The 2012 Brooklyn Cyclones rotation has gotten a lot of positive ink this season and with good reason. As a whole, they have posted a 381:74 K:BB ratio, and their top four starters (Gabriel Ynoa, Luis Mateo, Hansel Robles and Rainy Lara) have struck out 292 against just 41 walks for a rather mind-boggling 7.1 K/BB ratio. Yet none of those four names would have moved the needle much for prospect watchers coming into the 2012 season. Luis Mateo was probably the best known, both for a big arm and a checkered history, but he had yet to pitch stateside.
One might have expected the big names from the 2011 Kingsport rotation (Juan Urbina, Akeel Morris, and Domingo Tapia) to head up the Brooklyn rotation this year, but while Tapia was pushed to Savannah and has established himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the organization, Morris and Urbina continue to languish in Kingsport. When I talked to Toby Hyde at the open of the New York Penn League season, he mentioned that the Mets player development system is putting a premium on pitchers who can throw strikes, which helps explain why the Cyclones pitchers are where they are and Morris and Urbina remain in rookie ball.
But just how good is the Brooklyn rotation? The New York Penn League is historically a pitching dominated league, and the 2012 draft was quite bad for college bats, the early round draftees most likely to land there. More generally, short-season numbers tell us very little about the quality of a prospect. It's a data point certainly, and you'd probably rather have better numbers than not, but great numbers at this level don't make you a good pitching prospect on their own. Mets minor leaguers who previously dominated at this level include Yohan Almonte, Angel Cuan, Brandon Moore, and Roy Merritt, none of whom have had much success outside of A ball. So it's worth taking a closer look at the Brooklyn rotation to see whose stuff and/or projection matches their Q rating. With some help from Alex Nelson, I am going to start by taking a closer look at Hansel Robles, winner of the Sterling Award for Brooklyn
Robles was signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in the Summer of 2008, shortly after his 18th birthday. The short and stocky (5'11, 185) right-hander pitched in the Dominican Summer League for two seasons before coming stateside last year as a reliever for the GCL Mets. Coming into 2012, Robles has posted strong, but not eye-popping, numbers each season. Moved back into the rotation for the Cyclones this year, Robles has put up video game numbers for Brooklyn. He is all over the pitching leaderboards for the New York Penn League. In addition to topping the ERA charts, he's tied with teammate Luis Mateo for the league lead in FIP, is fourth in strikeout rate, and fifth in walk rate. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is over two, and he has yet to surrender a home run. So how the heck is he doing it?
I've seen three Robles starts this year. The first was on August 4th against the Auburn Doubledays. Robles went seven innings, giving up just a single unearned run on three hits while striking out eight. I saw him again Saturday August 25th against Staten Island. He again went seven innings, allowed no runs on three hits, struck out eight and walked one. Finally, I saw him August 31st, again against Staten Island, when he went five innings, allowed one unearned run on four hits, walked two, struck out four and hit a batter.
For the Auburn start I am going to lean a bit on twitter buddy and Penn League Report writer Dave Gershman who was working the game while I spent most of my time down the first base line having a beer with Chris McShane and Steve Schreiber. Dave had Robles's fastball up to 94-95 which is faster than I had him at against Staten Island where he sat 91-92, touching 93. Given some of the mechanical concerns Alex will get into later, it's not too surprising that his velocity has a fairly large range to it, but it's certainly solid for a right-hander. The fastball has some life on it as well, which isn't always a given with shorter right-handers. His motion and armslot lend the pitch some deception, so it is a swing and miss offering for him at this level. He fills up the zone with it, and it's certainly the pitch he commands the best, though I wouldn't say his command is excellent at this point. All things considered, I'd say it's an average to above offering with potential for more if he can more regularly creep up into the mid-nineties.
The slider was Robles primary secondary offering against Staten Island's righty heavy line-up. It generally came in at 85-87, but Robles's command of the pitch, especially early on, was a bit shaky. Catcher Kevin Plawecki would set up low and away, and Robles would miss out over the plate, but the velocity and tilt on the pitch were enough to fool Penn League hitters. As the game wore on, Robles started to get a feel for the pitch and it was more of a weapon, but it does lack much downward break which given his very low 3/4 armslot isn't all that surprising. The velocity alone gives it potential, but Robles definitely needs to get some more consistency with the pitch before it will be a weapon at higher levels.
Robles didn't throw his change-up too much in the Staten Island games, but when he did it was an effective pitch. It sat around 82, and he had pretty good arm action on it. He would deploy it early in the count against lefties and was willing to double up with it. He threw it more in the Auburn start, so I reached out to Dave for his thoughts on the pitch:
"His change-up has solid depth and he was able to locate it. If a player at this level can throw a nice fadeaway change it's not going to get hit."
Given his low arm slot, Robles will need at least an average change to help mitigate potential platoon issues, but the pitch sounds pretty close to that already.
I am far from a pitching mechanics expert, but there are certainly some red flags in Robles delivery that even I pick up on. I sent the video along to Alex Nelson, who knows far more about this stuff than I do, to break down the good and the bad in Robles's mechanics.
First, the red flags:
During his stride, Robles lands on his front foot flexibly, but watch his lead foot carefully. One, his toe rarely points toward home plate, and, two, it doesn't always land in the same spot. Sometimes it lands too far closed, forcing Robles to pitch across his body. This alters his release point and lengthens his arm action, having a detrimental impact on his command.
Robles also has concerning arm action. The arm is very, very quick, and that's how he generates most of his velocity while maintaining the illusion that it comes easy. But when you look closely, there are plenty of issues. While he separates his hands nice and high, he spoils it by then bringing the baseball way down low anyway, which forces his arm to move faster than it needs to to catch up with his legs' stride, and though it's tough to tell from your video, it looks like he pronates later than he should. Also, he tightens the muscles in his forearm too soon, possibly stressing his elbow.
And as for Robles's follow-through, it's practically non-existent. He cuts it off, refusing to bring his weight over his landing point while halting his arm action before the arm has decelerated. You can painfully see this in the way his arm rebounds upward at the end of his delivery ("arm recoil"). It could be putting a significant strain on his shoulder.
Now for the things Robles does well:
Robles drifts through his balance point well before taking a nice, healthy stride that isn't quite optimal, but if it were any longer, his body would be too far in front of his arm, which might lag behind just a touch as it is. But in all honesty, there's nothing seriously wrong with his stride length.
Robles doesn't get a lot of shoulder tilt -- I find pitchers with lower arm slots rarely do -- but he's usually pretty good about keeping his front side closed until it's the appropriate time to open. Not always, but usually.
As for his glove-side mechanics, Robles does very well here. He keeps his head still, his glove close against his body with virtually no movement whatsoever, and with his follow-through being practically non-existent, there's little to get in the way of his command.
Alex also gave me a projection for Robles as if he were a 2012 draftee (he just turned 22 a few weeks ago):
If Robles were to come out of college in 2012 with an equivalent stat line and the same strengths and weakness I've seen, he'd probably be a graduating senior with a distinguished career at a good school. The arm strength would be a plus, but the fringy breaking stuff, the short stature, the iffy mechanics, and the low arm slot would be indications of a career in the bullpen. Most teams would see him as a future reliever, and it would be possible to see him go anywhere from the third round to the eighth, depending on whether a team believed they could teach him better breaking stuff. I'd give him a fourth-to-sixth round grade and project him as a future middle reliever who might struggle against left-handed hitters.
Unsurprisingly, I agree with Alex's projection. Normally if I see a righty with an above average fastball and two potentially average secondary offerings, I'd be comfortable putting a back of the rotation ceiling on him. However, with Robles, there are just too many red flags to ignore. He's a short right-hander who has to put every ounce of his frame into his delivery to get that above average fastball velocity, so I question if he can keep that up deep into games over a full season. And now having turned 22, he's certainly not young for the New York Penn League. The age and the build certainly limit his future projection. The mechanical red flags Alex points out marks him as an injury risk as well, and those are probably better suited to short relief stints. I think the secondary offerings could end up good enough to make him a seventh- or eighth-inning guy, but he is a long way away from that point right now.
Robles's current arsenal is good enough that I doubt A-ball will be much of a speed bump. The Mets usually like to go with a six-man rotation in the lower minors, but even so I could see a bit of a crunch in the Gnats' rotation next year. Of the Brooklyn starters, Luis Mateo is the only one I could see skipping the South Atlantic League, and I'm not entirely convinced the Mets will do that anyway. Robles could move quickly as a reliever, but I think he should be given starter's innings at least through next year to maximize his in-game experience. It's a fairly large jump in competition to A-ball, but the depressed offensive environment in Savannah should smooth out Robles's learning curve. I don't see him really being tested until Double-A, and I imagine that is when he will finally have to move to the bullpen.