When it Comes to Evaluating MiLB Pitchers, Please Don’t Scout the Stat Line
One of the great things about baseball is the use of numbers to define everything within the game. One of the worst things about the game is the use of numbers to define everything about baseball. Sometimes as writers, we tend to get caught up in the stats. I know I can focus on ERA, WHIP, K/9, BB%, FIP, BABIP, LOB%, xFIP, and WAR. That’s a lot to consider just to evaluate one player when all you really need to evaluate a pitcher are two things: movement and location.
When it comes to minor-league talent, I think there’s getting to be an over-evaluation of statistics for players that are developing. Keith Law of ESPN calls this “scouting by the stat line.” One only needs to look at the South Bend Cubs to see that in action
The Cubs currently have four pitchers that have been starting all year: Jake Stinnett, Trevor Clifton, Eric Leal, and Zach Hedges. Each has between 13 and 15 starts – a nice sample size to evaluate their performance. In April, they were dominant as a starting staff with an ERA under 3. In May, things began to fall apart, though Hedges has started to put things back together this summer. His ERA since June 1 is under 2.50, whereas Stinnett and Clifton seem to be struggling keeping theirs under 5. Does that make Hedges a better prospect? Does it make him better developmentally? Are Stinnett and Clifton washed up? Well the answer to every one of those questions is an emphatic no!
Anyone who has ever watched baseball knows watching Stinnett and Clifton pitch that they have solid arms attached to their right shoulders. Their pitches move, the ball darts and then explodes near the plate. There is not much they can’t do with the baseball except for one thing: control where it’s going every time.
Right now, Hedges is having better success because he is able to control the location of his pitches. It’s nothing magical he’s doing, he just has a good release point. The ball comes out of the same arm slot every time to deceive the hitter. These are pitching basics, not something you’re going to find online in a graph or chart.
As for Stinnett and Clifton, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’re not washed up. In fact, they are just beginning to learn how to pitch. You have to remember two things about Trevor Clifton: first, his motion was totally rebuilt when he came to the Cubs; second, this is only his second full year of professional baseball with a rebuilt motion. You can see glimpses of his talent from start to start, as there is something improving in each that was better than the last. Whether that is his fastball command, keeping runners on, throwing to first base, stepping off the rubber; these are all little things that help to make a pitcher better. As for his pitches, it’s just going to take time. The kid is only 20 years old. He’s far from washed up at low-A because his ERA is over 4.
In fact, he’s actually not far from getting to be very good very, very quickly. Once he learns to put everything together from start to start, inning to inning, batter to batter, pitch to pitch, Trevor Clifton is going to be one of those pitchers that moves very quickly through the system.
Remember this as a precaution:
For those who make snap judgements on prospects, 3 years ago today Sonny Gray was struggling to keep his ERA under 5 in the Texas League.
— Melissa Lockard (@oakclubhouse) July 12, 2015
Jake Stinnett, meanwhile, is not that different from Clifton. Stinnett is still very young pitching-wise, with only two full years of pitching. The thing I take away when I watch Stinnett is his pitches move a ton. Whether it’s a fastball, a curve, slider, or change, everything is moving constantly. The young kid doesn’t know how to throw anything straight. That’s never going to be reflected in a stat line.
Once Stinnett figures things out, he too will move quickly through the system. I see glimpses of him improving this year. As the season has gone on, he’s pitching deeper into games, taking a little bit off his pitches to gain more control, and he looks to be much more confident on the mound.
With the South Bend Cubs hovering around .500, the development of Clifton and Stinnett would help the team win this summer in the second half, but it’s not necessary. What I think is necessary is their continued development as pitchers. In evaluating their development, one should not solely rest on numbers.
At the 2014 Cubs Convention, I remember sitting on the edge of my seat listening to Joe Bohringer, the Cubs Director of Pro Scouting, talk about how the Cubs scouting department mixes analytics and sabermetrics with old-school scouting. To evaluate talent in the 21st-century you need to have a mixture of what you’re seeing on the field and the numbers a player produces during the game.
As writers, and fans, we need to do the same. There is not one magic number that is going to quantify whether a player is doing a good job. The actions you see in a game are just as important as the numbers they produce. To blow off a 20-year-old prospect who is in low-A ball because of a high ERA is ridiculous. The player deserves the right to grow and to be evaluated in spite of the numbers. That’s what the minor leagues were designed to do – to develop players, not to objectify and quantify them.