In 2003, I went by the stats and picked Gabe Ribas, a polished college pitcher out of Northwestern. I bought into the whole “he knows how to pitch, throws strikes, has command of his fastball” bit. While all of this was true, especially for the Midwest League, Ribas proceeded to get hit at the next level in the California League, and was absolutely hammered in the Southern League. At the beginning of this season he was released by the organization.
Somehow, a mid-80's fastball and no reliable breaking pitches didn’t translate into much success, no matter how effective your change-up or command.
In 2004, I thought I had it. Travis Chick, a young prospect with a big fastball, not only put together a great year in Fort Wayne, but at only twenty years old, with a big fastball he just oozed potential. The Padres apparently thought so too, skipping him a level to the Southern League. Travis proceeded to go 2-9 at Mobile with a 5.27 ERA and was included in a trade for Joe Randa to the Reds at mid-season.
Somehow, a fastball that touches the low 90's is great, but if you can’t change speeds or get your breaking ball over, you’re also going to get hit, and hit hard.
The big problem with analyzing pitchers at this level is that hitters are still learning how to use the sweet spot on a wooden bat, the weather in the Midwest is cold for much of the season and many of the parks in the Midwest League simply just aren’t great places to hit. If you’re a pitcher, especially an experienced college pitcher that can throw strikes and change speeds, you can put up some pretty good numbers, regardless of what else you can do.
The problem is when you advance to the next level with a mid-80's fastball and a change-up, its just not going to cut it. The California League has much better hitting backgrounds, thinner air and harder infields where the ball flies and most importantly, position players have an extra year of playing with wooden bats. A lot of “smart pitchers who know how to pitch” last year, suddenly become organizational players who don’t have the “stuff” to pitch in the majors.
So, whom did I pick this year? For the Wizards there were three pitchers that stood out this year, starting pitchers Mike Ekstrom, Clayton Hamilton and closer Matt Varner.
Hamilton, 23, a right-handed pitcher put together the best year in Fort Wayne. Hamilton went 9-6 with a 2.88 ERA, a nice 36/86 base-on-balls to strikeout ratio and allowed less hits than innings pitched (101/122). He’s not the typical control specialist that you may suspect, he has good size, 6-foot-5, 200-pounds and can bring it in the low 90's, with a good slider and a developing change.
Hamilton, because of his size and velocity has the most upside of any pitcher with the Wizards this year and thus won the award for Fort Wayne Wizards Pitcher/Prospect of the Year.
Hamilton got promoted in mid-season to Lake Elsinore, and was hit pretty hard. He went 2-2 with a 5.14 ERA, with batters hitting .339 against him. He still has a bright future, but he will have to improve upon his ability to change speeds and get his breaking ball over to really have a shot at the major leagues.
Ekstrom, 22, stayed in Fort Wayne for the whole year, went 13-6 with a 3.70 ERA. He put together a nice base-on-ball to strikeout ratio (36/112), but proved to be somewhat hittable allowing, 167 hits in 167 innings. Ekstrom isn’t particularly intimidating at 6-foot, 185-pounds, but has great command of his fastball.
As Randy Ready, the Wizards’ manager stated, “Ekstrom can go in and out, and up and down. He can elevate when he needs too, and stay down when he needs too.”
He has tremendous control, but as always the question for this Oregon State product is what happens at the next level, especially for someone who doesn’t have outstanding velocity.
Varner, 23, the Wizards’ closer with 34 saves, possessed an impressive base-on-ball to strikeout ratio (18/62). This season he posted a 4-5 record and a 4.00 ERA, while only allowing 47 hits in 54 innings. Varner also put together a nice post season with Lake Elsinore in the playoffs.
Varner, a right-handed 5-foot-11, 200-pound relief pitcher out of Louisiana Tech, comes at batters with a hard slider and good command of his fastball. However, there are a few concerns with Varner, mainly his ability to get left handed batters out, who hit .318 against him compared to righties at .167. A couple of other stats on Varner are a little troubling as well, such as the fact batters hit .295 against him with runners in scoring position, and .351 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Still, 34 saves is 34 saves and Varner always wants the ball, an attitude essential for a closer.
If you go by what I’ve written in the past on this subject, Travis Chick should be competing for a spot in the Padres rotation for next year, unless of course he is beaten out by Gabe Ribas.