STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Dario Agrazal has been thrust into the Pirates' rotation much sooner than anyone could have anticipated.
With what he's shown so far, he seems to be more capable than many might have thought. Let's not forget that you wouldn't have found Agrazal on any preseason top-30 prospects list, and you won't find him on any midseason update either.
In fact, the 24-year-old righty resided so deeply under the radar that the club was able to pass him through waivers in January of this year without a single team claiming him. Agrazal responded to the slight by continuing to tread water in the minors, with a combined 4.05 ERA in 14 starts between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. The big-league club likely put enough stock in his other peripherals -- namely, an increased ability to strike out hitters this season to the tune of 7.0 K/9, up from 5.4 the previous season -- to have confidence in bringing him to its ravaged rotation.
After another gem Sunday, Agrazal has proven to be able to get MLB hitters out on a consistent enough basis to serve as rotation depth at the very least, and perhaps a back-end starter at best.
The question now shifts to one that is more difficult to quantify. Does Agrazal have the staying power to build on this early success?
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE EXPECTING
Any discussion on Agrazal's ability to stick on the big league club must be framed around potential regression. Because, I'm here to tell you: The man has done nothing but do what has been asked of him each and every time he's taken the mound. He's now made five starts at the game's highest level, and in four of them he pitched six innings with no more than two earned runs allowed.
If anyone had predicted that, I'd like to walk up to them and ask them to be my life coach. I would it find it hard to believe that anyone would have expected such a run this early in his big-league career.
Of course, such a run of starts is almost 2018 second-half Trevor Williams-esque, and that in itself warrants a second look at the expected performance he has shown based on batted ball data.
Here, we see that what we think should be happening with Agrazal's batted balls is not necessarily that far off from what is actually going on. One big wart here is those FIP figures. An actual FIP of 5.15 is not all that attractive to begin with, to say nothing of his expected figure being a full run higher. Considering that FIP is itself a way to more accurately judge a pitcher's ability to limit runs than Earned Run Average (Agrazal's clocks in at 2.25), this should be alarming.
It takes on extra sensitivity when paired with his .241 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). You've seen me rail in this column about BABIP before, and I'm going to do it again. Agrazal's low, low BABIP has been earned, as he carries the third highest soft-hit percentage -- 18.9 percent -- of any Pirates starter with at least 20 innings pitched. He also carries a 38.9 percent hard-hit rate which is the third-highest among that group.
Will that .241 figure regress back to the mean? Well, sure it will. Even with my quibbles with BABIP, such a low number is unsustainable. But clearly Agrazal has done something to earn that figure, as temporary as it might be.
CRAFTING STRIKES THROUGH MOVEMENT
One thing that jumped out at me when looking over Agrazal's pitching lines to date has been an ability to freeze hitters for a strike. His called strike rate of 17 percent (meaning that 17 percent of his total pitches land for called strikes) puts him right in line with other hurlers in the team's rotation: Joe Musgrove carries a 16 percent rate; Jordan Lyles an 18 percent figure.
Here's a small selection of that 17 percent:
Did you happen to catch the movement on that first pitch, the one that froze Starlin Castro so well that it elicited such a strong "He got me!" reaction? There was some serious late movement on that sinker, and that movement is a hallmark. Agrazal's sinker carried 3.2 inches of horizontal break on average. Another way to look at it: That sinker moved 49 percent more than the MLB average sinker.
That's pretty darn good, but pardon me if I'm not all that excited about it. In today's game, the ability to have swing-and-miss stuff, or at least a modicum of it, is paramount. Agrazal simply does not have that just yet. The flip side of that 17 percent called strike rate is seen in a rather low six percent swinging-strike rate.
Agrazal carries a slider which is his second-most seen pitch at 21.5 percent (the sinker is first with a 57.4 percent usage). A just-good enough whiff-per-swing rate of 30.23 percent is seen, but that's not to say that Agrazal can't use it effectively, much as he did with this pitch:
— Jason Rollison (@jrollisonpgh) July 22, 2019
Still, Agrazal's slider carries 72 percent less horizontal movement than the MLB average while moving vertically right at the average of 40.1 inches. His slider's effectiveness is going to have to be maximized through good sequencing, and perhaps its ultimate role will be to setup other stuff more than the average slider-hurler, such as this at-bat against Curtis Granderson:
Here, Agrazal missed a spot on the slider (notice Elias Diaz's mitt on the first pitch) but salvaged it by coming right back with a high four-seamer, effectively mixing and matching location and velocity, even if it that wasn't necessarily how he wanted the at-bat to go.
So let's answer our question posited above. For Dario Agrazal to "stick," his control and movement will have to maintain their current levels while his contact peripherals will need to maintain their current rates. That's a tall order for any rookie pitcher who is pressed into action, and it's doubly true for someone whose best pitch is one that is eminently falling out of favor around the league, as hitters continue to adjust to it.
None of this is presented as surefire disclaimers that what Agrazal is doing can't be maintained, but all would do well to lower their expectations just a bit. Still, the results are hard to argue with, and this 24-year-old has the tools to prove that what we're seeing is anything but fluky.
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