The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced last April by the present author, wherein that same ridiculous author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own heart to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.
Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from all of three notable preseason top-100 prospect lists* and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. Players appearing on the midseason prospect lists produced by those same notable sources or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.
In the final analysis, the basic idea is this: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.
Taylor Cole, RHP, Toronto (Profile)
Probably wrong math by the author indicates that no prospect both (a) omitted from a preseason top-100 list and also (b) currently pitching at High-A or above has recorded a regressed kwERA (a metric occasionally referred to as SCOUT in these electronic pages) better than Taylor Cole’s. One finds that Ben Lively (featured below) has actually produced both a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate in more innings than Cole. What else one finds, though, is that relative to league Cole’s performance is superior. Indeed, the average strikeout rate in the Florida State League (to which Cole’s Dunedin Blue Jays belong) is considerably lower than any other league’s, as the following table (which also includes walk rates) illustrates.
As for Cole, himself, here’s a fact about him: he was a 29th-round selection by Toronto in the 2011 draft out of Brigham Young. Here’s another fact: before attending BYU, he participated in a two-year Mormon mission, which is why he skews old for his level. While no video of Cole exists from a start this year, reports from the internet suggest that, after reaching the mid-90s during college, Cole’s fastball sits at ca. 90 mph now. According to Cole himself, he’s focused on improving his slider of late — which perhaps is (and also maybe isn’t) an explanation for his improved numbers.
Ben Lively, RHP, Cincinnati (Profile)
It doesn’t constitute actual analysis, but is still pretty relevant to note, with regard to Ben Lively, that he currently leads all of every qualified minor-league pitcher in strikeout rate, at 38.4%. A fine distinction, is what that seems to be. “What” the author asked himself, however, “might that mean for Lively’s actual future?” — because it seems (anecdotally, at least) like some pitchers find some success in the minors by means (deception, polish) which don’t translate to the majors that well.
To get the most basic sense of the answer, what I did was merely to identify the top-three qualified minor-league starters by strikeout rate between 2006 and -08 (i.e. the earliest three years for which FanGraphs has complete minor-league data) who also recorded at least half their innings at High-A or above. Here are the players who meet that criteria, from 2006: Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, and Phil Hughes. And from 2007: Clay Buchholz, Gio Gonzalez, and Jake McGee. And from 2008: Tommy Hanson, David Hernandez, and Henry Rodriguez.
And here are their respective career numbers, sorted by WAR per every 150 innings (except for relievers, who are sorted by WAR per 65 innings):
The results: a not very bad collection of pitchers. All nine, for example, have pitched at the major-league level. Six of the nine (including Hanson) have averaged at least two wins per season. One of them (Rodriguez) never really had, and still doesn’t have, command. In summary, the data bodes well for Lively, should he continue his current pace
Michael Reed, OF, Milwaukee (Profile)
It’s probably true what Socrates says — about the unexamined life being not worth living. What he omits to mention, however, is that some lives are probably more interesting to examine than others. The author’s? Not so much. Michael Reed‘s, however? Probably moreso — insofar, at least, as he’s produced one of the absolute best defense-independent batting lines in the minors relative to his league. Here, first, is that line: 127 PA, 23.6% BB, 15.0% K. And now here’s how his age (21) compares to the average age of other batters in the High-A Florida State League: below it. And here’s a defensive position he’d probably be playing more of (and playing competently) were he not teammates with Tyrone Taylor: center field. Finally, here’s a notable fact with regard to Reed: he was omitted not just from the relevant top-100 lists, but also even Baseball America’s top-30 organizational list (for a Brewers system, it should be noted, ranked second-to-last).
Ryan Rua, 3B, Texas (Profile)
Originally a 17th-round selection in the 2011 draft out of whatever the opposite of a Baseball Powerhouse is, Rua surprised probably everyone last season by hitting 29 home runs in 430 plate appearances before earning a late-season promotion to Double-A. That he did so as a 23-year-old in the Class-A Sally League was cause merely for subdued (as opposed to “very raucous”) enthusiasm; however, as documented in some depth by Nathaniel Stoltz last June, Rua — who made the majority of his starts in 2013 at second base — was not without promise, either. A year later and playing third base exclusively, Rua surprisingly hasn’t regressed at all. In fact, whatever he’s conceded in terms of home run, he’s compensated for by a considerable improvement in his plate-discipline numbers. After recording walk and strikeout rates of 11.4% and 21.2%, respectively, last season, Rua has preserved his walk rate (11.9%) in 2014 while reducing his strikeouts (16.1%).
In the event that the reader were interested in consuming footage of Rua hitting a home run during a recent game, then this animated GIF would seem to be the metaphorical ticket:
Thomas Shirley, LHP, Houston (Profile)
Despite producing less-than-dominant numbers in one of the two starts he’s made since last week’s appearance among the Five, Shirley continues to possess one of the best defense-independent lines among minor-league pitchers, having recorded strikeout and walk rates of 28.9% and 5.5%, respectively, in 33.2 innings. An inspection of video from those two most recent starts — which corroborates other footage of Shirley to have appeared in these pages — reveals that Shirley generated a lot (maybe all?) of his strikeouts by means of the fastball.
Like this one strikeout against Yeison Asencio from his most recent start:
And like this other strikeout from that start — in this case, against Lee Orr:
An entirely helpful interview with Shirley conducted by Jayne Hansen of Astros prospect site What the Heck, Bobby? addresses Shirley’s fastball usage very tidily:
WTH: Can you tell me a little about your pitch repertoire?
TS: I throw obviously a fastball. My fastball has a natural cutting movement to it. Velocity in the first part of the season was probably 88 to 91 or 92, but maybe two months into the season, my velocity really jumped up and I was [sitting] 90 or 92 to 94 and hit 96 a few times. I also throw a changeup and a curveball. I use the curveball more as an out pitch than the changeup, but guys, for whatever reason, have a tough time with my fastball so I [use that as an out pitch a lot].
It is not an instance of groundbreaking analysis to suggest that using a fastball as one’s primary outpitch tends not to be an entirely successful strategy in the majors. Were Shirley to develop either of his secondary pitches to the point where they induced swings and misses reliably, that would be of some benefit to him.
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Andrew Aplin, OF, Houston (Double-A Texas League)
Adam Duvall, 3B, San Francisco (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Robert Kral, C, San Diego (Double-A Texas League)
Billy McKinney, OF, Oakland (High-A California League)
Danny Winkler, RHP, Colorado (Double-A Texas League)
Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here are all the players to have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season. For mostly arbitrary reasons, players are assessed three points for each week they’ve appeared among the Fringe Five; a single point, for each week among the Next Five.
|Taylor Cole||Blue Jays||RHP||1||0||3|
|Tommy La Stella||Braves||2B||0||2||2|
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