Chris Hayes is nowhere to appear in Kevin Goldstein’s rankings of the Top 11 Royals prospects released today ($$), not that this is surprising at all. What might be surprising is that he is nowhere to be found in Baseball
One minor league expert who has not completely ignored Hayes is my friend John Sickels, whose The Baseball Prospect Book 2009 is now on sale. Hayes warranted an entry in this year’s book:
Chris Hayes went to
Grade C is the lowest grade that Sickels gives out to a player worthy of mentioning in his book. Saying “he could sneak into the major league pen” and “stranger things have happened” is not exactly an unqualified endorsement.
So the experts have spoken, and what they’re saying is that Chris Hayes is, at best, a marginal prospect, a future 11th man if he’s lucky.
I am not a minor league expert, though I played one in the pages of Baseball Prospectus for several years. Nonetheless, I can say with some confidence that I think the experts are wrong and that Hayes is very much a prospect, and that he has a very real chance to enjoy a long and successful career in the major leagues.
I believe the reason why my evaluation of Hayes’ potential differs so much stems from the fact that I don’t think you can evaluate Hayes the same way you evaluate overhand pitchers. Much like the rules that apply to traditional pitchers don’t necessarily work when discussing a knuckleball pitcher, I think that we ought to think of low-arm-angle pitchers as their own breed as well.
Many years ago – I think in one of the “Baseball Books” he published from 1993 to 1995 – Bill James made the point that the sidearm pitchers in the major leagues almost all had the same two characteristics: 1) they came from very humble origins and 2) they were almost universally effective pitchers. This was after the heyday of sidearm/submarine pitchers like Tekulve and Quisenberry, but you still had pitchers like Mark Eichhorn, who had a career ERA of 3.00 on the nose, and in 1986 had one of the most underrated rookie seasons of all time, with a 1.72 ERA in 157 innings. He famously declined the Blue Jays’ offer to let him start on the final day of the season so that he could get the five innings he needed to qualify for the ERA title. If he had taken them up on the offer, not only would he have wrested the title from Roger Clemens, he would have posted the lowest ERA of any
There always seems to be a half-dozen guys in the majors who throw from a low arm slot, and they’re almost invariably overlooked because they’re slotted in middle relief, but they almost all do good work. Chad Bradford, obviously, was made famous in Moneyball precisely because of his lack of recognition. Cla Meredith was a throw-in to the Padres from
None of these guys was well-regarded as an amateur (none were drafted in the first five rounds). None of them were well-regarded in the minor leagues – I am almost 100% certain that none of them ever appeared on Baseball
(Baseball teams may finally be wising up to the market inefficiency regarding sidearm pitchers – Joe Smith was a 3rd-round pick out of college by the Mets, and immediately put on the fast track, throwing just 42 innings in the minors before getting called up.)
The biggest knock against Hayes – and I say “biggest knock” in the way that you might say that the biggest knock against Muggsy Bogues was his height – is that he doesn’t throw hard. While we don’t have any Pitch f/x data, the best estimation is that his fastball runs about 79 mph. And if Hayes was a conventional pitcher, the discussion would end there. The list of conventional pitchers who have succeeded in the majors with a fastball under 80 is pretty much zero. (The closest I can think of would be John Tudor, who in his final season (1990) threw maybe 81-82 mph, if memory serves. He had a 2.40 ERA in 146 innings.)
There are two types of pitchers that can survive, and even thrive, in the majors with a fastball in the 70s: knuckleballers and submariners. Among pitchers who threw even 10 innings last season, the slowest fastball (with an average speed of 72.9 mph) was thrown by Tim Wakefield (he only threw his FB 13% of the time; his knuckler averaged 65.1 mph, and his curveball – his curveball? – averaged 59.5.) The second-slowest fastball, at 79.6 mph, was Chad Bradford’s. Third was Brian Shouse, at 80.5 mph.
Interesting, all the other sidearmers came in at 85 or higher – Meredith at 85.1, Ziegler at 85.3, Neshek at 89.0, Joe Smith at 89.4. This goes with a theory I have that the ability for a pitcher to succeed at lower velocities correlates with just how low his arm angle is. Whether it’s the deception that comes with the fact that the ball looks like it’s shooting out of the pitcher’s mound, or the bizarro movement on the pitches, or simply the novelty of facing an underhand pitcher, it appears that throwing submarine-style is worth about 5 mph compared to a sidearm pitcher, and throwing sidearm is worth about 5 mph compared to an overhand pitcher. As Hayes pointed out in his interview,
I’m old enough to remember Quisenberry on the mound, but not old enough to remember what the consensus was on how hard he threw. Some of you older hands help out – how hard did Quisenberry throw? I want to say around 80 mph, but it could have been slightly faster – or slightly slower.
The point is, no one seems to take Hayes seriously as a prospect because of his velocity, when in fact we have a lot of evidence that throwing 79 mph is not an impediment to success for a submarine pitcher. On the contrary – 79 mph is exactly in the range of what the best submarine pitchers in recent memory have thrown.
So the scout-based objections to Hayes’ prospect status appear overblown. That leaves us with his performance record. The biggest black mark on Hayes’ stat sheet is his strikeout rate – 137 whiffs in 203 career innings (6.06 K/9) is not particularly impressive for a minor league pitcher, and last season his K rate was just 5.35 per nine. Once again, though, it’s not entirely fair to evaluate Hayes’ strikeout rate as if he’s a conventional pitcher. The whole point of throwing underneath is that, if you do it well, you don’t need to strike batters out in order to be successful. Quisenberry struck out 3.27 men per nine innings in his career. (Read that sentence again.)
The reason why strikeouts hardly matter for a submariner is that it seems to be a near-universal law that submarine pitchers keep the ball on the ground. That’s not necessarily the case for sidearmers – while Meredith and Ziegler have great sinkers, Neshek is a flyball pitcher who has given up 15 homers in 121 career innings. Byung-Hyun Kim was a sidearmer who threw exceptionally hard, and his penchant for fly balls led to some of the most dramatic baseball moments of this decade. But submarine pitchers, even in the high-offense era we’re in, are relatively immune to the home run.
They also tend to have well above-average control. And if you can limit walks and home runs enough, it takes three hits in an inning to score a run. Even if you don’t strike anyone out, the odds are slim that the opponent will turn five groundballs into three hits. (And even if they do, they still might not score if you can mix in a GIDP.) Quisenberry walked the unfathomably low total of 0.79 batters per nine innings when you strip out the IBB, which as Hayes remarked is the lowest figure since 1926 (and I think he was including the IBB’s – take them out and Quiz might have the best control of any major league pitcher since four balls became a walk.) He gave up just 59 homers in 1043 career innings. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he would have been a successful pitcher if every one of his strikeout victims was given a mulligan and allowed to bat until they made fair contact.
Bradford isn’t Quisenberry – no one is – but his career rates of 1.73 unintentional walks per 9 innings, and 0.48 HR per 9, are both outstanding, and the reason why he has a career 3.24 ERA even though he’s allowed exactly one hit per inning in his career.
A lot has been made of the fact that Hayes’ terrific season in 2008 was the result of a BABIP of just .241, which is not likely to be sustained. That’s certainly true, but Hayes was so successful last year that he could easily regress to .300 and still be effective. Keep in mind, not only did he have a 1.64 ERA last season, but given his peripherals (less than a baserunner an inning, just four homers allowed in 66 innings), his expected ERA was probably even less than that. In 2006 and 2007, his BABIP was in the normal range, he gave up about a hit an inning – and he still had ERAs of 2.78 and 3.10, because he did everything else so well.
For his career, Hayes has walked 43 batters (at least 6 intentionally; I don’t have data for 2006) in 203 innings, a UIBB rate of 1.64 per nine. He’s allowed just 7 homers, for a HR rate of 0.31 per nine. Those numbers are even better than
(For the record, Quiz walked 1.74 batters per nine in his minor league career, and struck out 4.39 per nine. I only have homer data for 1978 and 1979; in those two seasons he allowed just 2 homers in 99 innings.)
There’s one other reason why I think that Hayes can maintain his success in the major leagues. Allow me to quote him directly here:
My advantage in an at-bat is how different I am from your average pitcher. I have yet to see a professional hitter taking batting practice off a batting practice pitcher throwing submarine-style. An experienced hitter has taken a swing at a “normal” back-spinning fastball thousands of times. It's been a while since I've hit, maybe it's more like millions.
They see thousands of 90 mph-plus fastballs per season. Then, enter the “weirdo” stage right, and I throw that all upside down (literally and figuratively). A guy just out of college in A-ball may be used to guys throwing 85 mph on average, and they haven't honed their swing as much as a more salty veteran. The higher up the levels I go, I believe the bigger advantage I have, because I'm that much different from the norm.
For years I’ve made essentially this argument with knuckleball pitchers: that the typical decline in performance that all players endure when they go from Triple-A to the majors is not completely applicable to knucklers. If the typical pitcher with a 4.00 ERA in Triple-A (assume a neutral park, etc.) can be expected to post a 5.50 ERA in the majors, a typical knuckleball pitcher with a 4.00 ERA might expect his ERA to be 4.75 in the majors. Why? In a nutshell – because major league hitters are not selected for their ability to hit the knuckleball.
Sports are the ultimate Darwinian process – at every level, the players who show the most ability advance, and at each higher level they then face players with more ability, and so on. If you can hit an 80 mph fastball in high school, you’ll get the chance to hit 85 mph fastballs in college, then 90 mph fastballs in the minors, then 95 mph fastballs in the majors – provided you succeed at each level. And therefore hitters at each higher level have been selected for their proven ability to succeed against inferior pitchers.
But the knuckleball is such a unique pitch, a pitch that works not because of its velocity but because of its unpredictable and late movement, that the best knuckleball hitters in the world may not be in the majors at all. There might be a guy down in A-ball who can’t catch up to the fastball and can’t lay off the slider, but can follow a 69-mph floater right up until the last moment. And there might be guys in the majors who could hit Sidd Finch if his fastball was straight enough, but are helpless against the mystical powers of the butterfly pitch.
(I’ll pause here to tip my hat to Dave Nilsson, who might have been the greatest hitter of my lifetime against the knuckleball. The Australian catcher was 16-for-25 lifetime against Tim Wakefield, with a slash line of .640/.719/.960. He was just 2-for-10 against Dennis Springer, but with a homer and three walks.)
I made this argument on the internal BP mailing list years ago, and Clay Davenport looked into my theory a little. What he found was that after a promotion to the majors, knuckleball pitchers did appear to require less of a translation to their numbers than the average pitcher. The sample size was small and not necessarily significant, but the theory had promise.
Just as submariners can be lumped in with knuckleballers in the sense that they can survive without velocity, I think that like knuckleballers, their pitching style is so far from the norm (and there are so few of them to practice against) that major league hitters are not much likelier to hit them than their minor league counterparts.
Does that mean Hayes is the next Bradford, or even Quisenberry Jr? Not necessarily. But the Royals owe it to themselves to give him every opportunity to prove otherwise. Some team is going to get lucky and find the next great submarine pitcher. The Royals were lucky enough to sign Hayes out of a tryout camp, but if luck is the residue of design, it’s the team that has designs on Hayes as a major league pitcher that’s going to really get lucky. The White Sox didn’t know what they had with