Community Post: Stuff or Command? What Matters Most?
Matt of B-Sides Podcast discusses what to look for in pitching prospects and whether stuff or command matters most?
In the Land of Mordor, Where the Velocity Lies
Community Post by: Mattatbatt22
Check out his work on B-Sides Podcast with Nate Handy.
Elrond might have the gift of foresight, but he turned his third eye toward the perils in Mordor, not the parietal eye employed by Messers Valenzuela and LaLoosh. But even Elrond knew nothing is certain, not in Middle Earth or pitching prospecting. Smarter people than me have been evaluating pitching prospects such august publications like Baseball America for decades and still miss on sure things all the time. In my quest to win at fantasy baseball, I’ve relied on, learned from, and, more recently, disagreed with some of the principles used by these rankers when it comes to evaluating pitchers. For even the very wise cannot see all ends, and sometimes our eyes are blinded by our biases, whether you’re a prospect evaluator or a 6,437-year-old half-elf.
The lure of a quantifiable number for evaluating pitchers is almost as old as Elrond himself. And when radar guns became widespread in the 80s and ‘90s, velocity became the hallmark of evaluating a pitcher’s stuff. Many scouts resisted this innovation, believing that the success of a pitch was more complicated than one number could show.
However, the draw of velocity won out, whether because of the the effectiveness or prevalence of one scouting tool, it’s hard to know. Now, of course, we’ve got a much greater understanding of the myriad of factors that play into the effectiveness of a fastball: spin axis and efficiency, vertical and horizontal approach angles, handedness, extension, and velocity.
These inputs have given birth to a new set of pitcher evaluation tools on the public side of MLB analysis: Eno Sarris and Max Bay’s Stuff+ and Cameron Grove’s PitchingBot are two of the tools available at FanGraphs to help evaluate more than just the velocity or the results of a pitch.
Breaking down the traits of a pitch on a more granular level has many benefits, from faster stabilization to more accurate projection. Teams, of course, have had access to these data for years and have it for minor leaguers, too. But alas, full statcast data remains out of the reach for most of us mere hobbits, and we remain dependent on our first-age tools to evaluate minor leaguers.
Too often, though, we return to the 80s and get excited about the velocity readings. A pitcher runs a fastball up there with a loose arm and hits 99? Wow, oh em gee, such stuff! That slider moved three feet. This guy must be great! Never mind that the 99mph fastball doesn’t actually get whiffs, or the slider isn’t ever in the zone, and the stuffist pitcher is walking more than the whole Fellowship combined on their way to Mordor.
I’ve been somewhat vocal recently against this trend toward valuing “surface” stuff over some of the other markers, especially when we don’t have access to the deeper metrics that might actually tell us more about the effectiveness of a pitch beyond the topline velocity. Long have I relied upon those old tools, those rings of power untainted by the One Ring (velocity). Earning strikeouts, limiting walks, and inducing groundballs remain my building blocks for finding those hidden preciousss undervalued treasures in the dark.
Strikeouts are by far the sexiest of the trio, but don’t be tempted to rely solely on them lest you turn into dark Galadriel and end up tempestuous as the sea! Because while this is the most important skill for pitchers, it’s far from the only thing that matters and is the one that others are tempted by too. If you just rely on Ks, you might end up with some foul beasts along with the noble Rohirrim. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff, the Uruk-hai from the orc, the Shahowfaxes from the Bill-the-ponies? We listen to Boromir, of course, “one does not simply walk into Mordor!”
I’ve used a simple rule to follow Boromir’s advice: if a pitcher walks more than 13% of batters over a decent sample at any level of the minor leagues, YOU SHALL NOT PASS! How did we of the Fellowship arrive at that number? Well, I ran a quick study a while back when I was looking into past mistakes of mine and found that only a couple pitchers who ever turned into fantasy elite starters (think 12 team roto mixed league aces) had ever had a stretch where they walked over 13 percent of batters. I was making this point again in Mr. Clegg’s wonderful Dynasty Dugout Discord earlier today, but I had no memory of this place so I was inspired to go there and back again, into the mines of FanGraphs and see if I could elucidate my point more effectively.
From 2006 to 2019, I pulled every stretch in the minor leagues where a pitcher had at least 1 start, threw at least 30 innings, and had a walk rate over 13%. This returned over 3,000 player seasons, including 597 from future major leaguers. I will say that seeing ~19% of these walk-happy pitchers make the major leagues surprised me until I started looking at the names. Over those 15 years, I counted 11 pitchers who turned in a fantasy ace season in a subsequent MLB season after running that kind of walk rate. Another 17 or so turned into good (or potentially promising) pitchers that you might be interested in rostering. Let’s call the walk-happy aces-in-waiting your Striders (see what I did there?). They included Shane McClanahan (‘19 A), Dylan Cease (‘16 A-), Tyler Glasnow (‘13 A ball, ‘16 AAA), Robbie Ray (‘15 AAA), Trevor Bauer (‘13 AAA), Blake Snell (‘13 A) Zack Wheeler (‘10 A) Corey Kluber (‘09 AA), Chris Archer (‘09 A, ‘10 & ‘11 AA), Ubaldo Jimenez (‘06 AA, ‘07 AAA), and most surprisingly to me Cliff Lee (‘07 AAA). It’s worth noting that even in this bunch that is filled with future Cy Young winners, most didn’t reach those heights until they ironed out their walk rates. Most of them also ran K rates north of 30% to offset some of those walks as well.
But that’s ELEVEN out of THREE THOUSAND! Only Glasnow, Archer, Jimenez, and Bauer ran those egregious rates over more than 100. All the others managed to lower their walk rates before they succeeded in the bigs. So, while perhaps my 13% rule of thumb isn’t totally infallible, I look at that list and say, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” Which is to say, this list is filled with failed prospects (Alex Reyes, Sean Newcomb, Asa Lacy, Riley Pint, Phillippe Aumont, Aaron Sanchez Mark Appel, Brady Aiken, etc.), relievers of varying quality (Devin Williams, Josh Hader, Bryan Abreu, Jose Leclerc, Archie Bradley, Andrew Miller, Tyler Matzek, Daniel Bard, Matt Brash, DL Hall, Abner Uribe, Tanner Scott, Carson Fulmer, Ken Giles, Lucas Sims, Ryan Vogelsong, Jeurys Familia, Wilmer Font, etc.) or very meh starters (Jimmy Nelson, Michael Kopech, Gio Gonzalez, Edinson Volquez, Luis Medina, Joey Wentz, Brandon Beachy, Bryce Elder, Stephen Gonsalves, Kyle Muller, Justus Sheffield, Jon Duplantier and the like).
I know you want to chase those top-of-the-rotation K wizards, and sometimes those guys have problems with control as they try to harness their electric stuff, but 11 successes don’t taste very nice, do they, Precious? Even among those aces, you’ve had to endure crap 2017, 2019, and 2021 Snell, walk prone 2019, 2020, 2023 Cease, 4 total wins and lots of walks in 2016, 2017, 2018 from Glasnow, inefficient and subpar 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020 seasons from Robbie Ray, and 7 of Bauer’s first 8 seasons with an ERA over 4.18 (not to mention his horrible personality!). Basically, you could have sold all of these guys while they were in the minors and then acquired them for cheap after they debuted and began working through their issues. Even then, you may find yourself shouting, “Fool of a Took!” when you see another 5 walks in three and a third from one of these quote-unquote aces.
Now I’ll admit to having rostered some of these guys before, but it was almost always after a crap season where I bet on a bounce back and never as a guy I thought would succeed from the jump. My 13% cutoff is overly simplistic, even for a hobbit like me, and there are more nuanced ways to evaluate pitchers. Some of the Ricky Tiedemanns, Chayce McDermotts, Nick Nastrinis, Joe Boyles, AJ Smith-Shawvers, Kyle Harrisons, Brock Porters, Jack Leiters, Griff McGarrys, Ben Browns, Mick Abels, Connor Phillipses, Jhancarlos Laras, and Kyle Hurts will turn in a great season or two at the big league level, but more of them are going to be relievers, busts, or both if history is to be believed.
One sage prospector said we’re looking for both stuff and command and should be really excited when you see it like in guys like Shane Baz, Andrew Painter, and Daniel Espino (RIP). Seek fellowship in your Kutter Crawfords, Tanner Bibees, Gavin Williamses, Brayan Bellos, and Brandon Pfaadts. Hunt some orcs with the Jackson Jobes, Chase Hamptons, Christian Scotts, Drew Thorpes, and Cade Hortons of the world. But don’t overlook those little folk who refuse to walk, unheralded from the Shire, like Logan Henderson, David Sandlin, Brant Hurter, Jimmy Joyce, Isaac Coffey, and Reid VanScoter. Some of these guys will bust, too, but the ones that stick will stick with you to the end, just like Samwise the Brave.
All you stuffers out there can tell me to keep my forked tongue behind my teeth, but if you give a touch more skepticism to those walk-happy pitching prospects, you might join me sitting on a field of victory, enjoying a few well-earned comforts. I hear the salted pork is particularly good.