Most baseball fans are familiar with the phrase "Three True Outcomes", which refers to walks, strike outs, and home runs. These outcomes are "true" in that they pit the pitcher against the batter, largely independent of outside factors like defense or foot speed. When ball four is awarded to the batter, it is a certainty that he will be reaching first base.
When it comes to prospects, certainties do not exist. Every prospect has a wide range of outcomes between his ceiling and floor potential, with most players settling somewhere in between the two. I like to think of prospect outcomes as the Dream (the player's ceiling), the Nightmare (the player's floor) and the Reality (weighing all the factors to come up with the most likely outcome). Throughout the year, I will be examining the ceilings and floors of players across the minor leagues, and making my best forecast on the eventual outcome. Today's prospect is Phillies' left-handed starter Jesse Biddle.
After playing high school baseball 20 minutes from Citizen's Bank Park, Jesse Biddle seems on his way to living out his own dream of pitching for his hometown Phillies. The lefty was scouted heavily during his senior year in 2010, and Philadelphia was happy to see him fall to them at the end of the first round. Since his selection, Biddle has pitched well while moving up the organizational ladder. Entering this season Biddle was the Phillies' top prospect, registering a 3.21 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in the Minors. But it's his performance this year that really has people buzzing. Through five starts in Double-A, he has a 1.74 ERA, 40 strikeouts, and just 12 hits allowed in 31 innings. And he has done it as the second youngest pitcher in the Eastern League. Below you can see footage from his best start in his young career - a 7 inning, 1 hit, 2 walk, and 16 strikeout gem against the Harrisburg Senators on April 22.
You should immediately notice his great size and physicality. At 21 he already is a presence on the mound, measuring every bit of the 6'4", 225 he is listed in the Phillies' media guide. The clip also shows a heavy dosage of his two best offerings, a low 90's fastball and a big looping curveball that both are swing and miss pitches at times. He also mixes in a changeup that many say shows plus potential as he continues to gain feel for the pitch, as well as an average slider that adds another thought into hitters' heads. Along with a solid mix of pitches, Biddle garners high marks for his competitiveness, grit, pitchability, and moxie on the mound. If his command comes together, Biddle should be durable high-end number 2 starter on a championship caliber team.
Ceiling Fantasy Line: 16 wins, 3.24 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 174 stikeouts
What do Chris Volstad, Brett Cecil, Jeremy Sowers, Troy Patton, Kevin Slowey, and Jeff Francis all have in common? All are former top-100 prospects that featured fastballs in the low-90's and thrived off of great pitchability and command. Now, I could cherry pick examples of failed prospects to match almost any profile, but questionable stuff is a legitimate concern for Jesse Biddle. His fastball velocity has fluctuated over his professional career, often sitting in the upper 80's for long stretches. While some may doubt the importance of velocity, it is difficult to succeed at the highest level without at least average velocity. Of the 25 best starting pitchers in 2012 (according to FIP), 23 of them had an average fastball velocity over 90 mph with most coming in well above that mark. The only two pitchers whose velocity didn't meet the threshold were R.A. Dickey and Kyle Lohse. And Biddle doesn't throw a knuckleball, nor do we expect him to have a career year like Lohse's every season. In addition to his velocity issues, Biddle generates a lot of his swings and misses on pitches outside of the strike zone. If you watch the footage from the Harrisburg game again, you'll notice that many of the fastballs are at the letters or above and the curveballs are in the dirt. More advanced hitters will lay off of those pitches, meaning that Biddle needs to learn to attack batters with pitches in the zone. His durability, feel for pitching, and ability to throw four pitches over the plate should ensure he makes it to the big leagues. But if his velocity stays low and he doesn't learn how to pitch within the constraints of the strike zone, his best case scenario is a fifth starter.
Nightmare Line 7 wins 5.12 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 138 strikeouts
Prior to his stellar performance this year, nearly every prospect evaluator labeled Biddle's ceiling as a number 3 starter. The question now becomes how much do we weight a five start sample? The encouraging thing is that not only have the results been impressive, but the reports have been nearly as good. He has been pitching with some of the best velocity of his young career, touching 94 mph, and using his curveball as an out pitch. So the trick is to add that to the information we already had on Biddle. In the past, many people have used his frame and left-handnesses to make comparisons to pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Brian Matsuz. While I don't think either of those are good comps (disregarding our disdain for comps), Biddle's body-type does remind me of long-time Yankees' workhorse Andy Pettitte, and his big overhand curveball and average fastball look a lot like those of Barry Zito. While I'm sure those names don't necessarily excite fantasy owners, both Zito and Pettitte have been reliable starters throughout their careers. And Biddle sort of combines the best traits of both pitchers, plus barring a trade, he will begin his career in the more pitcher-friendly National League. Unfortunately I think a lot of his success will be tied to the fastball velocity, so he should see better results early in his career before that tails off in his late 20's. Still, I like the 4-pitch mix he uses and I love the frame and the improvements he has shown each year of his career. For now, I think he projects safely as a quality mid-rotation starter, but that outlook could easily improve if this success continues for the entire season.
Fantasy Line: 12 wins, 3.74 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 167 strikeouts
Thanks to Josh Norris for the Video Footage. You can read Josh's thoughts on the Eastern League at Minors Matter.
Fore more on the Phillies and their prospects, be sure to check out The Good Phight.
You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.