The Chicago White Sox have been ripped constantly for their farm system. The worst part of it may be their starting pitcher upside. The White Sox’ top two pitching prospects are reliever Addison Reed, maybe the only reliever considered to be among his organization’s top two pitching prospects, and Nestor Molina, who is considered to have 3rd starter upside, impressive, but certainly not topflight. But an interesting player and a wild card in the White Sox system is their 3rd best pitching prospect, Jake Petricka. Petricka turns 24 in June after being a second round pick by the White Sox as a senior sign in 2010, but he has the type of upside not commonly found in the White Sox system. Let’s see just how good he is and just how dominant he has the potential to be.
The scouting report on Petricka, 6’5″ and 210 pounds (courtesy of Scouting the Sally), is that he shows three pitches with plus potential, but between fluctuating action and inconsistent control, you almost never see him with all three pitches on at the same time. Petricka’s fastball ranges from the low to mid-90’s, featuring at its best great sink but he struggles to throw strikes with it. His curveball in the high-70’s features sharp 11-to-5 break when it’s on, but has had extremely variable movement. People who have seen Petricka enough have seen his curveball do everything from going straight down with spike break to featuring slurvy movement and hanging up in the zone. And finally, Petricka’s changeup has excellent arm action and nice sink and run, but his command and control of the pitch has come and gone. Petricka’s upside is evident when he’s on, but you wonder how he even made it to High-A when he’s off. Let’s see what insight we can get from the Pitch F/X data that we have on Petricka courtesy of Brooks Baseball from his time in the Arizona Fall League with the Mesa Solar Sox. The graph is my original.
(For a general explanation of the topic of Pitch F/X and specifically how to read this type of graph, please click here.)
It’s important to note before we start that Petricka worked out of the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League, which caused an uptick in his fastball velocity. We see based on the key that Petricka threw two different fastballs in this 68-pitch sample, a sinker and a regular fastball, a four-seamer. Really, he only throws one type of fastball, but Pitch F/X’s mistake in recognizing that fact that Petricka’s sinker and fastball were in reality the same pitch displays clearly just how variable Petricka’s fastball movement is. Most of the time, 65% of the time he threw his fastball/sinker in this ample, Petricka is able to use his 6’5″ height to get a nice downward plane on his fastball, causing the ball to show nice sink and also some additional run away right-handed batters. When he cannot get that downward plane, his fastball doesn’t sink at all except for because of the natural effects of gravity, and his fastball is susceptible to get hit in the air a lot. Considering his fastball and sinker were supposed to be the same pitch, it’s striking that Brooks tells us that Petricka’s “fastball” forced all flyballs and not a single groundball when it was put into play while his “sinker” forced a 3 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio. But the sink was not the only difference between the two incarnations of Petricka’s fastball. Petricka was able to locate his fastball very well, throwing it for a strike 88.2% of the time. But his sinker was a strike just 58.1% of the time and he also commanded it very poorly. Thanks to great command, Petricka was able to force swings-and-misses on his fastball an outstanding 23.5% of the times he threw it despite worse movement than his sinker. Because he continually missed his spots with his sinker, Petricka did not force a single swing and miss this entire sample with this pick. If I were to combine the data for Petricka’s fastball and sinker on the graph, it would look like a very effective pitch. If Petricka can do that himself, it will be a consistent plus pitch. But it remains to be seen whether he can accomplish that.
Petricka didn’t need his changeup much working in relief, throwing it just 5 times this sample, and when he went to it it was not very effective, missing the zone 3 times and not forcing a single swing-and-miss or groundball. His changeup showed nice action on the graph and it remains a nice pitch when it’s on.
Looking at the start of the lines on the graph, indicating how Petricka started his arm action back for each pitch, we see the fastball and sinker look exactly the same at the start, confirming what we already knew based on the scouting report, and his changeup looks very similar at its endpoint as well, justifying that it looked a lot like his fastball coming out of his hand. But what’s especially alarming is Petricka’s slider. Looking at the red line which the key tells us depicts the slider, it starts way off from his other three pitches. Did I make some enormous error in my graph? No I did not. Petricka’s arm action on his breaking ball was completely off as he brought the ball farther behind his back as he brought it back and also threw it from a lower arm slot. Because of the arm slot that he threw it from, Petricka’s breaking ball looked like a slider in this sample. He was able to get away with the difference in his motion because he was working out of the bullpen, and more importantly because his slider was downright unhittable in this sample. The magnitude of Petricka’s breaking ball’s movement was not particularly impressive, but most of the movement came just before the pitch arrived at the batter, and between the pitch’s nice velocity (88 MPH) and his ability to locate it extremely well (it was a strike 73% of the times he threw it), hitters legitimately could not make contact with it. The 15 times that Petricka threw the pitch, he got an incredible 9 swings-and-misses, 2 called strikes, and just 4 balls. He did not allow a single ball in play or foul ball. Sure, breaking balls are more effective in short relief stints, but if Petricka can get his release point right and continue to get this type of movement on his slider, it could be an outstanding plus pitch for him. It flashed plus-plus in this sample, and although Petricka’s breaking ball is now a slider instead of a curveball, if it can be this effective, he will be in great shape.
Jake Petricka remains a high-upside, high-risk pitcher. He has an overpowering arsenal of pitches when he’s at his best and can make professional hitters look foolish. But especially considering he’s nearly 24 and only at High-A to begin 2012, Petricka is an excellent candidate to flame out. White Sox fans can be cautiously optimistic about Petricka’s upside. He has a chance to be the one star starting pitcher in a questionable White Sox system. Can it happen? Petricka has made progress. The progress he makes over the next few years will determine what he becomes.
Cover Image credit Andrew Dye, Winston-Salem Journal.
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