Toronto Blue Jays Top Tools: Fastball

With part one of the top tools series focusing on the power hitters of the Blue Jays system, the next logical step would be to discuss the other aspect of power in the game of baseball – fastballs. I’ve always been a fan of big arms, because more velocity almost directly correlates to less of a command requirement. If you’re throwing 87 mph –- say, like Brett Cecil –- you’d better be hitting your spots and painting the corners, otherwise the opposition will be sending a number of souvenirs to the fans in attendance. On the other hand, if you’re throwing 95 mph –- like Brandon Morrow -– you can focus on halves or quadrants of the plate, as opposed to corners. To be fair, professional hitters can hit any pitch that splits the middle of the plate regardless of velocity, but the margin for error is certainly much greater if you can dial it up into the 90’s.

There has been a shift in developmental philosophy since Alex Anthopolous took over the decision making responsibilities, and without a doubt the farm is better for it. While the previous regime focused on polished college pitchers, Anthopolous has instead turned his eyes towards the high school ranks, where above everything else, projection is the name of the game. The risks are far greater -– Blue Jays fans may forever remember the day Tyler Beede chose Vanderbilt over Toronto’s multi-million dollar offer –- but in only two years under this new philosophy, the rewards are already coming to fruition. Unsurprisingly, the top five fastballs in the system all belong to pitchers drafted in the last two years.

The fastballs will be ranked on three qualities -– velocity, movement, and command –- with both present and potential ratings given in the parentheses.

Photograph provided by W. Sanders Photography - Wes Sanders

1. RHP Noah Syndergaard (Plus present, plus-plus potential)

The number one fastball in the system resides in the arm of Noah Syndergaard, a fact that has become undisputable at this point. In reality, Syndergaard throws two different types of fastballs –- a four and two seamer –- with a near even split in frequency thrown. At 6’5” and 200 lbs, generating velocity is not a problem. The four-seam fastball sits at 94-95 mph, rarely falling below 93 mph and regularly touching 97-98 mph. The two-seam fastball is a few miles per hour slower, but has far better movement, showing tremendous arm-side run. Syndergaard’s command of the pitch is just average at this point, and is the only aspect holding the pitch back from plus-plus status. However, at just 19 years of age, there’s plenty of time for him to get a better feel for location and unlock the vast potential of the pitch.

2. RHP Aaron Sanchez (Fringe plus present, fringe plus-plus potential)

Sanchez narrowly beat out Daniel Norris for the second best fastball in the system, but that has as much to do with the lack of professional data on Norris as it does the abilities of Sanchez. After being drafted as the epitome of projectability, Sanchez has already begun to fill out his frame, and the results are encouraging. Now up to 190 pounds, the fastball is sitting in the low 90’s and touching 95 mph consistently. With another 10 to 20 pounds of muscle on his frame –- on which there is ample room to grow –- those numbers could spike to sitting 93-95 mph and touching 97 mph. The pitch has natural run and sink, giving him excellent groundball tendencies. Sanchez’ biggest fault is his control – or lack thereof. He has arguably the worst command out of all Toronto’s high upside arms, and will need to find consistency with his mechanics for the pitch to fully develop.

3. LHP Daniel Norris (Fringe plus present, plus-plus potential)

As previously mentioned, there’s no professional data on Norris, and furthermore, scouting reports on the young lefty in his high school days depicted a lot of inconsistency. The biggest culprit may be the mechanics of his delivery, as they’re unnecessarily complicated and difficult to repeat. Velocity and command suffered the most from the inconsistent mechanics. On his good days, Norris has excellent fastball command and sits 92-95 mph, touching the high 90’s. On his bad days, however, he was more of a 90-92 mph pitcher who peaked at 94 mph. That’s impressive for any pitcher, even more so when the velocity is coming from a left hander. Movement is big part of Norris’ fastball, as he has heavy run and sink on the pitch. With improved mechanics, Norris could challenge Syndergaard for the best fastball in the system one year from now.

4. RHP John Stilson (Plus present, fringe plus-plus potential)

You might wonder why Stilson’s fastball ranks only fourth in the system with such impressive ratings for both present and potential. There are two reasons. The first: Stilson is a bullpen arm. In a relief role, pitchers are able to empty the tank and give max effort on every pitch, boosting the velocity a notch or two. This effect has been observed with Stilson, as he served as both a starter and a closer with his college team, Texas A&M. In the rotation, Stilson sat 92-95 mph. In the bullpen, it was upper 90’s. The second reason is his injury history, and the possibility he may never regain his stuff. Stilson’s college career was cut short by a serious shoulder injury, and almost a year later he’s still not 100% recovered. He has above average command with some nice late bite, which when combined with the relief velocity gives the pitch fringe plus-plus potential, health permitting.

5. LHP Justin Nicolino (Above average present, plus potential)

Nicolino has the worst present velocity on the list, sitting only 89-92 mph and touching 94 mph. On the other hand, he has excellent movement on the fastball, and easily the best command of the group. Also working in Nicolino’s favor is his projectability. Those velocity readings were taken during the 2011 season in which he weighed in the 160-170 pound range. He appears significantly stronger this spring, which could result in a velocity spike as soon as this season. As he continues to grow and mature –- he’s still only 20 years old -– Nicolino could see his fastball begin to sit in the 91-94 mph range and touch 96 mph, which is at least a plus calibre pitch from the left side.

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Tags: Aaron Sanchez Daniel Norris John Stilson Justin Nicolino Noah Syndergaard Toronto Blue Jays

  • plus

    You guys do a good job of compiling material on prospects, but the scouting evaluations are shambolic.  You throw around terms like plus, or plus-plus with such ease that it takes away from your overall body of work down.  For the record, a plus-plus fastball is Nolan Ryan territory.  It’s the explosive nature of the ball coming out of the hand, movement etc.  You very rarely ever see a plus-plus scouting report on a fastball, unless it’s simply unparalleled.  If you’re saying Daniel Norris has plus-plus potential on his fastball, that’s akin to a Sandy Koufax-territory fastball.  I think he was reported to be working at 89-90 in an innings work at Lansing.  Syndergaard has a very good fastball, but it’s not plus-plus.  It’s a plus pitch, sure.  But to be plus-plus, it has to be something incredibly special, which it is not.  
    I would stick to reporting internet gossip and stay away from the arm chair scouting.  It takes away from the overall credibility of the site and authors.  

  • Ian222

    Ya I’d have to agree.  The work you guys do is nice, but the analysis and scouting stuff is hilarious.  

  • Rockshu

    Plus is a 60 grade, plus-plus is a 70 grade, then there’s truly elite territory at 80. Sandy Koufax had an 80 fastball. Justin Verlander has an 80 fastball. If you are a subscriber to Baseball America, they have all the definitions you could ever want as to the qualifications of grades of all tools. There are plenty of pitchers with plus-plus potential fastballs in the minor leagues. There are countless pitchers with just plus potential on their fastball. These are not particularly rare or bold statements. Fastballs, along with speed and arm, are the most commonly high rated tools because they rely more upon athleticism than pure baseball ability. The highest I went in the power primer was plus, and when I do the hit tool primer, it will be the same. We don’t have any hitters with plus-plus hit or plus-plus power, because players like those truly are extremely rare. If you have a 70 hit or 70 power tool, you can normally be found in the top 20 prospects of baseball. They’re that rare. 70 fastballs, on the other hand, don’t even guarantee a spot in the top 100.
    Whether you want to accept it or not, both Noah Syndergaard and Daniel Norris have legitimate 70 potentials on their fastballs. Syndergaard is certainly closer to achieving that and has shown the velocity and movement more consistently, but Norris flashed some gaudy radar gun numbers in high school. Norris also works from the left side, which makes the grades a tick easier to achieve (there’s no specific reason for this, it’s just a commonly held belief).
    I don’t freely throw grades around on players. I do a lot of research, watch as much video as I can, read the opinion of professional scouts, and then make an informed decision on my own. If I say a pitcher has a plus-plus future on their fastball, I legitimately think they’re going to sit in the mid 90′s, touch the high 90′s, have above average movement on the pitch, and locate it well.

  • beejayy

    I guess you missed Norris’ inning of work in Lansing last week where he sat 89-90? 

  • Rockshu

    It was one inning.
    It was the first inning of his career.
    It was an exhibition game, so he obviously wasn’t going max effort.
    It was probably near freezing, as it was an evening game in Michigan.
    You shouldn’t base your entire argument on one inning, especially when I specifically mentioned in the article that Norris’ biggest problem is inconsistency, and how his velocity can change dramatically from inning to inning and game to game. He’s only 18 and is years from reaching his peak. This is the equivalent of Jake Marisnick going 0-for-4 in his first game of the year and saying he’ll never be able to hit.

  • beejayy

    I think we’d all like to see your sources for your projections.  You are not a scout, nor does it sound like you have much real baseball experience.  What in Daniel Norris’ delivery or body do you see 5-6mph more in?  Does it concern you that from his junior year in high school to first year at the pro level he seems to have lost a fair amount of velocity?  If you’re projecting huge leaps in velocity, where do you expect that to come from?  If you look at Aaron Sanchez, sure you say he’s free and easy, he has the ideal body and frame to project some added girth to his fastball.  But not everyone is the same.   Take John Stilson for example, he’s had major shoulder issues.  Pitchers usually don’t throw significantly harder after an injury of that sort.  I just think if you’re going to engage in projection talk, some recent sources from real scouts might do your work a whole lot of good.

  • beejayy

    It was one inning, and that’s important in itself.  Pitchers usually throw a lot harder in one inning of scheduled work than over the course of three, four, five.  
    I don’t think you quite understand scouting if you’re comparing at-bats to pitching.

  • Rockshu

    If you’d like, I can cite some articles in which Norris’ velocity is applauded:
    Baseball Prospectus:
    “Norris is an ultra-athletic left-hander with broad shoulders, excellent arm action, and a fastball that already sits at 92-95 mph”
    Baseball America:
    “Norris’ fastball ranged anywhere from 89-96 mph, but sat mostly 93-95, especially against Delmonico.”
    Baseball Prospect Report:
    “FB 91-94, comfort zone 91-92, with downhill tail and sinking action.” — again, that’s current Velo

  • beejayy

    So the most recent scouting report you have on his velocity is a year old and has him at 86-96mph?  Can you speak to why he might project to pitch at increased, sustained velocities?  

  • Rockshu

    I see velocity growth in Norris because he’s only 18, he’s athletic, he has a frame in which to further grow, and cleaner mechanics could do wonders, as they’re one of the biggest issues. Norris doesn’t need to add 5-6 mph, he really doesn’t need to add anything, he just needs to be able to sit in the 93-95 mph range more consistently.
    The BP velocity report came out in January, and the BA velocity report came out last April, only a couple months before being drafted.
    You’re also completely incorrect on the throwing hardest in the first inning. Power pitchers need a couple of innings to get warmed up, particularly when it’s very cold out. If you watch Brandon Morrow with any regularity, you’d see he usually peaks in velocity around the 3rd or 4th inning before slowly trailing off as fatigue sets in. And again, it was an EXHIBITION GAME. You may as well judge pitchers entirely on Spring Training if that’s your attitude.
    I’m not comparing pitching to hitting, I’m comparing one ridiculous, short sighted statement to another. If you want to judge a pitcher based upon one inning, you may as well judge a hitter based upon 4 at-bats. Both are asinine to do.

  • Rockshu

     The most recent I have is January, and considering he hasn’t really pitched since last summer, you’re hard pressed to find a more accurate report than what Kevin Goldstein received from SCOUTS WHO ACTUALLY WATCHED HIM.

  • Rockshu

     @beejayyAnd I’ve said it numerous times already, both in the comments and in the article itself, but the biggest thing for Norris is finding his velocity consistently, which is a matter of mechanics. He’s already thrown some big numbers.

  • beejayy

    Fair enough, you’re clearly passionate about this subject and I think that’s to be admired.  I think we’re all rooting for these guys to come good, however, what little information we receive of these players tends to get conflated by “projections.”  I hope you’re right, but I hazard a guess that you’re banking on miracles here.  

  • Rockshu

    There’s obviously huge risks with any prospect, but it’s even moreso with pitchers. People love to see high school pitchers and dream on improvement, but a lot of times, they go backwards for inexplicable reasons. Norris has the potential to have a devastating fastball, but just as easily as he could start sitting 93-95 regularly and touch even higher, he could fall back to 88-90 if his arm can’t handle big inning totals.
    If even two or three of these pitchers reach their fastball potential it would be a dream come true for any farm director. That’s something I perhaps didn’t emphasize enough. It’s one thing to give present and potential ratings, but I should have better stated the difficulty in improving from plus to plus-plus. It’s a huge gap.
    As a Blue Jays fan, I obviously hope for the best for all these guys, and I would be a liar if I said I didn’t write with an optimistic twist on things. But I’m not going to flat out lie on anything. I read numerous velocity reports, and I condensed them into what I wrote above. Things could drastically change over the next year as he gets used to the professional life, but for the time being, these reports are the best we have.