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Prospect Watch: May Flames

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.

NOTE: In no way are the three players presented in this article meant to represent the three singular top performers of last month in the minor leagues. They are merely players who had clearly dominant Mays about whom I have especially relevant and novel information to add.

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Kevin Plawecki, C, New York Mets (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 23   Top-15: 6   Top-100: N/A
Line: 177 PA, .335/.367/.524, 6 HR, 8 BB, 21 K

Summary
An excellent all-around catching prospect.

Notes
I’ve been attempting to drive the Kevin Plawecki hype train ever since I saw the 2012 supplemental first-rounder in Low-A last May. After all, it’s tough not to like a legitimate two-way catcher. Now two levels higher and one year later, he’s showed no signs of slowing down.

After getting off to a fairly slow start in April (.250/.300/.304), Plawecki exploded in May, hitting .359/.378/.602 with fifteen extra-base hits in 26 games. After a .305/.390/.448 performance split between the A levels in 2013, he’s continuing to cement himself as one of the premier offensive catcher prospects in the game. His walk rate has taken a dive this year (4.5%), but he’s still rarely striking out (11.9%); his plate judgment is actually quite sound, but his contact skills are good enough that he rarely gets through a plate appearance without making contact. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and a short swing that has just enough leverage to make him dangerous.

On that note, he’s already launched six homers this season after hitting just eight last year. At 6’2″ and 225 pounds, Plawecki has a strapping catcher’s body and looks the part of a power hitter, though he typically has received merely fringe-average grades on his power tool in the past, largely because he has a gap-to-gap approach and doesn’t look to hit the ball out of the park (38 doubles last year, 13 this year). However, the early returns on his 2014 season seem to show he might be tapping more into his raw strength, which could make him a good source of both doubles and homers (by catcher standards, at least) down the line.

Moreover, Plawecki is a polished defensive catcher who will definitely stick behind the plate. He has extremely soft hands and has committed just 14 passed balls in 184 games caught in his career, a very advanced rate for a catcher in his early twenties. While his arm typically gets fringe-average grades, it’s another tool that seems to play above its scouting level, as he’s caught 32% of basestealers this year.

Travis d’Arnaud still appears to be the catcher of the future for the Mets, but with his career line standing at .195/.284/.276 after 251 MLB plate appearances, now might be the time where Plawecki starts to become something more than just an afterthought in the Mets’ plans. There’s still a chance he could serve as a valuable trade chip, but in any case, as a catcher with no real weaknesses (except for the speed deficiency common to the position), he should be a very valuable player for a major league team. Given how he’s producing at the minors’ second-highest level, he might be ready to start making MLB contributions in September.

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Luis Ysla, LHP, San Francisco Giants (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 47 IP, 38 H, 17 R, 37/19 K/BB, 2.49 ERA, 3.75 FIP

Summary
Everyone loves a power lefty, right?

Notes
I was at Luis Ysla‘s start against Hickory on May 13. A lot of things about that start were memorable. He threw eight innings and allowed just two hits, one run, and no walks while striking out seven. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, hit 96 mph in the seventh inning, and showed an intriguing slider.

All of those facts are indeed quite impressive, but the one I simply can’t shake from my head is this: Luis Ysla was signed for $7,500.

That’s $7,500 well spent, because Ysla has easily the best fastball I’ve ever seen from a lefthanded starter. He worked anywhere from 90-96 mph in my viewing, but could reach back for 94-96 whenever he wanted–as mentioned, he hit 96 in the seventh inning and 95 in the eighth. The pitch comes in with late sink and run from his slingshot delivery and is absolutely too much for Low-A batters:

You can see there that Ysla tends to dramatically vary the effort in his delivery. When he’s low effort, he’s still in the low 90s, but it’s when he ramps it up that the ball climbs into the mid 90s. Regardless of this quirk, it’s still a fastball that averages 93 mph with plus life, an extremely rare beast for a southpaw starter.

As you might expect, Ysla tends to rely heavily on the fastball–I’d estimate he threw it 75% of the time or so in my viewing. He does, however, have a very interesting second pitch that he’ll turn to for strikeouts at times:

The slider comes in at 78-83 mph with big, sweeping bite. It’s not particularly consistent at this stage, but it plays up because he uses it judiciously and because hitters have to worry so much about the fastball. It’s at least an average pitch already even without that and has the chance to be a 6 pitch in the future with additional tightening.

Ysla threw exactly three changeups in my viewing: the pitch is 85-87 mph with some sink and a touch of run, and frankly, he could have used it more without embarrassing himself. It’s a playable offering that could get into the average range with consistent reps.

Ysla is 22 years old already–he signed at age 20, which is a big part of why a southpaw this talented was signed so cheaply. But his dominant May–batters hit .189/.235/.253 off him and he put up a 1.29 ERA in 28 innings–backs up his stuff. It’s easy to see him turning into a Sean Doolittle sort of pitcher out of the bullpen, coming in and just throwing a ton of mid-90s heaters, but his offspeed arsenal is promising enough to not discount his chances at starting. Given his age, though, he’ll need a whole lot more reps on the changeup to make a rotation gig his long-term home. Regardless of his eventual role, Ysla should be a valuable big-league arm, one of many intriguing young pitchers the Giants are cultivating.

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Mitch Horacek, LHP, Baltimore Orioles (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 22  Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 58 IP, 56 H, 25 R, 55/15 K/BB, 2.64 ERA, 3.62 FIP

Summary
Horacek has premium size, three solid pitches, and a good idea of what he’s doing on the mound.

Notes
From afar, it might seem that Mitch Horacek is an organizational arm–the sort of guy every organization has a few of. You know the type–ninth-round college pick, big guy, a bit old for his levels but not egregiously so, producing well, okay stuff but nothing exceptional. When I went to see him throw (the day after I saw Ysla), that’s the type of guy I was expecting.

In a lot of ways, Mitch Horacek is that guy. He’s a big fastball-slider-change lefty with good control, the sort of combination that works wonders against Low-A hitters, allowing him to post a 1.60 ERA and 36/10 K/BB in 33.1 innings at the level in May. Including his first start in June, he hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last three outings, spanning 18 frames.

Taken by itself, his stuff isn’t anything altogether special. Horacek throws an 89-92 mph fastball with some running action, a solid 79-83 mph slider with bite, and a 79-82 mph fading changeup; he also flashed a show-me curveball at 76. It’s quite the boiler-plate repertoire–nothing about it impresses, really, but it’s not so boring as to immediately cause one to discard Horacek’s MLB prospects.

So after seeing him throw a couple of innings, I had Horacek labeled as an org guy–maybe a good innings-eater in the upper minors. But as I kept watching him throw, what struck me was the big southpaw’s lack of flaws. None of his pitches (other than the curve, which isn’t important) projected at lower than 5-grade offerings, he gets good plane to the plate from his big frame, he held his velocity through six innings, he has a bit of deception in his slightly herky-jerky motion, he hits his spots, and, as one might expect from a Dartmouth product, he possesses excellent pitchability, moving the ball around to all four quadrants of the zone to both lefties and righties and mixing all three of his pitches very well. He does like to turn to the slider with two strikes:

The breaking pitch has allowed Horacek to dominate lefthanded batters this year (.141/.187/.239 with a 30/3 K/BB in 75 PA), so at the worst, he can take it to the bullpen and become a lefty specialist. Against righties, he’s allowing a more problematic .301/.353/.434 line and his strikeout rate drops from 40% to 16.8%. This trend bears watching in the long run, though Horacek still has a reasonable 31/12 K/BB against righties, and his changeup should be good enough to give him a chance against them. Given what I saw from him, I’m inclined to say that a lot of the ugly triple-slash here is likely bad BABIP luck; righties have a .343 mark off him while lefties are at .244. While I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was a real true-talent split there given the strikeout rate split, I find it highly unlikely that it’s that dramatic.

In any case, Horacek struck me as perhaps a cut above the typical organizational profile his background might suggest. Most guys of this type have one big undoing–one pitch isn’t as good as the others, or the fastball’s too straight or too slow, or there’s not enough stamina, or the mechanics aren’t good. But Horacek is solid all the way around, and that leads be to believe he has a real chance at evolving into a quality back-of-the-rotation starter.