Let's start with a little quiz:
Prospect 1 Age: 19 Level A/A+/AA 132 IP, 12.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 4.88 K/BB
Prospect 2 Age: 21 Level A+/AA 138 IP, 10.6 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 3.13 K/BB
So which prospect would you rather have?
Obviously, you wouldn’t complain about having either, and you would love to have both. Prospect 1 pitched in more hitter friendly environs, is two years younger, and showed better control along with his bushels of strikeouts. Just looking at the numbers, you’d probably take Prospect 1.
As you’ve probably deduced from the article title, you’ve just won Yusmeiro Petit, circa 2004.
Behind door number two is Tommy Hanson in 2008.
Yusmeiro Petit was the first Mets prospect I really followed when I started getting into prospects. And, why not? Those numbers jump right off the page at you. But there’s a reason he was ranked as the 46th best prospect by Baseball America after his season above, and Hanson was ranked fourth after his. Hanson was a lanky 6’6" with plenty of projectability and a fastball that sat in the low 90s. Petit was a little shorter than you’d like, a lot pudgier than you’d like, and topped out at 88.
But what about those numbers? Petit was certainly a real prospect. So let’s take a look back to see exactly how he ended up as a Quad-A pitcher kicking around the Pacific timezone.
Minor League Dominance
The Mets signed Yusmeiro Petit as an international free agent out of Venezuela in 2001 a week before his 17th birthday. He started in short season ball in 2003 and pitched very well in the Appy league and had a small cup of coffee with Brooklyn at the end of the season. 2004 was his breakout year listed above, but let’s look at it in a little more detail:
Starting out at full season ball in Capital City as a 19 year old is an aggressive promotion to begin with (the average age of pitchers in the Sally league that year was 21.6), but to make it all the way to Binghamton that same year is incredible. Petit showed very little deterioration in his peripherals as he went up each level and marked himself as one of the top prospects in the organization
Even at this point in time, there was still a big divide between statheads and scouts on just how good a prospect Petit was. Scouts saw a pudgy right hander who didn’t light up the radar gun, and was getting A ball hitters out with command, a funky delivery, and decent off speed stuff. Statheads, on the other hand…well, seriously, look at that 2004 line again.
John Sickels, who leans more on stats, ranked him as the Mets number one prospect, ahead of both Phil Humber and Lastings Milledge, and gave him a B+ grade Overall, he rated him the 21st best pitching prospect in baseball. As mentioned above, Baseball America, which tends to favor scouting reports/tools, ranked him 46th, thirty five spots behind Milledge and on par with pitchers like Humber, Dan Meyer and Anthony Reyes. Not a huge difference, really. Looking at his age relative to his league, and the video game on rookie mode peripherals, he simply had to rate highly.
Generally, the real test of the finesse righty types is seen at AA, a league Petit would start at in 2005 as a 20 year old, almost four and half years younger than the average pitcher in the league. He was simply dominant:
Age: 20 Level AA 117.2 IP, 9.9 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 7.22 K/BB, 0.92 WHIP
The one thing to note is the uptick in home run rate to 1.1 HR/9. At the time, it was hardly anything to be particularly worried about. NYSEG is a decent park for offense, and Petit was always a flyball pitcher who threw his change-up a lot. The K rate remained very strong, and the walks dropped enough to raise his K/BB ratio to 7.22. Petit had seen a similar uptick in his HR/9 rate at Capital City the year before, (apropos of nothing, am I the only one upset the Capital City team was called the Bombers and not the Goofballs) but then didn’t give up a home run in his last 56 innings between St. Lucie and Binghamton.
Petit got a late season call-up to Norfolk during their pennant push and got knocked around in three starts, though he pitched well in the playoffs. Coming off another successful season, Petit held serve with the statheads, ranking as a B+ prospect according to John Sickels, but dropped to the 69th best prospect on Baseball America's list, probably due to his late season struggles against AAA bats.
Of course, that offseason Petit was traded to the Marlins as part of the Carlos Delgado deal, which was probably Minaya’s best trade as Mets GM.
Go West, Young Prospect
Petit started the year with the Albuquerque Isotopes of the PCL and saw his first prolonged professional struggles. His control remained superlative, but he saw his K rate drop and his HR rate spike. Of course, the PCL in general, and Albuquerque in particular, is not a friendly place for a flyball pitcher without an overpowering fastball, but this had to set off some alarm bells. Petit bounced between the Marlins bullpen and starting in AAA. He pitched well out of the pen in May, but got lit up the rest of the year, finishing the year with a just horrible September. Throughout his time in the majors, the K and BB rates remained fine, but his propensity for surrendering the longball ballooned his ERA.
One offseason after being the key piece in a deal for Carlos Delgado, Petit found himself the key piece in a deal for…Jorge Julio. If Albuquerque was a bad place for his skillset, Arizona was worse. He spent the next three seasons bouncing between AAA and the majors, starting and relieving. His K and BB rates remained perfectly respectable, but he continued to give up home runs at a preposterous rate. His career xFIP (which regresses HR/FB rate) is nearly a full point lower than his ERA, but in a shade over two hundred innings he has proven to be your prototypical AAAA replacement level arm. (rWAR: -0.2, fWAR: 0.3). Now he is kicking around the Mariners organization, which is probably as ideal a landing spot for him as any, with good outfield defense and a longball suppressing home park, but Petit was assigned to minor league camp early in Spring Training this year and has yet to pitch an inning anywhere.
So what happened?
The short answer: Since 2006 Petit has the seventh highest HR/FB% in the majors, combined with the eleventh highest overall flyball rate, (min 200 IP) giving him, by far, the highest HR/9 rate over that period.* (1.96)
*Hey, there’s another personal favorite, Jae Seo, at #2.
The long answer: Let’s compare Petit to Tommy Hanson again. Hanson doesn’t put up the same video game peripherals that he did in the minors either, but he’s able to keep the ball on the ground a reasonable amount (his career GB rate is ten percent better than Petit’s), and keeps the ball in the park when it does. Now some of that is due to luck, and a decent amount due to park effects, (which is why Hanson’s career xFIP is only .80 lower than Petit’s, significant, though less than you would expect looking at their traditional stats) but most of it is due to stuff. The precisely located 88 mph fastball and unorthodox motion that Petit used to befuddle minor league bats too often looked like batting practice to major league sluggers. It wasn’t that he lost his command, or couldn’t fool major league hitters some of the time; it’s just his margin for error was razor thin compared to Hanson. Even when Hanson isn’t getting Ks, his two plus pitches are harder to hit hard.
Looking back, the Baseball America quote about him from 2005 is telling:
"I just can't hit him. You just can't pick the ball up off him."
--Red Sox outfielder Brandon Moss
Compare that to the quote about John Danks, ranked thirteen spots lower, from the same year:
"He has a chance to be a No. 1 or 2 starter in the big leagues. He throws three pitches for strikes, and they're all plus pitches."
--Cedar Rapids manager Bobby Magallanes
So which prospect would you rather have now?
So stuff matters. So do groundballs. Petit’s standard four-pitch arsenal simply can’t get groundballs. He did throw his slider a lot in the majors, but it just isn’t a good enough pitch to avoid hard hit balls. You can basically say the same for his fastball and change, which tend not to generate a lot of groundballs anyway. You could live with the high HR/FB rate. Brett Myers and Cla Meredith’s are both higher than Petit since 2006, but they both get far more groundballs, so their overall home run rates are more acceptable.
In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James has a category called "Could I Try This Career Over?" For each decade he selects a player he thinks would have done better with another shot at his career. Could be a player who had to sit on the bench for too long, had a career derailed by injuries, or had a skillset that wasn’t appreciated in his era or suited to his home park.
I do wonder a bit what Petit would have done outside of the launching pad of Chase Field. Now it’s certainly possible, even likely, that Petit would have topped out as a replacement level bullpen arm. Every organization has a few guys that, despite lacking even average fastball velocity, get guys out based on their ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes. For example, the Mets have quiet a few arms that fall into that category (Dillon Gee, Dylan Owen, Mark Cohoon, Brandon Moore). But even average offspeed and breaking stuff can make a fringy minor league arm look like a potential back of the rotation stalwart. That said, I still think Petit could have a major league career. He is 26, has an averageish strike out rate and an above average BB rate, and in the right ballpark on a second division team (say, Safeco, and the Mariners). I do think he could be a successful back of the rotation arm for a few years.
∫A Modern Day Petit?
Of course, that hasn’t happened, so it is worth taking a look at what current Mets prospect might end up following a similar road. I mentioned a few names up above. Dillon Gee doesn’t quite fit, as he has a legitimate plus pitch in his change-up, and never put up the crazy numbers that Petit did down on the farm. Someone on AA mentioned Brian Bannister as a possible comp for Gee, and that’s probably more accurate. Dylan Owen is a better point of comparison, but he never really passed the AA test, and has gotten knocked around the last few years in the upper minors. Cohoon is left-handed and has a very strong groundball rate, so he’s not a great comp either.
I think Brandon Moore works, sort of. Last year he had a strong season across multiple levels, and although he was much older than Petit, put up those same video game peripherals. Like Petit he sits right around 87-88 mph with his fastball and uses a funky frisbee slider to get minor league bats to swing and miss. He gets more groundballs than Petit and obviously has age relative to league issues, but he seems to be the closest I can get. In the end, Petit is near singular among prospects for his record of putting up elite prospect numbers with fringe prospect stuff.
I named my 2005 AL-only fantasy team The Yusmeiro Petits. I rode a strong John Lackey season and a post-trade deadline waiver pick-up of Placido Polanco to the title. Ah, 2005.
I think I have a particular affinity for Petit since I too was a righty without ideal velocity who threw four pitches for strikes (sinker, slider, change, knuckle curve, in case you were wondering) and gave up too many home runs. Of course, my arsenal had issues getting Babe Ruth hitters out. I had a prospect crush on Brian Bannister for the same reason. (plus he’s a stathead)
I am kind of pleased that the auto tag and link function doesn't recognize Jorge Julio as a major league baseball player.
I am planning on doing Brian Bannister next (going to try and make these bi-weekly) and then probably Lastings Milledge, but I am open to profiling just about anyone you are interested in reading about.