I'm guessing that you guys are tired of introductory posts from new contributors, so I'll keep this brief. My name is Brendan Gawlowski and I have been writing about the Mariners since 2010. I posted at a personal blog for about a year and a half before I joined Pro Ball NW. I've blogged at Prospect Insider ever since PBNW shut down and I'm excited to join the community here as well. I look forward to hanging out with all of you fine ladies and gentlemen.
While Blake Beavan, Jeremy Bonderman, Jon Garland, Brandon Maurer, and Erasmo Ramirez battle for the final two places in the Opening Day rotation, one prominent name has already been eliminated from the competition: Hector Noesi. Obviously, the former Yankee has not pitched well since joining the Mariners. Noesi followed up a rough 2012 season with a brutal set of outings this spring, and after allowing twelve hits and eight walks in less than five official innings (a rainout mercifully prevented his spring numbers from further damage), he was demoted to Triple-A camp last week. It was just the latest blow in a long line of setbacks that have cast his future within the organization in doubt. Noesi's overall body of work since his acquisition raise questions about why everything has gone wrong for him in Seattle, and whether he can get his career back on track.
It goes without saying that Noesi struggled last season. In his first full big league campaign, the twenty-five year old posted a 5.82/5.53/5.08 pitcher slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP), with similar numbers in Triple-A following a midseason demotion to Tacoma. He didn’t excel at any part of run prevention, racking up a mediocre strike out ratio (5.74 SO/9) and a walk rate far too high (3.29 BB/9) for a pitcher who lives and dies on his command. He gave up too many home runs (1.77 HR/9, allowing multiple dingers in more than a quarter of his starts) and he posted a surprisingly low ground ball rate. Occasionally, he tantalized fans and Mariner executives alike with a strong start, but such moments were rare, and it was mostly a lost year for Noesi.
While Noesi’s results clashed with the general expectation that he would serve as a decent back end starter, the odd part of his season was that he looked an awful lot like the guy scouts said he would be. Billed as a 4th or 5th starter prior to the 2012 season, the 6'3'' right-hander was widely credited with a good fastball, a decent change up, and solid command. Only the lack of an out-pitch held him out of the front half of Yankee top prospect lists.
Even without a dominant off-speed pitch, prospect evaluators still expressed cautious optimism about Noesi’s future. Last winter, Baseball America’s John Manuel wrote that he: "… pounds the zone with an 89-93 MPH fastball… his fastball has some run and tail… Noesi’s No. 2 pitch is a changeup with similar action… His curveball and slider remain below average offerings." Kevin Goldstein, formerly Baseball Prospectus’s resident prospect guru, wrote a report in 2011 on Noesi that covers similar ground: "A strike-throwing specialist… ‘a command pitcher’s command pitcher…’ Scouts would feel more comfortable with his big-league projection if he can tighten up his fringy breaking ball." The write-ups from Manuel and Goldstein align with most evaluations of Noesi. The general consensus was that while his breaking pitches were underdeveloped, the rest of the package was refined, and he was ready to step into a big league rotation immediately.
To be sure, we saw evidence of his positive attributes last season in Seattle. At times, Noesi’s fastball was impressive, sitting in the low-90’s with good tail and decent command. He also flashed a good change up while maintaining his stuff late in the game. But the void in Noesi’s arsenal proved more debilitating than scouts had envisioned. His curve and slider, never highly regarded, lagged well behind his fastball and he took a pounding against righties as a result.
Noesi’s skill set works particularly poorly against righties. In general, pitchers save their changeup for opposite handed hitters. When they have the platoon advantage, they’ll attack same handed hitters with a combination of a fastball and a breaking ball that dives away from the batter. Obviously there’s some cross-over (righties will throw their breaking stuff to lefties occasionally, and so on) but, breaking pitches work better against same-handed hitters, and thus pitchers employ them more often when they have the platoon advantage than when they don’t.
The problem for Noesi was that his weak slider and curve ball left him no out pitch against right-handers. Because he couldn’t fool righties with breaking balls, hitters were free to sit on Noesi’s fastball (even when behind in the count), and the results were disastrous. Remember how he kept giving up homers when he had two-strike counts? That was largely a symptom of a bad slider and curve. His breaking pitches lacked bite and failed to entice hitters to chase pitches out of the zone. Without a weapon to change the eye level of his opponents, hitters sat back and crushed his fastball. Righties hit him hard, batting .247/.314/.466 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage), an unacceptable performance for a major league starter with the platoon advantage.*
*- It’s also worth noting that, despite a decent changeup, Noesi fared worse against lefties. Southpaws hit .270/.342/.523.
After struggling to develop a functional breaking ball throughout his professional career, it might be time to accept that Noesi won’t ever have one. He has poor wrist action – meaning that when he tries to snap off a breaking ball, his wrist doesn’t provide enough torque to make the pitch effective - and that’s a problem that isn’t likely to go away. Nothing about his development as a pitcher suggests he’s on the verge of finding a usable bender, and without one, he’s not a major league starter.
That’s not to say that Noesi has no value: poor offspeed pitches will sink a pitcher’s chances of sticking as a starter, but Noesi still has the raw stuff to earn a big league paycheck. His fastball touches ninety-six in short stints, and if he can improve his changeup, he’ll have enough ammunition to survive in relief outings.
That’s not to say that he’ll make a seamless transition to relief work: relieving is harder than just throwing really hard and mixing in the occasional change up. At this point though, Noesi is more likely to stick in the bullpen than he is to have any kind of future in the rotation.
To some, that may sound like a disappointment. Noesi was touted as a starter, and to relegate a live arm like his to relief so soon after his acquisition may seem like a waste. But without a competent breaking ball, Noesi won’t be able to effectively pitch deep into games often enough to last as a starter in the major leagues. Barring an unforeseen progression in either his slider or his curve, Noesi seems destined for the bullpen. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the M’s try him in relief sooner rather than later.