It was an unseasonably cold May night in Kannapolis, North Carolina at the beginning of the 2017 season and I was huddled in the scout seats to watch prized prospect Alec Hansen. The row in front of me was populated entirely by pro scouts, who can be a wealth of information if they are feeling generous and chatty. But I was more interested in picking the brain of my seatmate, Intimidators starter Jimmy Lambert. Lambert and Yosmer Solorzano, by proxy of being the starting pitchers the previous two games, were assigned the task of charting the pitches that night. I was trying my hand at charting pitches as well, but it was abundantly clear I was in over my head.
"What was the MPH on that?"
"Was that his curveball or a slider?"
Lambert patiently answered several varieties of the same questions, but his eyes never left the field. As the game wore on and the temperature continued to drop, Solorzano, a native of Venezuela, looked understandably miserable, but Lambert was perking up. We chatted at length about his mentality and his pitches, and his thoughts on the grind of pro baseball and the White Sox organization. It was clear immediately that Lambert was a quintessential baseball junkie; very sharp, and had a chip on his shoulder, basically all the elements you like to see in a young prospect. However, he was a bit of a middling prospect at the time, without microscopic ERA's or eye-popping strikeout totals in college or in rookie ball.
Jimmy was taken in the 5th round of the 2016 draft and signed to an under-slot deal. The MLB.com draft broadcast mentioned his "pitchability" multiple times, which loosely translated says that he lacks the sexy potential of a flamethrower. At that time, the assessment was justified. Lambert posted a fine 3.13 ERA in his final season at Fresno State, but only struck out 78 batters and gave up 98 hits over 97.2 innings while throwing a 88-91 MPH sinker with secondary stuff that wouldn't qualify as plus.
After a 2017 season of similar results, Lambert spent the off-season bulking up and in spring training was introduced to some analytical data that would change his career:
"In Spring Training I talked with Everett Teaford (Quality Control Coach), who handles the Trackman data, is very good with it and probably understand it better than anyone. He had seen some weird things with my data that didn't really add up. With Teaford's help I made the decision I should throw more four-seamers because the results I was getting wasn't what I wanted and I was throwing almost all two-seamers. Everything plays off the fastball, you can go to work with the other pitches and last year the fastball just wasn't a factor which made it hard for me to get anything else going."
Everett Teaford, a former major leaguer pitcher with Kansas City and mostly recently Tampa Bay in 2015, was a pro scout for the Houston Astros until the White Sox hired him to join their player development staff last November. The 34 year-old Teaford is paying immediate dividends in his first season with the Sox, helping Lambert "all along the way" to improve by using his analytic pitching numbers. But once spring training ended and Lambert was assigned to Winston-Salem, Lambert was paired with another young rising star in the Sox organization, pitching coach Matt Zaleski.
"Once I made that decision with Teaford, I started working immediately with Coach Z. About two or three weeks into the season, Z approached me and said because of the data he was getting from Teaford, I should be throwing more curveballs than sliders. I wasn't using my curveball as much because I wasn't as confident in it as I was my slider, but I needed to throw it more because it was a much better pitch. Now that I'm throwing more four-seamers up, the curveball plays off my new fastball better than a slider would, so I've been throwing that a lot more and getting more confident in throwing it for strikes.
The change-up is something I worked on a lot in the off-season and I knew I needed a better change-up. Thinking back to last year, most of my best games were when I had a a very good change-up. Then this year, going to four-seam fastball I think has helped my change-up, because it plays better off a four-seamer (than the two-seamer)."
What was the impact of all this analytical data and resulting overhaul of his arsenal? Lambert's strikeout rate jumped from a pedestrian 6.12 K/9 in 2017 to a staggering 10.38 K/9 this season at higher levels. Unsurprisingly because he is missing more bats, he started giving up fewer hits (9.78 to 7.40 H/9) and has virtually maintained his walk rate (2.40 to 2.59 BB/9). The White Sox challenged him with a promotion to the Birmingham Barons in late June and he has responded, improving upon his numbers across the board from Winston-Salem by posting a 3.13 ERA with 28 strikeouts to just 6 walks over 23 AA innings. In his last start on Saturday night, Lambert carried a no-hitter into the 7th inning and struck out 10 batters in easily the most dominant start of his career.
In addition to utilizing data to throw more effective pitches, the 23-year-old Lambert is simply stronger than he has ever been before. Generously listed out of college at 6'2'' and 170 pounds, Lambert added 15 pounds of muscle this off-season and has bumped his fastball velocity from 88-91 MPH in previous seasons to sitting 92-94 and topping out at 96 this year. Durability has never been an issue either. Lambert hasn't missed any extended time in college or in the pro ranks and has a workhorse mentality, pitching 150 innings last season and is on pace for a bigger workload this season. When you put it all together, Lambert goes from a fringe prospect to now suddenly in the next wave of potential rotation members of the next contending White Sox roster.
"Bernardo (Flores), Dane (Dunning), and Alec (Hansen), and I were all together last year in Kannapolis and then Winston, and now back together in Birmingham. Dylan Cease as well, we've been together basically all year, it's a lot of fun pitching with these guys and we all feed off each other. Those guys all have really great arms and honestly it just makes us all better."
"I want to finish the year strong and get into the big leagues next year and make a good impression. Hopefully at some point next year I'd love the opportunity to be in the big leagues."
During a season of attrition for the top prospects in the system, the emergence of a sleeper like Lambert is a most welcome development. He doesn't have the hype, fanfare, or flame-emoji-inspiring radar readings of some of his cohorts, but it would be a mistake for White Sox fans to overlook Jimmy Lambert any longer.
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