Here’s a quick preview of three arms coming out of the Mexican League that may be worth a look down the stretch if they find their way back into Major League Baseball.
RHP, Diablos Rojos del Mexico (contract purchased by San Francisco Giants on July 19th)
Height/Weight: 6’3, 195 lbs
Steamer FIP Projection: 4.16
Just a few days ago, the San Francisco Giants beat me to the punch by purchasing Bautista’s contract before I could write him up. It’s clear that San Francisco, much like other contenders, is looking to shore up their bullpen depth for the latter stretch of the season. In purchasing Bautista’s contract, they’ll get an interesting power relief arm, who might end up contributing to the big league club sooner rather than later. He’s been assigned to Triple-A Sacramento, where he’s thrown one inning so far.
Bautista was released by Seattle in March. Since his release, he’s tossed 22.2 innings to a 2.22 FIP for the Mexico City-based Diablos Rojos del Mexico. His stat line included a 10.7 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9. The BB/9 total is an improvement on his minor league career 4.2 BB/9 and his ghastly 9.5 BB/9 through 13.1 career major league innings. While bouncing around to three different MLB organizations, Bautista has long been regarded as an interesting future bullpen piece. Originally signed by Boston as an international free agent, he was suspended for PED usage before his first professional season. At the 2017 trade deadline, he was dealt as part of a package for Addison Reed to the New York Mets. A year and a half later, New York shipped him to Seattle in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz/Jarred Kelenic blockbuster. Bautista never really gained his footing in the Mariners’ organization, where he struggled to a 7.43 FIP in 23.2 innings at Triple-A in 2019, before posting a 7.55 FIP in nine major league innings. He missed all of 2020 with a flexor strain before being released again during Spring Training.
Bautista appeared as the 19th ranked prospect on FanGraphs list of the top Mariners’ prospects in March 2020. He’s a two-pitch power arm, who relies on a fastball that averaged 97.7 mph during his major league relief outings and topped out at 100.8 mph. Not only does Bautista’s fastball come with powerful velocity, but with a different shape than a hitter would expect. Bautista’s fastballs from 2019 are shown in the graph on the right.
We see that his fastball deviates from the “normal” vertical and horizontal movement on fastballs, which are represented by the 45-degree line. This should help him generate more swings and misses and weaker contact on his fastball because of the irregular movement he’s able to generate. For a more complete read on the importance of fastball shape, check out this article by Kevin Goldstein over at FanGraphs. With elite velocity and unique shape, Bautista’s fastball just needs a semblance of control, which he’s flashed this year, to be a highly successful major league pitch.
Bautista’s only real secondary offering is a slider (85-87 mph) that is graded out as 50 in that 2020 FanGraphs report and contains slightly above average vertical movement. He also throws a changeup that FanGraphs graded as 45, but that he only used five times in 13 major league innings.
So far throughout his career, Bautista’s extremely poor command has led to an inability to stick in any sort of steady major league role. With improved command and a more than capable slider, Bautista could flourish with a fastball that possesses powerful velocity and intriguing shape. I wouldn’t be surprised if the unheralded Mexican League arm ends up pitching in some meaningful innings for San Francisco down the stretch.
RHP, Rieleros de Aguascalientes
Height/Weight: 6’3, 180 lbs
Steamer FIP Projection: 5.17
Leal is one of the more interesting pitchers in the Mexican League. After being released by the Cubs’ organization, Leal has thrown 40.1 innings across nine starts to a 5.40 ERA. He’s also posting a 10.8 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 while compiling a more impressive 3.84 FIP. At first glance, the ERA might be pretty underwhelming. However, it’s important to note that the average ERA in the Mexican League is 5.11 and also that Leal pitches his home games at 6,194’ above sea level (Denver is 5,280’ above sea level). The last we saw of Leal stateside, he was posting a 4.13 FIP across 84.2 IP between High-A and Double-A in 2019. In the preceding fall of 2018, he was a standout performer at the Arizona Fall League with Mesa, where his stint began with 17.1 scoreless innings over five starts. More recently, he threw 34.1 innings in the Venezuelan Winter League to a 1.31 ERA, which earned him VWL Pitcher of the Year honors.
My only recent look at video of Leal was during his start against the Dominican Republic last month for the Venezuelan National Team. The basic profile on Leal doesn’t appear to have changed all too much. His fastball was still in the 89-91 mph range, which presumably is the reason why he hasn’t found his way back to an MLB organization. He relied heavily on his curveball, which still possesses the above-average depth that made it a plus offering during his time in the AFL. In addition, he also mixed in a changeup, which scouts have described as plus dating back to his time in the Carolina League. Leal continues to smartly lean heavily on his duo of interesting off-speed pitches to make up for his lack of fastball velocity.
Back in 2018, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs was skeptical of Leal’s future value even amidst his standout showing in the AFL. He noted that prospects of Leal’s type rarely ever go on to produce multiple WAR at the big league level. Longenhagen went on to say that Leal’s best chance may be as a reliever, where he used his curveball as a primary offering.
It’s unlikely that Leal can ride his overperformance to the back end of a big-league rotation. Though, he could potentially provide value as a middle/multi-inning relief option, who relies on his pair of secondary offerings to get big league outs. Having two off-speed offerings that have been rated as plus lessens the concern about diminishing returns from using one of those offerings as a primary pitch in relief. A quick glance at Leal’s inflated ERA doesn’t quite tell the full story of his continued success in Venezuela and Mexico since his release from affiliated baseball.
RHP, Olmecas de Tabasco
Height/Weight: 6’1, 205 lbs
Steamer ERA Projection: 4.54
After making his MLB debut at 23 years old, Luis Escobar now finds himself pitching in the Mexican League just two years later. Escobar made a short cameo out of the Pirates’ bullpen in 2019 where he threw 5.2 innings to poor results (7.94 ERA). Since then, he was released by the Pirates in June 2020 but has rebounded nicely in the Mexican League in 2021. He’s thrown 62.1 innings across 11 starts to a 2.60 ERA while allowing just two home runs. Though, Escobar hasn’t been able to post the same strikeout to walk totals that garnered him prospect hype in the low minors. He’s sporting a concerning K/9 of 5.5 and BB/9 of 4.5, which has led to FIP (4.20) much lower than his ERA. He’s also pitching home games at a severely lower altitude than most of the other Mexican League cities, which may be artificially lowering his impressive HR/9 and ERA numbers.
Whether you totally believe in his 2021 numbers or not, Escobar is still a fairly young and intriguing talent. He garnered a 45 FV grade and ranked eighth on FanGraphs’ list of the top Pirates’ prospects in November 2018. That report came after he posted 3.84, 3.52, and 4.40 yearly FIP totals from 2016 to 2018 across three full seasons as a starter at Low-A, Single-A, and High-A. That impressive stretch included 25 starts in 2017, where Escobar posted a K/9 total above 11 before struggling a bit in his first taste of Double-A. FanGraphs’ 2018 report noted that “he has three potential plus pitches, but struggles to repeat his max-effort delivery in a way that enables any modicum of consistent strike-throwing.” This led to Escobar shifting to a bullpen role where he ended up making his MLB debut in 2019. In that short stint, his fastball averaged 95.2 mph and maxed out at 97.7 mph. Even though his fastball displays a bit more horizontal than vertical movement, its shape is fairly average. His changeup sat in the 83-85 mph range and graded 50/60 leading into 2019. His curveball flashed above-average horizontal movement in his short MLB stint and was graded 50/55 in that 2018 report.
It’s doubtful that Escobar ever possesses enough command to start games in the back end of a major league rotation. However, it’s conceivable that his stuff will still end up working enough to secure a role in someone’s bullpen. His Mexican League numbers have been excellent on the surface this year, but a bit more concerning on the periphery. At 25, Escobar still has time on his side to turn his stuff and potential back into another chance at a major league bullpen role.
Featured Image by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)