The heater. Gas. Cheddar. The fastball is the bread-and-butter of a pitcher. In the last decade, the average fastball velocity has risen by roughly two miles per hour, and since the turn of the new millennium, it has risen almost five. Increasingly, teams are placing more of an emphasis on velocity.
Due to a number of factors- injuries, trades, retirements, inaccurate reports, or a concentrated effort to reign in velocity in exchange for some additional modicum of control- the Mets system currently has few pitchers capable of throwing in the upper-90s.
Junior Santos was born in Santiago, Dominican Republic, a city of roughly 1.2 million on the north-central side of the island. As is the case with thousands and thousands of Dominicans, he took up baseball, was discovered by a buscone, and began training at a young age to impress scouts and baseball evaluators in the hopes of being signed by a major league ballclub. If nothing else, Santos had size on his side; when he turned sixteen, the young right-hander was 6’6”. He impressed the Mets’ scouting contingent, and on June 2, 2018, the very first day of the 2018-2019 international free agent signing period, the team signed him $275,000.
The Mets were particularly aggressive with Santos, assigning him to the Dominican Summer League immediately instead of opting to wait to have him debut professionally the following season. He made 11 appearances for the DSL Mets, making ten starts and posting a 2.80 ERA in 45.0 innings, allowing 35 hits, walking 6, and striking out 36. Continuing to challenge Santos, who by this point had grown an additional two inches or so, the Mets sent him stateside to end the 2018 season. He appeared in three games for the GCL Mets and posted a perfect 0.00 ERA in 5.0 innings, allowing 4 hits, walking 0, and striking out 3.
Continuing to challenge him, the Mets promoted Santos to the Kingsport Mets for the 2019 season. While the numbers Santos has put up for the year are not as sterling and impressive as the numbers he put up in 2018, his potential remains sky high.
Junior Santos towers over virtually all of his competition, standing 6’8”. The right-hander grew about two inches since signing with the Mets, and in theory, his growth spurt might not be done as he just turned 18 in mid-August. While height is a coveted for pitchers, as pitchers that are tall generally develop bodies that are durable and have fastballs with perceived velocities that are faster than what they are actually throwing due to their long arms, too much height can be a bad thing. Tall pitchers often have trouble repeating their mechanics, leading to control problems. Luckily for the Mets, control problems are not really much of a problem for Santos. Throwing from a three-quarters arm slot, Santos throws with a simple, repeatable delivery.
His fastball ranges from 90-97 MPH, settling in at 94-95. The Kingsport Mets players sitting next to me charting his start were consistently getting readings on their radar guns two miles-per-hour higher than mine. Given that I was a few seats askew whereas they were sitting dead center, their readings may be more accurate than mine thanks to radar parallax. As such, that would mean that Santos’ fastball was sitting 96-97 MPH and hitting 99 MPH. Pitch movement is just as important as velocity, and in Santos’ case, he is able to impart slight glove-side movement on his fastball.
Santos’ secondary pitches are still works in progress, but given that he is just 18 with roughly one year of professional experience, this is understandable. Coming into the season, he threw a rough, slurvy breaking ball, but he seems to have tightened it up a bit. It still did not have much lateral break, but had a fair amount of vertical drop. His changeup consistently sat 78-79 MPH. He did not slow his arm speed when throwing the pitch, tipping hitters, and the pitch had vertical drop.
Santos was able to throw his fastball to all four quadrants of the strike zone and generally threw his slider and changeup low in the zone and outside of it. He generally worked down and away to right-handers, which bears out in the numbers. He is able to induce weak contact, resulting in right-handers having a low slugging percentage against him, but because he does not have pinpoint control, he issues his fair share of free passes, resulting in right-handers getting on base at an inflated amount.
While the Mets were aggressive in Santos’ assignment, they have been careful to manage his workload. Santos is unlikely to surpass 50 innings on the season, which is how many he threw last season with the DSL and GCL Mets combined. He has averaged roughly 50 pitches per start, which have generally been three innings apiece, which is a bit inefficient.
Junior Santos is still raw as a pitcher, but that is to be expected. While his numbers do not immediately jump off the page, he more than held his own this season as the youngest pitcher in the Appalachian League. Given his size and fastball, he has an immense amount of potential. Key to the right-handers’ future development will be refining his secondary pitches and being more efficient as a pitcher.
The Mets signed Michel Otanez on for the relatively low sum of $35,000 on July 2, 2016, coincidentally a day after his birthday. As an 18-year-old, he was a bit older than other international free agent signings, but the Mets were intrigued his big 6’ 3” prototypical pitcher’s frame, and the big-time arm strength he showcased on the mound. The organization sent him to the Dominican Summer League to make his professional debut shortly after signing and the right-hander posted a 4.64 ERA in 21.1 innings, allowing 23 hits, walking 6, and striking out 21. Perhaps most importantly for a pitcher as raw as Otanez was at the time, his stuff looked particularly promising. His fastball reportedly sat in the mid-90s, and occasionally touched a little higher during his first summer in the organization. Otanez experienced the first major setback in his professional career after the end of the 2016 season, when he underwent Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his 2017 season before it started.
Otanez missed the 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, returning to the mound in 2018 as a 20-year-old. The Mets assigned him to the GCL Mets, and he generally struggled in his return to action, posting a 7.64 ERA in 35.1 innings, allowing 42 hits, walking 24, and striking out 33. As is the case with most players returning from Tommy John surgery, it takes some time to work the rust out, and Otanez has been decidedly better in 2019. He began the season with the Kingsport Mets, and there, he enjoyed the first real run of sustained success in his short professional career. Making seven starts, he posted a 3.31 ERA in 32.2 innings, allowing 26 hits, walking 11, and striking out 44. He earned a promotion to the Brooklyn Cyclones in late July and has been almost as efficient, posting a 2.49 ERA in 25.1 innings, allowing 21 hits, walking 14, and striking out 22.
Standing 6’ 3” and weighing 215 pounds, Otanez possesses an ideal pitcher’s frame. He is already physically filled for the most part, and while I don’t think it is impossible that he finds an extra tick or two on the fastball down the road from improved conditioning or additional strength, the right-hander doesn’t really have much projection left in his body.
Tommy John surgery did not sap Otanez’ fastball. Throwing from a high-three-quarters arm slot, the pitch sits 93-96, occasionally touching 97 and 98 MPH. In addition to velocity, his fastball has a little arm-side run to it, especially when working the pitch away to left-handed hitters. Perhaps a result of the velocity with which he throws it, Otanez’ command of the pitch is relatively scattershot. He struggled to hit his spots consistently through the 1.2 innings he threw when I saw him, and his fastball command was partially bad at the higher end of his velocity band. He ended up airmailing one of the pitches he threw at 97 MPH, and missed his spot by about two feet towards the opposite side of the plate on one of the two pitches that he threw at 98 MPH. While the velocity that Otanez is able to get on his fastball is impressive, his inability to command the pitch put him behind in the count regularly.
Otanez complements his big fastball with a pair secondary pitches that are still very much works in progress. Both are both relatively raw, and have a long way to go if they are going to be effective against more advanced hitters as he works his way up the organizational ladder. The more effective of the two is a breaking ball that is either a very slurvy slider or a loose, 11-5 curveball that generally sits between 82 and 84 MPH. Otanez will need to focus on tightening up the break on the pitch going forward if it is going to be effective against more advanced hitters. He also showed a tendency to spike the pitch in the dirt pretty regularly, and left the pitch up and out over the plate multiple times during the outing. His changeup is less advanced than the breaking ball, coming in firm and with just a little arm-side fade at around 88 MPH. He only threw a few of them, but the pitch comes in looking like a slightly softer version of his fastball, with little vertical movement. He seemed to tip one or two of them out of the hand, and you could see from behind the plate that he was making a concerted effort to turn the ball over when throwing the pitch.
When looking at Otanez’ mechanics, it’s easy to see where the mid-to-upper-90s velocity, as well as the difficulty he has commanding it, comes from. Otanez uses a lower leg kick than most pitchers use, which suggests to me that he primarily uses his upper body to generate his above-average velocity. He makes a concerted effort as he enters his minimal leg lift to turn his body as far back as he can before exploding forward, in an attempt to maximize his hip-shoulder separation by the time his front foot lands, and generate every bit of torque that he can as he fires towards the plate. This naturally creates a high degree of effort throughout his motion, and particularly creates a lot of violence in his arm action. His body snaps forward so quickly as he drives to the plate that his arm often struggles to stay on time with the rest of his body, which often leads to less than stellar command. All of this suggests that the right-hander’s future may be in the bullpen, although there is considerable risk that his well-below average command at present will prevent him from succeeding there if he is unable to improve it.
Despite his advanced age relative to the competition he’s facing, Otanez is still extremely raw as a pitcher- which you would expect from someone who has missed as much development time due to injury as he has,. While he is definitely among the hardest throwers in the Mets system, the effort that he uses in his delivery to generate velocity, and the well-below average command of his pitches that comes as a result of it, point to a future as a reliever. Even then, Otanez will need to take a few steps forward both in his ability to command his arsenal, and in developing at least one of his well below-average secondary pitches into legitimate off-speed offerings that will keep hitters from sitting on his big fastball if he is going to have success against more advanced hitters in the upper minors and beyond.