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The potential of Mark Sappington

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Let's play some small sample size PITCHf/x games.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Rays traded long-reliever Cesar Ramos for to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for 23 year old relief prospect Mark Sappington. Scott covered already gave a description of Sappington, based on the available scouting reports. He's something of a project. The Angels tried to make him into a starter and they failed. Now that he's been moved back to the bullpen, Sappington has a live fastball that he apparently has trouble commanding, probably because of his funky, max-effort delivery. None of his other pitches project as good major league offerings right now.

That's why Sappington will probably never be an impact major league pitcher. Forget that. I want to look at why he's worth a shot.

Before the 2013 season, Sappington threw 21 pitches in front of PITCHf/x cameras during spring training. According to Brooks Baseball, 16 of those were four-seam fastballs. They had an average velocity of 95.6 mph, an average vertical rise of 10.70 inches, and an average horizontal run of 8.68 inches. Now there are a ton of caveats here:

  1. It was only 16 pitches. A pitcher's movement and velocity changes over the course of a season, a game, an inning, and even an at bat. He doesn't throw his average fastball every time. I have no idea if these were representative of what Sappington can throw, and the scouting reports suggest that he struggles with consistency.
  2. All PITCHf/x tracking systems are not the same. They aren't perfectly accurate to begin with, and they're not calibrated identically. The same pitch, thrown in two different parks, can look very different.
  3. It was spring training.
  4. It was two years ago.
But let's play Admiral Farragut and steam into Small Sample Size Bay at full speed.

I've used the FanGraphs leaderboards to pull PITCHf/x data for every pitcher who logged at least 10 innings last season. I've highlighted the cells for each player whose velocity, rise, or run matched or exceeded that shown by Sappington. You can see the entire spreadsheet here, but the trick is that there is no one with a fastball like Sappington's (if these numbers are representative of Sappington's fastball). There are 30 players who matched his mark in velocity. There are 17 who matched the horizontal run. There are 50 with as much or more rise. But not a single pitcher did all three.

Four pitchers were equal to or better than Sappington's small sample size showcase in both velocity and vertical rise. They were:
  1. Aroldis Chapman
  2. Jake McGee
  3. Greg Holland
  4. Wade Davis
That's a pretty impressive group.

Now of course, being a dominant relief pitcher isn't just about having a live fastball. Each of those guys -- perhaps excepting Chapman -- also have good command, and by all accounts Sappington doesn't. My point is not that the Rays new lottery ticket will ever pitch in the back of a bullpen. I'm simply trying to illustrate that he might have a very excellent tool. It's something for the Rays to work with, and I for one can't wait to see him in spring training.