As things currently stand, the Tampa Bay Rays have four experienced starting pitchers with Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, and Michael Wacha. How the Rays fill out the last spot in the rotation remains in question.
Last year, when the Rays suffered a flurry of injuries to the pitching staff, the Rays turned to Josh Fleming as the next man up. Despite having many other high profile pitching prospects such as Shane McClanahan and Joe Ryan it was curious that Fleming was the one who got the opportunity.
In seven appearances Fleming showed why he was tasked with picking up important outs for the Rays. In 32.1 innings he put up a 2.78 ERA/4.40 FIP/3.70 xFIP. This was exactly what the Rays needed.
Built in the style of harder throwing Ryan Yarbrough, Fleming’s primary weapon is a 90-94 mph sinker and used a low 80s changeup and mid 80s cutter as his secondary pitches. In October he started to mix in a high 70s curveball as his comfort level on the mound improved.
Yarbrough and Fleming have similar arsenals, but the biggest difference comes in their fastball choice. Yarbrough throws a four seam fastball and Fleming throws a sinker. This led Fleming to put up a league leading 63.5% groundball rate for any pitcher with 30+ innings thrown in 2020.
The fastball is a real weapon for Fleming. His sinker gets +4” of vertical movement which is in line with Framber Valdez (+4.0”) and Dallas Keuchel (+3.8”), but where the pitch really shines is in a league leading +3.7” of horizontal movement. It is one of the best sinkers in the game.
Fleming’s small sample size 19.2% strikeout rate and 5.4% walk rate are in line with his minor league production, so he arrived as advertised. Unlike most of the rest of the Rays pitching staff, Fleming doesn’t rack up big strikeout totals, but he does a great job of limiting walks. Of note: this is very much in line with what Yarbrough did last year with a 18.8% strikeout rate and 5.1% walk rate.
The former Rays pitcher that Fleming reminds me most of, though, is Alex Cobb. Cobb’s sinker sat in the 91-92 range just like Fleming’s. Cobb used his sinker to put up a well above average groundball rate while putting up a career 18.7% strikeout rate and 6.9% walk rate.
Steamer projects a 4.42 ERA/4.63 FIP/4.68 xFIP over 128.0 good for 1.2 fWAR. This is roughly an average pitcher in a part time role.
Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs recently dropped his ZiPS projections for the Rays and it was optimistic about Fleming’s 2021 season. Over 131.2 innings it projects Fleming to put up a 4.37 ERA and 4.41 FIP. This is slightly above average for a starting pitcher on a rate basis and puts him at 1.7 zWAR.
Both of the public projections at this point are optimistic based on the small 2020 sample Fleming put up and expect a league average starter or a bit better.
So will that be his 2021 Role?
The Rays have a knack for finding unheralded prospects that thrive when given the opportunity. Cobb and Yarbrough were guys who most didn’t expect anything out of, but ended up being important contributors for the Rays.
2020 didn’t allow for the public to see much development for minor leaguers that were able to work with people in the organization, but Fleming’s development was a major positive for the Rays. Barring another acquisition, Fleming should claim the last spot in the rotation.