Starting Pitcher Debuts — Sep 9, 2021

With September comes a number of minor league callups that figure to remain with the big league club through the end of the season. This includes new starting pitchers making their MLB debuts. Let’s discuss four of those.

Joe Ryan | MIN

Ryan entered the season as the Rays’ 18th best prospect, but now ranks 10th in the Twins system, after he came over in the Nelson Cruz trade. He’s a fascinating pitcher, so much so that in his 2020 writeup, Eric Longenhagen couldn’t explain how he had managed to strike out so many batters in the lower minors in 2018 and 2019 with a fastball that merely sat 90-94 MPH. But now the explanation has come:

So Ryan’s fastball approaches the plate at an upward angle and has some carry to it, which makes hitters swing underneath it a lot.

It’s a unique fastball that has been far more effective than you would expect, especially given its velocity. Pitchers with unique deliveries are always difficult to project in the Majors because you never know how batters at the highest level are going to react and ultimately adjust. His non-fastballs don’t grade out well, so it’s seemingly all about the effectiveness of that fastball. He has never posted a strikeout rate below 34.7% during any minor league stint, so clearly that fastball has allowed him to dominate.

He has only made one start so far in the Majors and that fastball only averaged 90.8 MPH, maxing out at just 93.7 MPH. He threw is 70.8% of the time, which is high. But it did live up to its whifftastic promise, generating a 14.3% SwStk%. Even his slider and changeup, which he only threw 10 times each, generated elite SwStk% marks.

The other wrinkle here is his extreme fly ball ways. He has allowed more fly balls than grounders everywhere he’s gone (except his nine inning Triple-A stint in the Twins organization this year). That batted ball distribution should suppress his BABIP greatly, but make him prone to the long ball.

He’s going to be an interesting pitcher to follow. He may very well have early success the first time around the league. But I’m curious if batters eventually latch on to his fastball, the pitch loses much of its whiff-inducing abilities, and he quickly loses effectiveness. For now, I’m buying him for the final month on the strikeout potential.

Glenn Otto | TEX

Heading into the season, Otto wasn’t much of a prospect. He ranked just 37th in the Yankees system, before being traded to the Rangers as part of the Joey Gallo deal. Ranked as a future reliever, he has spent the majority of his minor league career as a starter and has made two starts so far for the Rangers.

Prior to this year, we didn’t have a whole lot of minor league stats to use for evaluation purposes. Most of his innings came at High-A in 2019, where he posted a 27.8% strikeout rate, but an underwhelming SwStk% and a double digit walk rate. Then in 2021, his SwStk% spiked and his walk rate dropped into single digits. He also struck out 40.7% of batters while at Double-A over 65.1 innings. Suddenly, he was perhaps someone worth paying attention to.

His first two start for the Rangers have been a mixed bag. While the 30.6% strikeout rate is fantastic, it’s not supported by a lowly 8.3% SwStk%. His called strike rate is a bit more impressive, but doesn’t come close to offset the low SwStk% and justify the high strikeout rate. So don’t get too excited about the quick strikeout rate start. That said, his slider has been excellent, generating a 20% SwStk% and he has thrown it frequently enough that it could really drive his strikeout rate in the future.

The problem has been an absolutely terrible fastball, which has generated just a 1.4% SwStk%. That’s kinda hard to do! His other non-fastballs not thrown very frequently also sport single digit SwStk% marks. Obviously, the sample size is tiny, but we know what to monitor moving forward. Not every pitcher is blessed with a standout pitch, so at least he has that slider to build upon. We’ll have to see if his other pitches can play enough of a supporting role to lead to success over the rest of the year and deeper league fantasy value.

A.J. Alexy | TEX

As the Rangers’ 19th ranked prospect, Alexy wasn’t thought of as that much better than Otto, but also looked at as a future reliever. But the playing-for-the-future Rangers have still decided to give him a look in the rotation as he has made two starts so far.

In the minors, his strikeout rate has hovered around the 30% mark, sometimes rising just above, and sometimes settling in just below. His SwStk% marks weren’t as impressive most of the time, but he did get as high as 14.1% at Single-A over a reasonable sample, plus his 16.9% mark at Triple-A this year over a tiny sample. But his strikeout ability hasn’t really been in question, it’s his control. Since his Rookie league debut back in 2016, he has posted a double digit walk rate everywhere he’s pitched. With a FB% over 40% everywhere he’s gone, that could potentially mean lots of multi-run homers allowed.

His first two MLB starts include underlying skills that fit perfectly with his minor league record. He’s struck out batters at a good clip, but also walked a high rate, plus has allowed far too many fly balls. He has averaged 93.2 MPH with his fastball and mostly completed that with a slider and changeup. In his prospect writeup, he was said to sit 93-97 MPH and top out at 99 MPH, so averaging just 93.2 MPH and maxing out at 95.9 MPH seems a bit disappointing.

Despite the lower velocity than expected, his pitches have been quite effective at generating whiffs. His four-seamer has been about average, but his slider has posted a mid-teens SwStk%, which is fine, while his changeup has been fantastic with a 22.2% SwStk%. It’s interesting to note that he has thrown his curveball the least and it hasn’t generated a swinging strike in 12 pitches, yet that’s his best secondary pitch according to his scouting grades. Perhaps there are classification issues mixing up the curveball and slider, who knows. Anyway, so far so good on the strikeout rate, but like for many, his success will be driven by his control.

Edward Cabrera | MIA

Cabrera was the fifth ranked prospect in the Marlins system heading into the season, but ranks third now in the updated ranks. He has posted some strong strikeout rate marks in the minors, including marks in the mid-30% range at both Double-A and Triple-A this season, and they were backed by elite SwStk% marks.

He had never struggled with his control previously, but posted a 14.7% walk rate over a small sample at Triple-A. It’s worth noting because over his first three starts and 12.2 innings with the Marlins, he has already walked 13% of opposing batters, so whatever caused his sudden lack of control at Triple-A seems to have carried over to the Majors.

Aside from the lack of control, he has also struggled to generate swings and misses and strikeouts. It’s certainly not a velocity problem, as his fastball has averaged 97.1 MPH, peaking at 99 MPH. Surprisingly, given his underwhelming SwStk%, his changeup has been excellent at a 14.7% SwStk%, while his slider has been fantastic at a 19.4% SwStk%. So those have seemingly been as advertised. However, it’s the fastball that’s doing exactly as Eric Longenhagen described:

Like [Sixto] Sánchez, Cabrera’s fastball spin axis resides in a bat-missing Bermuda Triangle and it doesn’t generate swings and misses even though it’s very hard.

Sure enough, out of 61 four-seamers, only 4.9% of them have generated a swinging strike, while his curveball has allowed even more contact at a 3.3% SwStk%. While the sample size is too tiny to make any definitive conclusions, he seems like a work in progress that will get pegged as a breakout candidate each year, and then eventually that breakout will come.

We’ll all be betting on that fastball and he will figure out how to translate the velocity into whiffs. He’ll also better utilize his repertoire and if that curveball doesn’t improve, he’ll simply drop it and rely on his other three pitch mix. We also need to find out what, if anything, is behind his control issues. I like his future, but not sure he’s going to generate positive fantasy value the rest of the way.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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