As Major League Baseball goes into the first lockout in a while, it presents a great time to look back at the season and re-watch what was an extraordinary 2021 season. The highlights of the SF Giants season do not only apply to the Major League level but also to the Minor League level as the Low-A and High-A affiliates won their respective league titles.
Building The Ideal SF Giants Pitching Prospect
Now that we have built our ideal Giants position player prospect, it is now time to build our ideal Giants pitching prospect. Even though the pitching side of things is still lagging behind the hitting side in terms of talent, the Giants have made a concerted effort in adding significant talent within the past 12 months, most notably via the MLB Draft.
The 2020 Giants draft class has so far been a big hit on the pitching side, being led by Kyle Harrison who is turning into a behemoth but has also brought in a good amount of talent such as 2021 breakout star Ryan Murphy, one of the best relief prospects in R.J. Dabovich, and strikeout machine Nick Swiney. The 2021 class did not only add a couple of talented pitchers such as CWS MVP Will Bednar and Fordham strikeout machine Matt Mikulski but has also given the organization a much-needed depth with the first nine picks being pitchers with notable names such as Lehigh hard-thrower Mason Black and stud prepster Eric Silva.
There have also been a couple of revelations such as Randy Rodriguez and Cole Waites to name a couple. There is enough talent in the pitching side to build a monster of a pitcher so without further ado, let's get to it.
Frame: Sean Hjelle
In building our ideal pitching prospect, the first thing that we need to take into account is the frame. There are still cliches being thrown around like the "prototypical starter's frame" and deservingly so, but big league pitchers now come in all shapes and sizes. Under-six-foot pitchers have become viable, long-term starting options such as Marcus Stroman and Sonny Gray. And with the integration of technology such as Rapsodo, Trackman, Edgertronic, and Hawkeye, the public can pretty much now mold a pitcher to their liking. They have essentially turned Road To The Show's character experimentation into reality.
When picking a pitcher's frame, I will not be picking the typical pitcher's height of 6'3" according to The Washington Post. I will be picking someone who is way taller or way shorter. Why? Because we want to be as far away as the usual as we want our pitcher to be someone who is as different as he can be to gain a competitive advantage. I have been personally a big fan of the smaller pitchers, mainly because I love Lincecum so much, but this time I am going to choose someone who is way taller for a couple of reasons. First is the intimidation factor a la Randy Johnson. The second is that I want to have the pitcher throw with an extreme downhill plane to ensure that the fastball will be effective on both the upper and lower third of the zone. Also, with the type of mechanics that I have chosen, its stride length is average at best and a taller pitcher ensures that the ball still travels a shorter amount of distance to the plate compared to a shorter pitcher with shorter levers.
With that, there are only two options: Sean Hjelle and Carson Ragsdale. Both are on the extremely tall side of the spectrum (Hjelle at 6'11" and Ragsdale at 6'8") but on this occasion, I would be choosing Sean Hjelle because he is not only the taller of the two, he is also the more athletic of the two. The only advantage that Ragsdale has over Hjelle is that he is more projectable to handle a starter's workload. At the end of the day, I am picking Hjelle because of his freakishness.
Pitching Mechanics: Ryan Walker
For the longest time, there has been the notion of the "perfect" pitching mechanics. The cleanest arm action, the cleanest tempo. Sounds amazing, right? However, having the "perfect" pitching mechanics sounds troublesome for a pitcher as having the cleanest mechanics means the hitter can match your tempo and have little to no deception. In order to achieve as much competitive advantage as a pitcher, a pitcher must have as much deception as possible while still keeping the arm action relatively clean to prevent injuries as much as he can.
With the pitching frame chosen, it's time to give a good amount of thought in terms of picking out a pitching motion. There are a couple of awesome candidates in the farm system in terms of wacky and deceptive mechanics to fit Sean Hjelle's frame. If we want to have Hjelle pitch with an extreme downhill plane with his pitch looking like it came from the heavens while having extreme stride length, Patrick Ruotolo's Lincecum-esque motion fits the bill. There is also Juan Sanchez's Kershaw-esque windup. However, there is only one pitcher that I have in mind and that is Ryan Walker.
Walker's motion is as funky as it gets. He starts off in a set position with his back foot in the extreme first base side of the rubber. As he starts to drive to the plate, he drifts off extremely and lands his front foot far outside the third base of the rubber while releasing the ball with a low 3/4 arm slot. His stride length is a bit compromised but it more than makes up for it for looking as deceptive and foreign as it gets. For a hitter, it is a struggle just where to look because it looks like the ball is coming from third base while starting from first base. It is for this reason that I am picking Walker's mechanics to pair up with Sean Hjelle's frame. With a low 3/4 arm slot, it still allows the fastball to be effective on top of the zone while still having the downhill plane to generate ground balls and weak contact down in the zone.
Fastball: Cole Waites
In terms of picking the ideal fastball, velocity is still king. Velocity is the "get out of jail free" card for mistakes in location and execution. Left it down the middle? Does not really matter if it's coming at triple-digits. However, with the discovery of how vertical break works, horizontal break is now getting more disregarded when in fact, it is still as important as vertical break especially that not everyone can have a naturally high induced vertical break. A big-league hitter can punish high velocity if it moves as straight as an arrow even if it is well-located. Adding horizontal break adds another variable to the hitter's mind and with the ball moving at such velocity, a whiff or weak contact is the most likely outcome.
The farm system has plenty of power arms to choose from. Pitchers like Kyle Harrison, R.J. Dabovich, Randy Rodriguez, can all bring the heat with strong movement characteristics. However, there is one pitcher that I want to have and that is the heater of Cole Waites. The 18th round pick in the 2019 Draft laid waste on low-Minors hitting as he struck out 66% of the batters that he faced largely in part to his fastball that sits in the high-90s and is capable of touching triple digits. Not only that, he has an excellent vertical and horizontal break as the pitch plays very well up in the zone with its rising action as well as down in the zone with its late tail. The pitch is an 80-grade pitch in a vacuum and it could single-handedly bring Waites to the big leagues as soon as next year.
Slider: Kyle Harrison/Randy Rodriguez
One of the more recent topics that piqued my interest is this FanGraphs interview of Giants reliever R.J. Dabovich. The part that piqued my interest is the way they talked about a slider's gyro spin and the preference of the Giants coaching to have a little bit of topspin make the pitch more effective not only just down in the zone but also on top. It is understandable but enlightening at the same time as not only is pitch tunneling a priority over spin efficiency but also little velocity separation between the fastball and the slider. Also, the idea of having a pitcher have as much viable pitch in every quadrant of the zone as possible to make a hitter think of at least eight pitches (if a pitcher only has two pitches) instead of locking in with just two pre-determined pitch outcomes (e.g. fastball up, curveball down).
There are a number of nasty sliders in the system that I found extremely tough to choose which one. At the end of the day, I decided to split the bill between Kyle Harrison and Randy Rodriguez. Harrison's slider evolved during the 2021 season and his recent tweaks in August made the pitch bite sharper and later. Rodriguez's slide piece also flashes plus with hard, late movement. Both of their sliders play up because of their pitch utilization from their low to true 3/4 arm slot by tunneling the slider with the high fastball. Their nasty sliders are a big part of why Harrison and Rodriguez racked up 158 and 101 strikeouts, respectively, for the San Jose Giants.
Curveball: Seth Corry
The pitch known as Uncle Charlie has evolved together with the advent of pitching technology. Before, we are all amazed by the beauty of the Clayton Kershaw curveball that has a 20 MPH velocity difference from his heater. Now, power curveballs, usually using knuckle curve grips, are the fad as late snap and little velocity difference to the heater are found to be highly effective. Also with the advent of the spin axis, curveballs are now being shaped to fit the fastball.
Like with the slider, there are a good number of snappy curveballs in the farm system. Guys like R.J. Dabovich, Carson Ragsdale, Blake Rivera, and Chris Wright are all strong contenders. However, I am choosing probably the most enigmatic pitcher in the farm system, Seth Corry. Rough is not enough to describe Corry's 2021 season. He had a 5.99 ERA and allowed
almost as many walks as innings pitched. However, he still had 100 strikeouts for the season and that is because of his curveball that grades out as a true plus or plus-plus but is being held back by the ineffectiveness of his fastball. Corry can throw his high-spin curveball for strikes at a much better rate than his fastball and even if the fastball had 30-grade control for much of the season, he can still flip the curveball for a quality strike and induce a high number of whiffs. Corry can really spin it, but there is a reason why he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft.
Changeup: Nick Swiney
Changeups are the prettiest pitch in baseball when thrown well, in my opinion. Two of the pitchers that I really enjoy watching, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer had mind-bending changeups. Johan Santana's changeup is also a huge inspiration of mine and there was a time where I repeatedly watched Santana's advice on throwing a changeup as I tried to throw my own. A huge velocity difference without sacrificing arm speed and late fading action are hallmarks of an elite changeup. Typically thrown below the zone, there has been a growing movement of throwing a high changeup in recent years being led by Lucas Giolito.
There are only a handful of pitchers in the farm system that has their changeup as their highlight pitch but there is only one who is leaps and bounds in terms of utilization and quality. His name is Nick Swiney. The 2020 second-round selection has a legitimate plus to plus-plus changeup that has both big velocity separation of at least 11 MPH and immense fading action. The thing that impressed me the most is that he is generating that much movement with his changeup while throwing in a high 3/4 arm slot. In fact, Swiney has a supreme feel for the pitch that he pitches off his changeup for most of 2021, where he struck out 41% of batters faced and had a 0.89 ERA in his last six starts for the San Jose Giants once he returned to the club after he missed time due to a concussion.
Control & Pitchability: Ryan Murphy
Stuff is what makes a good pitcher but control makes a good pitcher to great. There has been a recent revolution spearheaded by the Cleveland Guardians where they flipped the notion of teaching control to power pitchers on its head by trying to teach power to control pitchers with the level of nutrition and workout regimen that is available today. It produced strong, big leaguers led by 2020 Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. The Giants looked to be headed in that direction when they drafted pitchers more known for their pitchability than pure stuff in 2020 but it flipped this year when they drafted pitchers with pure stuff but have control issues. It is proof that what the Guardians are doing is not the holy grail but only another path to producing big leaguers.
There is only one choice in terms of control and pitchability and that is 2021 breakout star Ryan Murphy. Had he been not sidelined for a couple of starts late in the season due to back spams, Murphy would have led the entire Minors in strikeouts. What is even more impressive is that his high volume of strikeouts is paired with very strong control numbers. Among pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched this season, Murphy's walk rate is the fourth-lowest with 6.2% and his K-BB% is first with 33.1% while throwing 66% of his pitches for strikes. Murphy might not have the loudest stuff in the farm system but he has the best control and pitchability of them all utilizing his solid repertoire of pitches to full use. There is still room for growth for Murphy as he can still gain a couple of ticks in velocity that will push him from a back-end option to a legitimate mid-rotation option.
Fielding and Run Game Control: Sean Hjelle
An underrated aspect of pitching is controlling the run game and actual fielding. Pitchers are considered to be the fifth infielder but with pitchers mostly specializing with erm, pitching, controlling the run game by pickoffs, and adjusting their motion to a slide step are becoming less and less common. Pitchers like Zack Greinke, Dallas Keuchel, Johnny Cueto, and Marcus Stroman either have extreme control of the run game or an extremely competent fielder or both. A common theme among them is that their stuff is not the most overpowering and they often rely on weak contact to generate outs.
Our pitcher would not have such an issue in terms of stuff. However, it is still important for our pitcher to field his position well and control the run game. With that in mind, it all comes back to Sean Hjelle. Hjelle is heavily reliant on balls in play and in doing so, he puts himself in the best position possible to be effective. His follow-through is as easy as it gets and it allows him to have most of his body in line towards home plate and ready to field and he is a good fielding pitcher. Hjelle also excels when there are runners on base. His pickoffs to first base are extremely quick which is impressive considering his stature. He also utilizes a slide-step with runners on base to give the catcher more time to throw a base stealer out. Hjelle is an impressive athlete overall.
There you have it, the ideal Giants pitching prospect. Our pitching prospect nicknamed "The Freak" brings as much discomfort as possible to make the hitters' life miserable. Ryan Walker's extreme crossfire action is already uncomfortable enough but put it in Sean Hjelle's 6'11" frame and athleticism, The Freak might actually release the ball to a slot and trajectory that has never seen before. If that amount of funk is not enough, The Freak also has four at least legitimate plus pitches at his disposal. The Freak's fastball is reminiscent of Cole Waites' triple-digit heat with strong rising and tailing life and with The Freak's arm slot, it might be enough to get outs.
However, the flurry of secondaries awaits that ensures any hitter who lived to tell the tale will be banished out of existence. I mean, choose your fighter as the putaway pitch. Harrison/Rodriguez's hard-biting slider that has extra more sweep due to the trajectory, Seth Corry's life-changing hard-snapping curveball, or Nick Swiney's bowel-inducing hard-fading changeup. All four 60 to 80-grade pitches will be maximized to their full potential by Ryan Murphy's masterful control and pitchability. If ever the hitter survives to tell the tale, a series of quick pickoffs and slide steps should ensure the batter will get thrown out at second base on a steal attempt or get caught napping.
I am very happy with how this thought exercise has turned out and imagining The Freak trotting out to any mound near you is just salivating and a must-see attraction.