It’s early in the season, but several top pitching prospects have already logged 4 starts in the 2019 campaign. Let’s look at some of those hot starts using our Strawberry Start Ratio (SSR) to point out some of the top performers thus far.
The SSR is inspired by Baseball HQ’s work on the PQS system. Basically, a pitcher gets credit for hitting certain benchmarks during the course of a start. The benchmarks for our SSR system are:
- 6 or more IPs
- Less hits allowed than innings pitched
- More than 5 strikeouts
- More than 12 strikeouts
- Strikeout to walk ratio is equal to or greater than 3.0
- 0 HR allowed
Then, the raw “strawberries” are converted into a ratio relative to the rest of the league (the SSR). A league average pitcher has an SSR of 1.0. A pitcher with an SSR of 1.10 is 10% better than the league average pitcher, as an example.
By way of comparison, Angels pitching prospect Patrick Sandoval posted a 1.44 overall SSR in 2018, leading all of the minor leaguers who made at least 15 starts last season.
Casey Mize – 1.72 SSR
Today The Athletic’s Emily Waldon declared that Mize “has nothing left to prove in the Florida State League”:
Moral of the story:#Tigers Casey Mize has nothing left to prove in the Florida State League.
— Emily Waldon (@EmilyCWaldon) April 23, 2019
It’s hard to disagree with her. Mize sits easily at the top of our SSR charts because he’s just doing every little thing that you want to see your future staff ace do. He’s pitching deep into games (6.5 innings per start), he’s limiting hits and hard contact (.085 batting average against), his K/BB ratio is absurd (25:1), and he’s yet to allow a home run this season.
Mize might be promoted to AA Erie by the time we wake up tomorrow. I don’t envision him having much of a problem against AA hitters either.
Jordan Balazovic – 1.67 SSR
Balazovic is a tall (6’4″) Canadian (Mississauga, ON), righty who is pitching for the Cedar Rapids Kernels of the A-Full Season Midwest League. Balazovic was a 5th round prep choice in the 2016 draft by the Twins. So far this season, he’s cruising along through 3 starts (14.2 innings pitched). Similar to Mize, Balazovic’s K/BB ratio has been outstanding so far, posting a 26:3 K:BB ratio. That’s good for a 43.3% K-rate!
FanGraphs Longenhagen and McDaniel summarized Balazovic like this:
“He throws an unusually high number of strikes for such a lanky, young, cold-weather arm with a somewhat violent delivery, and he gets nasty vertical action on his breaking ball despite a mediocre spin rate.”
So it sounds like Balazovic is a bit of an oddity, but whatever he’s doing this season is working for him. He’s repeating a season in A-Full ball again, but he’s also still only 20 years old. I think the Twins will likely move him up to the A+ Florida State League this season, but that might be a good assignment for him given the pitcher-friendly nature of the FSL.
Elieser Hernandez – 1.67 SSR
Elieser was a Rule 5 pick by the Marlins in 2017, so he made his MLB debut last season, posting a 5.21 ERA in 65.2 innings of work (6 starts). He’s been dominant in his 3 AAA starts for the New Orleans Baby Cakes thus far in 2019, making me wonder if his MLB debut just came too early. This Venezuelan righty has posted a 1.23 ERA in 14.2 innings with a 27.9% K-rate in AAA in 2019.
Because Elieser pitched in the MLB last season, there’s Statcast data! Here are his basics:
Despite his below-average velocity and average spin rate on his fastball, Elieser still managed to limit damage via better than average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. This lines up with his pitch location chart courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net:
You can see that Elieser prefers to work down in the zone with his fastball and slider, limiting damage. This also suggests to me that his fastball command might be a real weapon for him in the future. The changeup needs continued development, and will probably be the determining factor in whether he gets a rotation spot. He’s probably the next pitcher up for Miami this season. So keep your eye on who stumbles or gets hurt in the rotation. Elieser is worth a stash in deep dynasty formats or dynasty formats where you can move players up and down between the minors and your active roster.
Ljay Newsome – 1.58 SSR
Newsome has already picked up one of our Farmhand of the Week awards early this season. He pitches for the Modesto Nuts of the A+ California League. The California League is generally considered one of the most hitter-friendly environments in all of baseball, but when considering park factors I like to look at this list published by Baseball America. In that article, BA’s Matt Eddy lists the park factors for each team in each league lined up with the 20-80 scouting scale. Here’s the California League:
So you can see that, while the league as a whole plays up, Modesto actually has a pitching friendly environment for run scoring, HRs, and BABIP. So far this season, Ljay has made 1 start in hitter’s paradise Lancaster (2 HR allowed in 5 IP) and 3 starts between Modesto and Stockton (0 HR allowed in 19.2 IP).
Ljay was a 26th round choice in the 2015 draft as a prep arm out of Maryland. His control has always been good, but his fastball has sat in the mid-80s his whole career. Until now. FanGraphs Longenhagen and McDaniel report his fastball velocity has taken a big leap:
“Now, Newsome is different. He took part in an offseason velo program and now resides in the 91-94 mph range. He’s clearing his front side a little more, his two-seamer has more tail, he’s working up in the zone with his four-seamer more often, and is setting up his changeup better.”
SSR is in agreement that Ljay might be a breakout pitcher to follow in 2019.
Zac Gallen – 1.54 SSR
The second Baby Cake on this list. Gallen has been dominant in 4 AAA starts so far in 2019. He’s allowed 1 earned run in 25.1 IP with a 30.3% K-BB ratio. Unfortunately, the news is kind of out on Gallen already, and he’s likely getting stashed in all dynasty formats and even some deeper redraft formats as well.
He came over to Miami as part of the package that sent Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis. Sandy Alcantara, the other pitching prospect in the deal, seems to be further ahead of Gallen in terms of development. However, Alcantara has also really struggled starting at the big league level, despite a great initial outing to start the 2019 season.
What’s been the difference for Gallen in 2019? Well, like Newsome, there are reports that his fastball velocity has seen an uptick. And also he’s just learning to command his full, varied arsenal. Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has credited Gallen as having a “kitchen sink approach.” He throws four pitches, each of which have the potential to be above average at varying times. It’s definitely a starting rotation profile. And if trade-mate Alcantara continues to stumble, we might be seeing how the profile plays in the MLB sooner rather than later.
Tommy Parsons – 1.50 SSR
The SSR list is usually good at generating names I’ve never heard of before. Tommy Parsons is the first one of those for me on this list. Parsons hails from Columbus, OH, and was signed as a minor league free agent by the Cardinals organization in June of 2018. He went on to be named an Appy League post-season All-Star in 2018, going 5-1 in 9 starts (13 appearances) for the Johnson City Cardinals. Parsons also went 1-for-2 in save opportunities last season.
Thus far in 2019, Parsons has strictly worked out of the rotation for the Peoria Chiefs, going 3-0 in 4 starts with a 0.30 ERA. On April 22, he pitched a complete game shutout against the Quad Cities River Bandits, throwing 102 pitches in the effort. His last 3 outings have went 8.0, 8.0, and 9.0 innings.
Sure he’s 23 years old and pitching in the Midwest League. And his K-rate hasn’t been eye-popping (21.7% in 2019). But I’m still rooting hard for this kid who was pitching in unaffiliated ball last season to continue to have success while chasing his MLB dream.
Chris Vallimont – 1.50 SSR
Big (6’5″, 220) right-hander was a 5th round selection out of D2 Mercyhurst University in Erie, PA. Vallimont has a sparkling 1.23 ERA in 4 starts for the Midwest League’s Clinton LumberKings. His success this season has been fueled by a very good 30.5% K-rate, and he’s also limited walks (7.3%) and home runs (1 HRA in 22.0 innings). It’s been a big jump from his 2018 professional debut, where he posted an ugly -2.3% K-BB ratio.
Vallimont commanded a 5th round selection despite coming from a small school because his fastball sits mid-90s and he’s got the ability to dial it up a couple ticks from there. He’s reportedly worked with Driveline to improve his stuff. His high SSR rating suggests to me that he’s been able to command his arsenal well in 2019. If he can bring all that together, you’ve got yourself a nice little sleeper prospect that’s surely available in the vast majority of dynasty formats.
Tyler Phillips – 1.50 SSR
This kid has just been really good so far in his professional career. Phillips has spent a lot of time atop various Baseball Farm leaderboards and got himself a nomination for our Farmhand Team of the Year at the end of last season. He seems to be picking up in 2019 right where he left off, starting again for the Down East Wood Ducks of the A+ Carolina League. He’s displayed impeccable control through 4 starts in 2019, walking just 1 batter and allowing 1 HR against in 24.2 IP.
Phillips was listed on FanGraphs picks as a potential 2020 Top-100 prospect. Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus called Phillips overall profile “fringy at times” but also noted that his fastball is now capable of bumping 95 mph and he’s got the frame of an innings-eating, backend starter. 2080 Baseball’s John Eshleman describes him as having an “innings eating build” with a potential plus fastball but envisions him as a bullpen piece unless he develops a third offering.
My personal take is Phillips deserves monitoring for development of his secondaries this season. If 1 or 2 of them come online, he can make a big leap in rankings and solidify himself as a future rotation piece. The fastball is already touching 95 and he’s obviously shown the ability to control it, even if the control is sporadic (BB% currently at 1.5%). I’m looking forward to picking up additional reports on him this season.
Matt Manning – 1.50 SSR
The athletic righty has continued to climb our Plum Prospect rankings, coming in as the #58 overall prospect in baseball in our latest iteration of the list. He also finished in the Top-10 of our year-end Strawberry Start rankings in 2018. Our own Brenden Gorzelski focused on Manning in his “Crop Rotation” series last summer, noting that he has the upside of an SP1 if everything comes together. Well, folks, it looks like everything is coming together.
“What about the changeup?” the prospectors all cry. Here’s some Zapruder-level film captured by our own Big Gorzey of a CH with plenty of what they call “fade”:
— Brenden Gorzelski (@Big_Gorzey) April 23, 2019
That thing looks outstanding, even viewed in 1990s baby-monitor quality video.
Manning will rise this year and is likely going to be one of the top pitching prospects in baseball headed in 2020. He should command a lot in trade for dynasty leagues at this point, say something like Masahiro Tanaka (just as an example).
Devin Smeltzer – 1.50 SSR
Smeltzer fits one of my favorite pitching prospect archetypes: the bespectacled funky lefty. He was a 5th round choice by the Dodgers in the 2015 draft out of San Jacinto JUCO in Texas. He was traded to the Twins organization as part of the Brian Dozier deal last summer. Smeltzer is now pitching for Pensacola of the AA Southern League, and has been dominant for the Blue Wahoos this season. Through 4 starts, Smeltzer has both a 0.72 ERA and a 0.72 WHIP. His K-BB ratio is a stellar 27.3% and his FIP sits at 1.53.
FanGraphs Longenhagen and McDaniel described Smeltzer as having “one of baseball’s funkiest deliveries.” Wilson Karaman of Baseball Prospectus projects Smeltzer as a likely LOOGY/middle relief option relying on his funky delivery and sweeping slider.
Maybe more incredible than his performance thus far in 2019 is Smeltzer’s personal story. He is a pediatric cancer survivor. Here’s an incredible clip of him meeting Chase Utley again after Utley had signed an autograph for Smeltzer when he was a 10-year-old baseball fan going through cancer treatments:
After Devin Smeltzer was diagnosed with cancer as a child, an autograph from his favorite player, Chase Utley, brightened his spirits. Now both men play for the L.A. Dodgers organization. @JoeFryer shares the story. pic.twitter.com/7rch7QYFF6
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) July 23, 2018
The SSR Top-200:
|18||Jean Carlos Mejia||1.44||3||2.7|
|55||Enyel De Los Santos||1.28||3||1.7|
|88||Nestor Cortes Jr.||1.22||3||1.3|
|140||Chi Chi Gonzalez||1.22||3||1.3|
|183||Jhon De Jesus||1.17||4||1.0|
|185||Jasseel De La Cruz||1.17||4||1.0|
|192||Duane Underwood Jr.||1.17||4||1.0|