Prospect Watch: Power Arms

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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Frank Montas, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: High-A  Age: 21   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 4/1 K/BB, 1.80 ERA, 2.20 FIP

Summary
Part of the Jake Peavy bounty, Montas combines premium arm speed with a few other developing skills.

Notes
Reports of Montas reaching triple digits abounded early in the 2013 season, but I wasn’t able to get a look at him until the final weeks of the campaign. By then, his electric arm had gotten him included in the return for Jake Peavy, and some considered him to be the best minor leaguer Chicago received in the deal. However, after the trade, he merely worked in the 91-96 range, his offspeed pitches were fringy, and his mechanics and control looked shaky, making him a less exciting pitcher than one would hope.

Montas tore his meniscus in the offseason, and thus, the 21-year-old Dominican missed the month of April, but he made his 2014 (and High-A) debut last night and looked much more like the intriguing, high-upside arm the White Sox no doubt believed they were getting. Aside from a few scattered 92s and 93s, he worked at 94-97 mph for five innings, touching 98 once in the first here:

Montas98

Montas’ velocity is generated through pure arm speed from an overhand slot. His delivery isn’t ideal–his arm action is stabby in the back, he doesn’t use his lower half well, and he tends to land stiffly–but unlike in my past looks, the mechanics didn’t seem to hinder him from throwing quality strikes last night. His walk rate before the trade last year was a reasonable 8.4% (jumping to 15.9% after, including my three viewings of him), so it’s not entirely new for him to show some control.

While his velocity was only slightly improved from last August, his slider has clearly taken a major jump forward. In my viewings last year, the pitch came in anywhere from 83-91 mph and looked the part of a cutter, with almost no vertical action whatsoever. Last night, however, it still came in hard–84-88–but now features impressive tilt and depth, making it grade near plus.

MontasSL

Montas also tosses a changeup–in 2013, it usually came in at 82-84 mph (a big separation from his fastball velocity) with big fading action, but he’d dramatically slow his arm, telegraphing the pitch. Last night, the arm speed issues weren’t present on the offering except on this pitch at 83…

Montas83

…but almost every other changeup Montas threw (mostly at 85-86) lacked the fading action, and he showed little feel for it, usually spiking it in the dirt. Still, he’s shown some intriguing raw ingredients for a good change in the past, and if it can be an intermittently effective offering to complement the fastball-slider combo, that may be enough for Montas to be a quality starter.

All in all, it was a pretty impressive showing from Montas, and if he can keep up this sort of form, he could be recognized as one of the top couple of arms in the Chicago system by season’s end.

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Jose Leclerc, RHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: High-A  Age: 20   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 11.1 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 19/5 K/BB, 2.38 ERA, 2.32 FIP

Summary
A fireplug with two plus offerings and an aggressive mentality, Leclerc is one of the better relief prospects in baseball.

Notes
I’ve seen Jose Leclerc no fewer than eight times over the past two years, and I’ve never come away unimpressed. A smallish, animated righthander, he’s an aggressive competitor who packs an electric arm. Early in 2013, his velocity jumped from the 91-93 range to the mid-90s, also taking a previously loopy curveball and turning it into a mid-70s powerhouse.

Last night, I got my first look at Leclerc as a High-A pitcher, and it was perhaps the most impressive performance I’ve seen from him:

That’s consistent 93-95 mph heat, with a 96 at the end for good measure, backed up by a consistently plus curveball at 74-76. I’ve seen Leclerc more consistently reach 96 in the past, and even got several 97s on him in a July 2013 outing. And that’s plenty of fastball to have when he can snap things like this off:

Leclerc7

It’s a very loud, impressive duo of pitches. At times in 2013, the curve would lose its shape and turn into more of a rolling pitch, but there was no evidence of that sort of inconsistency last night, a welcome improvement. Leclerc also has a cutting changeup that came in at 86-87 last night and didn’t look that great; in 2013, it was anywhere from 83-87 and occasionally flashed up to average–actually, toward the end of the season, he was using it more than the curveball, a decision that he thankfully seems to have reversed this year.

Note also that Leclerc has a habit of “quick-pitching”–going into his motion with barely any set and catching the batter off guard. I’ve seen him utilize the technique several times (often drawing the ire of opposing managers). One can debate the utility of this, but along with his demeanor on the mound, it speaks to his aggressiveness and competitive nature. If this all sounds like a future closer…I’m not going to disagree.

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Jandel Gustave, RHP, Houston Astros (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 21  Top-15: N/A  Top-100: N/A
Line: 18.1 IP, 24 H, 18 R, 20/5 K/BB, 4.91 ERA, 2.62 FIP

Summary
Gustave hits 100 mph as a starter; there aren’t many who can. As for the rest of his game…did I mention he throws 100?

Notes
Here’s a confusing one.

GustaveHeat

That’s a 100 mph fastball from last August 16. In that outing, Jandel Gustave worked consistently at 95-99 mph and hit 100 twice–he’s the only pitcher I’ve ever seen live who hit triple digits more than once in an outing. And yet, he didn’t get out of the fourth inning in that start, allowing eight hits and five runs, including a homer, in three-plus frames.

So, Jandel Gustave throws hard, but he doesn’t dominate the inexperienced bats of the low minors the way you’d think someone with his grade of heat (easy heat, I might add) should. Over the past two seasons, he’s allowed 41 runs in 62 innings–eighteen of those were unearned, so it’s propped his ERAs up. You could chalk the results up to awful command (in each of his first three professional seasons, he walked more batters than he struck out), but that’s not really the answer–his walk rate has declined for four straight years, going from 28.8% to 19.7% to 11.9% to an actually good 5.7% in the early going of 2014. He’s no pinpoint control artist, but he’s also not Jason Neighborgall.

Clearly, then, Gustave has 8-grade arm speed and can at least find the plate, which means blame for his statistical mediocrity must be assigned somewhere else. Well, really, it should be assigned everywhere else, as that was the sum of his skills last August 16, and reports from this spring have little new to add to that description. First, the secondary pitches are problematic. Gustave has a slider that ranges from 85-90 mph and occasionally has some sweeping bite, but it needs a lot of work, and his changeup is basically a flat 91 mph fastball that he barely uses. Second, his fastball doesn’t have much life–a touch of armside run at times, but that’s about it–and he’s not very deceptive. Without secondary stuff to worry about, even low-minors hitters can sit on the fastball and wait for Gustave to leave one out over the plate, at which point, things like this happen.

GustaveMeat

Gustave’s just 21, he has rare heat, and he should be applauded with his massive control improvements. He’s the sort of guy who’s going to get looks forever because of those attributes, but he has a lot of work ahead of him in bringing the rest of his game to a level where he can start missing barrels. It’s easy to dream on him as a flamethrowing closer, but time will tell how well he can make his arsenal play up.




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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.


6 Responses to “Prospect Watch: Power Arms”

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  1. George says:

    In a semi-related question, how do you put a “grade” on a pitch? For a FB, it can’t be solely velocity, correct? Take for example Cliff Lee. Last year he had the 3rd highest wFB in baseball, but averaged 90.7 MPH on his FB. Now granted, this is Cliff Lee we are talking about, and judging by the others he is the exception, not the rule, but if he had the third most effective FB in the bigs last year…is that an 80 grade pitch? 75? And is command a more important factor than velocity? It’s something I never quite understood.

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    • Nathaniel Stoltz says:

      Well, you can do it a variety of ways. You could say that Lee throws a fastball with 55 velocity, 60 life, and 80 command, or you could give it an overall grade based on these factors. You’d probably say it’s a raw 55 or 6 and plays up higher due to his command and the rest of his arsenal. So there are a variety of ways to report these things, but in the end, if you don’t have the effects of the pitch covered in the report in some way, that’s not good scouting.

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  2. John Poppleton says:

    Fastball grades are based on velocity, just like runner’s speed is graded on how fast they get down the line.

    It sound like you are referring to how effective a pitcher’s fastball is, which would be based on a variety of other factors.

    Grades are to assess the raw talent, effectiveness is what the players do with the talent.

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    • crazyfox says:

      I’m not a scout, and my experience as a talent evaluator extends only to making personnel decisions for my fantasy team. I’ve read quite a few scouting reports, though, and the first two sentences of the above post seem contradictory to industry consensus.

      As I understand it, velocity, movement, and location are the primary components of any pitch. And velocity is generally not considered the most important aspect, even for a fastball. Then there are less quantifiable characteristics such as deception, plane, and late life. So a 100 mph fastball that is flat, straight, easy to pick up, and consistently off target would not earn a high grade, despite excellent velocity.

      I would think that the grade, then, is simply a numerical expression of a pitch’s effectiveness.

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      • Nathaniel Stoltz says:

        Yes and no. A pitch’s effectiveness is tied into things that have nothing to do with that pitch–an average breaking ball will be more effective when paired with a plus heater than when it’s paired with a below-average one, for example. That’s why things like wFB aren’t used much–they are interesting numbers, but they really don’t reflect pitch quality as much as pitch approach. The most obvious example of this was that Tim Wakefield’s fastball used to grade out really well in those.

        Further, as with all elements of scouting, a pitcher’s effectiveness doesn’t always have much correlation with his scouting profile. Had the Leclerc curve gif’d above been hit 500 feet, I’d still have thrown a plus grade on it, and if he’d induced a ton of swinging strikes with the changeup, I still would’ve thrown a below-average grade on it. If such occurrences were a consistent trend, you’d have to come up with a good reason why they were happening in order to justify those grades, though.

        Of course, all of this just shows the value in breaking things up. Rather than saying “he has a 5 fastball,” you can say “he has 4 velo, 6 life, and 55 command, so it plays as a 5 overall,” which is way more informative. But I’m the guy who writes 3500 words about Aroni Nina on here, so my tastes in length of descriptions aren’t necessarily those of the general public (or even the saber/scouting community).

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  3. Marcus Stroman says:

    Whats up!

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