This series is named for the rhyme ancient Mariners allegedly used to predict weather patterns: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailor’s warning. Last week we judged the sky for Ljay Newsome and found conditions favorable. My hypothesis about Gas Camp, increased velocity, and continued performance has what? John?
First external confirmation of what we've heard reports of re: 22-year-old Mariners prospect RHP Ljay Newsome.— John Trupin (@JohnTrupin) April 15, 2019
He's up from 86-89 to 91-94 on his fastball with better strength, mechanics, and boy do we have results: 16.2 IP (3 GS), 30|2 K|BB, 47.6% K%, 1.08/1.66 ERA/FIP in A+ https://t.co/cmdLseXJjQ
Which means he is now great forever and everything I say comes true. For example, my novel will be picked up by a publisher today. ...
Okie doke let’s just keep doing this, I guess.
What I found so interesting about Ljay’s surprising start, is what brings me to the subject of today’s post: Darren McCaughan.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before (you can’t stop me, I’ve already written this): Undersized righty and late-round draft pick with a mid-80s fastball who tunnels, sequences, “competes,” with plus command and average secondary pitches who, despite performing well, hasn’t cracked top prospect lists.
If you said Felix Hernandez than you do not watch baseball and how did you get here?
Yes, Ljay and Darren are similar in profile. They are also similar in that their performance defies their profile’s expectation:
This is Darren’s April 14th start against the Tulsa Drillers. Eight strikeouts, no runs, no walks, and only three hits. That is a dominant six innings. The start before, he put up this line:
I’m no statistician, but I know when numbers are similar to other numbers. Through McCaughan’s first two AA starts, he now has a 1.26 FIP, a 32.6% K rate, and no walks.
This is a tad unexpected as, despite a slashline last year of 3.05/3.46/4.13 in 25 High-A starts, McCaughan has mostly toiled away unnoticed. Except by LL, of course, who was out in front of the hype and placed a Sleeper Pick on him in 2018 and ranked him 35th in this year’s prospect list (which also featured a great primer on his repertoire and highlighted his impeccable command).
This week, though, baseball noticed the 23 year old McCaughan and awarded him Texas League Player of the Week. Which is crazy considering that this is his first week in the Texas League.
He attributed the performance to his “hard work” and that he “takes every day for what it is” and focuses on “one pitch at a time,” and that the “key to peace” is “loving each other” and that we should all “meditate on the fragile beauty of existence” and “subscribe to his newsletter.” I may have zoned out in the latter half of the explanation, my apologies.
With only buzzwords to go on, that still begs the question: How did a pitcher with a mid-to-high 80’s fastball, who had never pitched above High-A, strike out eight Tulsa Drillers? A team, by the way, that is hitting a collective .312 and lead all of Texas League in offense. How does “hard work” produce such results? And is it something sustainable?
The answers may surprise you.
Or it may not: higher fastball velocity.
Whether McCaughan was another participant in the poorly-named Gas Camp, we don’t know. What we do know is that his fastball has ticked up to live closer to the 90s and their Baby Bottle Pops and Windbreakers.
The difference between 86-89 and 88-91 seems slight, but that boost would put McCaughan closer to the MLB average velocity for a starter (~92mph). Average is good. Especially when your ability to locate is well above the average, as McCaughan’s is:
This is a 1-2 fastball painted perfectly on the outer half. That kind of location at 90 produces the late, uncomfortable swings from players that at 87 mph they might still touch.
Another high fastball, this time with a wrinkle: the slight hesitation on the mound to throw off the hitter’s timing. Personally, I would not make much of these timing mechanisms as he uses them sparingly and it’s something that is hard to know will play at the highest level. Still, it’s a testament to McCaughan’s savvy-ness that he is finding ways to get hitters out without “premium stuff.”
What has allowed him to get extra life on the heater?
I humbly offer you Darren McCaughan’s butt:
Tragically, McCaughan contracted Hank Hill Syndrome in 2018.
But then? Hope, recovery:
In a matter of one year, Darren McCaughan has gone, in scouting jargon, from a low-ass to a high-ass (if there are any publishers out there, feel free to email me).
Gaze again at the height of this hiney:
We know that increased strength in the lower half is linked with increased velocity, and that McCaughan has modified how he uses his lower half before, while playing for the Long Beach State University Dirtbags. He also said in an interview that he spent time this off-season working on his strength and conditioning (although coyly avoided confirming if this Dirtbag went to Gas Camp).
While stretching out a pair of baseball pants might explain the increased velocity, there was something else I noticed about McCaughan’s start that diverged from Ljay’s. Something that makes me think this performance isn’t a fluke.
Look at this slider:
And this changeup:
While Ljay has been overpowering players with an elevated fastball, McCaughan uses his elite fastball location to set up his slider and change. In fact, six of the eight strikeouts were from Drillers swinging over his secondaries.
Without spin rate information or even decent video to judge movement, all we can use is the eye test. The eye-test says the slider is tunneling well with the fastball and it has enough late, vertical movement that hitters are swinging over the top. These are good things. Good enough that in the prospect list, LL called the slider “his best pitch.” While his change is still in development, he deployed it liberally to left-handers and it had nice run and sink when he was able to locate it low in the zone. Which he did. Often.
What does this all mean?
It means in Ljay Newsome and Darren McCaughan we are seeing the parallel developments of plus command, low velocity pitchers. Sudden velocity gains haven’t always been typical for players who had already physically matured. It was always more likely that FO’s would gamble on the highly talented but flawed Arquimedes Camineros of the world and pray they figure it out. McCaughan and Ljay are doing it different. As McCaughan says, “you don’t have to have the most talent. You just have to work hard.” This is good news for my writing career and good news for our pitchers.
So much of watching prospects is waiting for the ones with elite stuff to succeed, and waiting for the ones who should fail to fail. I spent most of last year wondering when McCaughan would fail. I figured the exposure to Double-A would be the moment he did. I’m tired of waiting. McCaughan has worked his way up and wants to keep climbing. I’m going to bet he does.
Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of these Traveler’s Schoolhouse-Rock-lookin’ graphics along the way: