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Could Austin Pruitt be Brent Strom’s best project yet?

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As I’m sure you know already, the Houston Astros made a trade yesterday for Austin Pruitt.

And while Spencer Morris will take a deeper look at the prospects involved in the trade, I wanted to really deep dive into our new pitcher and see what the Astros saw in him.

Who is Austin Pruitt?

Austin Pruitt is a 5’11” right-handed pitcher, hailing originally from The Woodlands College Park High School in Texas, later pitching for the University of Houston. Pruitt was a late round draft pick (9th round), largely due to his diminutive stature. Luckily, the Astros seem to have a way of getting the most out of their undersized pitchers.

John Sickels profiled Austin Pruitt when he was officially added to Tampa Bay’s roster:

“Pruitt is undersized for a right-hander at 5-11, 170, part of the reason he hasn’t ranked highly on prospect lists despite his track record. He does have decent stuff, with a fastball in the 89-93 range and a quality curveball, the entire package playing up due to his ability to locate his pitches. He has proven very durable, holding up under a heavy minor league workload, and has simple, repeatable mechanics.

In real baseball terms, he should provide consistent strike-throwing, good makeup and clubhouse presence, and the ability to move back to starting if a spot opens up somehow.”

He was listed in Fangraphs’ 2017 top prospects as an “Other Prospect of Note” with this commentary:

“He’s small (listed at 5-foot-11, 165 on Tampa’s roster) but an exceptional athlete with great command and a good curveball. He only throws 87-91, maybe touching 93 or 94 once in a while, with command to both sides of the plate. He’s adept at locating a mid-80s cutter to his glove side, away from righties, while his curveball is hard (for a guy who throws 88) and is totally vertical in the 77-81 mph range. “

During the minor leagues, Pruitt consistently impressed. Tearing through the minors with ERAs in the 3’s and solid all around numbers, despite the lack of pedigree, he earned the 2016 MVP for the Durham Bulls. All of this led him to be the first of the Rays’ 2013 draft picks to make the majors.

Here was Fangraphs’ comment on him in 2017 when he was highlighted in their “My Favorite Reliever of the Month”:

“The point, rather, is that Pruitt has flown under the radar, in part because he doesn’t throw overwhelming stuff, and in part because he measures in at under six feet. “

MLB Performance

Some Astros fans may remember Pruitt, as in his 3rd ever career start, he shut down the Astros for a scoreless 6 13 innings.

Pruitt has been primarily used as a long reliever with only 10 of his 67 outings being of the starter variety. It’s easy to dismiss him with a 4.87 ERA and a career 1.0 WAR across 200 IP. But his FIP (4.17) and SIERA (4.23) both show some indications of poor luck, though still nothing to write home about.

From a health perspective, Pruitt has been remarkably healthy. He has had two (2) 7-day DL stints across his entire major/minor league career, with immediate returns both times.

There’s nothing in his career history that screams excitement or intrigue. But his history isn’t why the Astros targeted him. It was due to his arsenal.

Arsenal

Pruitt’s pitches
BaseballSavant / Statcast

Pruitt has a 5 pitch arsenal, I removed the Sinker from the graphic as it was both infrequently used, and I would be willing to bet that the Astros will remove it from his arsenal. The pitch was absolutely demolished last year, getting hit for a 1.215 wOBA and 0.791 xwOBA. For comparison, his second worst pitch comes in at a .335 xwOBA.

BaseballSavant / Statcast

Of note, while Pruitt’s velocity is nothing to write home about, from an initial glance, he is a spin rate lover’s dream.

His fastball sits at 91.9 mph on average, but the 2,408 RPM spin rate would lead him to a touch over 26.2 in Bauer units. That number outranks some ace caliber pitchers including Cole. (This is not a claim that he’d be better, just trying to show where he’d rank in the spectrum – Pruitt’s shortcoming is the velocity)

His curveball is a thing of beauty, coming in at 2,999 RPM. That ranks 10th among all pitchers who threw more than 20 curveballs last year.

He also features a solid slider also ranks in the top 50 of baseball from a spin rate just 10 rpm below Clayton Kershaw.

His changeup has actually been his best pitch, although it has been seldom used with 13%, 9%, and 19% of his pitches being the changeup over the past 3 years.

You may be wondering why all of this matters. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend reading on the Strom Magic Method. It highlights what pitchers that the Astros have had the most success with and why. Which generally is the following:

[ X ] High Spin Rate 4-Seamer (gives more of a rise)

[ ] High Velocity Fastball

[ X ] High Spin Rate Breaking pitch (preferably Curve)

[ X ] A Terrible pitch to eliminate (preferably Sinker)

Pruitt does not have the elite velocity, but checks the majority of the boxes of players that Astros pitching coach Brent Strom has been able to turn around.

So there’s another layer here which adds to the excitement. I highlighted above that Pruitt’s spin rates have been elite, which may have you wondering why he results have been so poor if that is the case. It’s largely due to the fact that Pruitt ranks horribly in Active Spin or True/Useful Spin.

Baseball Savant / Statcast

Out of 696 pitchers in baseball, Pruitt ranks 639th?! Meaning all of that spin is basically useless? Well, yes and no. Here’s a quick quote from Swathmore Phoenix:

True spin, also called useful spin, is the amount of spin on a pitch that directly affects the movement of the pitch. Spin efficiency is the true spin divided by the total spin. We can essentially think about it as how much movement on a pitch is left inside a pitcher that isn’t currently being used. This is perhaps the greatest benefit the Rapsodo brings to Swarthmore pitchers. For example, when practicing throwing their curveball, Swarthmore pitchers can throw a pitch and then immediately check the Rapsodo data to see if their spin axis and efficiency was optimal. They can then make the mechanical changes to their curveball, and the learning process moves much faster than it would without the Rapsodo.

Think about that, Pruitt has one of the highest spin rates in baseball (how much potential movement) but is one of the lowest in how well it’s been utilized, Pruitt is an ultimate buy-low candidate. With training similar to what Swathmore Pheonix mentioned, we could see a drastically different pitcher getting the most out of the elite spin rates he possesses instead of the least.

Conclusion

I think no matter what happens this off-season, people will be disappointed given the end of last season, the scandals, loss of Cole/Harris ,etc. I think that’s completely understandable, and I can see why no one is jumping up and down out of excitement in acquiring a pitcher with a career ERA in the high 4’s. I’m not sitting here claiming that Pruitt is the next Cole, but I do think people are drastically underrating him.

The Astros have a formidable rotation with ace’s like Verlander, Greinke, and McCullers solidifying the front end. They have a myriad of potential options behind them with potential upside ranging from Urquidy, James, Whitley, Peacock, etc. Pruitt seems like a solid addition with a potential of upside if they can convert more of his spin to be active spin. He does align well with Brent Strom’s methodologies, and has had an extremely clean bill of health. His record while starting throughout the minors was solid.

I believe Pruitt has a chance to break into the rotation, even if he is later displaced by a prospect like Whitley. His versatility and ability to be a long reliever could also fill the gap with the void left by departures of Harris and Rondon and seemingly likely departure of McHugh.

If Strom can harness the existing spin rate and make it active spin, the Astros could strike gold. If Pruitt converts his elite spin rates to active spin, he will be a quick addition to the list of astonishing turn arounds that have become Strom’s legacy:

  • Pre-Strom Collin McHugh – 8.94 ERA, Post-Strom McHugh – 3.63 ERA
  • Pre-Strom Will Harris – 4.26 ERA, Post-Strom Harris – 2.36 ERA
  • Pre-Strom Charlie Morton – 4.54 ERA, Post-Strom Morton – 3.24 ERA
  • Pre-Strom Gerrit Cole – 3.50 ERA, Post-Strom Cole – 2.68 ERA

He’d go from a pitcher with okay movement to one with one of the best in the league.

I am definitely more excited about this acquisition than most people, but a pitcher who has elite spin rates, is undervalued due to size, and is a home-town Houston kid… I think there is valid reason for excitement!

Welcome to the team, Austin Pruitt!

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Author:

Brian Cohn

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