Earlier today, we took a gander at high-octane closer candidate Chris Perez. However, Perez is not the only home-grown, gas-pumping reliever who could take over ninth-inning duties for the Cardinals. Many envision Perez becoming St. Louis’ stopper, but Jason Motte poses a formidable roadblock.
While Perez was a well-regarded prospect, developed at a major college program (The University of Miami) that has churned out plenty of high draft picks as of late, Motte’s baseball origins are far less conventional or glamorous. The 6-0, 195 pounder was originally selected in the 19th round of the 2003 draft out of Iona as a catcher. Motte was always lauded for his superb arm strength behind the dish. But the whole…batting thing? It wasn’t really working out. In 614 career minor league at-bats, Motte “hit” a ghastly .191/.220/.233.
Thoroughly convinced that Motte was unable to handle professional pitching, the Cardinals organization decided to shift him to the mound in 2006, hoping that his cannon arm would translate well. Motte worked a total of 39 innings split between State College (New York Penn League) and Quad Cities (Low-A), and the initial results were promising: he posted a 38/7 K/BB ratio with a 2.69 ERA.
The following year, Motte spend just 10 innings with Palm Beach of the High-A Florida State League before being pushed up to AA Springfield, quite the leap for a converted catcher with less than 50 career innings under his belt to that point. Despite his inexperience, Motte made opposing batters look like they were the ones new to their craft, collecting 63 strikeouts in just 49 innings. His control was less than desirable (22 free passes), but he posted a solid 2.96 FIP for Springfield.
St. Louis continued to move Motte through the system aggressively this past season, starting him off at AAA Memphis. Motte had made a habit of missing plenty of bats during his rapid ascent, but his strikeout numbers in the Pacific Coast League were borderline ridiculous: in 66.2 innings, he punched out an absurd 110 batters (14.85 K/9). That figure led the PCL among pitchers tossing at least 60 frames: Dirk Hayhurst finished a very, very distant second with 10.5 K/9. Motte was still occasionally wild (3.51 BB/9), but he posted a 2.29 FIP for Memphis.
Just a few short years after his transition, Motte made his major league debut this past September. Nothing can really be inferred from an 11-inning sample, but the 26 year-old did make a good first impression as he whiffed 16 and walked three. He also showcased his explosive, bat-breaking four-seam fastball: Motte’s average heater came in at 96.6 MPH. He coupled that with an 88 MPH slider, giving batters a “harder, hardest” combo that leaves little time for reaction.
As Baseball America notes, Motte is still messing around with a few different secondary pitches in order to see what sticks: “Motte showed no effective second pitch during his big league stint. He has worked on a slider, cutter and splitter but none is reliable yet.” BA also notes that Motte’s heat is “straight as an arrow” (not surprising, as four-seamers impart the most back-spin on the baseball; the trade-off for the decreased resistance is less tailing action).
It is also worth noting that as Motte jumped levels, he became more of a flyball pitcher: according to Minor League Splits, he posted a 39.1 GB% in AA in 2007 and a 36.7 GB% in AAA this past year. That could lead to a few more souvenirs, though New Busch has done quite the number on HR production since its 2006 opening: Busch III has deflated homers by 16 percent from ’06 to ’08.
Motte is similar to Perez in a number of ways, as both are righties with excellent velocity, intermittent control and nasty-if-inconsistent sliders. It basically seems like a coin flip as to which guy ends up getting the call in the ninth inning as opposed to the eighth. Like with Perez, fantasy owners will want to watch Motte this spring to see if his blazing fastball and ability to fool hitters is enough to counteract average control and just occasionally effective off-speed stuff.
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