Texas Rangers Prospects: Derek Holland and Zach Phillips

Trip Somers • April 8, 2009 • Scouting

Derek Holland. The 2006 25th round draft-and-follow signee snuck up on a lot of people last season, including himself. Even Holland can not explain how he gained 5 mph on his fastball during the season.

A lot of pitchers will experience a dip in velocity in their first full years as professionals as the long season wears them down, but Holland got stronger. At the end of the season in the Texas League playoffs, Holland allowed only 1 run over 20.2 innings (0.44 ERA) across 3 starts.

He won't be sneaking up on anyone this year. He'll start the year in the Oklahoma City rotation, but he could be in Arlington sooner rather than later. The development of Holland's breaking ball will likely determine how soon.

The two angles in this video are not the best, but you can surely see some similarities to Tim Lincecum. They share a similar stride and an intense trunk flexion. Each launches himself forward with such force that he flies through the air dragging his back foot like an anchor before landing firmly on the front leg.

Tim Lincecum delivery in an animated GIF

Hat tip to Steven Ellis's PitchingClips.com for the image.

At this point, both pitchers have their trunks extended (bent backwards). As the hips turn forward, the trunk flexes and drives the throwing shoulder almost directly over the front hip.

Where they really differ is in their arm actions. Holland picks the ball up early; the ball is at driveline height before his front foot lands. Lincecum picks the ball up fairly late; the ball is still near his hip until right before his front foot lands. Holland picks the ball up with his shoulder. Lincecum picks the ball up with his elbow and has to forcefully externally rotate his arm to position it for the throw.

Holland takes the ball further toward third base than Lincecum takes the ball toward first base. When Holland starts to drive his pitching shoulder, his arm and the ball are accelerated toward first base before they are accelerated toward the plate. This large lateral acceleration results in forearm flyout that is not present in Lincecum's delivery.

Holland releases the ball with a low 3/4 arm angle and has a very clean follow-through with no noticeable recoil.

If you think Holland looks a lot like Lincecum, wait until you see UCLA freshman RHP Trevor Bauer.

Zach Phillips. Another left-handed draft-and-follow pitcher, Phillips struggled in his first full season assignment despite a wonderful short-season debut. In his second attempt at the Midwest League, Phillips stood out as one of the best pitchers. 2008 was another let down year, but if the pattern holds, Phillips could be primed to re-breakout.

Phillips is a pitcher with very typical traditional mechanics. His arm gets up just a little bit late, and he has a late forearm turnover as a result. The inertia from his shoulder drive causes a reverse forearm bounce, but he gets his elbow up to limit forearm flyout.

Even for slow-motion video, Phillips' motion seems very deliberate to me. He might be well served by speeding up his tempo.

All that said, Phillips is very fluid and repeats his mechanics extremely well. He pitched very well in this outing, but for now, it looks like he's headed for the Frisco (AA Texas League) bullpen.

Scouting Ryan Berry, Rice University

Trip Somers • April 4, 2009 • Scouting

Ryan Berry popped into the spotlight as a freshman at the Houston College Classic in 2007 against Baylor. He went on to have a spectacular freshman year: 11-3, 3.01 ERA, 122.2 IP, 121 H, 34 BB, 125 K. His sophomore year wasn't as awe-inspiring, but this season, he's certainly established himself as one of the best pitchers in college baseball.

Though he is currently dealing with some arm trouble, Berry's junior season was shaping up to be his best by quite a wide margin. Through 36.2 IP, Berry has posted a 1.96 ERA and allowed only 16 hits and 7 walks while striking out 31.

Like his freshman year, Berry jumped back onto the radar at the Houston College Classic, this time against Texas A&M. On February 28, 2009 at Minute Maid Park, I was there to see it.

Game: February 28, 2009 vs. Texas A&M

Pitcher IP H R ER BB K
Berry, Ryan 9.0 2 0 0 0 12

Fastball. Berry worked at 88-91 most of the night but reached back for a little extra late in the game hitting 92 (93 on a few guns). The pitch was moving around the zone and within the zone. I wouldn't say there was a ton of life, but there was enough to keep the Aggies from squaring up on it. Command is obvious: 12 strikeouts, 0 walks.

Curveball. Berry's knuckle curve appears to be a slightly above-average Major League offering. It has a big 11-to-5 break, and Berry mixed it very well to keep the hitters off-balance.

Slider. A "mystery" pitch was seen throughout the night; late in the game, it looked like a plus split-finger fastball. I have since been told that this pitch is actually Berry's slider. It was harder than his curve and had a sharper but shallower break that was almost straight down. Whatever it actually was, it worked.

Change up. Lost among the fastballs and breaking balls was an occasional change up. It wasn't a featured pitch, but it helped set up a few fastballs.

Mechanics. Berry's mechanics look pretty normal from his feet through his core, but his arm is definitely something to take a deeper look at.

Berry starts with a short leg kick and drifts tall through his balance point into a modified drop-and-drive stride. He does not drag his back foot, and he manages to pull it forward slightly to keep his center of mass moving toward the plate. Berry lands on the ball of his foot, and his stride is fairly neutral, maybe just a little bit toward the third-base line.

Even though Berry's stride is fairly neutral, he throws "around" his front leg instead of straight forward to the plate. His front shoulder opens just a bit early - before his front foot touches down - but in Berry's case, it doesn't flatten out his pitches. He might be able to squeeze 2-3 mph more out of his delivery.

Despite his uncommonly short arm action, Berry is still picking up the baseball when his front shoulders start to open up. He forcefully externally rotates his arm to catch up, and this adds to the layback inertia that causes reverse forearm bounce, the major risk factor for ulnar collateral ligament injuries.

As he accelerates his arm, Berry picks up his elbow very well, most notably on the first pitch in this video, but he does not do this consistently. This creates a wide variance in the amount of forearm flyout that occurs from pitch to pitch. On some pitches, his forearm flyout is very significant.

I think he could use his glove arm more actively to help with shoulder rotation.

His follow-through is pretty good. Berry's shoulder looks a little stiff, but his arm doesn't fly across his chest, and there's no significant recoil.

Based on the limited video I gathered, I found no evidence of either pronation or supination in his pitch releases. It appears that his change up might have a small amount of pronation during release.

Overall. As impressive as his numbers are, Berry's ceiling is somewhat limited. While it's possible that he could become a #2 starter at some point, a more reasonable ceiling is that of a #3 starter. I expect that his arm action will continue to cause health problems, and this may relegate him to the bullpen in order to keep him healthy and on the field.

Some clubs will shy away because Berry has already begun to have arm issues, and  some will shy away because Rice doesn't have the greatest track record of late when it comes to producing healthy Major League quality pitchers.

Berry has impressed a lot of folks so far this spring, but he's going to have to prove that he's healthy before anyone will risk a first round pick on his arm. He could conceivably be drafted as early as the end of the 1st round or as late as the 10th round. The next two months will be very important for him.

Texas Rangers Prospects: Wilfredo Boscan and Ryan Tatusko

Trip Somers • April 1, 2009 • Scouting

Wilfredo Boscan. Last season, as an 18-year-old Venezuelan pitching in the United States for the first time, Wilfredo Boscan was among the youngest pitchers in the Northwest League, regularly facing players 2-4 years his superior.

Not only was he one of the youngest pitchers in the league, he was also one of the best pitchers. Boscan went 9-1 and averaged just over one strikeout per inning while maintaining a 6.36 K/BB ratio. On top of that, Boscan has been lauded by several people for his ground ball rate in each of the past two seasons.

Boscan took the mound on March 19, 2009 in a Low A spring training game on the back fields at the Rangers complex. The following video was shot at 210 frames per second.

Boscan has very smooth mechanics, but he has a few inefficiencies and a pretty noticeable reverse forearm bounce. Boscan starts his delivery with his shoulders lined up outside the right-handed batters box, and he brings the ball behind his back before striding closed. Instead of using his hips to drive around his closed front leg, he drives his pitching shoulder over the top of his front leg. This is good when it eliminates forearm flyout, but in Boscan's case, it does not.

Boscan appears to pronate on his fastball, but it is hard to tell for sure at 210 fps. He does, however, clearly supinate when he throws his breaking ball. In combination with his forearm flyout, this action will eventually lead to discomfort (or worse) near the olceranon process of his ulna.

His follow through is pretty clean compared to most pitchers, but because he uses his pectoralis major to horizontally flex his humerus as most pitchers do, I have some minor concerns about future rotator cuff problems.

Despite the number of flaws discussed above, Boscan's mechanics are pretty typical for today's pitchers. Based on his mechanics alone, I would not say that Boscan is at any greater or lesser risk for arm injury than an average professional pitcher.

Ryan Tatusko. Drafted in the 18th round of the ballyhooed 2007 Texas Rangers draft class, Ryan Tatusko spent all of last season pitching for Low A Clinton. Tatusko features a low-90s fastball that might cut, sink, tail, or even be a little too straight. He calls his breaking pitch a slurve, but when I saw it, it looked like a good, hard curve ball.

On March 20, 2009, Tatusko toed the rubber in a AA spring training game. In the bullpen, his fastball was blazing and his slurve had a gigantic break. I was really impressed.

It was a bit of a different story once he climbed up onto the hill. The fastball looked like it was down a couple of ticks, and the slurve was inconsistent. If you've ever been a pitcher, you've probably had one of the opposite bullpen days.

The following clip was filmed at 210 frames per second, showing several pitches from the windup as well as the stretch.

Tatusko is a serious drop-and-drive guy. He gathers himself at the top and then sits down on his back leg before driving forward. The angle is rough, but it looks like he only lands slightly closed (which is better than more closed). After his drive, he pulls forward off the rubber to help keep his center of mass moving forward. This is excellent.

Tatusko also has a very good ball pick-up. It isn't quite the pendulum swing that I like to see, but he doesn't rely on powerful external rotation and the ball passes shoulder height before the elbow. This helps reduce the inertia of reverse forearm bounce, though, in Tatusko's case, it still has a presence.

He has some minor reverse shoulder rotation, but he has a nearly straight-line shoulder drive. Tatusko tilts his shoulders toward the glove side and really picks up his pitching elbow. By picking up his elbow, he limits the downward motion of reverse forearm bounce. As I said above, there is still a noticeable bounce, but Tatusko does a very good job of reducing it.

Tatusko's shoulder tilt also helps get his arm into a more vertical position which limits forearm flyout and allows for a greater kinetic contribution from the triceps brachii - another mechanical plus.

He appears to have good pronation on each of his pitches. This is hard to tell at only 210 fps, but I definitely do not see any supinated releases.

After Tatusko's primary arm deceleration, the momentum of his forearm pulls his humerus into his chest. The forces involved here are far less significant than during primary deceleration, so I think it looks worse than it really is.

To put all of this in perspective, Tatusko's promising mechanics do not guarantee that he will not suffer an injury. He has fewer risk factors, but nothing is written in stone. Overall, I really like how he throws the baseball.

Scouting Stephen Strasburg, San Diego State University... in 40 degree weather

Trip Somers • March 28, 2009 • Scouting

When Stephen Strasburg took the mound in the bottom of the first inning, it was a very breezy 45° outside. By the time he was done, it was a brutally windy 39°. The wind was blowing straight out to left at Lupton Field, and when TCU second baseman Ben Carruthers hit an 0-2 pitch just beyond the outfield fence to lead off for the Horned Frogs, it looked like it might be an interesting night.

As it turned out, the Carruthers homerun was a blip. Strasburg responded by retiring the next 14 hitters in a row, 10 of them on strikes.

Game: March 27, 2009 vs. TCU

Pitcher IP H R ER BB K
Strasburg, Stephen 8.0 3 2 2 1 14

Fastball. 91-99 mph. Strasburg fought with the wind in his face all night but maintained command and got ahead of hitters all night long. He started in the mid-to-upper 90s, but fell to 91-94 after the fourth inning when the wind really picked up. I don't think his body was responding well to the cold, and his fastball command suffered causing him to work off his curveball in the late innings.

Curveball. 81-84 mph. Even when the TCU hitters guessed correctly, they had little chance of squaring up on this pitch. Throughout the night, Strasburg located it with ease, throwing it wherever he pleased. TCU hitters chased it out of the zone all night.

Change up. Rarely thrown. I saw a pitch at 87 mph and a couple in the mid-70s. I'm not sure which was his change up or if either pitch actually was his change up. He was essentially a two-pitch pitcher for all 8 innings.

Mechanics. Strasburg has very traditional mechanics with excellent hip and shoulder rotation, but with what looks like a rough follow through. The clip below shows 4 pitches at 210 fps and 2 pitches at 420 fps with at least one fastball and one curveball at each speed. (Kyle Boddy at DrivelineMechanics.com took a brief look at Strasburg's mechanics this past winter.)

Strasburg starts his delivery with an easy leg pick-up. He then gathers himself before stepping forward and really driving off his back leg. Right before he lands, he turns his front hip to square his landing leg to the plate. He has a soft landing on the ball of his foot, but he then drives backward with his landing leg. This creates great hip rotation but stops his center of mass from moving forward.

Strasburg does not use a pendulum swing to pick up the baseball. He takes the ball behind his back and accelerates it toward third base as he brings the ball to driveline height. His flexed elbow moves well behind his back and reaches shoulder height before the ball. From there, he must forcefully externally rotate his arm to get the ball to driveline height. This causes late forearm turnover and increases the valgus torque that occurs during reverse forearm bounce. This is a risk factor for his ulnar collateral ligament.

When Strasburg's center of mass stops moving forward, his trunk flexes forward while his shoulders rotate and his elbow again moves far behind his shoulders. He drives his pitching shoulder all the way through his release. This is excellent, but it doesn't stop his arm from finishing violently across his chest. (At full-speed you can see his arm "bounce" off his rib cage.) This is a risk factor for the supraspinatus and the infraspinatus muscles of the rotator cuff.

One major plus in Strasburg's mechanics is the apparent pronated release of his curveball. It is definitely hard to see in this video, but the second to last pitch is your best chance to see it. As he releases the pitch, Strasburg's wrist quickly moves from a supinated to a pronated position. This allows him to powerfully drive the top of the baseball instead of pulling the ball down with a supinated grip. By doing this, a curveball is thrown with more velocity and better rotation.

Overall. Stephen Strasburg is a 6' 4", 220 lb beast of a pitcher. He has two plus-plus pitches right now and ace-quality command. He's putting up numbers that would have Mark Prior and Jered Weaver blushing. Whether or not he is picked by the Washington Nationals as the first overall selection in the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft, he will certainly command the largest contract.

Strasburg has some of the common flaws of traditional pitching mechanics and carries with him the associated risks. These risks will almost certainly not affect his draft status because it could be 10 years before anything goes wrong. Predicting injuries is folly, but identifying risk is always important.

In a few months, Mr. Strasburg will be a very, very rich man.

Texas Rangers Prospects: Richard Alvarez and Pedro Strop

Trip Somers • March 25, 2009 • Scouting

Richard Alvarez. The Texas Rangers signed right-handed pitcher Richard Alvarez out of Venezuela during the International Signing Period in 2008. Jamey Newberg recently called him "the prize of the Rangers' 2008 Latin American haul," and at least one pre-signing scouting report had his fastball as high as 92 mph to go with a curveball and a change up.

On Thursday, March 19, 2009, Alvarez took the mound in the Low A minor league Spring Training game on the back fields of the Rangers' complex. In his 1 inning of work, Alvarez featured an extremely lively fastball that sat at 84-86 mph. He turned his change up over well and kept it away from the middle of the plate. The 1 curve I saw him throw was bounced intentionally for a swinging strikeout and it still looked above average.

When asked about Alvarez's velocity, one scout told me Alvarez was in the upper 80s and touching 90 after signing in 2008. Alvarez will likely hang around Surprise for several months before breaking with the short-season rookie club leaving him plenty of time to build up his arm strength and get his velocity back into the upper 80s.

Mike Hindman of InsideCorner estimates that Alvarez is about 6' 0", 170 lbs, but my impression is that both of those numbers are generous. As a 16-year-old kid, though, Alvarez certainly has room to grow. Here's your first look at Texas Rangers right-handed pitching prospect Richard Alvarez.

Very briefly, Alvarez has a late forearm turnover. It doesn't even reach vertical until after he starts to open his front shoulder. The inertia that turns his forearm over also creates some reverse forearm bounce, but his shoulder tilt helps him pick up his elbow and reduce forearm flyout. Alvarez drives hard off the rubber, but then drags his right leg stiffly after landing. He drives his shoulder through the pitch for great shoulder rotation, but he still has quite a bit of arm recoil after every pitch.

Even though this sounds pretty negative, these are problems found in most pitchers with a traditional delivery. There are things he could be doing better (forearm turnover and arm recoil), but there really isn't anything dramatically alarming about Alvarez's mechanics.

Pedro Strop. In April 2008, while in the Colorado Rockies' system, Strop was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his pitching elbow (most likely the olecranon of his ulna), and he missed the rest of the season. The Rockies designated him for assignment in September, and the Rangers signed him to a minor league contract in early November. In 2007, Strop's numbers were slightly above average for a player who had been pitching his entire life, but it was Strop's first full season as a pitcher. His strikeout rate was an amazing 12.3 per 9 innings. (Note: Strop's 2007 season was cut short by elbow tendonitis in early August.)

The Rangers have brought him along slowly this spring, and he stepped to the mound on March 17, 2009 in a Double-A minor league Spring Training game. I turn to Mike Hindman for the scouting report, "He deals a 94ish fastball with a lot of armside run, a power slider at 84-86 mph and a nasty splitter." In his 1 inning of work, Strop was all that he was cracked up to be.

In January, Kyle Boddy took a look at Pedro Strop's unique arm action. Here's some high-speed (210 frames-per-second) video from Strop's outing. (Sorry about the shaky frame; it's hard to hold a camera still when one of your arms is in a sling.)

I am concerned about Strop's health going forward. He's struggled with arm health since the end of his first full season as a pitcher, and based on this older video, it doesn't look like he plans to change his mechanics. I like the way he uses his body (good drive, landing, hip and shoulder rotation), but his arm still seems to do the same things that led to the injuries that caused him to miss almost all of the 2008 season.