Why 2015 Should Hint At Fun To Come Part 3: Arms Race To Arlington

chi chi

In baseball, you are one of three things:

1) A no-doubt contender: a roster chocked full of in-their-prime arms, proven young players, and a season or two of winning under your belt.

  • a. Case studies: Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates

2) Hope springs eternal, but also a few leaks: middle of the road teams that, with a few breaks, could win the division; with a few tears/pulls/strains, could land a Top 10 draft choice.

  • a. Case studies: basically any one of twenty teams. The Cubs and Red Sox are both intriguing and optimal examples.

3) Playing for the future; a stable of innings eaters and some seat-fillers, plus a good deal of young talent, all racing to help a team that will be chasing little more than the first pick in the draft.

  • a. Case study: our Texas Rangers

For my money, if I can’t be first on this list, I’ll be third. There is NOTHING more miserable than spending an entire season riding the waves only to finish 84-78, grab a mid-round draft pick, and watch the playoffs. And if you’re in that #1 category, for all the glory of the season, the season is about NOW. You’re left wondering if the whispers from the minors are meaningful or not, because until September, and maybe even then (if you’re trading for a pennant before the deadline), you’ll never see anything from them. Every win counts and all momentum is building towards October.

Slot 3 is basically the ultimate in fun for any dyed-in-the-wool fan, of the team or the game. It’s baseball’s version of the “choose your own adventure” game. This year’s team features enough exciting twists and turns, at the plate and on the mound, to be worth watching.

We’ll start where it always starts: with the call to arms and those who answer should be fun to watch. Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez, Luke Jackson, and Keone Kela should all get mound time throughout the season (Kela got his first shot Tuesday Night but more on that later). While I hope I’m wrong here, the same could be true of Jake Thompson, as well (more to come on that point shortly).

We could fill an entire column with the electric potential of Alex Gonzalez. His spring featured flashes of what every Rangers fan hopes to see: a .214 opponent’s batting average and an altitude-relative respectable 3.95 ERA. He put up a solid 15-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 13.2 innings, including an ERA-saving run of three games against Oakland, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati that saw him bring his ERA from 10+ down to sub-4.00. But spring statistics are like box office estimates: as good as the paper they’re printed on until the film hits the big screen. That said, Gonzalez showed enough to flash staff-anchor potential, including some excellent strikeouts set up by his fastball and closed with excellent curves and changeups. This pattern established itself especially as the spring moved along, in the latter Milwaukee and Cincinnati games.

Gonzalez’s task for the early season – it’s worth a trip to Round Rock if you can’t wait until mid-season – is to tighten up his efficiency. Against spring squads looking to take their cuts, not take their base, he threw 243 pitches in 13.2 innings. At 17.8 pitches per inning, that’s far too high for the Rangers to rush him to the rotation. Despite being hammered with injuries and questionable fill-ins, Jon Daniels and first-year skipper Jeff Banister are showing the discipline with Gonzalez and other prospects that will suit the Rangers not only in later months of this season, but in rebuilding the offspring of the pennant-winning tandem squads from 2010 and 2011.

When the last time the Rangers had THIS many pitchers as top prospects? Probably the DVD trio of the mid-2000’s – John Danks, Edison Volquez, and Thomas Diamond. Before you throw up in your mouth – and I wouldn’t blame you – consider the reality of those three.

The closest comparison to Volquez is definitely Gonzalez.

The majority of scouting reports I’ve seen on the-mound-artist-formerly-known-as-Chi-Chi have put emphasis on something akin to the following:

  • Stuff: three pitches that are at least 5 on the scouting scale (0-8) or better in professional baseball; good mix and match offerings to keep opponents off balance.
    Build (courtesy Bleacher Report): Good pitcher’s frame; carries himself well on the mound; clean, quiet delivery with no extraneous movement; slightly shorter stride to plate than you would like, but nothing that puts extra stress on his arm; good balance and really drives forward toward the plate; clean finish, always in position to field the ball.

Here are similar reports on Volquez Circa 2006:

  • Stuff -Age 22 Season: For Pitcher A to stick as a front-of-the-rotation starter rather than a power reliever, he must prove to be a fierce competitor; fastball and changeup rate tops for all Texas minor leaugers. His fastball explodes out of his hand and tops out at 97 mph, showing good sink and run when he throws it at 93-95. He holds his velocity late into games, throwing as high as 95 mph in the ninth inning in one outing. His changeup sometimes merits a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Aggressive and comes right after hitters. Control is a minor challenge, but has a clean, repeatable delivery and lightning-quick arm action. Lithe physique believes how athletic he is, and weight gain to his frame during is Age 20-21 season.
  • Build: draws Pedro Martinez comparisons as much for his electric personality as his electric arm. Fierce competitor is even built like Martinez, with a wiry frame and long arms and fingers; advanced and mature for a 22-year-old.

The key here is we have a pitcher with similar stuff to a once-ace pitcher (Volquez) with a better build and thus a better structure to withstand the strain. The comparisons to Martinez do Volquez credit, but pitchers of Pedro’s build and stuff, who can maintain it for any time at all – including Pedro – are few and far between. For proof, see Pedro after his arm injuries in the 1999 ALCS against Cleveland. He turned himself into a all-but-junk-baller in weeks and dominated with intelligence and movement. No prospect has that.

I won’t say Gonzalez has as much of a ceiling as Volquez. I think Volquez had the stuff and approach to burn hot for 2-3 seasons that Gonzalez will never see. But at 6-1 and 200+ pounds, Alex has staying power in his body neither Edinson or Pedro ever had, and I trust, with his innate intelligence and his coaches, that he can develop the feel for pitching to keep his as a mainstay for a long time. Unlike Pedro, for sure, or somewhat Edinson, the best route for the Rangers is not to rush or trade. Wait out the flowerings of potential. If Alex can develop easy-on-the-elbow off-speed stuff to go with his slider and breaking balls, he could put Edinson to shame over a distance race. The carrot is always Pedro. Trained well, Alex Gonzalez is as close as the Rangers system as to anyone of his ilk.

With that done, let’s get Thomas Diamond out of the way next: a bust. Plain and simple. In looking at his scouting report and minor league stats, it might not have been unforeseeable, but nothing is in hindsight. Diamond’s scouting report, courtesy the amazing scouting archives of Baseball America for his Age 21 season (2005, as the Ranger’s top prospect), puts his strengths as follows:

“Diamond can command a fastball with above-average velocity and also shows feel for a changeup, a rare combination for a young pitcher. His fastball sat at 90-94 mph after he signed, and the Rangers like the ease with which he throws and his aggressive use of the pitch. Diamond has smoothed out his mechanics since high school, when he topped out at 92, and now has good deception on both his fastball and changeup. He readily repeats his delivery and has a smooth arm action. His changeup is an above-average pitch, with occasional plus life down in the zone. His strong, physical frame should enable him to be an innings-eating workhorse in the rotation. His ceiling is as a No. 2 or 3 starter.”

Some key buzzwords here: repeatable delivery and mechanics are great for control, but we don’t see anything about movement. With injuries (as was the case with Diamond) 90-94 quickly becomes 87-91. Repeatable mechanics are basically on the edge of “repeatable release point” for hitters. With Diamond, few reports spoke about life or movement on his fastball. Without that, and lacking a breaking ball, he lost the delta between his fastball and changeup with injuries, and didn’t have the movement and breaking stuff to make control a benefit.

Of the Rangers prospects mentioned above, Jake Thompson fits the Diamond mold most readily, in terms of build, style, and stuff (Thompson’s slider is basically Diamond’s changeup). Focusing on Thompson’s health and increasing repeatability in his delivery will be a key goal for this season. But as we’ve seen, that’s not always enough. The focus on Thompson needs to be on keeping up the RPMs on his fastball without sacrificing control. As a slider pitcher, there’s considerable risk to his fastball if he comes to rely on the slider too early. A quick trip to the majors would probably lead him to lean on that. Dominance in the minors for another season or two, while building movement into his two-seam fastball and “rise” on his four-seam via better rotation will make his slider what it needs to be: a dominant but very secondary shutdown pitch.

Now, a clear caveat here: Thompson 2015 is NOT Diamond 2005, if for no other reason than the eras are entirely different. This holds true across the board, even as Danks and Volquez continue to carve out serviceable big league careers.

volquez

Edison Volquez was one part of the Rangers coveted “DVD Trio”

The DVD trio was trying to break in at the zenith of baseball’s steroid era. A decade later, offense is facing a disparity it hasn’t faced since perhaps the early 1970’s. Both average velocity and specialized relief pitching are at their height. The lack of 200+ inning pitchers has at least as much to do with the prominence of dominant relievers as it does a lack of endurance. With modern training and the amazing biometric knowledge regarding stress on the shoulder and elbow, the lack of complete-game starters is not due to ability.

Indeed, we saw from Madison Bumgarner in the World Series that, when necessary, modern aces can do a reasonable imitation of Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. But in the long run to October, the greatest benefit is to have a balance of quality and quantity. I would argue that even the Braves dynasty of the 1990’s would find a decent challenge taking on the 2014 Royals, not because of lineup or starting pitching, but because those Braves teams never had a set of arms like Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, or Greg Holland to take up the 7th, 8th, and 9th for the likes of John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, or Tom Glavine.

What this trend means for the Rangers is critical: for all the glory of Yu Darvish throwing nine dominant innings, that will forever more be the exception, not the rule – for Yu or anyone else. Specialization is only going to grow with dedicated pitching academies focused on velocity and the emergence of relief specialization in college baseball, to name just two factors. Starters who can blow hard for six dominant innings are the currency of the future.

The risk to elbows and shoulders of a half-dozen complete games doesn’t balance against the cost of finding and developing a pool of bullpen specialists to turn games into six-inning battles. On such a stage, a strong, durable pitcher like Thompson gains in value because durability means quality ACROSS starts vs quality deep into starts. Unlike Thomas Diamond a decade ago, six quality innings of fastballs and sliders from Thompson’s 6′-4″ frame will be enough to set the stage for a Rangers dynasty, as long as they’re complimented by like trends from other rotation mainstays and backed by a dominant bullpen. In Luke Jackson and Keone Kela, the Rangers have the makings of both kinds of building blocks.

I’ve been working to compare Luke Jackson to John Danks, but the parts don’t quite fit. Here’s Dank’s report from his peak status, as a prospect in 2007 courtesy of Baseball America:

”Every year, he makes adjustments, masters the level and advances to the next challenge.”; “…Deeper and more consistent repertoire (than Diamond or Volquez)”; “a polished three-pitch mix and a track record of success up through Triple-A. His tight 1-to-7 curveball rated as his best pitch coming out of high school, but since then his tumbling changeup has also become a plus offering. His changeup is now more reliable than his curveball. He also has a four-seam fastball that sits at 90-92 mph and tops out at 94. Danks added a two-seam version in 2006 to help him widen the strike zone. He has a clean arm action from a high-three-quarters slot and does a good job repeating his easy delivery. Danks has started to fill out his durable, athletic frame, and he could add a little more velocity. His baseball IQ is outstanding, and he has a better feel for pitching than most hurlers his age.”

How does that compare to our best comparison case to Danks , Luke Jackson? – and as a serviceable MLB starter for a decade, do NOT compare them apples to apples (report to follow courtesy rotoscouting).

Listed at 6-foot-2, 205 … a high release point affords Jackson strong downward plane on his pitches… a bit of a funky delivery in which he brings the ball down past his hip before reaching back to his release point, hiding the ball well. Jackson is able to repeat his slightly unorthodox delivery on an every-pitch basis. The only potential problem is his high-effort delivery.

Sitting at 93-96 MPH, touching 98 at times, Jackson’s fastball is his best pitch. It features late, arm-side run, tailing in to right-handed batters. His command of the pitch is fully developed major-league ready. He is able to consistently spot the pitch at the knees, and on the outer edge. He rarely catches the middle of the plate with a fastball. Jackson throws two different variations of his curveball. The one thrown most often features 12-6 break and is thrown through the zone with the hope of being called strike or inducing weak contact. The movement on the pitch is impressive, sometimes starting at the top of the zone and finishing at or below the knees. However, once the count gets to two strikes Jackson will mix in a harder curve with horizontal movement. At 78-81 mph, its sharper break makes it more of an out pitch. Curveball control/command is spotty as Jackson hangs it too often.

His change-up sits in the upper-70’s, a whopping 15-plus miles less than his fastball. With equivalent arm speed to the fastball, hitters have a difficult time picking up the pitch, Jackson’s change induces many swings and misses, and is used most often against left-handed batters. Command of the pitch is still a work in progress, but Jackson has been focusing on improving his feel for it.

Jackson changes speeds well. He’ll have at-bats where he goes from a mid-90s heater to a low-70s off-speed pitch before climbing the velocity ladder again. When able to command the entire arsenal, hitters appear uncomfortable in the box. Jackson’s willingness to start at-bats with off-speed stuff only amplifies this. Jackson has also used a slider in the past, but has been told to scrap it for now. At best his slider was a fringe offering, and it is not going to be more than a change of pace pitch if it is brought back into his repertoire down the line.

At the Major League level, Luke Jackson has the ceiling of a number two starter if things break right with a floor of high leverage relief pitcher. Tamping down the effort in his delivery, while continuing to develop secondary offerings is key to overall development. Just 22, and with the Rangers out of contention, the Rangers have no reason to rush the right-hander and risk stunting his development.

In my mind, Luke Jackson 2015 has a better ceiling than John Danks 2007, which says a lot. Those scouting reports make me lean to #2 vs. #1.

Luke Jackson’s key to reaching the Rangers in 2015, especially as a starter, may be slowing down. In an effort to fight control challenges, the last two weeks of his time in Surprise focused on a slowing down of his delivery. For a pitcher like Jackson, who is still struggling to develop a MLB-ready third pitch to go with his fastball and curve, a slower delivery may do more than fix control issues. With Paul Byrd as their throwback savant, pitchers who have slowed their approach have a solid history of using their bodies to do what their pitches could not: disrupt timing.

Luke Jackson is nobody’s Paul Byrd, mind you – he has a solid major league fastball and breaking ball, and has never shown any fear of starting hitters with off-speed pitches early in counts. However, the only thing more frightening than a bulldog charging at you may be one walking slowly towards you, jowls frothing, and nothing but cold intent in its eyes. Jackson has that pedigree. If his repertoire and delivery will show the same, by summer, we should see dead-cold stares simmering from the mound in the Arlington heat.

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Keone Kela could be the future Rangers closer

The last of the lot is both the most fireballing prospect in a Rangers uniform and the one that most hastened his trip to Arlington with his showing in Surprise. Keone Kela is not, to my knowledge, Hawaiian for anything. As a California and Washington kid, Keone’s not likely your best source for anything Hawaiian. But there’s something altogether appropriate that this tongue-twisting hurler starts both names with a K: he’s the undisputed young gun of Rangers camp. When you’re 6’-1″, 220 pounds with a curveball that hits the mid 80’s and a fastball that tops out at triple digits, you scream “reliever”. Kela’s pedigree and spring showing, alike, mean that a stretched Rangers staff may have a welcome change of pace – to a higher gear – waiting in the wings as they exited spring. He was tested in his Major League Debut on Tuesday night. After giving up a single to Billy Butler, he walked Ike Davis which prompted a brief visit from Pitching Coach Mike Maddux. He then proceeded to give Brett Lawrie the hat trick by striking him out on three straight low 80’s curveballs. Catcher Stephen Vogt lined a single to right field with a man on 1st and 2nd, but because Billy Butler runs like a hippopotamus in the mud, he didn’t score. Kela went 3-2 on Marcus Semien with the bases loaded and still just one out and got him to roll over on a pitch for a 6-3 double play to end the inning without any damage. He earned the attention and respect of his teammates but more importantly, he earned the attention of Jeff Banister, and if his maturity continues to match his repertoire and ferocity, he’s likely to be a permanent fixture in the bullpen for 2015 and beyond.

Elvis Andrus and Prince Fielder congratulate Keone Kela for working out of a bases loaded one out jam in the 7th inning of Tuesdays 3-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics

Elvis Andrus and Prince Fielder congratulate Keone Kela for working out of a bases loaded one out jam in the 7th inning, in his Major League debut, in Tuesdays 3-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics

Expect ups and downs. Fireballers find grooves and then the book gets out; they either adjust (think Nefti Feliz in 2010) or they don’t (Mitch Williams threw really hard here and in Chicago, but it took Will Clark nearly taking his head off in the NLCS and moving to the Beards, Biceps, and Bellies Philly crew of ’93 before he was considered and All-Star – and then Joe Carter happened…).

I could have called at least one more arm here – that in itself is great news for us as Rangers fans. Were age of no consideration, I’d have listed Luis Ortiz along with Thompson, both over Kela and Jackson. As pure prospects, those two have higher ceilings, but need some wear on the tires. Thomspon just turned 21, and despite our deep dive, the Diamond comparison does more to show he needs seasoning than anything else. Ortiz has to have teammates buy him beer for at least another season.

I’d expect each might see a cup of coffee by September, with the more bullpen suited (Kela) getting the most time, but with the present vs. future potential of this Rangers team, I would hope Daniels and Banister keep those kids building confidence in the minors vs. taking licks in the Show for a low-hope squad in the Arlington heat.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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