It is often said that closers are made, not born. Any experienced baseball fan knows this; it seems that for every Huston Street type who arrives with hype, four or five Jason Grillis, Andrew Baileys, or John Axfords slip into dominance after finding dead-ends in other roles. As such, predicting who will ascend to MLB closer roles (beyond the obvious “the best MLB non-closer relief pitchers”) is often a fool’s errand.
This becomes even more difficult when one attempts to find future closers in the minor leagues. Many of the pitchers who end up closing MLB games were starters all through their minor league careers, but it’s tough to project a minor league starter as a closer outright–in doing so, one is essentially saying “This pitcher will fail badly at the role he’s currently in and subsequently find tremendous success in a role he’s never pitched in.” Certainly plausible, but not something that seems like it can be said with much confidence. And minor league relievers–well, they’re equally problematic to forecast. After all, if a pitcher has a big future, why isn’t he able to crack a minor league rotation?
It’s certainly possible to envision any number of minor leaguers closing out ballgames–as so many sabermetricians are fond of saying, the role of garnering save totals can be accomplished reasonably effectively by any number of players, and the minor leagues have no shortage of interesting power pitchers that could fit a closer profile if things go their way. However, it’s quite another thing to actually predict that a minor league pitcher will end up amassing saves in the big leagues.
I think White Sox pitching prospect Daniel Webb merits such a prediction, though.
Webb was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 18th round of the 2010 draft out of Northwest Florida State JC and got a $450,000 bonus to sign–at the time, the second-highest bonus issued to a player picked outside of the first ten rounds. He was billed as a power fastball pitcher who needed work with his secondary pitches and control in order to start.
Webb struggled through two years in the Jays organization, with ERAs over 5.00 in the low minors (mostly as a starter) complemented by forgettable peripheral stats. Apparently the White Sox saw something in him, though, because they acquired him (along with the more highly-touted righthander Myles Jaye) in a trade for Jason Frasor in the 2011-12 offseason.
The White Sox moved Webb to relief quickly, but superficially, his 2012 wasn’t any better than his previous seasons–he had a 5.81 ERA as a 22/23-year-old reliever in the Low-A South Atlantic League, and it wasn’t like he was striking guys out (50 in 62 innings). Non-prospect, right?
Well, maybe not. Actually, he had a 4.41 ERA as a reliever–his ERA was inflated by four horrendous starts to open the season. Also, his FIP was 3.46, mostly thanks to him allowing just three home runs (all as a starter; he threw 49 homerless innings as a reliever).
Finally, if you really wanted to nitpick, you could take Webb’s August/September outings and come up with this:
7 G, 13 2/3 IP, 12 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 8 BB, 17 K
That might seem like statistical manipulation of a rather absurd degree, and I suppose it is. But the reason I isolate that stretch is that it includes two outings that I personally witnessed, and the Daniel Webb I saw looked nothing like an ineffective pitcher. At the time, I wrote the following about him in Big Leagues Magazine:
Webb might have the best three-pitch mix I saw in the SAL this season (admittedly, I fell short of seeing every team, let alone pitcher, in the league, but still)…He can crank his fastball up to 98 mph for multiple innings, working at 93-98. Webb’s slider and changeup, which both work in the mid-80s, grade out as average to above-average; the changeup is probably better, though he uses the slider more…This is a pitcher who could not only make the majors; he could have the stuff to be a quality #3 starter if he puts it all together.
Seeing such a high grade of stuff with such poor results was quite confusing, and when I realized that the late-season version of Webb that I saw actually was getting results, I concluded that he likely had made adjustments as the season progressed, and the earlier troubles did not reflect his true talent.
Fast forward to today, just half a season later, and Webb is making my optimism look fairly well-placed, as he’s gone from Low-A middle reliever to Triple-A closer in the span of just a few dozen innings. He threw fifteen innings in High-A Winston-Salem without allowing any earned runs, striking out nineteen while walking five. Next came Double-A Birmingham, where he had a 21/5 K/BB in 20 1/3 while allowing just four runs on eleven hits. So far in Triple-A, he has an unsightly 12.15 ERA in 6 2/3 frames, but he’s also struck out twelve batters already. Unless you think his .550 BABIP (!) will persist, he’ll likely have a good statline there before long.
I managed to get a quick glimpse of Webb this year with Birmingham, and was surprised to see he now throws even harder. Witness:
It’s quite something to throw 95-100 mph. It’s rarer still to do so with a motion that isn’t painful to watch. Webb generates his velocity more through tremendous arm speed than excessive effort, and the closed stance in his motion adds a bit of deception, as the ball jumps on hitters late. He’s also not throwing the ball straight–he gets some armside run on his fastball. He’s not a playing-with-fire type who’s going to try to elevate the ball by everybody and allow ten homers in seventy innings, as evidenced by his single homer allowed since his conversion to relief last April (which actually came just two days ago). Webb also has a solid hard slider with big break for such a power breaker, and he showed a good changeup in my viewings last year, though he’s largely shelved it of late.
As he’s progressed through the minors, the White Sox have entrusted Webb with more closing assignments.
Low-A: 27 relief appearances, 2 SV
High-A: 8 G, 2 SV
Double-A: 13 G, 4 SV
Triple-A: 6 G, 2 SV (1 BS)
Clearly, Webb’s surge has gotten the attention of the organization, as evidenced by both his rapid promotion schedule and the fact that he’s been immediately elevated to high-leverage spots at the levels he’s promoted to.
It’s hard to ask for a better relief prospect than Daniel Webb. He’s just a level away from the majors, he throws as hard as any pitcher ever needs to, he generates that velocity in a way that minimizes the health and control concerns that usually accompany such extreme flamethrowers, and there’s clearly more to his arsenal and approach than merely lighting up radar guns.
As I outlined in the introduction, it’s understandably difficult to prize a minor league relief pitcher as a fantasy asset. But if you’re playing in a setup where stashing a potential closer makes sense, Webb should be at or near the top of your list to fill that spot. It’s possible that he could debut as soon as a month from now, so there shouldn’t be too long of a waiting period before he can start contributing holds, strikeouts, K/9, and the like as a middle reliever, and he could be closing games for the Pale Hose as soon as late 2014 or Opening Day 2015 if he adjusts as well as I think he can. Webb could sneak up on a lot of people very quickly, so at the very least, he’s worth a watch for now and a snag when he’s brought up 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.