The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Eric Surkamp

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 Giants lefty starter Eric Surkamp.

Eric Surkamp has always put up extremely impressive numbers in the minor leagues, and 2011 is no exception, as he put together a 165/44 K/BB in 142 1/3 Double-A innings while allowing just five homers–good for a 2.02 ERA and 2.37 FIP. However, his reputation as a “finesse lefty” dogged Surkamp throughout his prospect career, and now that he’s come up to the big leagues and made three starts, some believe that reputation is justified. After all, Surkamp’s struck out just six batters in 16 2/3 innings across three starts, although he’s walked just five and allowed only one homer, allowing him to go 2-0 (Hey, I cited Wins in an article! That’s rare…) with a 3.24 ERA and 4.17 FIP.

The interesting thing about Surkamp’s three big league starts thus far, and a big reason why he hasn’t been getting a ton of strikeouts, is that 70 of the 71 batters he’s faced in the majors have been right-handed. He thus has had no opportunity whatsoever to drop his plus curveball into the zone from behind a lefty’s back or pound lefties inside with his sinker.

In that context, Surkamp’s line is actually more impressive than it initially appears. If we assume Surkamp is, say, 0.75 FIP better against lefties, and give him fellow Giants lefty starter Jonathan Sanchez‘s L/R batters faced distribution (approximately 1/4 of Sanchez’s opponents were lefties this season), then Surkamp’s true talent level may well be right around, or even under, a 4.00 ERA.

But what is he throwing? According to Baseball America prior to 2011: “Surkamp’s fastball sits in the upper 80s, but he gets good sink on it and throws it to both sides of the plate from a three-quarters delivery that provides deception,” and that’s pretty accurate. He’s averaged 87.8 mph with the pitch this season, just scraping 90 on a couple of occasions. His three-quarters arm slot does hide the ball well and impart some extra sink, but Surkamp is not a groundball pitcher–he’s got a meager 39.2% groundball rate thus far. A look at his fastball location shows why:

Yes, in 122 four-seam fastballs, Surkamp missed low exactly once. He clearly prefers to work up and away to righthanders with the fastball. That’s fine when you’re throwing half of your games in the Giants’ spacious home park, but one has to wonder if that’s the best deployment of the pitch–he’s only drawn two swings and misses in the 122 heaters, which is troubling even when one factors in that this is basically all to opposite-side hitters.

He does use the fastball judiciously at a rather low 57.9% rate, using it to set up a 75-78 mph curveball with plus break. He prefers to drop this pitch over the outside corner to righties as a backdoor offering:

Hitters tend to give up on the offering early, which means that most of Surkamp’s curves out of the zone wind up going for balls (59.2% of his curves have gone for strikes, a relatively low number), but he also gets a high number of called strikes with the pitch (25.4%). When hitters actually deign to offer at the pitch, they come up empty approximately every third swing.

Surkamp also tosses a changeup in the 79-81 mph range. That doesn’t give it too much separation from his fastball–7.6 mph, on average–but the pitch has such impressive fade and sink that Pitch F/X often gets it conflated with his two-seam fastball. He under-uses the pitch, though, throwing it just 9.8% of the time, and that number could decrease even further when Surkamp faces an average number of lefthanded batters. Perhaps replacing some of those up-and-away fastballs with the changeup would give Surkamp a more balanced and effective approach against righthanders–his two plus offspeed offerings were what made him so interesting as a prospect in the first place.

Surkamp also throws a slider in the low 80’s that he’s only broken out as a show pitch this season. Until he faces more lefthanded batters, it’s tough to tell if the pitch will play a significant role in his attack; I’ve never seen a scouting report mention the pitch, so it could be new to his arsenal. In an extremely small sample, it’s been basically as effective as his curveball minus the whiffs, in that hitters rarely swing, so it’s mainly called strikes and balls.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record with my conclusions to these pieces, Surkamp has some very nice pitches, but his patterning seems to be understandably ill-adapted to the majors, and he’ll need to adjust to find consistent success. He has to find something to go inside to righties on, he needs to incorporate his changeup more, and he could possibly also benefit from bringing his fastball down in the zone on a more regular basis. But with a season to figure it out (facing lefthanded batters once in awhile wouldn’t hurt, either), he should settle in as an effective big league hurler.

For more on the Giants, check out Frisco Fastball.

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Tags: Eric Surkamp San Francisco Giants

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