10 MLB Pitching Prospects With Intriguing Analytical Profiles
In the age of analytics and data, the definition of ace and the qualities we identify and associate with such a profile have evolved. Corbin Burnes won the 2021 NL Cy Young despite pitching just 167 innings. Both Cy Young recipients—Burnes and the Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray—combined to win just 24 games for their teams. These two facts signal a continuing shift in what’s important to both the media and major league front offices.
In the analytics era, new metrics for discovering the next Burnes or Ray are required. Being on the forefront of a new trend is paramount to staying ahead of the competition.
While fastballs were once graded for velocity, command, and shape, all of these components are given even further scrutiny. Is the spin active? Which way does the fastball break, and by how much? At which angle does the pitch approach?
Ultimately, there’s a variety of subspecies of pitch types within each pitch classification, and even further versions of those subspecies. A fastball alone can fall into several categories. Sliders have a variety of looks and shapes from sweepers, to gyro spin to slurves.
Before we get started, let’s define a few terms and concepts.
Induced Vertical Break (IVB): The distance between where a pitch traveled in relation to the height of the plate versus a pitch that traveled in a straight distance over the plate with active gravity. All pitches have an IVB, but it’s most prominent in its usage surrounding four-seam fastball shape. It’s a somewhat encompassing metric for fastball “ride” or “carry”. For example, the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole generates greater than 19.5 inches on average of induced vertical break. Others like Liam Hendriks, Aroldis Chapman and Michael Kopech are among the leaders in the major leagues. IVB can also tell us which sinkerballers are “killing” the most lift or creating the most sink. Sinkers are also synonymous with horizontal armside break or “run”.
Horizontal Break (HB): Simply put it’s the distance a pitch travels to one side of another versus a perfectly straight pitch. All pitches have an HB but it’s most commonly associated with discussion around sliders, changeups, and two-seam fastballs.
Active Spin (True Spin/Spin Efficiency): The percentage of spin which contributes to movement. The spin on a baseball is active, meaning it contributes to movement. By spinning a four-seam fastball efficiently, a pitcher can achieve the desired ride typical of the modern fastball, which is designed to miss over the top of steep bat paths and induce whiffs in the upper quadrants of the strike zone.
Spin Axis (Tilt): The axis tilt of the ball in relation to the clock. Righthanders move clockwise while lefties move counter clockwise. While there’s a variety of good fastballs within the full for lefties. Fastballs thrown on those axes produce the highest spin efficiency or active spin.
Vertical Approach Angle (VAA): This is a concept that’s gained serious traction in the public space over the last 12-18 months. Essentially it’s the downhill plane of the pitch measured in degrees. Here’s an excellent Twitter thread to consult. Typically, when chasing a fastball that generates whiffs when elevated you want a VAA below 5 degrees. The closer you move to 4 degrees, the better the quality of the fastball. For reference, Gerrit Cole, Jacob DeGrom and Jack Leiter’s VAA’s are all sub-4.25 degrees, which is considered an optimal range for four-seam fastball. There are a few components which go into creating an optimal approach angle. Release height, active spin, and location all factor into VAA. Breaking balls will have a steeper VAA.
With that primer in mind, let’s take a look at a few pitching prospects whose pitch characteristics should jump out to the analytically inclined.
Peyton Battenfield, RHP, Cleveland | Rule 5 Eligibility: 2022
Why He Stands Out: Supreme four-seam fastball spin efficiency from an overhand slot generates plus induced vertical break without fail. Battenfield is one of the leaders among prospects, per sources, with an average IVB greater than 19 inches, which helps explain why batters produced a wOBA of just .232 against his fastball in 2021.
Battenfield also grades strongly when it comes to VAA, which isn’t surprising due to his height and more vertical arm action. He uses this to his advantage by creating riding action high in the zone for whiffs and downhill plane when located in the lower quadrants.
He pairs his fastball with a cutter-slider hybrid that’s been classified as a cutter and a slider by tracking devices. The pitch’s shape is closer to a cutter, with little horizontal break and lower IVB than a four-seam and sits in the mid-80s.
His breaking ball feel is fairly strong with raw spin rates in the 2,600+ rpm range. He generates whiffs at a rate of 35% or greater on all three of his secondaries (cutter, curveball, changeup), which is achieved in part because of the strong shape on his fastball.
Takeaway: It’s easy to see why he was identified as a trade target by Cleveland. With good fastball shape, a trio of secondaries to sequence in a variety of counts and feel for the zone, Battenfield might emerge as a valuable No. 4 starter. It should come as no shock that Battenfield has changed hands through three of the more analytically savvy organizations in Houston, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
Tommy Romero, RHP, Tampa Bay | On 40-Man Roster
Why He Stands Out: Romero is another fastball-dominant starter with elite spin efficiency that results in greater than 19 inches of induced vertical break. Unlike Battenfield, Romero’s release height is lower due in large part to his physical height. This is unusual due to his incredibly vertical arm slot and near-12:00 spin axis.
Romero’s the cleanest example of a vertical spin axis combined with efficient movement and unique release characteristics helping below-average velocity play up. His fastball generated whiffs at a high rate of 33% despite seeing a usage rate near 70%.
Takeaway: Ultimately Romero’s success hinges on his fastball. Luckily, he has the benefit of leaning on a very good pitch. Despite pedestrian velocity Romero possesses plus characteristics in other areas that push the pitch into plus territory.
Adrian Hernandez, RHP, Toronto | Rule 5 Eligible: 2022
Why He Stands Out: Hernandez’s changeup is among the most elite in the minors, owing to a few characteristics. First, he generates a tremendous amount of armside run, with an average of greater than 17 inches of horizontal break arm-side. Secondly, he does a tremendous job of killing lift, or creating tumble to go with his elite fading action. Finally, his changeup averages 10 mph of velocity separation from his four-seam fastball.
The pitch has similar qualities to Devin Williams now-famous airbender, and Hernandez’s version produces raw spin rates in the 2,200-2,300 rpm range.
Hernandez’s fastball averages roughly 18 inches of ride, which helps counteract its below-average velocity and raw spin rates. Because his changeup fades significantly one way and his fastball runs the opposite way, hitters struggle to differentiate the two pitches.
Due to the spin efficiency and clean axis upon which it spins, Hernandez’s 12-6 curveball generates an above-average amount of depth, which allows the pitch to play off both his fastball and elite changeup.
Takeaway: Hernandez, 21, is a name to know. With 10 appearances at Double-A under his belt, Hernandez has the pitch mix to find his way into the Toronto pen within the next 18 months as a reliever who could work multiple innings per outing.
Randy Vasquez, RHP, New York (AL) | Rule 5 Eligible: 2022
*Editor's note. A previous version of this story wrote Vasquez is Rule 5 eligible in 2021. We've corrected it to note he's Rule 5 eligible in December 2022.
Why He Stands Out: Vasquez has innate feel for spinning a sweeper curveball at an average rate of better than 3,000 rpms. Due to the efficiency of his curveball shape, the pitch generates an average of more than 17 inches of sweep, which is near elite, and shows very little vertical movement while staying true to its shape.
He pairs his breaking ball with a four-seam fastball with below-average vertical movement and shape, but a heavy amount of cut at 92-95 mph. It’s an average pitch shape-wise which plays up due to high spin rates, typically above 2,500 rpms on average.
Takeaway: While Vasquez doesn’t throw his breaking ball nearly enough, it should become a bigger part of his plan of attack just due to his unusual shape and ability to generate strong results. It may be more of groundball-generating sweeper than a bat-misser, but it certainly will play well off of his mid-90s, high-spin fastball..
Xzavion Curry, RHP, Cleveland | Rule 5 Eligible: 2022
Why He Stands Out: After a breakout season in the Cleveland system for the former Georgia Tech star, Curry’s combination of fastball spin efficiency, release height, and flatter vertical approach angle allow his four-seamer to generate whiffs at an above-average rate while inducing very little productive contact. Cleveland and Curry have worked on cleaning up his spin axis to find a more efficient shape than what he possessed as an amateur. The improvement from a command standpoint should not go unnoticed either. Curry landed his four-seam in the zone at a near-70% rate, a plus command marker.
Curry also mixes a pair of breaking balls in a small, sweepy slider and a two-plane breaking curveball. Each pitch misses bats at an average rate and he commands the entirety of his arsenal.
Takeaway: Curry gets away with an attack plan that incorporates more than 60% fastballs because he possesses good shape and unique release characteristics coupled with supreme fastball command. This provides Curry a relatively high release floor with an outside shot of blossoming into a mid-rotation starter.
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Roansy Contreras, RHP, Pittsburgh | On 40-Man Roster
Why He Stands Out: You can make the case that Contreras was the key player Pittsburgh received in return for Jameson Taillon from the Yankees last winter. Contreras had a successful 2021 by all measures, debuting in the big leagues in the last week of the season and posting a 2.65 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 0.90 WHIP, 34.9% K-rate, and 5.5% walk rate in Double-A. Had it not been for forearm strain, Contreras may have made it onto the MLB roster for the final few months of the season. Regardless of how his 2021 finished Contreras is positioned to earn a spot on the active roster spot in 2022.
Contreras generates high-spin on all of his pitches, including a fastball which generates greater than 2,500 rpms of raw spin on average. Despite the high spin rate, the fastball has a particularly clean axis which allows the righty to generate induced vertical break of greater than 19 inches on average. The pitch misses an average amount of bats but generates a high rate of weak groundball contact and provides a pivot point for his secondaries.
Contreras pairs two breaking balls, both high in spin and unique in shape. His curveball is a 11-to-5, two-plane monster and consistently hits 3,000 rpms of raw spin. The pitch is thrown hard with lower-80s velocity. He pairs it with a tighter gyro slider with plus velocity at 85-87 mph on average and a peak of 91. When a gyro slider pairs tight spin with plus velocity, it’s typically a recipe for whiffs because its lack of substantial movement plays off of both his heavy breaking fastball and curveball. His changeup is a firm, fringy offering but missed bats in 2021 because of how it plays off his three above-average or better secondaries.
Takeaway: A tantalizing three-pitch combination plays up Contreras’ stuff beyond even his size. Innate feel for spin, at least above-average command, and unique release traits (higher slot, lower release), make Contreras a unicorn among sub-6-foot-2 starting pitching prospects.
Logan T. Allen, LHP, Cleveland | Rule 5 Eligible: 2023
Why He Stands Out: Allen’s release height is a freakish 5-foot-2, which, when paired with incredibly efficient fastball shape, allows Allen to generate both plus induced vertical break numbers of greater than 18.5 inches on average and an elite vertical approach angle of 4.1 degrees despite below-average raw spin in the 2,100-2,200 rpm range. This is why, despite a heavy usage rate, below-average velocity and spin, Allen still generates results associated with plus fastballs. He’s a shining example of the ways pitchers can use different methods to succeed with their fastball.
Allen pairs a high-70s slider with sweepy horizontal break and a split-changeup which each generate whiffs at a plus rate. Both miss bats and hold contact to a minimum, with the slider being the better of the two offerings. There’s little doubt that his release height and strong four-seam shape from the left side help the pedestrian break on his secondaries play up.
Takeaway: Allen falls in line with a trend we’ve seen developing in recent years: data-driven teams targeting arms 6-foot-1 and shorter due to their unique release characteristics. Allen has excellent shape of his four-seam fastball, commands it well and creates elite deception when elevated due to his flat vertical approach angle. With two truly average or better secondaries Allen could be next in line for a Cleveland pitching factory that continues to chug along.
Bryce Miller, RHP, Seattle | Rule 5 Eligible: 2024
Why He Stands Out: Miller generated whiffs at a 44% rate in his pro debut in no small part due to his low release height, high spin, high spin efficiency, plus velocity, and an elite vertical approach angle of just under 4.3 degrees. Like many of the other arms on this list, Miller also shows the ability to land his stuff in the zone. Miller’s combination of shape, stuff, velocity, and command qualifies it for the discussion of best four-seam fastballs in the 2021 college class, possibly the minor leagues.
So why did he last until the fourth round? First he’s primarily a two-pitch pitcher, with a slider that’s just average, boarding on fringe-average. This likely means Miller is destined for the bullpen unless he sees a drastic improvement in his slider. The pitch is a gyro-style slider, meaning it spins like a bullet on its axis. Unfortunately it’s not tight, which keeps it from playing in line with its plus mid-to-high-80s velocity.
Takeaway: A special fastball may just mean Miller is a rapid mover up the Seattle organizational ranks if he’s committed to the bullpen full-time. He has the kind of arsenal that could dominate in one- or two-inning stints. If Seattle commits to his development as a starter, it will take a few years for Miller to sharpen his slider and rarely deployed changeup.
Griff McGarry, RHP, Philadelphia | Rule 5 Eligible: 2024
Why He Stands Out: At Virginia strike-throwing eluded McGarry, who lost his rotation spot in the Cavaliers weekend rotation. That would seem to be a disconcerting development for a top draft prospect. Even so, McGarry may possess the best raw stuff of any pitcher taken—college or prep—in the 2021 draft class. His fastball, slider, curveball and changeup all feature plus analytical characteristics, which in turn led to success (2.70 ERA/2.19 FIP) in his 24.1 inning professional debut. Let’s walk through his analytically excellent profile.
Very rarely does a pitcher pair elite spin rates (2,500-2,600 rpm) with premium velocity (95-97 mph average), a low release height, an elite vertical approach angle (sub-4.3 degree range), with average or better vertical and horizontal break. While McGarry doesn’t have the most efficient shape of the four-seam fastballs on this list, he does have arguably the best combination of shape, velocity, release height, and spin. It’s an easy plus pitch any way you slice it, generating a whiff rate north of 35%, an elite stratosphere for a four-seamer.
He spins his curveball at greater than 2,900 rpms on average and generates both depth and sweep, providing a steep drop when sequenced off of his four-seam fastball. He mixes in a sweeper slider in the mid-80s that he can get up to 87 mph, with 2,800+ rpms of raw spin on average. His usage rate on each pitch was low. It’s unclear as to whether or not that was the nature of the more truncated innings threshold, or a strategic plan of attack to increase strike-throwing. Either way, look for McGarry’s breaking ball usage to increase as he reaches the upper levels of the minors of the coming years.
Takeaway: If he’s truly figured out how to get his stuff in the zone at even an average rate over the course of 70-90 pitches, he has the opportunity to take off in 2022 and beyond. His command of his elite stuff will dictate his ability to cut it as a starter. The stuff is there, now it’s a matter of executing.
Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Toronto | Rule 5 Eligible: 2024
Why He Stands Out: Prior to his elbow injury last spring, Hoglund boasted some of the best four-seam spin and shape in the 2021 draft class. On average, Hoglund was spinning fastballs at 2600+ rpms, on a near perfect 1:00 axis and generating on average 20+ inches of induced vertical break.
He pairs his fastball with a sweepy slider that consistently averaged nearly 2,800 rpms of spin. His nearly 14 inches of sweep on average with slight drop give the pitch two-plane break. Against college competition, the slider generated a 51% whiff rate.
Time will tell how quickly Hoglund’s feel for spin returns or if it returns at all. The player we saw last spring had the stuff to vault himself into the top 10 of the 2021 draft class had he not succumbed to injury.
Takeaway: Hoglund pairs high-spin stuff with innate command and control of his arsenal. If Hoglund can return to form and make gains in the way of velocity on both his fastball and slider, he has the chance to possess two plus or better pitches by the time he's MLB ready.