Since joining the RotoGraphs team, I’ve discussed two minor leaguers who were (at the time) leading the minors in a fairly notable stat category. There was Micah Johnson with his stolen bases, and Ryan Rua with his home runs.
Today, I’m going to talk about another player leading the minors in something: righthanded pitcher Matt Koch, who sports a 61/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. No, K/BB ratio isn’t a fantasy category in many leagues, but it’s also a broad stat that encompasses a lot of ability, so such dominance merits a closer look into Koch’s skillset.
Koch is a member of a vaunted Low-A Savannah (Mets) pitching staff that includes Gabriel Ynoa, Luis Cessa, and Steven Matz (and opened the year with since-promoted Rainy Lara and Matt Bowman). The 6’3″ righthander was drafted in the 3rd round (107th overall) of last year’s draft out of Louisville, so he entered the year with some established pedigree despite his lack of pro experience.
Obviously, anybody who can pound the strike zone at the rate Koch does and still manage to miss bats holds considerable intrigue. Further, Minor League Central currently has Koch’s groundball rate at a decent 43.8%, so he’s not a Tom Milone/Ted Lilly-esque extreme-flyball control pitcher.
But how polished is he, really? And more importantly, is he just polish, or is there a lot of upside here too?
The answers to those questions, judging by my viewing on May 30, are “quite polished for an A-ball pitcher” and “absolutely there’s upside.”
First off, Koch has a nice pitcher’s build at 6’3″ and probably around 200 pounds, with some projection remaining. Second, he has a simple, low-effort, and eminently repeatable delivery. The mechanical soundness, simplicity, and repetition are the driving forces behind Koch’s ability to throw not only strikes, but quality strikes.
Further, his efficient arm action generates enough arm speed to give his fastball plus velocity–Koch works at 91-94 mph and touches 96, and he uses both a four-seamer and a two-seamer to keep hitters off balance. Here’s his fastball reel from the start I saw–watch how he paints the corners with the pitch and occasionally gets electric life on it (the pitch at 4:00 is just ridiculous):
Koch pairs the fastball with an 82-86 mph changeup with nice sink and fade that he’s not afraid to use to batters of either handedness. Here’s a look at the pitch, which currently grades out as average to solid-average, with a change to round into a plus pitch with more refinement:
The changeup allows Koch to be effective to lefthanders, who have hit .289/.297/.367 off him, compared to righties’ .276/.276/.400. His ability to pound the zone and generate some swings and misses from batters from both sides of the plate cements him as a potential starting pitcher, not somebody likely bound for the bullpen.
Of course, in order to be an effective starter, the conventional wisdom says a pitcher needs three functional pitches, not just two. Koch’s tertiary offering right now is an upper-80s cutter/slider hybrid pitch that shows promise, but only occasionally flashes the sort of bigtime break required to change a hitter’s eye level. Paired with perhaps an overhand curveball, it could be effective, but I have to wonder if Koch’s lack of a big vertical mover might start to catch up to him at higher levels. Here’s a look at the breaking pitch, which is functional as both a cutter in on lefties and a slider moving away from righties, further cementing Koch’s lack of platoon issues:
Koch is not young for A-ball–he’ll turn 23 shortly after the conclusion of this year’s World Series–but in a system less stacked with pitching at the lower levels, he probably wouldn’t still be in the South Atlantic League at this point. His polish could allow him to rocket through the minors quickly and reach New York as soon as September 2014 if he can manage to leapfrog many of the other exciting arms (for the record, I was more impressed with Koch than I was with either Ynoa or Cessa, not that that’s a slight to either). His ability to continue to excel at missing bats as he advances will be contigent upon him developing a pitch with a bit more movement, but his fluid delivery, easy velocity, and lack of platoon issues make him an excellent bet to be an innings-eating fourth starter at the worst. Koch may not be sitting on many Top 100 prospect lists at the moment, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve that accolade. He could evolve into a Doug Fister-esque strikethrowing workhorse in a relatively quick fashion.
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