Those who are big, left-handed and throw very hard have a way of getting a preponderance of opportunity in professional baseball. Toronto’s David Purcey fit this axiom rather well during the first few years of his career. The 16th overall selection in the 2004 amateur draft, Purcey occasionally made scouts all tingly with his low-to-mid-90’s gas, but he also had them reaching for the antacids on a regular basis due to his scattershot control.
The former Oklahoma Sooner made his full-season debut in 2005, with Dunedin of the High-A Florida State League. Purcey displayed the high-octane stuff that garnered him high accolades, with an eye-popping 11.06 K/9 in 94.1 innings. However, in a sign of things to come, he also allowed 5.34 BB/9. Despite Purcey’s issues in keeping the ball around the dish, the Jays bumped him up AA New Hampshire, where he continued to both impress (9.42 K/9) and infuriate (5.23 BB/9) in 43 frames of work. Calling him a “physical pitcher with power stuff”, Baseball America ranked Purcey as the third-best prospect in Toronto’s system on the basis of a heater with plus velocity, a 12-to-6 curve and a developing changeup.
Returned to the Eastern league to begin the 2006 season, Purcey’s prospect status stagnated. The 6-4, 245 pounder posted rates of 8.25 K/9 and 4.48 BB/9 in 88.1 IP. His ERA (5.60) overstated the extent of his struggles (his BABIP was .354; the quality of defense in the minors is lower, but that’s still pretty lofty), but the walks and a 4.59 FIP were still underwhelming. Like the previous year, Purcey received a promotion despite his lack of precision. In 51.2 innings for AAA Syracuse, the $1.6M man struck out 7.84 batters per nine innings but lost all semblance of control, with 6.62 BB/9. Not surprisingly, Purcey’s FIP was a grisly 5.54.
Following that campaign, Purcey fell to 9th on BA’s list of Jays farm hands. BA continued to point out his virtues, noting that “few left-handers can match the raw stuff Purcey possesses” and praising his fastball and biting curveball as “plus pitches.” However, his “large build and inconsistent release point” also led to speculation about a conversion to the bullpen.
After several years of frustrating the scouting community, Purcey appeared to make some legitimate strides to begin the 2007 campaign. The Jays dropped the big southpaw back down to AA, and he responded. His ERA (5.37) in 62 innings didn’t tell the real story: he continued to miss bats (7.98 K/9), but his LaLoosh-like control was much improved. He pared his walk rate down to 2.32 batters per nine innings, posting a 3.23 FIP.
Unfortunately, just as Purcey appeared to be making good on his draft status, injury struck. Purcey had to go under the knife in June to have cysts removed from his forearm and triceps. BA dubbed him the 9th-best prospect in Toronto’s system again, reporting that Purcey sacrificed a little velocity on his fastball for increased command: “Purcey is capable of dialing his fastball up to 93-95 MPH, but the Blue Jays have toned him down to the low 90’s to improve his location.”
Healthy and aware that well-placed low-90’s heat tops random mid-90’s flinging, Purcey turned in a very nice season back at AAA Syracuse in 2008. In 117 frames, he improved his K rate (9.31) while also displaying sharp control for the first extended period of his career (2.62 BB/9).
With a 3.56 K/BB ratio and a 2.99 FIP, Purcey earned a call-up to the majors for good in late July (he had brief cameos in April and May). The 26 year-old’s first taste of the bigs was a mixed bag: relying heavily on a 91 MPH fastball (thrown about 70% of the time), Purcey compiled a 4.67 FIP. He used the fastball, a hard mid-80’s slider, mid-70’s curve and an occasional low-80’s change to punch out 8.03 batters per nine innings, though he was a bit generous with the free passes (4.02 BB/9).
Entering the 2009 season, Purcey appears to have a great chance of making the Jays out of camp. Toronto was a wonderful run-prevention club in ’08, but with Burnett in the Bronx, Marcum recovering from TJ surgery and McGowan still working his way back from shoulder surgery, the Jays’ rotation is a land of opportunity at the moment.
Purcey’s progression from inconsistent flame-thrower to savvy low-90’s strike-thrower is a great example of radar gun readings being just one of many components that combine to make a pitcher successful. You could do much worse than deciding to take a flyer on Purcey in the later rounds. He’s got talent, opportunity and a better understanding of what it takes to be successful at his craft.