Prospect Watch: Early Fallers

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.

Bubba Starling, OF, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 21   Top-15: 8th   Top-100: N/A
Line: 74 PA, .133/.284/.250, 1 HR, 9 BB, 24 K

The former fifth-overall pick continues to struggle with his swing, leading to increasingly poor output as he climbs the ladder.

Early in the offseason, I discussed Starling’s mechanical troubles at length, and two early-season looks this year revealed little improvement in his swing. He continues to have an awkward, hitchy stroke, he doesn’t use his lower half well, and his hips fire too late. I did see him do this…

…which a) was much better contact than I saw him have in three games last year and b) wasn’t as mechanically ugly–note how Starling gets his front foot down early and is then easily able to get his hands through the ball. Then again, maybe ripping a double off Terance Marin shouldn’t be taken as a huge accomplishment–Marin allowed ten runs this year while recording only three outs and was summarily released after two appearances.

Still, we can take a few positives out of Starling’s season so far–not only did he manage a good swing in front of me, he also has already equaled his 2013 total of homers in non-hitter-friendly parks. Twelve of his 13 bombs last year were hit in Lexington’s pinball environment; his only blast of 2014 came in his new pitcher-friendly home park in Wilmington. Further, he does still seem to have some pitch-recognition skills (leading to a 12.2% walk rate, slightly up from 10.6% last year), and he remains an athletic player who should contribute on the bases and in the outfield.

Starling turns 22 in about 3 1/2 months, and plenty of toolsy players have broken out at later ages than that. Still, a look at his wRC+s each year–135 in 2012, 111 in 2013, 81 this year–shows a lack of progress, one backed up all too clearly by his failure to make any mechanical improvements. It’s tough to see awkward, late cuts like the two in this video…

…or the two in this video…

…or this…

…and see a major league hitter, not when the same exact issues were present when he began his pro career two years ago. The fact that the statistics dovetail perfectly with this observation only underscores the need for Starling to get a mechanical overhaul. If he can make some adjustments, it’s not too late for him to turn into something, but it’s high time he revamps what he’s doing in the box.


David Ledbetter, RHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22  Top-15: N/A  Top-100: N/A
Line: 11 1/3 IP, 20 H, 11 R, 8/4 K/BB, 8.74 ERA, 8.51 FIP

This third-round collegiate selection has not fared well in his introduction to full-season ball, with a sharp velocity decrease and very poor early statistical output.

In my first Prospect Watch post last week, I discussed Ledbetter’s rotation mate Akeem Bostick‘s struggles, noting that the hyped righthander had no average skills at present and thus didn’t project to have a carrying skill for the future. On that front, the news with Ledbetter, picked a round after Bostick last year, is more positive. First, he has a nice, easy motion:

Further, Ledbetter has a couple of breaking pitches–a slider at 79-80 mph and a curveball at 73-76–that boast solid shape and are already in the average range, along with a changeup that’s at least as good as Bostick’s. However, he comes with two significant issues.

First, David Ledbetter is 22 years old, which means he’s slightly older than the average SAL player and a fair bit older than the average well-regarded SAL prospect. Since he’s a ’13 draftee from college, the fact that he’s at the level shouldn’t be held against him, but the fact that both his ERA and FIP are over 8.00? Even in a small sample, that’s troubling, because unlike Bostick, Ledbetter’s at an age relative to his level where, if he’s a real prospect, he shouldn’t be struggling like this.

Second, and more troubling, is Ledbetter’s velocity in the start I attended. His velo in the first inning was 88-91 mph, the same humdrum readings that raised some concern about Bostick, but unlike his teammate, Ledbetter wasn’t able to maintain his velocity through the outing. From the second inning on, he was strictly at 85-89 mph. Needless to say, one doesn’t see many righthanded pitchers succeed in Low-A, let alone MLB, at that velocity.

Ledbetter’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook report comes with a “90-94 mph fastball,” so something’s clearly off. As with Bostick, it’s an open question as to whether this is just early-season rounding into form or something more permanent. There are two positive things that can be said about Ledbetter that can’t be said about Bostick right now:

1) If he does return to 90-94 mph, he’ll be a solid four-pitch guy with good command, which is a really nice pitcher.
2) As a 5’11” righthander with a clean delivery, breaking stuff that could work as out pitches, and a history of throwing harder in the past, it’s not hard to imagine Ledbetter picking up velocity and effectiveness with a bullpen move.

So he’s not suddenly a nonentity. Still, these mid-to-upper-80s readings better disappear some way or another, because Ledbetter clearly isn’t equipped to succeed even in the low minors with such a pedestrian heater. Until he’s able to consistently work in the low 90s, concern is warranted.

Gabriel Ynoa, RHP, New York Mets (Profile)
Level: High-A  Age: 21  Top-15: N/A  Top-100: N/A
Line: 14 IP, 20 H, 10 R, 7/6 K/BB, 5.79 ERA, 4.48 FIP

A top statistical performer at the Low-A level in 2013, the early returns on Ynoa’s 2014 season show he may be losing his slim margin for error.

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Ynoa pitch this year. However, I did see him throw last season, and it was striking how much quieter his stuff was than that of fellow 2013 Savannah rotation-mates Luis Cessa and Matt Koch, both of whom usually came in below Ynoa on post-2013 prospect lists. Ynoa throws 89-93 mph running heat from a low 3/4 delivery, also tossing a solid changeup, a short, cutter-like slider, and a sloppy show-pitch curveball. He utilizes an easy motion that allows him to generally throw strikes, but it’s not an arsenal that gives the skinny righthander a whole lot of room for error.

His delivery and changeup also present a bit of a paradox–the slingy motion is tough on Ynoa’s fellow righties while allowing southpaws a long look at the ball, but his one good offspeed pitch is the changeup, a pitch that usually stifles opposite-side hitters. Thus, his attack basically consists of deception/moving heat/iffy slider to righties, no deception/platoon-split fastball/good changeup to lefties. These are both workable combinations, but even in Ynoa’s breakout 2013 (2.72 ERA, 3.16 FIP), they didn’t give him a great strikeout rate (19.6%). Instead, he excelled on the back of a 3.0% walk rate and just .6 HR/9, the latter in spite of a below-average groundball rate according to StatCorner.

Ynoa’s slightly square-peg-round-hole-ish skillset doesn’t render him useless, but superior command is the glue that holds it together, and with his move up to High-A this season, he’s already issued six free passes in 14 innings, tripling his 2013 walk rate, and his strikeout rate has also predictably shrunk. In his last outing on the 16th, Ynoa walked three and struck out just one while allowing six runs on eight hits in 2 2/3 frames. In 2013, he never walked three batters in a game and only once worked less than five frames, so even an isolated occurrence of this sort of outing is indicative of the rougher road he faces.

Ynoa hasn’t turned 21 and remains a somewhat projectable pitcher who does boast some assets, but his early-season statistical regression does highlight the fact that he didn’t project as a high-upside guy in the first place. Ynoa could carve out a career as a back-of-the-rotation arm or a solid reliever, but the notion that he’s the next Marco Estrada seemed misplaced to me last year, and the early returns on his transition to the Florida State League seem to make that sort of outcome appear all the more unlikely.

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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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great piece. have you heard or seen anything about maikel franco? he’s hitting .143 this year after being above .300 last year.

Gary Cherone