Prospect Profile: Eric Surkamp
Earlier today Baseball America came out with their top-100 prospects list which included all of two Giants minor-leaguers, with Brandon Belt and Zack Wheeler clocking in at 23rd and 55th respectively. The rest of the system, which is largely viewed as “bottom heavy,” has been left out of the conversation in terms of who deserves our attention. I took this as a good excuse to profile one of my favorite Giants prospects, left-handed pitcher Eric Surkamp.
Last year I went out on a limb and ranked Surkamp the 5th best prospect in the Giants’ system. He rewarded my rating by continuing to put up dominant numbers to the tune of 3.11 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 2 BB/9, and a 1.00 WHIP at High-A ball in San Jose. For those of you who care little for statistics, the rough translation of those numbers denotes that he struck out a lot of hitters, walked very few, and allowed even fewer baserunners. Armed with an 86-88 mph fastball and a wicked curveball, he carved up minor leaguers in 2010. The one caveat here is that he did all this as a 22 year-old in the low minors, so the true test of his mettle will be how he fares once he gets to AAA Fresno.
The scouts would have you believe that Surkamp is a finesse-type pitcher who needs to pitch to contact as a result of his mid-to-high 80’s fastball. Baseball Prospectus’ “Future Shock” series describes Surkamp as a “A finesse lefty, (who) will need to prove that he can get upper-level hitters out without cracking 90 mph on his fastball.” Firstly, his left-handedness doesn’t automatically qualify him as a “finesse” pitcher. Until his K-rate drops below 7-8 K/9, he’s a strikeout pitcher through and through. Secondly, he’s managed to get lower-level hitters out without cracking 90 mph. By that logic, there’s a decent chance of success at the upper levels. Every step of the way, he’s gotten flak for not throwing hard enough to back up his gaudy strikeout numbers. To this, I respond by quoting Michael Lewis’ acclaimed look at a season in the Oakland Athletics front office, Moneyball:
To place a premium on velocity for its own sake was like placing a premium on a big vocabulary for its own sake. To say all pitchers should pitch like Nolan Ryan was as absurd as insisting that all writers should write like John Updike. Good pitchers were pitchers who got outs; how they did it was beside the point.
In this passage, Lewis is referencing the way the Oakland front office had scouted and drafted a lefty with an 86-88 mph fastball with a wicked curveball who famously went on to win a Cy Young. This lefty goes by the name of Barry Zito, and he’s currently under employment by our own San Francisco Giants to the tune of $17 million a year. While Zito may not be the same pitcher he was now, if Surkamp can be anything like early 00’s Zito, I’d say he deserves to be called one of the top prospects in baseball, or at least in the conversation for the top 100.
To say that Surkamp won’t be able to succeed because of his velocity is something that flies in the face of everything that modern statistics tell us. Statistics paint a picture for us of actual tangible results, as well as giving us a good idea of what a player is capable of. Scouting tells us the potential of a player in terms of what the human eye can see. A pitcher has a large frame and throws hard, so to a scout he’s a premium prospect who will throw 200 innings every season for 15 years with a fair amount of success. This says nothing about what this pitcher has already accomplished, and leaves us with very little in terms of tangible predictability.
Rumors around the water-cooler tell us that Surkamp is to begin the year at AA, and could possibly be in line for a promotion should the Giants need a spot starter. The organization seems to believe in the young lefty; it’s the rest of the scouting community that doesn’t seem to agree. Pitchers like the Yankees’ Andrew Brackman get high marks for their build and velocity, while Surkamp languishes in obscurity in the minds of so-called experts.
Brackman is a perfect example of the scouting bias that surrounds a pitcher: the big righty (6′11”, 230) went under the knife for Tommy John surgery fresh out of college, so his health is obviously an issue. After getting knocked around as a 24 year-old at A+ ball (5.10 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 8.4 K/9), he was promoted to AA where he showed improvement in the ERA department (3.01), but tripled his BB/9 numbers (3.4 BB/9) while his K/9 suffered. He’s a year older than Surkamp putting up inferior numbers in the lower minors and yet he makes it comfortably into Baseball America’s top 100 at #78, likely only because he was a borderline first-rounder in 2007 (30th overall).
If there’s one thing you take away from this, let it be that despite criticism, Eric Surkamp is legitimate pitching prospect that should enter the conversation when talking about who the best 100 prospects in baseball are. Without the aid of the plus fastball, he’s dominated hitters everywhere he’s been, and from the looks of it 2011 will be no exception. Wait and see folks.