A pair of Top 100 prospects went head-to-head on Friday night when the Durham Bulls (Rays) visited the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Phillies). Durham LHP Blake Snell (ranked #20 overall) took the mound against Iron Pigs RHP Jake Thompson (#43). As expected, there was not much offense. The two starters impressed in different ways, though neither performance came without the sort of flaws that might temper expectations about the timing of their respective arrivals in the Majors, as well as the roles they might fill once they get there.
From start to finish, Snell, the eventual losing pitcher, was the more dominant of the two. He used his fastball, which sat 94-96, to get ahead of hitters. In fact, the young lefthander threw first-pitch strikes to a remarkable 21 of the 25 batters he faced.
The real story, however, was Snell’s curveball, which has become an absolute wipeout offering. In their preseason writeups on Snell, neither Baseball America nor MLB.com even listed the curveball as one of the graded pitches in his arsenal. Dayn Perry at CBSSports.com, however, took note of Snell’s impressive, “Old School” Uncle Charlie during the young lefty’s MLB debut in late April at Yankee Stadium. On Friday night Snell’s curve was unhittable. Of his thirteen--Yes, thirteen--total strikeouts, Snell recorded eight of them--three swinging and five looking--on the curveball. The development of this pitch is yet another reason for fantasy owners to get excited about Snell’s potential.
The only thing that might keep Snell from reaching his ceiling as a frontline starter is his evanescent control. This might be an odd thing to say about a pitcher who just threw 21 of 25 first-pitch strikes, but it was clear that Snell’s control, in particular of the curveball, came and went. Early in the game and again in the later innings he struggled to throw the pitch for strikes, which was strange because he had complete command of it in the middle innings. Fantasy owners should be aware that when Snell arrives in the Majors for good he’s likely to be an excellent source of strikeouts--he currently leads the Triple-A International League in that category--but he also might struggle with WHIP, at least early in his career.
Thompson, meanwhile, did nothing eye-popping but did more than enough to win the game. His final line (7 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) suggests that he was more efficient than Snell (5.2 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 13 K), but that was not the case, especially early in the game, when the Bulls racked up all six of their hits in the first three innings. Thompson also struggled to get ahead in the count, throwing first-pitch strikes to only 16 of the 28 batters he faced.
Though less efficient than Snell, Thompson proved to be more effective on this night. His fastball sat 89-91 and touched 93, but he located it well by keeping it down in the zone. A season-high 11 of his 21 outs came via the groundball. In fact, he would have retired the final 13 batters he faced were it not for two hit batsmen.
Last season Thompson dominated Double-A, and he pitched very well on Friday evening, but his overall stock as a fantasy prospect has not improved here in his first full season with the Iron Pigs. One would like to see higher strikeout totals and more consistency. Thompson, in truth, looks more like a mid-rotation bulldog than a frontline starter. He’ll be plenty valuable to his own team but perhaps not as useful to yours. It is also worth noting that the Phillies have promoted LHP Adam Morgan and now RHP Zach Eflin ahead of Thompson, who, nonetheless, should make his Major-League debut sometime later this season.