Big 12 Pitching Prospects 2020 Review

The 2020 Big 12 Baseball season, like sports everywhere, came to an unceremonious end a few weeks ago after just a month of games. Such a shortened season makes evaluating player performances from that season tricky because of a few factors, particularly for pitchers.

First, the small sample size that we have to work with. The most innings any pitcher in the Big 12 threw in 2020 was 26 IP and the most batters faced was just 124.

Second, when the season was canceled, teams were still finishing up nonconference play, meaning that they hadn’t faced off against very many marquee teams with similar talent levels. That large disparity between Big 12 talent levels and their opponent’s talent level skewed the “end of season” statistics and records.

However, things continue and we can use the short 2020 season to evaluate players in a few ways, as long as we’re aware of the issues that this season presents to forming solid conclusions.

Using available stats, pulled from d1baseball.com and individual team websites when necessary, I created a profile for each “qualified” player in the Big 12. For pitchers, the cut off ended up being 17 innings pitched.

From the 29 qualified pitchers, I got the conference averages for the stats that I calculated and used to evaluate these pitchers. Here are those averages, along with the 2019 averages that I have:

Here we can see that the 2020 averages are lower than all of 2019 averages (except for K/9) which indicates improvement. I believe that this is due to the lower level of competition that teams and players were facing in nonconference competition. It’s important to note this because there are some players who had absolutely fantastic “seasons” that would not have been sustainable as Big 12 began, or even as they pitched more innings.

Some of these stats are pretty standard, but I want to take a moment to explain the others that may be unfamiliar to some people.

We’ll start with FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching. It’s similar to ERA in that they’re tracking runs that a pitcher is responsible for, but FIP isolates a pitcher’s performance by what they can control and is based on HRs, BBs, and Ks. It provides us with a way to see how a pitcher performed on their own; if the difference between ERA-FIP is positive, then the pitcher in question had a bad defense behind them that hurt their run prevention. If ERA-FIP is negative, the pitcher benefited from a good defense that prevented more runs for them.

Next is BABIP, Batting Average on Balls in Play. BABIP is exactly what it sounds like; a measurement of how many times a ball in play went for a hit. The equation is pretty simple and reliable.

I’m also using wOBA allowed by each pitcher, or the weighted on-base average allowed. It’s very similar to on-base percentage and assigns different weights to hits, extra-base hits, walks to give credit to outcomes that are more favorable. OBP treats all times on base as equal when, in reality, they aren’t. In terms of evaluating with wOBA, it uses the same scales as OBP, meaning that a good OBP number is also a good wOBA number and vice versa.

Calculating wOBA weights gets really complicated with run expectancy matrices and linear weights, stuff that I frankly don’t know how to do right now. So, I chose to take the coefficients for the 2019 MLB season from FanGraphs.com, which can be found here. Thus, the formula for wOBA came out to this:

This isn’t a perfect way to evaluate college baseball players but with the lack of accessible advanced stats for college baseball, I had to manufacture my own with the tools at my disposal. The small sample size and the lower level of competition are things I want to stress again because I believe that they had an impact on the higher-level performance in the short 2020 season versus 2019. As long as we acknowledge that, we can still proceed with Big 12 Baseball evaluations.

For the hitters, I went through school by school because we had 64 qualified hitters, about 7 per school and that worked. For the pitchers, with 29 eligible, I’ll be ranking them as MLB Draft Prospects. Of course, not every pitcher is Draft eligible, but this is how I’ll look at them.

So, without further ado, let’s get started with prospects 21–29.

9. Carson Seymour — Kansas State

Carson Seymour had the worst season of Kansas State’s 3-weekend starters (but my 2nd prospect from K-State), which isn’t saying too much considering he produced a 2.60 FIP, which is a much better mark than his 3.92 ERA. What that 1.32 split between the 2 indicates, in addition to his below-average BABIP of 0.311, is that he suffered a little bit from the poorer defense behind him than Wicks and McCullough did.

Some of that bad batted ball luck would definitely be part of the culprit for his wOBA allowed of 0.274, but so too would his BB/9 rate of 5.23, double the conference average. We see that Seymour limits hits well, only allowing 6.10 per 9 IP, and average 10.89 K/9, so where does that high BB/9 come from?

Well, @ksu_analytics, Kansas State Baseball’s analytics twitter account, posted a few TrackMan graphics from one of Seymour’s outings, highlighting his fastball and slider. His fastball was 95–96 MPH, reaching 2528 rpm at one point. His slider is of the power variety, coming in at 86.4 MPH, with a spin rate of 2568 rpm, both above the MLB average. As with Wicks, reading too much into these few pitches is a bad idea because it’s a very limited sample size of Seymour’s pitches, but it shows us that potential.

It also shows us that he gets good movement on his pitches, with a lot of power. That’s a strikeout recipe, but it can also result in lower control because he doesn’t need to rely on as much finesse. Fortunately, Seymour succeeded in spite of his BB/9 in 2020 and, as a sophomore, has room to improve that command heading into next season.

The velocity, spin rate, and Seymour’s production all combine to make him a very interesting prospect heading into 2021. We never got to see him in Big 12 play so we don’t know if the control issues would have come back to bite him against better hitters.

8. Russell Smith — TCU

Russell Smith is a fascinating pitcher and prospect for the Horned Frogs. He produced a 2.85 FIP in 21 IP in 2020, which is a smidge worse than the average was, but he’s still just a sophomore. What’s really interesting is his peripheral numbers; Smith posted a K/9 of 11.57 and a BB/9 of 0.86. He also only allowed 6.43 H/9, but what hurt him was his propensity to allow HRs, allowing 1.29 per 9 IP, which inflated his wOBA allowed to 0.241.

Smith is a big guy, standing 6’9”, 235 lbs, and his production indicates that he’s figured out how to convert that frame into velocity and swings and misses while maintaining excellent command. That makes Smith a fascinating prospect, especially since he’s just a sophomore. The HR/9 isn’t a huge turnoff (yet), but I would have loved to see how Smith fared as Big 12 play began and the competition level and pressure increased.

7. Jackson Wolf — West Virginia

Jackson Wolf was a below-average starter for the Mountaineers in 2019, yet transformed into an excellent pitcher in 2020. Standing 6’7”, 205 lbs, he’s a tall lefty, but had trouble parlaying that into success prior to 2020. But in his 25.2 IP in 2020, Wolf was one of the best pitchers in the conference, with a FIP of 1.76. He allowed a WHIP of 0.74, thanks to his phenomenal 4.91 H/9 and 1.75 BB/9, both huge improvements from his 2019 numbers.

He also started to miss bats more often in 2020, posting a K/9 of 9.47 that’s about the conference average. He only allowed a wOBA of 0.189, far better than average, thanks to the combination of keeping hits and walks down.

Over the summer in the Cape Cod league, Wolf was throwing 3 pitches, fastball, changeup, curveball, with increased velocity and it looks like he built off of that success to having a strong start to the collegiate season. I think that Wolf’s transformation is fairly sustainable because everything is in line. The FIP is great, the WHIP is great, he didn’t have a crazy amount of batted ball luck, and he controlled his pitches for K/9 & BB/9 improvements. Wolf looks like a legit prospect and probably still has room for improvement velocity-wise.

6. Jordan Wicks — Kansas State

Jordan Wicks had an excellent freshman season, posting an ERA of 3.61 in 84.2 IP, showing his ability to handle a high inning count. His BB/9 and K/9 rates of 2.76 and 9.14 were both better than average, laying the groundwork for a great 2020.

In 2020, Wick threw 26 stellar innings, posting a FIP of 1.74 and a wOBA allowed of 0.189. He maintained his strong BB and K rates, walking just 1.38 hitters per 9 and continuing to strike out 9 batters per 9 IP. The biggest improvement that he made though, was halving his H/9 allowed, down from 9.78 to 4.50, bringing his WHIP all the way down to 0.65.

Part of how Wicks was able to accomplish that was through the movement on his fastball. Kansas State Baseball Analytics (@ksu_analytics on Twitter), posted a TrackMan reading from a February 29th start for Wicks against Fairleigh Dickinson, showing a swing and miss that Wicks had gotten on his fastball for strike 3. The pitch clocked in at 91.8 MPH with an above-average spin rate of 2390 rpm. That above-average spin on his fastball lets Wicks create deception with the fastball, to induce swings and misses and weak contact.

Of course, drawing the conclusion that Wicks routinely averages above-average RPM on his fastball from a one pitch sample is not a good practice. I’m simply observing that Wicks has shown the ability to get to that point and, given his success in 2020, that it’s probably pretty repeatable.

Wicks has definitely shown that he can have success at the collegiate level and it will be intriguing to see how that continues and what his pitch arsenal looks like in the future.

5. Hunter Dobbins — Texas Tech

Hunter Dobbins made a big impact for the Red Raiders as a sophomore, starting 3 games with 6 appearances total. He produced a 1.53 FIP with a wOBA allowed of 0.248, right at league average, but some of that may have been inflated by bad batted ball luck given his BABIP of 0.347, much higher than conference average.

The best part of his profile is his K/9 of 11.25 and BB/9 of 2.25, both of which are better than average. For a sophomore throwing his first college innings, those are really great numbers that give Dobbins a strong foundation to build on for the future.

4. Levi Prater — Oklahoma

Levi Prater, like teammates Cade Cavalli and Wyatt Olds, was better than his ERA, which, along with his batting average, wOBA, and H/9, were inflated by his extremely high BABIP of 0.380 that I believe was due to OU’s poor defense behind them. Prater’s peripherals improved from 2019 to 2020; his K/9 seeing a rise up to 12.55 and his BB/9 falling to 3.80, which is higher than you’d like, but it’s fine if Prater is going to be striking out 12 guys per 9 IP.

Prater was hurt by the poor Sooner defense, but it didn’t stop him from posting a strong season underneath the surface in his 23.2 IP.

3. Cade Cavalli — Oklahoma

While I think that Cavalli was better than he was in 2019, he still presents a confusing and tangled statistical profile. His ERA of 4.18 tells one story and his FIP of 1.88 tells another. I’m choosing to believe that Cavalli’s true talent level is closer to his 1.88 FIP than the 4.18 ERA for a variety of reasons. One: he had an extremely high BABIP of 0.460, which inflated his H/9, WHIP, wOBA, and batting average allowed. Two: while a high BABIP can be a pitcher’s fault, 0.460 is the highest BABIP in the conference. The two guys behind Cavalli? His teammates, Wyatt Olds and Levi Prater, who also had better FIPs than ERAs. All this tells me that the OU defense was BAD in 2020 because there’s no other reasonable explanation.

Another reason I believe in Cavalli’s 1.88 FIP is his peripherals, notably his BB/9 and K/9. His K/9 of 14.07 was the second-highest in the conference and his BB/9 of 1.90 was one of the best with his workload. He got better with pitch placement, command, and probably saw a velocity uptick, but the Sooners terrible defense hurt his surface-level stats.

2. Bryce Elder — Texas

Bryce Elder was already good in 2019 and looked like he took another step forward in the early parts of the 2020 season. He posted an ERA of 2.08, but backed that up with a FIP of 2.12, indicating that very little of his success was due to extraordinary defensive play.

He did so by taking the things that he was good at and getting better at them. The most notable changes were his K/9 shooting up to 11.08, an extremely strong mark, and his BB/9 falling to 2.42, better than the league average mark. He continued to limit hits at an above-average rate, only allowing 6.23 per 9 IP, leading to his stellar WHIP of 0.96.

Throughout the season, Elder displayed a strong arsenal of pitches, notably showing confidence in his slider as a wipeout pitch. In his February 28th start against LSU at Minute Maid Park, Elder induced a total of 21 swings and misses, 7 of which were on his slider for strike 3.

Elder took the steps he needed to prior to 2020 and took another step forward from his strong 2019 showing. The improved K/9 and BB/9 make are excellent signs and bode well for his future.

1. Clayton Beeter — Texas Tech

What stands out immediately about Clayton Beeter’s statistical profile is his K/9 of 14.14, the highest in the Big 12, despite being a starter. That’s a crazy strikeout rate for a starter, especially when it’s accompanied by his BB/9 of 1.71 and WHIP of 0.81. All of that resulted in a FIP of 2.56, better than the league average.

The only blemish on Beeter’s profile is the unsightly HR/9 of 1.29, which is why his FIP and wOBA allowed (0.228) are so close to average, despite his outstanding WHIP, K/9, and BB/9. That combination of the K/9 and BB/9 are enough to make Beeter the best pitching prospect in the conference in my mind, despite the high HR/9.

It’s true that guys like Bryce Elder and Cade Cavalli and Levi Prater might have more years and innings and production than Beeter, but his upside is tantalizing.

Sophomore studying Sport Management and Economics at the University of Texas. Writing about Baseball from an analytical and scouting perspective

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