing late than any sort of failure or setbacks in his professional career. With the solid fastball, plus curve, and extreme groundball tendency, he could prove to be a surprisingly adept MLB reliever. He needs to be challenged with a Double-A assignment soon to see how well he’ll hang in against upper-minors bats.
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