Prospect Watch: Control Problems

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

Victor Payano, LHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 21   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 54.0 IP, 49 H, 29 R, 43/48 K/BB, 4.33 ERA, 5.44 FIP

Payano has two interesting pitches from the left side, but he’s been derailed by inconsistency his whole career.

Currently, A.J. Burnett leads MLB with 37 walks. Down on the farm, however, three hurlers have eclipsed the 40-walk mark, including young southpaw Victor Payano. The Rangers prospect got off to an abysmal start, walking 22 batters in just twelve innings across his first four outings; since, he’s calmed down to just 26 free passes in 42 frames, but that’s still a very poor 13.8% walk rate, basically a repeat of the 14.4% mark he had last year.

While he’s just 21 years old, Payano is repeating the High-A level, and his numbers have largely backslid even if you remove the disastrous opening quartet of outings. The last (and only) time he posted an ERA or FIP below 4.00 was in the Dominican Summer League four years ago. Control, in particular, has been a consistent problem for him, as he debuted with an 11% walk rate that year and it’s climbed at every stop since.

There’s a reason Payano was promoted aggressively despite his inability to throw strikes: he’s a lefthander who has reasonable stuff. He typically works at 89-93 mph with his fastball, and it comes in on a steep plane from a high overhand slot. The lanky southpaw also throws a big 12-to-6 curve in the low 70s that the high arm slot also serves to accentuate, as it does to Courtney Hawkins here:

That alone is plenty to make Payano interesting: that’s near-plus velocity for a lefthanded starter, and the curve at least flashes solid-average, though it is a bit on the soft side and its shape is inconsistent. Still, for a projectable 21-year-old, that’s plenty to start with, and he also tosses in a playable 83-84 mph changeup.

Unlike the other two pitchers in this piece, though, there’s not anything wildly obvious to explain Payano’s control problems. Usually, these things come down to mechanics, and while his aren’t particularly praiseworthy, they’re also hardly worthy of contempt. He doesn’t get very good extension to the plate, his tempo to the plate is a bit slower than I’d like, and he’s slightly stiff overall, but his arm action is fine, he stays on line to the plate, and there aren’t excessive moving parts in the motion. That should add up to something around average command (by High-A standards), but even if we throw out the first four starts, he’s clearly well below that mark. There’s no obvious reason why Payano can’t throw more strikes, especially as he further grows into his body, but in a sense, the lack of an obvious causal issue to fix inspires some pessimism about his ability to fix the effect–poor control. Further, he’s now had three years of full-season ball and has done little to improve his skillset in that span, further casting doubt about his ability to adjust.

That doesn’t necessarily rule out Payano’s prospect status, but what it does do is make it highly unlikely that he remains a starting pitcher for much longer. He’ll probably go to the bullpen and see if he can coax a bit more velocity out of his arm–I did see him touch 95 mph once, and he’s reportedly hit 96. He could also ditch the changeup, which lags far behind the other two offerings, in that role. It obviously remains to be seen how much his skills would play up in relief, but given his talents and youth, one can’t necessarily discard Payano’s potential in a bullpen role.

Andrew Mitchell, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22   Top-15: 13   Top-100: N/A
Line: 36.0 IP, 20 H, 16 R, 43/37 K/BB, 4.00 ERA, 5.11 FIP

Billed as a sleeper coming into 2014, Mitchell has been undone by a lack of fastball command stemming from his poor mechanics.

The White Sox took Andrew Mitchell out of TCU with their fourth-round selection in last year’s draft, and the pick was largely met with accolades. Many thought Mitchell had the best curveball in the college draft class, and he also brought a good pitcher’s build and above-average velocity to the table.

After a reasonable if erratic debut in the Pioneer League, Mitchell was sent to Low-A Kannapolis to open his first full season, where he was expected to throw well as a big-college product. Instead, he walked twenty batters in as many innings in five starts and was promptly bumped to long relief, where he’s issued another seventeen free passes in sixteen frames (albeit with just five hits and two runs allowed).

I saw one of those relief appearances on May 14 against Delmarva, and it was one of the stranger outings I’ve ever seen. It didn’t take long to realize that Mitchell had no idea where his fastball was going:

The pitch came in at 91-93 mph and got on batters quickly on the rare occasions it was anywhere near the strike zone, but given its wildness, they had little reason to be concerned about it. Mitchell’s inability to locate the pitch seems to stem from his delivery–note that he flies open and has an extremely stiff landing. These elements cause his release point on the pitch to wander, and the placement of the ball follows. I’m not sure I’d quite throw a 2 grade on his fastball command, but if I’ve ever seen an outing that merited it, this was it.

The truly odd thing about Mitchell’s outing, though, was that his control issues were really all about the fastball. His other pitch is the aforementioned curveball, a power offering at 80-84 mph that’s in the solid-average-to-plus range, somewhere in between a 55 and a 6 on the scouting scale. And so, after throwing his third straight fastball over a foot outside, Mitchell turned to the breaker:

Lo and behold, on the curveball, Mitchell’s a totally different pitcher. His arm slot’s higher, he doesn’t fly open, and he finishes better. Not surprisingly, then, the pitch finds its target far more frequently than Mitchell’s fastball does. As a result, he basically pitched off it for the remainder of the outing, to the point where he’d would only throw curves in three-ball counts:

I’m not sure what to make of a pitcher who throws his curve over 60% of the time. There are a few takeaways here, though. The curve is a legitimate weapon that should be a consistent plus hammer in time, and it would play up a whole lot better if it was paired with a fastball that could find the catcher’s mitt. Even though it has exceptional velocity, it played a lot softer than its velocity readings because he was pitching off of it instead of his fastball.

There’s no reason Mitchell can’t command his fastball as well as he commands the curve–he just needs to fix his delivery issues. Since he’s showed he can make it work for the curve, that’s an encouraging sign that the adjustments will happen and the walks will come down in time. Mitchell likely will never have good control, and his lack of a changeup probably confines him to the bullpen, but he could have some Jason Bulger 2009-type seasons if he can get things in line, which…frankly is a pretty decent return for a fourth-round selection.


Brett Mooneyham, LHP, Washington Nationals (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 24   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 33.0 IP, 35 H, 33 R, 18/35 K/BB, 7.36 ERA, 7.28 FIP

This former third-rounder has run into all sorts of trouble at the High-A level.

Now, here’s a more dire situation. Victor Payano is 21 in High-A, so he has all sorts of time to figure things out, and he at least misses some bats and has a sub-5 ERA. Andrew Mitchell is 22 in Low-A, which is further behind the age curve, but he doesn’t even have 100 pro innings, and he also has a reasonable ERA and good strikeout rate. Brett Mooneyham, however, is 24 in High-A, and his statline is an unmitigated disaster–twice as many walks as strikeouts, an ERA over 7, and a FIP that claims the ERA is well-deserved. Extending back to last year, Mooneyham has 48 walks and 24 strikeout in 44.1 High-A innings. He also was placed on the disabled list last week to add injury to insult.

I saw Mooneyham start last month, watching as he walked three, hit a batter, and allowed seven runs while recording all of four outs. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty:

And when he was in the zone, Mooneyham was consistently barreled by opposing hitters:

As you might expect from a guy drafted in the third round two years ago, Mooneyham isn’t a no-stuff guy, but he also doesn’t have the same zip he boasted as an amateur. He worked at 88-91 mph in the outing, threw some nice big-breaking 74-77 mph curves, and showed a low-80s running changeup as well. There are plenty of lefthanded starters in the major leagues with less stuff than that, but all of them obviously have far superior control to Mooneyham.

As with Mitchell, mechanics seem largely to blame here. Mooneyham has some odd twisting action in his motion that seems to throw off his balance and timing to the plate, causing the ball to frequently sail on him. I’m more than fine with a pitcher incorporating a twist into his motion, but it needs to be worked in far more fluidly; further, twists require a high degree of athleticism to repeat, and the big-bodied Mooneyham may not possess enough. Like Mitchell, he tended to finish his offspeed pitches better than his fastball, though the disparity wasn’t quite as severe.

With his three-pitch mix and lack of a single overwhelming offering, Mooneyham isn’t necessarily as clear a candidate to abandon rotation work as Payano or Mitchell, but he’s also older and experiencing less success, which may force the Nationals’ hand. There’s enough stuff here to give Mooneyham a career if he could find a way to hit his spots consistently, but the same could be said of a vast number of High-A hurlers. When Mooneyham returns from the disabled list, he’ll need to figure out his delivery in a hurry to get back on the prospect radar.

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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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As soon as I saw the title to this article, I was expecting Tyler Glasnow. Walking 6.2 per 9, allowing only 5 hits per 9. When he gets it over the plate, contact is either weak or non-existent.