We are all painfully familiar with Jeremy Sowers at this point. Top draft pick thought to be a short trip away from bigs even his ultimate ceiling was not the caliber of some prospects. And that was pretty accurate, as he debuted in Cleveland with quite a bit of success in 2006. That success was built on good control (5.6 BB%), decent HR rates (1/9IP, 52 GB%), and more than a little luck (.259 BABIP, 4.57 FIP, 3.57 ERA). Since then the picture has been decidedly more bleak. He has coupled strong performances at Buffalo (FIPs under 3.65) with disastrous performances in Cleveland (FIPs over 5).
Sowers fundamental problem seems to be that he simply doesn’t have a very good fastball. I don’t think this is primarily a velocity problem. Last summer he showed the best velocity of his professional career (89.7, up from 85.4 and 88.5), but the results were obviously not great. The club has talked a lot about the separation between his fastball and change – essentially that his changeup isn’t slow enough to keep hitters off balance – but I’m not sure I totally buy that line. Like just about every pitcher, Jeremy’s fastball is his primary pitch (69% last season), used far more frequently than either his slider (16.9) or change (14.0). Despite throwing far fewer of each of them, Jeremy actually got more swinging strikes in 2008 off both his slider and his change than he did off his fastball. Only about 10% of Jeremy’s fastball strikes were of the swinging variety. That’s bad (Laffey, not exactly a stud fastball guy, got 17.5% swinging strikes). I don’t know if it is a deception issue, or the need for more movement, or the need for more separation with his secondary pitches, but I think we should all cheer every time Sowers gets a swinging strike off his fastball. We don’t have pitch f/x data for 2006, but Sowers did use his fastball more in 2006 than he has in any season since. But batters didn’t really get any more or less contact or swing any more or less frequently at it in 2006 than in 2007 and 2008. I think there is good reason to be pessimistic about Sowers unless he starts getting better results, particularly swings and misses, from his fastball.
Scott Lewis and David Huff
Lewis and Huff are the next two reasonable options for the 5th rotation spot (I would be very surprised if Zachson gets serious consideration as a permanent member of the rotation). Both Lewis and Huff have been very successful, when pitching, in the minors. Scott Lewis had a successful four-game debut last season in the bigs – although that success had a lot of luck on its side, in the form of a .225 BABIP.
Lewis is a flyball pitcher (GB < 40% in 2007 + 2008), which means in the absence of a lot of luck he is going to give up HRs at the big league level. Because of this, his success is going to be predicated on keeping guys off base as a way of minimizing the damage. In the minors, Lewis did a great job of this by showing exceptional control (minor league career 5.6%), very good strike out rates (24.8%), and by giving up less than a hit an inning. These are great numbers. Along with concerns about his health, the knock on Lewis has been that his stuff won’t translate against better competition (apparently an 87mph FB doesn’t scare scouts). I say at this point you have to give Lewis the chance to fail. But Lewis is still going to have to couple good control with a decent K-rate…better than he showed last September.
We’ve got no major league numbers on Huff, but he was exceptional last year. Very solid K-rates (~25%), very good BB-rates (~5%), and decent GB-rates (52%). That’s a lot of good. Scouts don’t like him for the same reason Lewis doesn’t get talked about, they question his stuff. I think in Huff’s case the scouts are wrong. Huff has gotten better as he has advanced – I have a lot of optimism about what he’ll do in the bigs at some point.