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.
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.