Looking for Arms in All the Muddy Places

Time to roll up the sleeves and inspect some arms.

Funny how things work. Got all geared up to go digging, preparing myself to endure some disappointing looks, and my first dig, Joey Estes, turned out to be the most enjoyable binge watch of my season so far.

 

Joey Estes, Augusta (Braves Low-A)

19.7 years old

Thru 6/14: 6 GS, 26.2 IP, 1.01 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 39 K, 6 BB

0% Fantrax ownership

 

Regardless of how Estes’ career goes, the Braves did well with their 2019 16th round pick selecting the California prep “project arm” and signing him away from Long Beach State for half a million. Advertised as a two-pitch kid with a reliever’s body, relatively new to pitching, and a breaking ball being most attractive, the story’s changed.

Luckily for us, five of Estes’ six starts gave us some good looks. Here’s a look at some fastballs. The only mentions of velocity I heard was 93 mph and then the Columbia announcer saying his fastball sits mid-90s:

 

(vs.Edmond Americaan, pinky calls for two-seam)

 

 (Pointer finger calls for four-seam)

 

(Two-seam sending Jake Means to the bench during first start)

 

(Four-seam getting Kale Emshoff during the first start)

 

The first start was primarily these two pitches with a pedestrian downward breaker every so often. Over 2.2 IP, he struck out six, gave up two hits, the only run off a solo home run (only one he’s allowed) to Matthew Schmidt, and the control wheels came off in the third. In total, it very much felt like watching a guy who could be better in the bullpen. But I was merely watching a guy getting started. Estes works quickly, attacking the zone with strikes, and he spots both his fastballs extremely well. His strike percentage over the six starts was 68.1%.

Estes decided to work in a breaking ball more his second start. The following look is against Tyler Tolbert from the first start, but a fine example of the breaking ball he was working in more the second start:

 

 

The following is from the second start. Estes was far from harnessing the breaker well, and the back foot breaking ball, in particular, I’m curious to watch progress or not. He only tried it this one time his first several starts, but he went back to it with better results down the road, earning a couple of third strikes with it:

 

 

Estes went four and a third, giving up one run on two hits, striking out three, walking none, against a young but talented Myrtle Beach lineup this second turn.

The third start, the breaking ball confused me more. This at-bat against Zach Daniels was a good example of how it took on some different shapes. I couldn’t determine if these were attempts at throwing two different breaking balls or the same pitch showing inconsistencies:

 

 

 

During Estes’ first start, Augusta’s broadcaster stated Estes’ arsenal included a curveball and a slider, so I was left wondering if there really were two breakers in there. Estes went five, giving up one unearned on three hits, striking out eight and walking none the third start. The pitch count rose to 70. At this point, I’m thinking, alright, so he’s got a couple of nice fastballs, command and aggressiveness I like, and maybe some breaking balls to work with. OK, maybe he’s got a chance at being more than I initially thought. A changeup would be real nice and put him on another level. Through three starts I only saw a few attempts at a change, and they were pretty weak, garnering no outs:

 

 

 

Estes’ fourth start was in Columbia, where the broadcast angle is from a press box, so I didn’t get a great sense of what he was up to, but whatever it was, it was good. He went five, giving up two, one earned, and it could of easily been none. Both runs came across in an inning Estes threw a ball away on a pickoff attempt and then again fielding a bunt. These would be the last two runs allowed by Estes this young season. Estes struck out four and walked two.

The fifth start impressed the heck out of me. Said wish for a changeup was granted. He got his first out with it here against Brett Wisely:

 

 

And then it started sending folks to the bench. Three or four of his seven strikeouts were with the changeup (there was a cut-away camera shot when I think a change may have claimed another victim):

 

(Alexander Ovalles)

 

(Abiezel Ramirez)

He ended up going four, giving up none, three hits, and walking one, pushing the pitch total to 78. Estes also found himself in the first real pinch of the season, runners on second and third with one out in the second. Curious how he’d respond in jams, he struck out the next two. Every game, Estes added something new, and I was hooked after this game. What could he possibly do for an encore that would get me all jazzed up? How about pitching backward? The first time through the lineup the sixth start, Estes was dishing out heavy doses of the secondaries, including two markedly different breakers and the change looking even better:

 

(Changeup versus Flemin Buatista)

 

(A noteably sharper-looking slider like this one against Jordan Nwogu)

 

Estes mixed in the curveball as well, and then the second time through it was heavy fastballs up, particularly the four-seam. He ended the day going 5.2 IP scoreless, exiting after giving up the only hard-hit ball of the day against Yoehendrick Pinango, striking out 11, and a lot of them weren’t competitive at-bats. He walked none.

What is not to like about this kid? Maybe he had all these things in his back pocket, and this was a more calculated progression, but one can’t argue the improvement in secondary stuff over these brief six starts. Making these kinds of potential gains as a 19-year-old…it takes some young pitchers a year or more to do what he’s done from start to start. And the presence he puts out there as a kid, confident, working fast with a plan…I love it. What’s going to be next? What’s the endpoint of this progression?

Keeping it in context, I don’t want to anoint a 19-year-old just figuring some things out the next great pitching prospect, even though it happens all the time with teenage arms, I don’t do that, but I’m far from crossing Estes off my list. We have to see how well the stuff plays against better bats and if he can be consistent with things, and only time will give us those answers. Most of the good contact he’s given up is against the more talented hitters in the lineups; the Pinangos and Daryl Collins, but I can’t wait to see his next bag of tricks. I dropped a few stashed AAAA types I had laying around in 30-teamers, Jared Oliva and John Nogowski to pick up my speculative shares already. I’m aboard this train until it stops.

Update, last night at Columbia: 6 IP, 3 H (2 HR), 4 ER, 5 K, 2 BB (both to Daryl Collins, 76 pitches (52 strikes)

With one eye on the game, here’s what I saw: Estes wasn’t quite as crisp as he’s been, and/or Columbia’s third look at him didn’t favor him, but I liked the plan. Estes seemed intent on mixing it up hitter-to-hitter instead of a more regimented plan moving through the order like he’d been implementing. The secondaries weren’t as sharp and some wildness in the zone got hit hard. Estes probably gave up the most contact I’ve seen, getting bailed out on some hard-hit balls. He also had some bad luck, particularly the first two runs allowed. Cruising through the first two and two-thirds, Columbia wisely had the nine-hitter lay down a bunt. Estes made a tough play but a bad call at first gave Columbia an extra out. He left a fastball over the plate next at-bat and it left the yard. Estes wasn’t going to be able to pitch every batter the same way the first time through, every batter a certain way the second time through, etc. It was another developmental step in the right direction, it just didn’t turn out as dominant as past progressions.

 

Reese Olson, Wisconsin (Brewers High-A)

21.9 years old

Thru 6/15: 7 GS, 34.1 IP, 4.19 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 47 K, 12 BB

0% Fantrax ownership

 

Another former high school “project arm” putting up some boxscores is Reese Olson, the Brewers’ 2018 13th-round pick. Olson has a nice three-pitch mix garnering plenty of whiffs, but there’s one glaring concern for me:

 

(Changeup versus Connor Scott)

 

(Slider versus Thomas Jones)

 

My neck hurts watching Olson pitch, and these gifs actually tone down the violence in his head pull. Olson can lose control drastically at times, and this upper body pull plays a role. In this tier of pitching prospect, his delivery is enough for me to cross Olson off my list, regardless of the results and stuff. I don’t have faith a delivery like this will achieve the requisite level of consistency required to become a major league starter, nor the reliability, as this feels like injuries in waiting. As I’m writing this, Olson’s 6/12 start didn’t go well, blowing up the nice numbers he had when I started this dive. He gave up five over four and a third. There are a lot of talented arms in the minor leagues to speculate on, like one of my 5 FYPS to Fleece

 

Bryce Elder, Rome (Braves High-A)

22.1 years old

Thru 6/15: 8 GS, 40 IP, 2.93 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 48 K, 17 BB

1% Fantrax ownership

 

It felt like time to check in after a crazy good six-start stretch. Elder had a successful career at Texas and his pitch mix feels like a great foundation to build on as a pro. In a fun twist of fate, Elder kicked off his pro career facing Texas teammate Duke Ellis. They reunited at first base:

 

 

Elder pitched to great results starts two to seven, but he seemed edgy on the mound. A lot of nervous fidgeting; hat and shirt tugs, lots of belt adjusting…he just didn’t seem comfortable despite the great results:

 

(Looking a little unsure before this curveball getting Niko Hulsizer his fourth start)

 

 

This immaculate strikeout against Lenyn Sosa during the first start is a decent look at his three main offerings:

 

(Fastball for strike one)

 

(Changeup for strike two)

 

(Curveball for the swinging K)

 

Elder’s eighth start, he looked more comfortable on the mound despite the stat line taking a little dip in attractiveness. The body language was calmer and the belt fit better. He didn’t need to adjust it once. He went three giving up four, three earned, striking out four, walking three on 81 pitches. Digging into this start more, there were some positives to note. After starting the game allowing a double and an RBI single, he got into a groove, which I liked. I always wanna see how pitchers respond to trouble and Elder wasn’t getting into a whole lot of it starts two through seven. The curveball looked sharp, other than a little rough patch in the fourth where the fastball and curve control got away some. Here is a nice breaking ball ending a Korey Lee at-bat after the first inning trouble:

 

 

The first time through the order was a heavy fastball/curveball offering, the second time through, the changeup came out, particularly first pitch. The changeup development will be big for Elder. In my viewing, it’s been inconsistent, but it looked good this start, like this one against Joe Perez:

 

 

I also noticed Elder throwing a cutter. This same Perez at-bat didn’t end well and started off the rough patch, but this cutter turned Perez home run didn’t seem like the worst pitch in the world:

 

 

A couple of hard-hit balls and an error scored a few, and the fastball/curveball command left him, causing some walks, but he again bounced back throwing two more scoreless.

Elder’s 1% ownership on Fantrax feels pretty silly to me as he’s closer to a major league pitcher than many with much higher ownership rates. It could very well not come, but with a little more refinement, learning the intricacies of professional ball, putting a little polish on his game (pun intended), there’s a major league starter here. He’ll get billed as a “back-end rotation upside” guy, but that’s a phrase I don’t understand the meaning of. Plenty of fantasy aces have shaken that moniker. Elder flashes put-away ability, command, and enough Houdini to get through batters a few times. Elder’s also impressed defensively, proving to be more athletic than I had thought. It’s hard for me to cap a guy like Elder at this point. He feels like a guy capable of checking off the box most important to me evaluating pitching; consistency and reliability. If he does that as a pro or not, we will see, but I lean he does.

 

Josh Winckowski, Portland (Red Sox AA)

23.0 years old

Thru 6/15: 7 GS, 37.2 IP, 2.39 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 33 K, 10 BB

1% Fantrax ownership

 

Now there’s a name for you. Winkowski’s offseason was a whirlwind of uncertainty, not getting selected his first Rule 5 draft, traded to the Mets as part of the Steven Matz trade, and finally landing in Boston as part of the three-team trade with Kansas City. The canceled 2020 minor league season created a missed opportunity for players entering their fifth pro season pushing for 40-man consideration, exposing them to the Rule 5 draft, which as we’ve seen, created a nice opportunity for clubs to steal some talent. The results of this first double-A stint and wondering if he fell through the cracks warranted a look.

Winckowski is a big-framed pitcher at 6’4″, 202 pounds with a four-seam fastball and sinking fastball both sitting mid-90s, with the four-seam ticking up at times:

 

(Four-seamer getting Todd Cizenge)

 

(Sinker getting Cizenge to ground out)

 

Winckowski’s glaring issue involves the secondaries. He has a well-shaped breaking ball, which is his out pitch most of the time. The breaker and the four-seam up garner most of the strikeouts. Here was a good breaker getting Matt McLaughlin:

 

 

(Another curveball getting Max George)

 

The problem is he leaves is it up far too much, and often not even a competitive “up”. He knows it too and the following isn’t the only time you see him getting visibly frustrated:

 

(Czinege)

 

The changeup…it’s…mostly not good. The following 88 mph change against Coco Montes was probably the best one I saw:

 

 

The following is more typical, and he struggles to keep this pitch down as well:

 

(vs. Matt Hearn, and Winckowski knows he got away with one)

 

That one came it at 91 mph, far from the desired velocity differential.

Winckowski’s 5/29 start vs Hartford, he went seven scoreless, giving up one hit, striking out nine, walking none, retiring the last 13 hitters. No coincidence he did a great job keeping all the secondaries down, pounding the strike zone down with the sinker, and whizzing the sporadic four-seamer by up or out of the zone. The one hit he gave up could have easily been an out, it took an odd hop over the third baseman’s head. He induced a ton of groundballs to the right side.

Winckowski’s current 1% ownership rate feels right to me. Until the changeup shows a real chance at being a third pitch and the curveball goes where he wants, this is still a project we don’t need to roster to watch. You can see why Boston took a shot. The fastball and raw curveball can be something, but I’m thinking Winckowski could be more effective as a reliever, but he has 2021 to keep working. His numbers have been great, but mind you the best starts have come against a pretty poor Hartford lineup and runs have been put up when he struggles to keep stuff down.

 

Domingo Robles, Springfield (Cardinals AA)

23.1 years old

Thru 6/15: 6 GS, 28.2 IP, 2.83 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 31 K, 9 BB

0% Fantrax ownership

 

As PitcherList’s Cardinals’ prospect list maker, I feel it’s my duty to inspect a pitching prospect putting up the kind of numbers Robles has, especially while on a 9.2 IP scoreless streak, and even more so after I left him off the top 50 list. To boot, an organization with a reputation of finding gems in far-off places traded international slot money for him, and achieving newfound results during his first stint with said organization makes one wonder. This is a muddy evaluation with lots of layers testing many parts of my process. We are gonna go to limits even I find far.

The Cardinals acquired Robles ahead of his first Rule 5 draft, he then went unselected, but if these kinds of results continue, is Robles knocking on the 40-man door? Or is he merely a candidate for another team to swoop in next Rule 5? The Cardinals invited Robles to spring training (did not appear in a game), which is a good sign, right?

As I’ve written about, there may be reasons to think soft-tossing lefties get an unwarranted knock by dynasty owners and I’ve committed myself to explore them more. Robles is just that with his high 80s/low 90s fastball. Springfield’s opening day starter has kept opponents off the board in half his starts, so what’s the story behind the numbers?

Listed at 6’2″ 170 pounds, he looks a little thicker than that, especially in the lower-half. He mixes up the fastball, changeup, curveball repertoire well, throwing all three pitches at any time, and doesn’t throw the same pitch back to back often, especially coming off a strike. Robles’ changeup is probably his best pitch. I love good changeups. Here is one getting Aaron Whitefield, who had a cup of coffee in the bigs last year, on a questionable “swing”:

 

 

Robles gets a lot of strikeouts on check swings. I didn’t count them up, but I’d guess 40-45% of the Ks are just that, on both the changeup and breaking ball, mostly in the dirt. So he’s getting these double-A hitters in-between, but how would that play up a level or two? I suspect it mostly wouldn’t.

I love strike throwers and Robles is throwing them at a 66.7% clip with a .227 batting average against. I’d love to know the hard-hit rate though as I question how long that batting average against stays below league average. Robles has gotten bailed out by some plus defense on hard-hit balls, particularly Nolan Gorman, Justin Toerner, and Nick Plummer. Ivan Herrara has stolen Robles some outs from behind the plate as well.

 

(Toerner robbing Roy Morales)

 

(Plummer robbing Kyle Overstreet)

 

Robles has exuded impressive command, but when it goes, it went and walks came in bunches. Furthermore, Springfield doesn’t seem to let him work through most of it, opting for the quick hook.

Here’s some more hard contact, this time Jake Anchia‘s 417-foot home run, 107 mph off the bat:

 

 

A hard hit double for B.J. Boyd his first pro-at-bat since 2018 (he went and tried to play football or something):

 

 

There are moments of dominance, but I feel they tend to be against younger or lesser players:

 

 

Long story short, despite checking off some of my biggest boxes, there seems no reason to waste roster space on Robles. That being said, he’s also in an interesting spot with an interesting organization. A pitcher like Robles needs to be very precise and tuned in. We’ll see how magical the Cardinal’s development can be, but I’m calling Robles a very nice minor leaguer who will throw a lot of productive innings on the farm.

Update 6/15 start @Wichita: 3.1 IP, 10 H, 6 ER, 4 K, 0 BB, 3 HR

 

Konnor Pilkington, Birmingham (White Sox AA)

23.7 years old

Thru 6/15: 6 GS, 27.2 IP, 2.60 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 29 K, 8 BB

1% Fantrax ownership

 

Speaking of soft-tossing lefties and making more concerted efforts to evaluate them, Pilkington is one I keep wanting to cross off my list but just can’t. I wonder if Pilkington has met or worked with Dallas Keuchel and/or pitching coach Ethan Katz. The groundball rate is on the rise at 41.5%, and I’ve always wondered how a sinker could play for him. I think I’ve spotted a few, like this one against Matt Jones:

 

 

The biggest development for Pilkington as a pro thus far has been his four-seam fastball. It sits low-90s but might get some nice life as it hops over some bats, like this one against Anthony Mulrine:

 

 

More good news this 2021 season, is the slider. Once billed as nothing to get excited about, it seems to have been an area of focus, maybe moving into more slutter territory. Torii Hunter Jr. got a good one here:

 

 

I don’t want to go past my soft-tossing lefty quota and bore you anymore, but Pilkington garnering the results he has this first double-A try, paired with the potential arsenal improvements has him checking boxes and sticking around. The long ball may be the biggest hurdle as he advances. He’s given up four thus far. If we lived in a world where soft-tossing lefties were sought after, I’d say a speculative share may be worthwhile, but we don’t. Pilkington solidly remains on my watchlist as a big-league starter is still a real possibility, and one of these never owned in large leagues turned sought-after waiver add feels like a realistic dynasty outcome for him.

 

Bailey Falter, Lehigh Valley (Phillies AAA)

24.1 years old

Thru 6/15: 7 G, 29.2 IP, 1.82 ERa, 1.01 WHIP 42 K, 8 BB

4% Fantrax ownership and rising

 

As I started putting the work in for this piece, Falter was called up again and threw three scoreless against the Dodgers. Falter is a lefty who doesn’t throw the hardest but gets insane extension to the plate, darn near reaching the grass at the front of the mound, so the fastball plays up. Falter’s gotten some attention of late, spiking the ownership rates, so I’m gonna scoot out here, but he’s a young arm busting through and if you haven’t caught wind, it’s coming.

 

Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

Nate Handy

Nate enjoys picking up the prospect scraps, turning over rocks to share what muddy treats he can find. Residing high up the Rocky Mountains with his wife and children, trying to stay cool, getting a broader view. A fan of the underappreciated, overlooked and disregarded. A true mud person trying to make informed mistakes.

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