Everybody loves a sleeper–a player who seems primed to break out but who few pay attention to. Predicting a prospect breakout a) is fun and b) gives an evaluator some credibility, and in fantasy baseball, grabbing a player on the cheap and watching him soar to usefulness is a great way to find success.
While the White Sox minor league system has not been considered anywhere near an elite group in the past several years, they have managed to accumulate a number of sleeper successes. Until 2013, this allowed the major league team to stay competitive, supplementing a veteran core with solid performances from unheralded sources. While the team struggled in 2013, the trend continued, with Marcus Semien, Erik Johnson, and Daniel Webb all upping their stock considerably throughout the 2013 season and reaching the majors despite opening the year with no upper-minors experience.
In a system with little other places to look for positive thoughts other than the next wave of potential sleepers, one player who many analysts point to as a sleeper to watch is righthanded pitcher Chris Bassitt. Our own Marc Hulet ranked the lanky hurler as the organization’s eleventh-best prospect. But how good might Bassitt become?
An obscure 16th-round pick in 2011 out of Akron, Bassitt was mostly a reliever prior to the 2013 season, making ten starts and 51 relief appearances across 2011-12. As a 23-year-old High-A swingman in 2012. the lanky righthander managed a 3.66 ERA but a mere 4.32 FIP with a poor 75/54 K/BB ratio in 91 innings. The age, draft status, role, and production painted the picture of a non-prospect rather than an intriguing sleeper.
However, the White Sox made the unconventional decision to challenge Bassitt with a move to full-time starting in 2013, and it clearly paid dividends, as he posted strong numbers in both High-A (3.46 ERA, 101/42 K/BB in 101 1/3 IP) and Double-A (2.27 ERA, 37/17 K/BB in 47 2/3 IP). Along the way, he seemed to convince a number of observers that he projected as a potential fourth starter in the big leagues and that, seeing as he’ll open 2014 as a 25-year-old, he’s somebody who could contribute to the White Sox in the relatively near future.
What does Bassitt bring to the table that’s gotten him noticed? Here’s a good place to start:
This is a heck of a pitch, for three reasons. First, Bassitt gets a lot of deception in his delivery. There’s some effort in his motion, but it’s not egregious, and he does an excellent job using his lower half to drive toward the plate. His exaggerated long arm action, moderate head jerk, and fairly high legkick all add visual noise to disrupt the batter.
Second, Bassitt operates from a fairly low three-quarter arm slot. Because he’s 6’5″ and does a reasonable job of staying tall in his motion, he’s not totally compromising his downward plane with this release point, and his low arm slot imparts a lot of running action on the ball.
Oh, and finally, the above pitch traveled 96 mph. A 96-mph moving heater with deception? That’ll convert a lot of nonbelievers.
Granted, Bassitt isn’t going to be averaging 96 mph–he typically works more in the 89-94 range. Still, it stays interesting at these velocities. Just check out the screwball life on this 91-mph pitch:
You don’t see a lot of fastballs that move like that at any level of professional baseball, and the fact that Bassitt has solid-average velocity and deception to go with that sort of life is a big plus. He’s had below-average BABIPs the last two seasons (.258 in 2012, .283 in High-A in 2013, and .252 in AA in 2013), which is likely partly luck but also is aided by the difficulty batters have in squaring up his pitches. It’s not like contact like this is going to generate many positive results for a batter:
While he gets a lot of life on the ball from a fairly low arm slot, Bassitt’s heater isn’t really a true sinker–most of the action is horizontal, not vertical. This means he’s not really an extreme groundball pitcher, with a merely solid 45.3% groundball rate in 2013, but it also opens up the upper reaches of the zone for the pitch, which can get nasty riding life when he climbs the ladder:
He can also use the horizontal action on the pitch to run back over the inside corner to lefthanded batters:
With the velocity, deception, and movement on the fastball, it rates as a solid-average offering that flashes plus. For all the moving parts in his motion, Bassitt does a decent job repeating and spotting the ball, though his control is not exceptional (59 walks in 149 innings).
While Bassitt is still fairly new to starting at the professional level, he does have a diverse arsenal of offspeed offerings to back up the moving heater. The best of these is probably his slider, which resides in the 80-85 mph range and boasts tight action at its best.
I’ve discussed before in this space how many pitching prospects have sliders that don’t have bite on the arm side of the zone. Here, we see an 82-mph breaker from Bassitt that is able to pull it off, coming right back over the inside corner for a called strike. It has good snap and solid tilt, and it’s tough to imagine Cutter Dykstra being able to do anything with this particular pitch. Here’s Kevin Keyes swinging through a similar offering:
And, of course, Bassitt gets solid life on the pitch when he throws it to the glove side of the zone, too.
Between his deception, velocity, and movement on both the fastball and slider, Bassitt is nearly impossible for righthanded batters to hit: they posted a meager .197/.255/.301 statline against him in 2013, which bodes well for his ability to retire them at the major league level, perhaps as soon as 2014.
Sinker-slider pitchers tend to struggle with opposite-handed batters, though, and Bassitt’s biggest challenge in moving from the bullpen to the rotation has been coming up with ways to retire southpaws. He tends to eschew the harder slider against them, instead turning to this:
That’s Bassitt’s slow curveball, which typically arrives in the 69-74 mph range. It’s a pitch he uses a lot to both lefthanders and righthanders, and it does have some positives. First, it gives hitters a third distinct speed to worry about. He can get batters way out in front of the offering if they aren’t expecting it:
And occasionally, the pitch gets some impressive depth:
This particular pitch has the sort of raw movement you’d expect from such a slow offering, with big two-plane movement that evokes similarly big, slow effective curves like A.J. Griffin‘s and Randy Wolf’s. Too often, though, it fails to achieve this sort of movement and has more of a rolling, three-quarters break. He will throw it to both sides of the plate against lefthanders, and the pitch is capable of generating some positive results for him:
Bassitt also throws a changeup as an occasional fourth offering, but only turns to it a few times per outing, and it’s not a major part of his arsenal. We’ve seen plenty of pitchers succeed as starters without much changeup usage, using the curveball as a weapon against opposite-side batters–Roy Oswalt did it for years, and top White Sox prospect Erik Johnson looks poised to find success with a similar pitch mix. But the curve doesn’t project well enough to function effectively in that sort of role for Bassitt. Indeed, righthanders hit .197/.255/.310 against him this year, while lefthanders ripped him for a .257/.362/.413 line. He dominated righties with a 75/18 K/BB, but lefties struck out 63 times and managed 41 walks.
Lefties get a long look at the ball in Bassitt’s elongated delivery, and he doesn’t have an out pitch to them, so it makes sense that this is the case. When he misses over the plate to a southpaw, bad things can happen:
Many point to Bassitt as a potential #4 starter, citing his solid overall performance and broad arsenal of pitches. While he does have arm strength, stamina, four offerings with some utility, reasonable control, and decent groundball ability, his weakness against lefthanders may negate these broad strengths and make him more likely to return to the bullpen down the line. It’s easy to imagine Bassitt being a reliever who could focus more on the fastball-slider combination, facing largely righthanders and not having to work multiple times through the order; further, this would allow him to work in the mid-90s with more consistency rather than just occasionally touching that velocity. His deception, velocity, and movement could make him a terror on righthanders in the middle innings, and he’s clearly proven he can get big results against his fellow northpaws.
By no means should a relief career be perceived as a failure for Bassitt or the White Sox organization–any time a 16th-round senior sign comes anywhere close to the majors, it’s a testament to both the player and the scout that recommended him. Still, though, Bassitt’s weaknesses with his secondary pitches and with opposite-side hitters preclude him from being a top sleeper arm; there are likely better low-minors sleeper pitchers available on dynasty league waiver wires. Keep Bassitt in mind as a guy who could one day post a 25% strikeout rate out of nowhere as a reliever, but don’t buy in expecting him to translate his 2013 starting numbers to the big leagues.
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.