Many popular opinions of pitching prospects are formed from general scouting reports. While these reports are invaluable resources, they can’t always be trusted. Hundreds of minor league hurlers are credited with “mid-90′s velocity,” but very few MLB starters actually have that grade of heat, for example. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear about a pitcher with “a mid-90′s heater and plus curve,” only to have him come up to the big leagues and show a fastball that averages 90.5 mph and a slider.
When a pitcher come up to the majors, we can finally get a foolproof reading on what exactly his arsenal is comprised of, thanks to the great Pitch F/X system. In this series, I analyze just that–the “stuff” of recently-promoted MLB pitchers. Now that they’ve achieved their big league dreams and thus factor directly into the MLB picture, it’s high time that we know exactly what these guys are providing.
This time, I’m taking a look at Padres lefty reliever Josh Spence.
Josh Spence was a ninth-round draft pick of the Padres out of Arizona State in 2010 who zoomed to the big leagues in almost exactly one year. Formerly a 3rd-round pick of the Angels in 2009, he didn’t sign and missed all of the next season with a nerve issue in his throwing elbow.
Spence was billed as a finesse guy coming out of college, but he was obviously regarded highly nonetheless, since two teams picked him in the top 10 rounds in back-to-back seasons. It comes as a big surprise, then, that the lefty arrived in the big leagues with a fastball that averages 83.8 mph, slowest among 2011′s rookie hurlers.
A starting pitcher through 2010, the lefty was moved to the bullpen in 2011 and pitched solidly (3.28 FIP) in Double-A before his recall. Obviously, even the move to shorter stints didn’t boost his velocity.
Not only does Spence’s fastball barely eclipse Jamie Moyer‘s, he also doesn’t have any sort of weird sidearm delivery that would make that velocity play up. Rather, he attacks hitters from a rather conventional three-quarters arm slot (see here).
So, we’ve got a pitcher throwing in the low-80′s with a conventional delivery–sounds like easy meat, right? Well, Spence has a 2.25 ERA with the Padres, so hitters beg to differ. Part of that can be explained by his .172 BABIP, but even then, his FIP is a quite viable 3.84, as he’s struck out 30 batters in 28 innings.
He does it by throwing a 77-79 mph slider just over half the time, including over 60% of the time to lefthanded batters. His arm action is a bit funky in the back, so it hides the ball well to lefties, allowing him to effectively neutralize them despite his lack of velocity.
It should come as no surprise that righties are more problematic. Spence has walked 12 of the 54 righties he’s faced, striking out just 12, whereas he’s got five walks and 18 strikeouts among the 61 lefthanders he’s faced. To be fair, four of his walks to righties are of the intentional variety, but he gets to an ugly 5.48 xFIP against them either way (3.39 against lefties).
Against righties, Spence splits his pitches almost evenly between the fastball, the slider, and a 75-78 mph changeup. He doesn’t seem to have much of a pattern with his locations to them, which is problematic:
Don’t worry about the pitch classifications here; he throws so slowly that Pitch F/X isn’t quite sure what to call his fastball, so they call it a changeup much of the time. In any case, all that we can really glean from this is that Spence doesn’t like going in to righties. Otherwise, his pitches are split pretty much evenly between four areas: some are right down the middle, some are on the outside corner, some miss away, and some miss low.
He gets a fair amount of swings and misses with this distribution, because he’s throwing the ball out of the zone so much, but he also doesn’t get many called strikes, which can put him in hitter’s counts rather quickly. Thirteen of his 21 1-0 pitches to righties thus far have been balls, for example; even if you remove the four intentional walks, it’s still nine of 17, which means that merely going 1-0 on a righty spells trouble much of the time.
So where does that leave us with Spence? Obviously, he’s highly unlikely to ever feature even close to average velocity. It’s worth noting that righthanders have a .138 BABIP off of him. While that’s certainly going to revert to a more normal figure down the line, it’s an important indicator because it shows that Spence’s unimpressive arsenal isn’t a guarantee to get crushed when righties do make contact. It might thus be beneficial to him to simply pound the zone against righties and hope for the best, particularly in games where he isn’t being deployed as a one-out or two-out guy. A flyball pitcher, he’s certainly got a good home park and defense behind him, and his flyball tendency and park certainly will help suppress his BABIP (not to 2011 levels, but below the league average).
While his run of 2.25 ERA pitching in 2011 seems like a transient, unsustainable fluke on a number of levels, it’s quite possible that Spence could carve out an long career as an effective situational reliever despite his utter lack of exciting stuff, and writing him off due to his lack of velocity, low BABIP, and high platoon splits would be jumping to a rather problematic conclusion.
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