Hector Noesi May Be Better Than We Realize
Because The Big Trade sends two players in each direction, it’s only natural to pair those players off and view the deal as essentially Pineda-for-Montero and Campos-for-Noesi. And that’s generally how this deal has been analyzed, including by me. The talk surrounding this trade has been almost entirely about Montero’s future value and where he’ll fit into the roster long term, while Noesi has been relegated to the backburner. The only attention he’s really gotten has been tied to lamenting the loss of Campos, a personal favorite of a lot of people who follow the M’s minor leagues closely.
So, over the last 24 hours or so, I’ve done a lot of digging on Noesi, trying to ascertain exactly what the M’s got along with Montero by surrendering Michael Pineda. I knew he was a mid-tier Yankees prospect that was generally talked about as a potential #5 starter in New York, but beyond that, I didn’t really know that much. So, I started asking around, talking to people in the game who knew Noesi pretty well. And, the more I talked to these folks, the more I realized that Noesi should be viewed as a lot more than just a throw-in arm. In fact, there are legitimate reasons to be pretty excited about his inclusion in the deal.
With any pitcher, the foundation of his value is in what he throws, so let’s start with Noesi’s stuff. In last year’s Baseball America write-up (where he rated as the Yankees seventh best prospect), John Manuel wrote that Noesi:
“…pounds the zone with an 89-93 mph fastball, reaching as high as 96. His maintains his velocity deep into games, and his fastball has some run and tail. Noesi’s No. 2 pitch is a changeup with similar action, though he doesn’t quite command it like his fastball. His curveball and slider remain below-average offerings, but he flashes the ability to spin the ball.”
Thanks to the wonders of Pitch F/x data, and the Yankees decision to carry him as their long reliever for most of the 2011 season, we can actually confirm the validity of what Manuel wrote. Here’s a plot of all of Noesi’s pitches last year, broken out by velocity and horizontal movement, which makes identifying the different pitch clusters quite easy.
Just like John wrote, Noesi mixed in four different pitches – the algorithm separated out his fastballs into two-seam and four-seam varieties, but he doesn’t throw a true sinker, so don’t pay too much attention to the blue/green differences there – and generally threw them for strikes. As for velocity, the data backs up Manuel’s assessment there as well:
He generally sat in the 89-96 range with his fastball last year, but his average fastball velocity was 93.3, a few ticks higher than reported in his BA writeup. This could easily be attributed to pitching out of the bullpen, where velocity spikes are common and expected, but the Yankees didn’t use Noesi as a typical relief pitcher. He was their long guy, relied on to eat up innings when a starter didn’t get very deep into the ballgame, and was regularly asked to stay on the mound for multiple innings at a time.
In fact, Noesi averaged 8.2 batters faced and 32 pitches per appearance, and threw 40 or more pitches in 10 of his 30 outings. While that isn’t nearly the same workload as a starting pitcher, and we should expect his average fastball to dip as a starting pitcher, the difference shouldn’t be as stark as it would be in converting a reliever who is used in a more traditional one-inning role. And even those pitchers generally only see a drop in velocity of about 1 MPH or so when converting back to a starter.
His longest appearance of the year – a six inning, 71 pitch outing against Boston in June – backs up that assumption.
He began the game at 93-95 and sat there for the first 20 pitches or so, then dropped back into the 90-93 range for the rest of the night. Overall, his fastball averaged 92.6 MPH that evening, so his velocity is not just a product of being used out of the bullpen. He has a good arm and can get it up to the plate with some oomph.
Despite above average velocity and good fastball command, the knocks against him as a prospect have been related to the quality of his two breaking pitches – neither his slider or his curveball are seen as a true out-pitch. So, the overall package of plus command of one good pitch and then a collection of okay secondary offerings leads to projections as a back-end starter, a guy who can throw strikes but lacks the repertoire to dominate hitters.
I’m not going to argue with that assessment, as it seems to be the general consensus among those who have watched him pitch a good deal. However, in talking to folks who have seen Noesi a lot, several made the point that this skillset is often undervalued in prospecting circles – where upside is king and lower ceiling guys often fly under the radar – and that Noesi could step into a Major League rotation tomorrow and be a quality starter.
In fact, when asking for pitchers that Noesi reminded them of, a few names popped up that show just how large the divide can occasionally be between hype and results for this pitcher type. One front office executive said that he saw Noesi as a similar pitcher to Daniel Hudson, while a scout threw out the name Cory Luebke.
Neither of these guys were ever projected as front-line starters due to their reliance on good command of a solid fastball with secondary stuff that needed work (sound familiar?), but both got themselves to the Majors by racking up solid K/BB ratios that were built more on avoiding walks than missing a ton of bats. However, since arriving in the Majors, Luebke and Hudson have been two of the better young pitchers in baseball, translating their minor league success into quality Major League performances.
Another person in the game that I talked to pointed out that the Twins have been building quality pitching staffs for years through a never-ending assembly line of Hector Noesi style pitchers. He pointed to Scott Baker (another guy who never appeared in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects) as an example of just how effective this skillset can be. And he’s absolutely right – a look at the results of team pitching staffs over the last 10 years show that the Twins have walked the fewest batters (by a mile) of any team in baseball, and their staffs have generally been populated by the likes of Baker, Brad Radke, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano, and Kyle Lohse. Noesi throws harder than those guys, but the general approach to pitching is pretty similar. Pound the zone, change speeds, mix pitches, and succeed by never walking anyone.
It’s not as sexy of a skillset as Pineda’s “haha you can’t hit this” approach, but the sport is filled with guys who are succeeding as Major League starters without sitting in the mid-90s. The lack of a true dominating out-pitch means that Noesi isn’t going to turn into Clayton Kershaw, but these types of pitchers are often more valuable than they’re given credit for.
For instance, Baker/Hudson/Luebke have pitched 1,350 innings in the big leagues and have combined to be worth +26.5 WAR, or +3.5 WAR per 180 innings pitched. For comparison, Michael Pineda was worth +3.4 WAR in 171 innings last year. Yeah.
We shouldn’t just take these three examples and extrapolate Noesi as a +3.5 win pitcher for 2012, but when people talk about this skillset having limited upside, realize that what they’re saying is that these pitchers max out as All-Stars instead of Cy Young winners. There is a cap on how good Noesi can be, but that cap isn’t set at league average starter as many would have you believe.
Go look through last year’s pitching leaderboards. There’s 35 pitchers on that front page, each of whom posted a WAR of +3.6 or higher in 2011. Yeah, there’s a bunch of guys who throw hard and have nasty breaking balls, but there’s also Dan Haren (never a BA Top 100 guy, and classified as a “middle of the rotation starter” when BA rated him the Carindals #1 prospect in 2003), Doug Fister, Ian Kennedy, James Shields, Daniel Hudson, and Brandon McCarthy. All of these guys put themselves on the map by pounding strikes without dominating stuff and all were painted with the same “limited upside” brush. They’re all evidence that this skillset can turn out to be more than just another generic #5 starter.
And, while these examples are obviously the best case scenario for Noesi, we can’t overlook the fact that he pitched pretty well for the Yankees last year. Again, yes, caveats about pitching low leverage innings out of the bullpen, but he posted a 4.02 xFIP while pitching in the AL East as a rookie. Or, how about this fun fact – opposing batters made contact with 79.9% of pitches that Noesi threw. Here’s the complete list of AL starting pitchers (minimum 50 IP) who had contact rates between 79.5% and 80.5%:
Jered Weaver: 79.5%
Charlie Furbush: 79.6%
Kyle Drabek: 79.6%
Scott Baker: 79.7%
Philip Humber: 79.8%
C.J. Wilson: 79.8%
Felix Hernandez: 80.1%
Jon Lester: 80.1%
Edwin Jackson: 80.4%
Trevor Cahill: 80.5%
By the way, Haren just missed the cut at 79.3%, and if we expanded it out a little more, we’d run into Clay Buchholz (80.7%), Ervin Santana (80.9%), and David Price (81.0%). Besides Furbush (HR problems) and Drabek (BB problems), that’s a pretty sweet group to be keeping company with. Obviously, there’s a lot more to judging a pitcher than just contact rate, but it’s his questionable ability to miss bats in the big leagues that’s always been the thing that has been held against him. Given how he performed in the Majors as a rookie, there are reasons to think that his stuff might be better than he’s been given credit for.
The strong minor league track record suggests that Noesi can get batters out with what he has. His Major League performance as a rookie backs up that assertion as well. There are a number of really good Major League pitchers who throw similar stuff and faced the same questions when they were prospects. Add it all up, and it seems like sticking a “back-end starter” label on Noesi doesn’t really do his potential value justice.
Right now, I’d slot him in as the team’s #4 starter, easily ahead of Beaven and Furbush, and honestly not that far behind Jason Vargas or Hisashi Iwakuma in the pecking order. While I still think there are good values to be found among starting pitchers on the free agent market, Noesi is a guy that I’d like to see break camp as a member of the rotation. His skillset should play well in Safeco, especially if the M’s put a good defensive club on the field, and there’s a chance that he himself could replace a good chunk of what the team gave up in Pineda.
Montero’s production will still likely determine whether this trade is viewed as a success or a failure, but Noesi shouldn’t just be viewed as a throw-in that cost us Jose Campos. He could be a solid Major League starter who is ready to step into the rotation immediately, and that’s a valuable piece, even if his skillset is generally underrated.