Projecting Rafael De Paula

Yankees pitching prospect Rafael De Paula entered the season cloaked in mystery. There were three basic things known about him to the general prospecting community. First, despite being a coveted international free agent, he didn’t sign a contract until he was almost 21 due to maintaining a false identity, being suspended, and taking a long time to acquire a visa in the aftermath of the incident. Second, once he finally was officially a professional, he went out and tore up the Dominican Summer League in 2012, with a 1.46 ERA and 85/18 K/BB in 61 2/3 innings. Of course, his advanced age made those statistics even less relevant than typical DSL numbers, which mean little on the prospecting scene to begin with. What was more important was the third fact, which was that he supposedly had good stuff.

I saw De Paula show that stuff on April 21 against Hickory, where he threw five hitless innings with ten strikeouts. Today, I’m going to examine what allowed him to roll through South Atlantic League lineups with ruthless efficiency in the first half of the year, but also look at some of the rough edges that contributed to a drop in production following De Paula’s promotion to High-A at midseason.

One of the most challenging aspects of analyzing De Paula is reconciling his advanced age with his inexperience. He turned 22 years old before throwing a single pitch in organized US ball, debuting at roughly the same age as a college senior signee would. Senior signs, of course, need to move fast to stay on the prospect wire.

In lieu of four years of college, though, De Paula got 14 starts in the DSL and a whole lot of time sitting around waiting for a visa, which gives him much less experience than a typical 22-year-old. So he needs polish to be taken seriously in light of his age, but it’s also somewhat unreasonable to expect a whole lot of polish from someone with so little instruction, let alone time on professional mounds.

Perhaps not surprisingly, De Paula ends up caught in the middle–his physical maturity and advanced age give him more polish than the average DSL-to-stateside arm, but his level of overall consistency across the board isn’t on par with most 22-year-old legitimate pitching prospects.

Like a lot of inexperienced arms, De Paula is a fairly fastball-heavy pitcher. That approach can serve him quite well at times, because his fastball flashes plus. Check out the pitch that freezes Lewis Brinson for the strikeout here:

That’s 94 mph, with life, moving right back over the outside corner. De Paula could throw that to MLB hitters with two strikes right now and get the same result a pretty solid portion of the time.

Here’s some more good fastballs in the 91-93 range to Jordan Akins. Again, look at the combination of solid-average velocity and big running action on the pitch:

It’s easy to see those clips and come away with the idea that De Paula’s fastball is already at or near a plus grade. But for everything he does well, there’s a flipside of inconsistency, and the fastball is no exception. Both the velocity and the life on the pitch are inconsistent. He was throwing 91-94 early in the outing here, but his last two innings–which, mind you, were just the fourth and fifth innings of an outing in which he allowed no hits–saw him drop to just 88-92. The difference between averaging 92.5 (consistent 91-94) and 91 (88-94 overall) is immense. I wish we had data on De Paula the first time through the order vs. the second and third, because it’d be interesting to see if he struggled as his velocity dropped.

The life on the pitch is also inconsistent–sometimes, it has all sorts of riding, running action, and others, it’s quite flat. Again, the difference between a 91 (or even 94) mph fastball that’s straight vs. one that has the sort of life De Paula’s has at its best can be immense.

The fastball, however, was not the offering that caught my eye the most that April afternoon. Rather, it was his slider. Or mainly, one particular slider, the second pitch of this video:

I saw a lot of minor league baseball this year–somewhere around eighty games. I saw a lot of good pitchers in that span, several of whom throw quite interesting sliders. I don’t think I saw any one individual slider that did what that pitch did (though Shae Simmons threw a few that are in the discussion). The tilt on the offering is absolutely ferocious, and the particular pitch comes in at 80 mph, which isn’t exactly soft. He throws another good one at 79 to end the at-bat, a pitch approximately six miles from the strike zone that still coaxes a swing out of the notoriously gullible (if freakishly athletic) Jorge Alfaro.

It’s not really a power slider, as it just comes in at 77-80 mph. At times, De Paula can give it more of a curve look, as he does when freezing Nick Williams here:

As a side note, if you wondered why Peter O’Brien was moved off of catcher…

Again, though the pitch isn’t always the wipeout offering that it was to Alfaro. At its relatively slow speed, De Paula has to get big bite on it for it to be effective, but he sometimes gets around the pitch, shortening the break and giving it more of a cutter look. It goes without saying that a 77-80 mph cutter isn’t going to be of much use.

De Paula does have a third pitch, a changeup which is relatively advanced for his level of experience, but not so much for his age. He freezes Ryan Rua with one here:

It’s pretty clear what the good and the bad is when it comes to this pitch. On the plus side, it does not lack for movement, with solid fade and sink. However, it lacks much speed separation–the one here came in at 85, and he was usually 83-86 with it, sometimes as little as four or five mph slower than the heater. As such, he tends to use it basically as a two-seam fastball at this point, a pitch that changes plane rather than speed. The movement on the offering is more consistent than that of the fastball, but it also is erratic at times.

So, on the whole, De Paula has a fastball and slider that flash plus and a changeup that flashes average. If all three gain consistency in those ranges, then he’ll have a great arsenal–a 91-94 mph moving fastball, a fall-of-the-table Darvishian slider, and a solid moving change. That’s the arsenal of a #2 starter, which is De Paula’s ultimate upside.

In Charleston, De Paula pitched like the sort of guy destined for that role–he posted a 2.94 ERA and 2.03 FIP while striking out a profoundly silly 37.5% of batters faced and walking just 9.0%. However, in High-A Tampa, the ERA ballooned to 6.06 and the FIP to 4.63, the strikeouts fell to a good-but-far-more-pedestrian 21.6%, and the walks climbed to 12.9%. From a 22-year-old who hasn’t escaped the low minors, that’s not a statline that portends greatness. What went wrong?

I didn’t see De Paula throw for Tampa, so to some degree, I can only speculate. But there are several logical reasons.

The first is De Paula’s delivery. Typically, I project a pitcher’s ability to command the strike zone from the basic soundness of his mechanics and his ability to repeat them. De Paula’s delivery is by no means terrible, but you can see from the videos that he utilizes a short stride and lands very stiff on his plant leg. He also is inconsistent on his followthrough, sometimes falling off hard to first base and struggling to corral his momentum. This leads to his release point wandering at times–he often ends up sailing the ball high, in particular.

And that brings me to the second point of concern, and one that shows up in a major way on the stat sheet. Rafael De Paula had a 30% groundball rate this year, including 25.4% in Tampa. That’s an almost impossibly low groundball percentage–no qualified MLB starter this year turned in a mark below A.J. Griffin’s 32.1%. Since 2002, only two qualified MLB starters ever have posted groundball marks below 30%–Ted Lilly at 29.5% in 2010 and Chris Young in both 2006 (25.4%) and 2007 (29.1%). Young had those seasons in Petco Park, too.

All of De Paula’s pitches have enough movement that he shouldn’t be such an extreme flyballer. What we see here, then, is a pitcher who, last year, walked into a situation where he didn’t have to do much to dominate–he was a 21-year-old with a borderline plus fastball in the DSL. As such, his first instinct–the first instinct of many a young power arm–was to blow the ball by hitters at the letters and above, and the weak DSL batters were no match to the strategy. Neither were the SAL hitters in the first half of 2013, as long as he kept them honest with the slider.

Tampa, though, is where De Paula seems to have hit the wall of the high-heat approach. As we’ve established, he doesn’t throw that hard, and a pitcher can’t just go out there and throw the ball at the shoulders at 91 mph and expect a High-A batter to chase. This is another area where his inexperience comes into play, though not in a fashion that’s really detrimental to his future–De Paula’s had so little live organized baseball experience that he really hasn’t had to undergo the gradual adjustment process that most pitchers do. Instead, he sat on the sidelines for a while, was eventually placed in leagues wildly ill-suited to challenge him, and then within 125 innings suddenly was faced with the first real adjustments he ever had to make, at age 22.

It should also be noted that the innings count may play a factor in De Paula’s late-season fade. After all, he’d hardly been stretched out–he had worked 61 2/3 innings the year before and had years of relative inactivity before that. By the time he was promoted to Tampa, he had already thrown 64 1/3 frames. His first outing in Tampa, he worked five scoreless innings with just three hits and a walk to go with six strikeouts. One could argue he may have hit a wall right after, as he had two straight bad outings, then disappeared for a month on the inactive list. When he returned, he had another bad outing before back-to-back eight-strikeout games on July 25 and July 30 before a fairly disastrous August that saw him walk 17 batters in 21 1/3 innings.

De Paula’s lack of adjustments and stamina can be somewhat discounted due to his inexperience; still, he’ll need to prove that he can work the lower third of the zone to keep the ball in the park, and he’ll need to show he can work deeper into games (and seasons) to remain a starting pitcher. Still, the overall package of stuff for someone this inexperienced is quite intriguing, and anybody who can touch 94 mph with life and make a baseball travel 80 mph with extreme tilt has a lot of relief upside at the least. If De Paula gains consistency on the speed and trajectory of his offerings and improves his delivery, he could certainly be an impact starter. There are still a lot of questions to be answered here, so his floor is relatively low, and his age-23 season in 2014 will be crucial for him. He’s definitely worth following to see if he can adjust to the higher minors and start posting dominant numbers against more advanced hitters, but there are still significant question marks here that preclude De Paula from being a true upper-echelon pitching prospect at this point.

We hoped you liked reading Projecting Rafael De Paula by Nathaniel Stoltz!

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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.

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