The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

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 this case, those produced by Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, and our own Marc Hulet.

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.

# League Lev IP TBF K% BB%
1 National MLB 4362.1 18379 21.1% 7.8%
2 Carolina A+ 1945.0 8398 21.0% 8.8%
3 California A+ 2879.2 12472 21.0% 9.0%
4 International AAA 3666.2 15835 20.8% 9.6%
5 American MLB 4188.2 18048 20.1% 8.9%
6 Pacific Coast AAA 4302.2 18878 19.9% 8.8%
7 Texas AA 2205.0 9403 19.7% 9.1%
8 Southern AA 2705.0 11578 19.6% 9.3%
9 Eastern AA 2954.0 12713 19.0% 8.5%
10 Florida State A+ 3207.2 13750 18.1% 8.5%

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):

Name IP K% BB% BABIP FIP- ERA- WAR WAR150
Gio Gonzalez 973.2 23.0% 10.4% .285 91 89 15.8 2.4
Clay Buchholz 776.2 18.1% 9.0% .282 94 84 12.3 2.4
Yovani Gallardo 1140.2 22.9% 8.9% .295 91 92 17.4 2.3
Matt Garza 1224.1 20.0% 7.9% .289 97 94 18.6 2.3
Phil Hughes 815.0 19.7% 7.2% .295 101 107 11.7 2.2
Tommy Hanson 708.0 21.6% 8.3% .292 98 97 9.4 2.0
Jake McGee 165.1 29.1% 7.8% .276 77 82 2.8 1.1
David Hernandez 380.2 23.2% 10.0% .275 101 98 3.6 0.6
Henry Rodriguez 148.2 22.2% 15.1% .277 104 109 0.0 0.0
Average 703.2 22.2% 9.4% .285 95 95 10.2 1.8
Median 776.2 22.2% 8.9% .285 97 94 11.7 2.2

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:

Rua Homer

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:

Shirley FA Asencio SS K 4th

And like this other strikeout from that start — in this case, against Lee Orr:

Shirley FA Orr SS K 5th

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.

Name Team POS FF NF PTS
Josh Hader Astros LHP 4 0 12
Robert Kral Padres C 3 2 11
Jace Peterson Padres SS 3 0 9
Thomas Shirley Astros LHP 3 0 9
Ben Lively Reds RHP 2 1 7
Jose Ramirez Indians 2B/SS 2 0 6
Aaron West Astros RHP 1 2 5
Adam Duvall Giants 3B 1 1 4
Cameron Rupp Phillies C 1 0 3
Dario Pizzano Mariners OF 1 0 3
Michael Reed Brewers OF 1 0 3
Ryan Rua Rangers 3B 1 0 3
Taylor Cole Blue Jays RHP 1 0 3
Tsuyoshi Wada Cubs LHP 1 0 3
Andrew Aplin Astros OF 0 2 2
Billy Mckinney Athletics OF 0 2 2
Bryan Mitchell Yankees RHP 0 2 2
Tommy La Stella Braves 2B 0 2 2
Billy Burns Athletics OF 0 1 1
Brett Eibner Royals OF 0 1 1
Chris Taylor Mariners SS 0 1 1
Danny Winkler Rockies RHP 0 1 1
Darnell Sweeney Dodgers MI 0 1 1
Edwar Cabrera Rangers LHP 0 1 1
Roberto Perez Indians C 0 1 1
Seth Mejias-Brean Reds 3B 0 1 1
Stephen Landazuri Mariners RHP 0 1 1
Tim Cooney Cardinals LHP 0 1 1
Tyler Goeddel Rays 3B 0 1 1



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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


17 Responses to “The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects”

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  1. Spa City says:

    I knowingly join the chorus of Fangraphs commenters who urge you to include their favorite fringe prospects, which I assume makes me somewhat annoying, but also, hopefully, shows how much I appreciate your writing. Inasmuch as I admire your writing and insight, I hope that if you take my suggestion about a worthy fring prospect it would validate my opinion… Anyway, to get on with it… I hope to see my favorite fring prospect, Stetson Allie, in a near future Fring Five, or at least as a Next Five. Stetson draws walks by the dozen, and he crushes the ball. His defensive value is obviously limited, but as a first base person he does not need much defensive value so long as he can hit, which he clearly can do.Stetson, a former second round pitching prospect, is having a great year as a first base person. FWIW, I am not related to Stetson… I am merely a humble Pirates fan who believes, perhaps naively, that Stetson is part of the Bucs bright future.

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    • Spa City says:

      I do not know why, but my attempts to type “fringe” always get auto-corrected to “fring”. I apologize.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Allie would have a better case if he hadn’t just struck out in 16 of his last 33 atbats. 15% walk rate 30% K rate doesn’t really impress at AA.

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      • Spa City says:

        Agreed. But if he did not strike out that often, he would be a mainstream prospect rather than a fringe one.

        Sticking to the Bucs’ system… Gift Ngoepe needs to see some fringe prospect attention. He maintains a 16% walk rate, he plays fantastic defense at short, and he is a quality baserunner. If he had any power he would be more prominent. The Pirates’ shortstop situation is bleak, especially since Jordy Mercer forgot how to play baseball. Alen Hanson is a 2Bman waiting to happen. There is no reason Gift Ngoepe could not find himself with a major league job. A more interesting background you will not find in a baseball player.

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  2. Dave says:

    Reed is very interesting. Beyond what you already mentioned, which is intriguing enough, he has plus speed and a plus arm as well. How does a guy like that not even make the Brewers Top 30???!?!

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  3. Cicero says:

    Winkler added a Cutter!!! which I know is the pitcher equivalent of adding/removing a toe tap, but the early results are nice

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  4. Pirates Hurdles says:

    CC, do you use some kind of age to level analysis for this? Cole is 3 months away from 25 and still in A ball. Seems like is far from being even a fringe prospect, more organizational depth.

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    • Generally speaking, yes, age relative to level is totally a consideration. Cole is a bit of a strange case, however, insofar as his professional career was delayed slightly by his two-year religious hiatus.

      Also, I believe it’s the case (not that I could cite the relevant study at the moment) that age relative to level is of slightly less concern for pitchers than hitters. Again, I don’t entirely recall where I came across that suggestion (if I truly did at all), but it hasn’t stopped me from working under the assumption that it’s true.

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      • libradawg says:

        My first inclination is that guys coming in at 26 can step up into huge MR innings and somehow convert that into 3rd-4th starter territory, which is basically what you can truly expect out of any pitcher outside a correctly-projected Top 50 list. It certainly doesn’t add any credence to an idea that it doesn’t matter at all to a guy’s numbers when he’s 3 years ahead of his peers, it could explain where you got the trope, guys coming in at advanced ages and playing very meaningful roles on their rosters.

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  5. BobbyJohn says:

    Danny Winkler gets totally overshadowed by Gray and Butler in Tulsa, and he’s outpitching both of them this season after leading the minors in strikeouts last season.

    He’s definitely worth a closer look.

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  6. Wobatus says:

    2013 fringe fiver Chase Anderson looks like he will be getting the call to The Show. He was one of the early ones.

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  7. LaLoosh says:

    where’s Robert Kral??

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  8. LaLoosh says:

    I think CC has been imbibing beaucoup de vin rouge a l’rive gauche….

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