On August 6, the White Sox promoted starting pitcher Chris Beck from High-A Winston-Salem to Double-A Birmingham. A common question I heard when that news broke was “Isn’t that rushing him, since his strikeout rate is low?”
My response to that line of questioning was always “No, he’ll be fine.” And indeed he was, making five great starts in Birmingham down the stretch (28 IP, 22/3 K/BB, 0 HR, 2.89 ERA, 2.16 FIP). Ending his first full professional season by overmatching Double-A hitters is a great sign, but what of the low strikeout rate? How does the 76th overall pick of the 2012 draft project?
If there’s a single statistic I pay attention to when it comes to minor league pitchers, it’s definitely strikeouts. Much ink has been spilled over how important they are in sabermetric terms, but further, they also show how often a pitcher is dominating his opponents, in a sense. Pitchers who strike out, say, more than a batter per inning are doing something interesting that is causing trouble for hitters on a fairly regular basis, whereas those with low rates clearly have difficulty putting batters away.
As a 22-year-old starting pitcher in High-A, Chris Beck struck out 11.4% of the batters he faced, or 4.32 per nine innings. That ranked…wait for it…dead last among the league’s qualified starters. There were only seventeen qualified starters in the eight-team CL, but still, there’s no doubt those are low numbers. To put them in perspective further, consider that only three of the 292 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings in the majors this year had lower K/9s (Jake Westbrook, Scott Diamond, and Clayton Richard), and four had lower K%s (the aforementioned trio and Jon Garland).
So even if Beck didn’t lose any strikeout ability from High-A to MLB, he’d still be at the very bottom of the barrel in missing bats, which would certainly seem to paint him as an unlikely contributor to an MLB pitching staff, let alone a fantasy one. Why am I writing one of my typically loquacious posts about him, then? Let’s check the tape:
It shouldn’t take long to see why Beck held my interest in spite of the strikeout ineptitude. It takes all of…maybe two pitches in that video to see three major strengths he possesses.
First, Beck has a good pitcher’s body. He’s listed at 6’3″ and 210 pounds and is probably a bit heavier than that, but not so heavy as to border on conditioning issues. His build suggests the ability to hold down big workloads–perhaps it’s telling that as most pitchers wore down during their first full pro seasons, Beck ramped up his performance with the great season-ending stretch in Birmingham.
Second, it’s tough to imagine a smoother, more effortless delivery–he looks like he’s just out there playing catch, but the ball still works in the low 90s, touching 95. Again, this is a great sign for his durability and reliability in the long term. Further, the easy motion should allow him to develop above-average command, a step he seemed to be taking with the mere three walks in 28 innings in Birmingham (2.7% BB; in Winston-Salem he was at a still-decent 8.4%).
Third, Chris Beck’s fastball more or less drops off the face of the earth as it approaches the plate. It has big vertical drop and significant horizontal running action in on righthanders, who hit just .242/.279/.367 off him this year (lefties hit .279/.360/.405). Beck has as much sink on the ball as any other starting pitcher I saw this year in the 80+ games I attended, and I thus am quite comfortable in projecting him as a good groundball pitcher–that’s why I was confident in his ability to translate to the Double-A level in spite of his pedestrian (to put it kindly) strikeout output with Winston-Salem.
So, Beck is going to get grounders. He had a tremendous 56.5% groundball rate with Winston-Salem according to Minor League Central, though it was just 42.2% after his promotion to Birmingham (small sample, of course)–given the inaccuracies in collecting minor league data, neither data point is airtight, but Beck certainly looks the part of an innings-eating groundball guy. He has the durable build, the easy motion, and the good sinking fastball.
All of that is of course very nice, though it seems to only mitigate, rather than nullify, the strikeout problems. After all, Henderson Alvarez has a great 93-mph turbo sinker and doesn’t walk many guys, too, and his career 4.48 ERA, 4.46 FIP, and 11.7% K/BB ratio don’t make him of much use in all but the deepest fantasy formats. And Alvarez, a three-year veteran, is just five months older than Beck!
Such trepidation is fair and quite warranted. Sinking fastballs are great for inducing weak contact and ground balls, but they aren’t of much use in missing bats–they’re the worst pitch type in that category, in fact. If he’s going to be more than an Alvarez/Westbrook-level pitcher (which, in fairness, has its uses and probably isn’t an altogether bad outcome for a second-round pick, in spite of lacking both entertainment and fantasy value), Beck obviously will need to have offspeed offerings that can accomplish that task far more effectively than his fastball can.
You can see in the video that Beck has both a curveball and changeup, and perhaps even an occasional cutter/slider sort of pitch. Neither the curve nor the change stand out as a plus offering, though both pitches have their moments. He’ll need them to be somewhat consistent not just for strikeout purposes, but also for dealing with lefthanded hitters. Interestingly, Beck had an even 29/29 K/BB ratio against southpaw batsmen in High-A, but struck out 14 while only walking two after his promotion to Birmingham. It’s a small sample, and I don’t want to make too much of it, but it’s such a dramatic turnaround that it may imply some progress with the secondary offerings. In fact, almost all of the performance jump in Double-A can be attributed to his increased success to lefties.
Beck’s control, sinker, and reasonable offspeed pitches give him a high floor and a quick timetable–I could see him being a reasonably effective back-of-the-rotation starter for the White Sox in the second half of 2014. Whether he can move from that lower echelon to more of a third-starter role (and wider fantasy relevance) will depend on how consistent his offspeed pitches get. At this point, there’s a lot left to be determined about his ability to reach that sort of ceiling, but he has more of a chance at that than his statistics indicate.
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.