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Prospect Spotlight: RHP Jeurys Familia

Just in time for his first start in Double-A, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the hot start of one Jeurys Familia (plus it's a nice companion piece to Jeff's extremely interesting albeit somewhat depressing top prospect post-mortem). With Familia's recent promotion, Binghamton has gained one of the Mets most talented minor league pitchers and certainly one of the hottest young prospects of 2011. Thus far, Familia has posted a 1.49 ERA in 36.1 IP with Hi-A St. Lucie, including 36 strikeouts versus just eight walks and only 21 hits allowed. Pretty remarkable start for the 21-year old however, it begs the question, where did this come from?

If you don't recall, Familia posted a 5.58 ERA with St. Lucie in 2010 and at this point last season his line looked like this: 0-2, 5.71 ERA, 34.2 IP, 38 H, 21 BB, 35 K. Those walks only seemed to get worse as he tallied an ugly 5.58 BB/9 on the season -- compared to 1.98 so far this season. In fact, control problems were an underlying theme of his 2010 campaign as he also threw 25 wild pitches and hit fifteen batters. In short, it looked like he had lost all command after a very promising '09 season with Savannah where he really put his name on the map. So again, what happened?

Well for those that were paying particularly close attention -- or perhaps sneaking a peek at the minor league section of the 2011 Amazin' Avenue Annual, ahem ahem -- this early season breakout has come as no surprise. And for those unlucky schlubs who did NOT manage to crack a copy of said Annual, well you're in luck. Here's the profile I wrote up for Familia:

"After a seemingly disappointing season in 2010, A reasonable argument can be made that Jeurys Familia shouldn't appear so high on this list (#13). There is a bit not to like about his 2010 campaign, especially the out-of-control walk rate--he walked nearly twice as many batters this year as he did last year while pitching 13 fewer innings. He also allowed seven homers in 2010, two more than the previous two seasons combined. However, there is explanation for all the walks, and perhaps even the homers: According to Familia himself, he was encouraged by coaches to throw more changeups this season, walks be damned.

Even if you don't buy that explanation, there are still some good reasons to be optimistic about Familia's future. For starters, his strikeout rate surged in 2010--he whiffed more than a batter an inning, a considerable improvement over 2009. He also improved his groundball rate, which, along with increased strikeouts, helped drive down his FIP to 3.89, a number far more palatable than his 5.58 ERA.  

That large discrepancy was driven by a handful of simple factors: (In St. Lucie) He was surrounded by terrible infield defense featuring not-really-a-shortstop Wilmer Flores, an out-of-position second baseman in Michael Fisher and Richard Lucas who made 21 errors at third. That defense, along with some plain old-fashioned bad luck, led to an unsustainably high BABIP of .350, compared to a career mark around .290. Finally he had an uncharacteristically home run rate (.52 in 2010 | .25 Career). If you figure all of those factors will return to more expected levels next season, coupled with reports that Familia's velocity climbed up to 96-97 mph to go along with increased diving action as the year progressed, you've got yourself a pretty good bet for a breakout season--just a year later than we were all expecting*. Familia's long-term role will depend almost entirely on the development of his secondary stuff--some figure that he will land at the back end of the bullpen--but with an electric arm like his, the Mets will give him every opportunity to stick as a starter."

*emphasis added; sometimes you've just got to toot your own horn

The following chart was in the first draft but had to be cut for space considerations:

Season ERA FIP BB/9 K/9 HR/9 GO:AO
2009 2.69 3.16 3.09 7.32 .20 1.40
2010 5.58 3.89 5.50 10.19 .52 1.61

What you should take away from all this hot air is that Familia is a perfect example of a dominant thrower whose development curve slowed a bit while he learned how to actually pitch. In the Mets organization....sorry, it's just refreshing to actually say that. So even though we'd all love to see top prospects rocket through the minors and never stumble, that almost never happens. Thus to see a young player address a perceived weakness by giving up some success in the short term for the benefit of his future is actually very promising, especially when it pays dividends this quickly.

Toby Hyde recently spoke to a scout that saw Familia's final start in Hi-A and stated, "can see him as a big leaguer now more than the thrower he was before. He has worked really hard...good to see the results pay off …He was much more under control and made more timely adjustments on the mound."

Basically, the work that Familia put in last season, focusing so hard on his secondary offerings, will go a long way in allowing him to have success in the majors. Now his ultimate role is still TBD as that same scout still sees him as a reliever but as I stated in the Annual, the Mets are going to do all they can to keep him in the rotation. And with the huge strides he made least season, he's giving them plenty of reason to hope for the best.