I barely knew the name Angel Zerpa when the Royals, an organization flush with arm talent at every level, added him to their 40-man roster this winter. The 21-year-old pitcher is still nefariously mysterious to me, but not for lack of trying.
Zerpa was an unheralded international signing in 2016 out of Venezuela who achieved modest success during three seasons of rookie ball. Something happened behind the cover of the 2020 lost season motivating the Royals to protect him, and I wanted to know why whilst putting the Royals’ Top 50 together. Other than barely-viewed YouTube clips and a few small blurbs chalking him up as a soft-tossing lefty with bullpen dreams, there wasn’t much for me to go on.
Dayton Moore, the Royals’ general manager, was quoted as saying Zerpa should be considered with the organization’s top arms. Hyperbole or not, it was enough to put Zerpa on my priority watch list. The subsequent assignment to Double-A Northwest Arkansas intrigued me even more. Rookie ball to Double-A would have been one of the largest jumps by any prospect this year but plans changed and he’s pitched six games at high-A Quad Cities.
Zerpa has dominated his assignment to the tune of a 3-0 record, 2.43 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 44 strikeouts to 6 walks over 29.2 innings in six starts. Of course, we aren’t going to make much of these numbers and small samples, but to be honest, he’s been even better than his line. Some better defense could have stopped some runs and the like (ask Tyler Gentry who took a one-hopper in left field off the face), but this is neither here nor there. Six starts seem like enough to at least get an idea of what’s happening, right? Prospects destined for bullpen roles…are organizations that aggressive with them? Is “reliever risk” even a thing?
The Man in the Shadows
(Breaking ball…I think)
Zerpa isn’t just figuratively in the shadows, but in Davenport too. (Don’t think that’s played into his deception either. He’s actually been better on the road, giving up one run to seven at home.) Six starts, and absolutely zero good angles on Zerpa’s stuff. Throw in announcers either stingy with any in-park measurements or themselves deprived, couple it with poor video and Zerpa’s robotic motion, and getting a bead on what’s happening isn’t easy, even using all the tools at my disposal. Hitters, who have a better vantage point, are even more confused. Given MiLB Gameday’s inaccurate pitch-plotting there’s no way to measure, but Zerpa seems to get more taken called strikes over the heart of the plate than any pitcher I’ve watched.
The report was a good, low-90s sinking fastball inducing plenty of ground balls, a good slider from his wide release, and a changeup flashing plus. A 44.6% ground-ball rate/33.8% fly-ball rate isn’t screaming ground-ball pitcher. A 32.0 CSW%, 13.35 K%, and, I think, a few versions of a fastball suggest there’s more in play. I suspect Zerpa isn’t just throwing a sinker. He gets a lot of swing and miss under a fastball. Get out your binoculars, but this one Pedro Pages got isn’t a super rare occurrence:
I speculate Zerpa has a four-seam achieving legit spin. Zerpa struck out the first six batters of this outing and it may have been the best lineup he’s faced yet. And it was stacked with righties. I also wonder if Zerpa cuts a fastball against righties too and it looked like he threw one here against Jair Camargo:
It hasn’t happened much but Zerpa bows up in tough spots. He’s gotten out of some jams, mostly via strikeout. Here’s a look at a breaking ball Jacob Hurtubise would like to forget. Zerpa ended this threat with a soft lineout next at-bat:
Another look at a breaking ball, against Tyler Durna:
A changeup Quincy McAffee got:
Listed as 6’0″, 211 pounds and a fastball said to sit low-90s, it might be easy to think reliever, but that may be a dated thought. The prototypical starter build is shifting, not to mention the nature of what a starter is in the bigs. Every pitching prospect has an outcome of coming in relief. Prudent prospecting should start with the question of whether he is a major leaguer. We won’t know how well Zerpa’s stuff plays against better hitters until it happens. Maybe better looks down the road will help. To further complicate, he may be pitching in the minor’s worst hitting league. The team leading the league in batting average has sat just above .250.
Yet, Zerpa doesn’t seem to suggest reliever in some important ways. Things can change with level, but until they do, starting is very much an outcome in play for me. First, and maybe most important, Zerpa throws strikes upon strikes:
And he doesn’t seem to be getting figured out as hitters get more looks:
In fact, Zerpa has been pretty dominant the at-bat after a hitter got the best of him. Both of the home runs Zerpa surrendered were against 26-year-old Gabe Snyder:
Zerpa sat him down after a very one-sided at-bat next turn. The above home run and the following double surrendered to Matt Wallner were the two hardest balls I saw.
He got Wallner too.
There hasn’t been a lot of hard contact. There also haven’t been early signs Zerpa’s effectiveness changes anyway, at least in terms of batter-handedness. Starting with a 31.8% CSW versus right-handed hitters and a 35.4% CSW versus left-handed hitters split, it looks pretty similar across the board:
So What’s the Takeaway?
In a season when dynasty speculation may pay off handsomely because players like Zerpa made hidden gains, depending on league size, he may be well worth a roster slot. We are roughly halfway through our dynasty seasons and if you have a minor slot to fill or looking for a trade sweetener, Zerpa might be a good choice. Until I can get some better angles or spin rates, Zerpa is at the very least a priority watch for me. Sorry to not have more for you, but the man is tough to figure out. When a hitter stands there and takes three pitches right down the middle, which has happened on several occasions, I tend to think there’s more than meets the eye. I don’t wanna look like those hitters or James Free here if Dayton Moore wasn’t merely providing lip service.
The devil works in mysterious ways, like dropping Angels with subtle arsenals out of the sky, giving you teases of looks, telling you to decipher what’s going on. Zerpa could very well stall out as hitters get better. This isn’t some new outcome in pitching speculation, but if his devilish ways continue, we may find one of these soft-tossing lefties that weren’t supposed to help us in fantasy doing just that. Hopefully, we get to see Zerpa in the upper levels very soon. This high-A challenge seems more than conquered.
Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)