Young hurlers Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray, and Kevin Gausman all got their first taste of the big leagues in 2013. All three are college pitchers and former first-round draft picks. Gray was selected 18th overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2011 Draft. Gausman was the fourth overall pick from LSU in the 2012 Draft, and Wacha went 18th from Texas A&M in that same draft.
Gray and Wacha were very successful in their limited regular season innings. Over 64.0 innings and 10 starts, Gray pitched to a 2.67 ERA and 2.70 FIP, striking out 25.7 percent of hitters while walking 7.7 percent. Wacha threw 64.2 innings and made nine starts. He posted a 2.78 ERA and 2.92 FIP with strikeout and walk rates of 25.0 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.
Gausman on the other hand, had great peripheral stats but a poor ERA. Working mostly out of the bullpen, he threw 47.2 innings. He struck out 24.4 percent of hitters and walked just 6.5 percent, which led to a nice 3.04 xFIP. However, he surrendered 8 home runs, which resulted in a swollen 5.66 ERA.
Both Gray and Wacha had sensational postseason debuts. Gray put his bulldog nature on full displaying by going toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander in Game Two of the American League Divisional Series. He threw eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts, while Wacha took a no-hit bid into the 8th inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game Four of the National League Divisional Series.
From there, Wacha made two more excellent starts in the Championship Series, throwing a total of 13 shutout innings. Gray was unable to match Verlander in Game Five of the Divisional Series after being named the starter over Bartolo Colon and the Oakland Athletics were eliminated. The Boston Red Sox finally got a bead on Wacha in the World Series, and he surrendered eight runs over two starts.
Looking to 2014 and beyond which of these exciting young hurlers is the best?
Gausman has the best prospect pedigree. Prior to the 2013 season, Baseball America ranked him as the #26 prospect while Wacha and Gray were ranked #76 and #65, respectively. He features a fastball that sits in the 95-98 range. His best secondary pitch is an excellent changeup which has a 10-12 mph difference from his fastball. It produced a 23.9 percent swinging strike rate when he used it in 2013. A slider in the low 80’s rounds out his repertoire.
As a late signing in 2012, Gausman has thrown fewer than 150 professional innings. He’s dominated in the minor leagues. Over 97 innings, he’s struck out 24.3 percent of hitters and walked 3.8 percent. Despite getting hit around a bit at the big league level, he probably has the highest ceiling of these young arms.
Wacha made a name for himself by dominating the minor leagues after he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. Over 21 innings, he struck out 40 hitters against just four walks and surrendered only two runs. When he wasn’t with the big league club, he dominated Triple-A hitters in 2013, with a 2.65 ERA and strikeout and walk rates of 21.9 percent and 5.7 percent.
He doesn’t quite have Gausman’s velocity, but Wacha will sit at 92-94 and get up to 97-98. His changeup is even better than Gausman’s. It’s a firmer change, and he’ll throw it as hard as 88-89. The change had a 23.4 percent swinging strike rate.
While he might have looked like the world’s best pitcher during the playoffs, Wacha might have to make some adjustments in 2014. First of all, he rarely throws inside. Also, he lacks a reliable third pitch. Wacha throws his curveball on fewer than five percent of his pitches, and it had a swinging strike rate even lower than that. Right now, he has two elite pitches, but the adjustments the Boston Red Sox made in the World Series might have revealed his need to develop a third offering.
Unlike Gausman and Wacha, Gray doesn’t have classic pitcher size, which may have allowed him to slip to the 18th overall pick. He has an unothordox delivery to boot, but the A’s have decided to stop tinkering with it, at least for the time being. After a mediocre 2012 year, Gray took a big step forward at Triple-A Sacramento. Before getting called up, he produced strikeout and walk rates of 23.9 percent and 7.9 percent.
Gray has a very good fastball that sits in the low to mid 90’s, and despite his smaller stature, it has good downward plane which produced a groundball rate over 50 percent. His best secondary pitch is a sharp curveball that was all but unhittable in his limited action. Batters managed just a .089/.110/.114 against the pitch. In order to be more effective against lefthanded hitters he’ll have to improve his changeup.
Overall, projection systems are most optimistic about Gausman in 2014, though it thinks all pitchers are contributors at the major league level. Here’s a comparison of the Steamer projections for the three arms.
In addition, here are the ZiPS projections which have been released for Gausman and Wacha.
Of the three pitchers, I’d side with Gausman. Almost all of his 2013 troubles can be attributed to a home run issue, something that doesn’t have too much year-to-year carryover. Also, he has more velocity than Gray or Wacha and a better third pitch. In a Baltimore Orioles rotation that lacks a frontline arm, Gausman could take over that role in a hurry.
Wacha and Gray have the advantage of pitching half their games in a more friendly ballpark, but their stuff doesn’t quite match up with Gausman. As dominant as they were in 2013, they will have to make more adjustments to continue to succeed against big league hitters than will Gausman.