J.C. Sulbaran has been on prospecting radars for quite some time, since he’s pitched for Curacao’s national team in various tournaments and done well in those experiences. With that said, he wasn’t even the star of his own high school team given that both Eric Hosmer and Adrian Nieto were drafted higher than him, and by quite a bit! Sulbaran wasn’t drafted until the 30th round in 2008 where the Reds bought him out of a University of Florida scholarship for $500,000.
Sulbaran didn’t pitch after signing late in 2008, but perhaps by virtue of his international experience, the Reds assigned him straight to Lo-A, full-season Dayton to start 2009. Being just 19, Sulbaran was extremely young for the level, and for all intents and purposes, held his own. He struck out 9.71 batters per nine innings, a remarkable number for a pitcher debuting in full-season ball. Unfortunately, everything else was somewhat problematic for J.C.: he allowed 19 homers in 92.2 innings (11% HR/Flyball rate was probably bad luck, however), he walked 4.95 batters per nine innings, leading to a WHIP of 1.56, he sported a ground ball percentage of just 34% and he had a fielding independent pitching metric of 6.26 (+1.02 on his ERA). Baseball America also noted a history of blister problems that hampered his development.
Not surprisingly, the Reds sent Sulbaran back to Dayton to start 2010, and he began to show some progress as a 20-year old (still young for the level, relatively speaking). He dropped his HR rate considerably, allowing 6 in 79.2 innings, and he increased his groundball rate from the horrible 34% to the still mediocre 41%. He continued to show a strong strikeout rate (9.42 k/9 this time) but also continued to struggle with command, this time walking 13.2% of the batters he faced, a stunning 5.56 BB/9. He failed to rank in Baseball America’s top 30 prospects after the repeat performance.
Things seemed to change in 2011, however. The Reds aggressively promoted Sulbaran to Hi-A Bakersfield, where he responded with the best strikeout rate and walk rate of his young career. He walked just 8.3% of the batters he faced and struckout over 25% (a stunning 10.18 k/9). For the first time in his young career, his WHIP fell below 1.4 (1.39). He also posted a FIP of just 4.04, which actually trended lower than his ERA, suggesting a bit of bad luck. He maintained his HR/9 rate improvement that he showed in 2010, and he bumped his groundball rate up to 44%, a full 10% higher than his debut in 2008. So why wasn’t Sulbaran a household name after this performance? Simple. He continued to get hit at an unusual rate for someone that misses as many bats as he does, as he allowed 140 hits in 137 innings; now his average on balls in play was .028 higher than any previous season (.354 v. .326), but even luck can’t seem to explain the entire situation considering that his H/IP ratio had been at 9 or above in the previous two years, as well. In other words, even with the reduced walk rate, his WHIP was still unusually high because of the amount of hits he’d given up.
One of the bigger problems Sulbaran has faced is that he often has just one pitch (a low 90′s fastball with some good movement) that he can use consistently. Baseball America notes that Sulbaran increased his velocity in 2011 but still struggled with a fringy change-up and an erratic (but plus when on) curve. When Sulbaran’s other pitches aren’t working, it becomes easier for hitters to tee off on fastballs, which is particularly ineffective given that many hitters in the minors are still learning to hit off-speed pitches. If those off-speed pitches aren’t a threat for J.C., he’s going to run into trouble because his fastball isn’t overpowering enough to get by on when his other pitches aren’t working. Here’s some excellent video on how Sulbaran looks from the windup. I’m no expert on pitching mechanics but it wouldn’t surprise me if that odd recoil can cause some inconsistency in the quality of his pitches from time to time.
Ultimately, in 2012 at AA Pensacola, Sulbaran has shown similar strengths and weaknesses. He’s striking out 9.16 batters per nine innings, and he’s making progress with his walk rate (4.16 BB/9, which is up from 2011 but much lower than 2009-10). At the same time, his HR/9 rate has shot back up over 1 (1.15) and he continues to sport an ugly WHIP (1.53 currently). For a second straight year his average on balls in play is a bit higher than career norms (.349) but it might just as well be a case of resetting norms as he moves up the ladder.
The reason that I’m attracted to Sulbaran is, as the title alludes, because of his strikeout rate. He has consistently missed bats at an outstanding clip throughout his four minor league seasons despite being young/age appropriate for each level. Beyond almost everything else, if a pitcher can get outs without using his defense it is an enormous plus in my eyes. I don’t believe he can take the next step forward until he can consistently throw his other pitches well enough to cause a bit of a drop in his H/9 rate. We also really need to see him trend back toward 2009-10 numbers in terms of HR/9 rate, because if he brings that type of rate to the majors he is going to be a victim of the long ball far too much to be consistent. The Reds are relatively thin in minor league pitchers right now (Tony Cingrani and Kyle Lotzkar also come to mind), so I do believe Sulbaran could get a shot as a starter; from a floor perspective, however, if Sulbaran cannot add some depth to his offerings, his stuff should play up further in short spurts in the bullpen given his ability to miss bats.
For more on the Reds check out Blog Red Machine!