I had a conversation in the State College press box last week about who was the higher rated prospect: Stetson Allie or Nick Kingham. We rated Allie as the higher prospect in our mid-August top 10 update, and in the State College wrap up, Allie was picked over Kingham in four of five lists.
Nick Kingham is coming off a year where he put up a 2.15 ERA in 71 innings, along with a 6.0 K/9 and a 1.9 BB/9 ratio. He displayed good fastball command, throwing in the 90-93 MPH range often, and also showing a nice curveball and a good changeup. His 6′ 5″, 220 pound frame could make him a 200 inning a year starter one day.
Stetson Allie came out of the 2010 draft with a lot more hype than Kingham, but didn’t have nearly the same results in the New York Penn League. In 26 innings he posted a 6.58 ERA, along with a 9.7 K/9 and a 10.0 BB/9 ratio. Coming out of the draft he was touching 100 MPH, although he slowed things down to the mid-90s this year to work on his fastball command.
It’s easy to see why there is a debate to be had. Kingham clearly had better numbers than Allie. He has a good mixture of pitches, a good build, and they’re both coming out of high school, which puts them about the same as far as pro experience. If you’re only looking at the 2011 results, then clearly Kingham is the choice.
When I’m ranking prospects, I try to look past the current season. I try to look at the entire body of work, as well as the skills the player has, and how those skills could develop going forward. There’s too much temptation to only include the current season’s results. If a top prospect has a horrible season, we forget about everything that made him a top prospect, and we focus only on the recent results. If a player has a breakout year, we elevate him up the prospect ranks, and in some cases, ignore some of the reasons why the player was ranked so low to begin with. That’s not saying that players who have a good year shouldn’t be moved up, or vice versa. It’s just saying that the current year should be put in perspective.
I saw Allie and Kingham pitch throughout the year this past year. I was impressed with Kingham, to the point where I might be higher on him than anyone else. At the same time, Allie disappointed early, but gradually made improvements, and was impressive the last time I saw him. Here is what I saw out of each player this year.
I first saw Kingham pitch on June 22nd. It was his second start of the year, one start after he gave up five runs in three innings in his 2011 debut. Kingham had a great start, with one run on five hits in five innings, while walking none and striking out eight. The thing I was most impressed with was his curveball. The curveball was said to be below average and inconsistent prior to the start of the season. It looked pretty good when I saw it, with Kingham fooling a lot of batters and getting a lot of strikeouts with the pitch.
One downside for Kingham this year came with the lack of strikeouts. That’s not really a concern for me. As the year went on, Kingham worked more and more on his fastball command. It got to the point where he threw maybe 2-3 curveballs per outing. That eventually led to his curveball getting rusty. When I saw him on September 1st, his curve didn’t look as sharp as it did on June 22nd, due to that rust. However, he stepped up with his changeup, which looked excellent. He ended up pitching five shutout innings, allowing one hit, two walks, and striking out three.
Kingham’s fastball command has made some strides this year, but he’s still got work to do on the pitch. He throws down plane to both sides of the plate, and has a blow up bat mentality, attacking hitters with the pitch. He throws it 90-93 MPH early in the game, although his velocity drops off after a few innings. That’s not a big concern, but just puts his velocity in to perspective, as he’s not throwing 93 MPH in the fifth inning.
I’ve said before that Kingham is basically what we want Zack Von Rosenberg to become. He’s got some decent velocity on his fastball, a good curveball, and a good changeup. If Von Rosenberg added a few MPH to his fastball, and developed a good changeup, he would probably move up the prospect ranks. That’s why I have no problem putting Kingham in the top 10. However, things need to be put in perspective.
Kingham throws a nice curveball and changeup, and has shown good fastball command with good velocity. He’s used that trio to put up an amazing season. However, this season took place in short season A-ball. In situations like this, there almost seems to be an illusion that the player has little to work on, and we can just watch him move up the ranks, having success at each different level. That’s not really the case. Kingham’s pitches are good, but they’re good in relation to his level. His fastball command still needs some work, as he does leave it up in the zone a bit. His curveball and changeup are good, but they’re not good enough to dominate AA hitters the same way he dominated low-A hitters this year. Kingham is looking like a promising prospect, but there’s only so much value you can place on low-A numbers.
I saw Allie three times this year. The first time came in Spring Training. He was pitching a simulated game against a lot of the guys who played for the GCL Pirates this year. His control was horrible, and he was pulled before he could complete an inning, due to a high pitch count. After some work with Jim Benedict, he returned to the game, but still struggled, getting hit hard a few times.
Allie is a major project. He was taken as a pitcher out of high school, although he spent more time as a third baseman. He started pitching his junior year of high school, and didn’t really convert to a pitcher until his senior year. Since he could throw 100 MPH with a plus slider, he didn’t have to worry about pitching. He was just a thrower, and managed to have success against high school hitters as a result. Obviously the same approach won’t play in the pros, which is what the Pirates have been working on this year.
I saw Allie again when he made his pro debut in State College. His command was much better, with a very effective first two innings, although he fell apart in the third. He showed his nice slider, getting a few strikeouts, and was an overall improvement over what I saw in Spring Training.
As the year went on, Allie struggled, and was eventually moved to the bullpen. He was moved to the bullpen so that he could pitch every three days instead of every five days. The main goal with Allie this year has been working on repeating his delivery, which will help with his command issues. The move to the bullpen was made so that he could work on that more frequently in game situations. In bullpen sessions, Allie doesn’t have the same problems he has in the games. The key is getting him to apply the same command in game situations.
I saw Allie at the end of the season, the same night I saw Kingham, and ironically, one night after the Allie/Kingham debate. What I saw that night was night and day different than what I saw in Spring Training. Allie needed 14 pitches to get through the inning. He worked both sides of the plate, showing nice command of his fastball. He pushed hitters off the plate, then worked the outer half for strikes. He pitched down in the zone with good velocity and good movement.
All year Allie has been in the 91-95 MPH range when I’ve seen him, but he’s mostly been in the 94-95 MPH range. He’s dropped his velocity to focus on command. The command has made visible improvements throughout the year, although it’s not yet a finished product. Allie also has a plus slider, which is a nasty out pitch that he didn’t get much of a chance to use this year. He doesn’t have much of a changeup, although it’s something he’s been working on, getting a feel for the pitch off of flat ground.
Allie is definitely a project. He needs to continue to work on fastball command, and he needs to develop a changeup. However, the talent is there. Even when slowing down his fastball, he throws 94-95 MPH. He’s got a plus slider, and he’s not afraid to attack hitters by pitching inside. His numbers have been horrible this year, so he’s pretty much being ranked off of his abilities, which haven’t translated over to on-field success.
Obviously if you’re looking at the results in State College, Kingham wins out. But what about when you look at the skill? Allie throws a 94-95 MPH fastball. Kingham throws 90-93 MPH. Kingham has better control and command, although he’s also been pitching longer than Allie, and Allie has shown improvements in that area. Allie has a plus slider. Kingham has a good curveball, although I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near a plus pitch. Kingham has a good changeup, while Allie is working on developing the pitch.
A lot of people want to write Allie off as a reliever right away. Allie’s projection has always been that he has the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter, although it will be a project to get him there, and if that project fails, he will make a star reliever. For some reason, people want to call the starting project a failure with half a season in the pros, and just work on Allie as a reliever. He’s very raw, and it’s still going to be a project for Allie to be a starter, but I think he’s got the chance to be a starter one day.
When it comes to their stuff, Allie’s stuff is better than Kingham’s. Kingham’s stuff is more polished right now, which leads to better results. Kingham’s got some room for improvement, but unless he starts throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s, or turns one of his secondary pitches in to a plus offering, I don’t see him as more than a strong number three starter. Allie, on the other hand, has a plus fastball and a plus slider, but lacks the polish.
It’s really a classic debate between current result and future potential. The safe bet right now is Kingham, because he’s already putting up the strong numbers. However, if you only go on the numbers this year, you assume that we won’t see any progression from Allie, or that Kingham is guaranteed to match the pace of Allie’s progression, always staying one step ahead.
I can see how someone would rank Kingham ahead of Allie. It’s not like there’s a huge difference between the two. In fact, I can’t even guarantee that I’ll have Allie over Kingham after a whole off-season of debating the subject. One thing I want to avoid is a certain phenomenon that comes with ranking prospects.
When a player is having a down year, there seems to be a tendency to provide instant analysis on how his year impacts the rankings. After a down month, the player moves down the prospect ranks, due to this instant analysis. If the player struggles for another month, there’s a desire to move him down further. The more a player struggles, the more you want to move him down. The same phenomenon exists when a player does well. If a player performs well for half a season, he moves up the ranks. If he continues to perform well for the remainder of the year, people ask if he should continue to move up.
We had Allie ranked 4th overall to start the year. Around the middle of the season we had Allie ranked 7th, due to his command issues. In our August rankings, he dropped to 8th, basically staying in the same range. The first rankings came before Allie’s season started, but after I saw him in Spring Training. The second rankings came towards the end of his season, before I saw him in his final outing.
Allie didn’t move much throughout the year, mostly because the move already happened. He dropped from 4th to 7th/8th, falling from one of the top groups of prospects to a lesser tier. He fell because of the control issues. To have him fall further would be counting him twice for the same issue, just because he didn’t fix the issue in the span of two months.
If Allie didn’t have the command issues, he would easily be a top three prospect with his fastball/slider combo. He does have the command issues, which is why he falls further down the list, but his fastball/slider combo keeps him in the top 10. At some point you have to draw a line. You can look at the numbers and put Kingham ahead of Allie, but where does that analysis end? Ryan Hafner had better numbers than Allie at the same level, but threw in the upper 80s and left the ball up in the zone a lot. Do you rank Hafner ahead of Allie? What about Zack Dodson, who had strong numbers in West Virginia, and improved fastball command from 2010 to 2011, but ultimately doesn’t have the same stuff as Allie? Do you drop Allie further because Allie had a down year and Dodson had a good year?
If Allie and Kingham both had the same stuff, and Kingham was performing better, the decision would be easy. The decision becomes complicated because Allie has the stuff, but not the results, while Kingham has the results, but his stuff isn’t as good. The choice also becomes complicated when you focus on both players’ numbers side by side. Allie is in the bottom half of the top 10 because of his control issues. Kingham rose to the bottom half of the top 10 because of his strong season and his three pitch combo. From there, if you start comparing players side by side, and focusing on results, you run in to the problem I highlighted above. If you drop Allie past Kingham, then what happens with the next player on the list? The same approach drops Allie one more spot, and one more spot, until he’s eventually out of the top 30, as his 2011 numbers probably won’t look as good as a lot of guys in the top 30. That’s why you need to focus on the stuff, and less on one year of numbers. Yes, the numbers are important, but there needs to be some perspective involved. The top prospect lists aren’t lists based on who had the best season in 2011. They’re lists based on who projects to be the better major league players.
The 2011 season was one season’s worth of results. It happened in low-A ball for Allie and Kingham. Kingham was ahead this year, but that doesn’t guarantee he will always be one step ahead of Allie. As far as stuff goes, Allie is currently ahead of Kingham. As far as polish, Kingham is ahead of Allie. My personal stance is that it’s easier to teach polish than it is to teach stuff. You can’t really teach the fastball/slider combo that Allie has. You can teach the polish that Kingham has. So while Kingham’s results are better now, Allie’s stuff is better, and it’s more likely that Allie improves his polish going forward, than it is that Kingham improves his stuff.