To any Diamondbacks fan hoping they would also land a premium prospect in the recent Mark Trumbo trade, I bid you not to look at A.J. Schugel’s 2013 stats. Schugel, recently announced as one of the two player to be named laters from the aforementioned deal (the other being Brandon Jacobs), was lit up in his first tour of Triple-A this past season, posting a 7.05 ERA, 1.724 WHIP, and 12.2 H/9 over 19 starts. A foot injury mercifully ended his season in mid-July.
That being said, while his performance puts serious doubt on his true value, it should not condemn him. In 2012, Schugel, 24, was one of the best pitchers in Anaheim’s organization, pitching to a 2.89 ERA over 140.2 Double-A innings. After that campaign, he was named the 12th best prospect in the Angel’s system by Baseball America, 14th by Fangraphs. He was noted in particular for his fastball and changeup, both only slightly above-average offerings, but pitches that he knew how to use effectively. BA projected him as a back-end rotation guy, and D’backs GM Kevin Towers is hoping he can provide that value in the next couple seasons.
And there’s little reason to think that he can’t. While his 2013 season was superficially a disaster, underlying factors and statistics tell a more sympathetic story. To start, Schugel’s primary peripherals – strikeout and walk rates – were almost identical 2012 and 2013, with both metrics decreasing by small margins this past season. His inflated ERA was thus largely due to bad luck, as evidenced by a .376 Babip.
Also driving the ERA surge, was an increased home run rate, but even that has an acceptable explanation. Schugel’s fly ball tendencies will always lead to relatively large amounts of home runs, but pitching last year in the PCL, arguably the best league in professional baseball for hitting home runs, compounded his troubles. He gave up 1.2 HR/9 pitching in Salt Lake City this past season, twice what he gave up in Arkansas the year prior, and more than he should in the majors.
Most importantly, perhaps, was the fact that Schugel dealt with blisters for much of the beginning of the years. A seemingly minor ailment, pitchers will often play through them, but they can significantly hinder a hurler’s ability to grip the baseball properly. The result is softer stuff, erratic command and therefore heightened ERA’s.
Schugel’s 2013 wasn’t the albatross that it seems, but it certainly wasn’t a success. His future role is most likely as a number five starter, swingman, or middle reliever. As a throw-in to a deal that grabbed you a perennial thirty home run hitter, he’s not a bad catch.