AA Prospect Mailbag: Dillon Gee's Ceiling?

The Depressed New Yorker asks:  "I was wondering why everyone seems to be convinced that Dillon Gee is at most a back of the rotation guy. Didn't he lead AAA in K's last year? I know that scouts do not like his stuff but that has to count for something, doesn't it? Or do we think that in the majors nobody is going to strike out against him? What should we really expect when the k's are good but his "stuff" isn't?

Also, most of the damage against him came on home runs. Shouldn't we assume that he probably isn't that bad at giving up homers than one season would indicate and also that moving to Citi Field should benefit him a lot in that area? So why is his "ceiling" being talked about as being so low?"

 

That’s a very good question and obviously quite a topical one as Gee once again posted excellent results while wearing a Mets uniform, this time in the role of stopper down in the ATL. So since you gave me such a good question I'm gonna return the favor and give you two answers, the short one and the longer more, in-depth one.

The short answer: As good as Gee has looked as a Met you just can’t throw away a much larger sample from Triple-A that says he’s a 4.50+ ERA pitcher. The strikeouts are a sign that he does have good stuff, however typically strong secondary pitching and good command is a combination of skills that carves up minor leaguers yet isn’t as effective against the big boys. (see: Brian Bannister, c/o Yomiuri, Japan)

I do think it’s fair to say that Gee can be better than that though as he continues to exhibit improving pitching IQ as well as sharpening secondary offerings and command; but the number of consistently effective right-handed starters in major league baseball that average at or below 89mph with the fastball – like Gee does – can be counted on one hand. This doesn’t mean he’ll never be more than a no. five starter, it just means it's going to be a tougher climb for him than most.

Click past the break if you're interested to hear the long version.

There's a lot to unpack from such an interesting question so let's split it up into two parts; first, we’ll address the issue of stuff v. strikeouts: You are correct, Gee led the International League – and all of Triple-A – in strikeouts in 2010 on his way to a Buffalo single-season record. Make no mistake, you’ve got to have good stuff to do that and Gee most certainly does. He features a plus change-up as well as the uncommon combination of a strong 12-to-6 curve AND a sharp slider. In addition, Gee features pinpoint command of all four of his pitches and this mix – especially in the minor leagues – usually means strikeouts.

The problem is that fastball velocity is not part of that equation. For the most part Gee works around 88-89 mph with his fastball – Fangraphs has him pegged at 89.1mph in his five major league starts last September – which is a problem, especially for a right-hander. Exhibit A: Since 2008, there are only seven right-handed major league starters who averaged at or below 89.1 mph. Two of them are extreme sinkerballers (Lowe and Pineiro) which Gee is not, two are extreme outliers (Mussina and Livan) and one is Greg Maddux, who isn’t actually from this planet.

Now a mid-90’s heater isn’t a prerequisite by any means – a guy like James Shields doesn’t light up the radar gun and he gets by – but the more fb velocity you’ve got, the higher your margin for error. For someone like Gee, that margin is very thin. Fortunately, he has enough command and pitching smarts that he can survive – and even thrive at times – despite such mediocre velocity but it also explains his career 4.76 ERA in over 300 innings at Triple-A.

The next part of the question addresses his home run tendencies. If Gee didn’t have such a problem with the longball you really could look past his velocity a bit and confidently peg him for the middle of the rotation; but unfortunately he does. And as someone who has watched three dozen or so of Gee’s starts, I feel pretty comfortable stating that while he does get burned by the occasional slow fastball down the middle, his biggest problem in this regard is the hanging change-up.

Now the change-up is his best strikeout pitch, the reason why he exhibits virtually no platoon split and he has very good control of it. BUT when he does miss with it he has the very bad habit of missing up, which basically puts it on a tee – just ask Willie Harris. You’re probably right, his HR/9 was high even for him in 2010 (1.28) and moving to Citi will help (Coca Cola Field is basically neutral) but I don’t think that will be a cure-all. As long as he’s among the league leaders in change-ups thrown (17% in 2010) I think this will be an issue.

All in all, Gee helps himself out a ton by consistently staying ahead of hitters and exhibiting a strong understanding of how to pitch. In addition, his secondary offerings and command seem to improve each season, especially the further he gets from a torn labrum in 2009. For these reasons I can see him becoming a very reliable starter that can give you a lot of innings, an ERA floating around four and a very good idea of what you’re going to get every five days -- in the mold of a Steve Trachsel. Whatever kind of starter you’d call that (no. five, no. three, etc), it certainly brings a lot of value to the Mets.

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