Monday, February 27, 2012

Jacob Turner and the Tiger's Aggressive Approach

Recently, the current group of management with the Detroit Tigers has been given a reputation of rushing pitchers to the major leagues. This reputation seems to have been largely garnered on the back of Rick Porcello’s early debut several years ago and is being continued with the possible aggressive promotion of Jacob Turner. As a statistician, this label seems to be more than a little unfair. After all, rarely would I take two specific cases and extrapolate that into a ‘theme’ being displayed by a front office.

It is hard to argue that Rick Porcello was not ‘rushed’. He was dominant in his one full season in the minors in his first year in pro ball straight out of high school and saw full time major league action the very next year. However, his first year was high A ball, and he only threw 125 innings, and he averaged just over 5 k/9, and you get the point. Rick was highly talented compared to other A ballers, compared to other 19 year olds, but not really compared to major leaguers. He had a solid low 90’s four seam fastball, sinker, a slow looping curve and change up at 19, and about 4 years later he basically is the same pitcher with a par slider added to the mix. Porcello was a good prospect to be sure but it’s hard to imagine a guy who strikes out only 5 guys per nine inning in high A obtaining any kind of immediate or even long term success in the majors without seeing more at some point.

Porcello is a bit of a unique case. In particular, I did not necessarily think the Tigers were ‘rushing’ him to the majors despite his low probability for immediate success. After all, he had already largely mastered a sinker, he had a developed, if underwhelming, curve ball and change up. People tend to get caught up on age but at 19, Porcello was very polished. He could throw strikes with all of his pitches; the only real issue was that, as a whole, his arsenal just did not have the quality. As a result, I had a hard time believing that sending Porcello to the majors that early really hurt him at all, even now with largely stagnant results. If he was going to become a top notch pitcher, it was always going to be based upon an increase in velocity by filling out his large frame coupled with sharper breaking pitches. Would the minors have been preferable? Probably, they foster an atmosphere of development over the win now attitude of the majors, but it is hard to imagine it would have made much of a difference in Porcello’s case. He has enough control with all of his pitches to have thrown them with consistency at either level.

Jacob Turner is a bit different. First he throws a bit harder. Two MPH might not seem like much but the difference between 90 and 92 in the majors can be substantial. Like Porcello, Turner is blessed with a big frame and an ability to pound the strike zone with his fastball. He has an easy delivery and can also spot a cut fastball which offers more inside run to lefties. He also has a slower curve sitting at roughly 79 mph which has 12-6 break and can freeze opposing batters. The change up is a show me pitch at this point but it has potential. The biggest issue with Turner is his inconsistency with his off speed command and control. He can and will abandon those pitches in a game if he cannot get them to work for him because he can simply rely on an above average fastball that he can locate.

That scouting report on Turner is interesting. That is the report that you would have commonly seen about Turner coming into the draft where the Tigers selected him in the first round. It is also basically the same as the report Corey Ettinger gave about him before the 2011 season. In addition, it is the same report as I would give him after the 2011 season with his major league debut. Do you see a pattern?

At this point, it cannot be said that Turner has really developed much if at all. He’s too much for minor league hitters because he can locate a tough fastball and can occasionally drop in a hammer curve. However, he needs those secondary pitches to survive in the majors. Low nineties is great but if you are not more complete as a pitcher you are simply another Wade Davis or Jeremy Guthrie. You can certainly do worse but that should give you some indication that Turner’s entrenchment at the top of the rotation is far from guaranteed.

Unlike Porcello, Turner has the quality in his secondary pitches to go along with a more powerful and possibly even a more precise fastball. The problem is the quality is not always there. Turner needs repetition to get his delivery down pat, however he has already shown a willingness to abandon the curve and changeup to play it safe with the fastball. Even if he does stick with his offspeed stuff when it is not working he simply burns too many pitches to be successful.

The bottom line is Turner is not there yet. Turner will not come into 2012 and be a number two starter, he might barely survive as a number five. While I do not doubt that he very likely might be the fifth best starter looking for a rotation spot with his quality fastball and occasionally proficient off speed pitches, the Tigers would surely be disappointed if that is all he ever became.

Turner does not need to improve his quality, he needs to improve his consistency. He could accomplish that goal in the majors but the much safer bet to see improvement is in the minor leagues where the pressure of immediate dividends will not be nearly as high. In the minors, Turner can focus on pumping his curveball often, without concern for results. Minor leaguers will be more likely to swing and miss at his fastball and to chase his errant curves. All in all, the pressure will simply be lower, he can concentrate on his weaknesses, and he can be in a positive situation to improve.

As I said, Turner could possibly improve in the majors as well, but the deck will be stacked against him. He will be in a win now situation. If his curveball is not working, he is fairly likely to abandon it and pump fastballs. Major leaguers will not chase his errant curve balls. Turner is simply not as likely to get as much repetition with his off speed pitches in that situation. Without as much repetition, it will be substantially harder for him to develop into a better pitcher.

Now I am not saying the Tigers should relegate Turner to the minors until he finds more consistency. The Tigers probably have a better beat on their own prospect than I do, especially considering I have not seen him all off season. However, despite their previous approach with Rick Porcello, I think developmentally, Turner and Porcello are two different pitchers who should be approached differently by the organization. I think the Tigers have shown a willingness to be more patient with Turner as well. He has already seen far more minor league time than Porcello ever did. As a result, despite the press Turner has received this off season, do not be surprised to see him head back to the minors for most of 2012.

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