In-Person Reports: Spencer Adams and four AA relievers

These are reports from my look at five Birmingham Barons pitchers on June 29th and 30th. This includes a deep look at Spencer Adams, who has made some strides since last season, and briefs on the four relievers I saw in those two games. Included are videos for all of them, as well as quotes from some of the pitchers and in some cases their pitching coach, Jose Bautista. A separate write-up on on Michael Kopech from that visit can be found here.

Spencer Adams

This was my third time seeing Spencer Adams live, and he’s gotten quite good at surprising me each time. In the case of this outing, the surprise was of the pleasant variety.

Spencer was taken out of high school in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft, and the reports from his draft year were dominated by a 92 to 96 mph four-seam fastball and a slider with lots of life. Not surprisingly he had no trouble with rookie ball, even as a 17/18-year old. In 2015 he opened with Kannapolis while still a teenager, and did well statistically, but he’d lost a substantial amount of velocity (fastball more 89-91) and bite on his breaking stuff. It was a little worrisome, but as a prep pitcher in his first year of full season pro baseball, not entirely unexpected.

In 2016, it was expected he’d start to see that velocity bounce back as he matured and added endurance. But what I saw then, and was confirmed at the time by his then-and-now Pitching Coach Jose Bautista, Adams’ main pitch was a two-seamer in the upper 80’s, offset with an occasional low 90’s four-seamer, along with a good slider and a change. If this was to be the the model going forward, then this was no longer a mid-rotation ceiling player.

But here in 2017, Adams has made a leap. His four-seamer has picked up a few ticks on the gun, and according to Spencer, that had started happening late last year. His heavy sinker still shows well, and his slider has brought back a little more of that break. Here’s Bautista on that topic:

What we’re trying to do is get a little more of his velocity back. Trying to get more of that 94, 95 again. So yeah I just talked to him to throw a little more of that four-seamer, and then spin the two-seamer to get more sink if he throws harder.

Breaking down his repertoire as it showed in this start:

  • Four-seam fastball was mostly 92 to 94, hitting 95 once. It’s got a little run on it, and he seemed to locate it effectively, hitting the target regularly. Velocity did fade back a bit in the last couple innings.
  • Two-seam sinker ran 88 to 91, and featured it’s usual heavy character. Location seemed on horizontally, but he left a few of them up and those were most often the pitches that got hit hard.
  • Slider generally comes in around 85-86, with good two-plane break, and I can see a major league average pitch here when kept low in the zone. But like his two-seamer, he left some up.
  • Change-up was rarely used, sitting low 80’s, with a good velocity differential but a bit of a lollipop shape.

As always, Adams’s delivery was clean, repeated well and fairly low effort. The changes he made to eliminate some of the cross-fire from his first pro season have stuck. Physically, he looks a little more filled in now, having added some apparent muscle to his once-lankier frame. Defensively, he moves well from the mound.

Let’s look at some video. First, just to get an idea of that smooth delivery, here’s a full at bat of Adams pitching, from the open side:

Now let’s look at a 2-pitch at-bat that shows the good and bad of this particular outing. Against Blake Allemand, we see a good four-seamer just above the knees on the inside black, followed by a hanging slider over the heart of the plate that gets hammered for a triple:

And here similarly, a slider that shows well, followed by a 2-seamer left up that’s hit well for a deep sacrifice fly by Angel Ortega:

For an outing that resulted in allowing five runs and some pretty hard contact, I walked away actually feeling more encouraged about the future of Spencer Adams. Increases in velocity and movement, more muscle, and the ability to hold his stuff pretty effectively late in games are all good signs of progress. And the things already easy to like about Spencer – his easy, repeatable delivery, athleticism, and strike-throwing habits – are all still present.

However, there are some things that could use improvement. He left too many offspeed pitches up in this game, but that can be addressed with relative ease. He needs that big two-plane movement on his slider to appear more consistently so that he has a true out pitch. Endurance is improved but still not quite where you’d want it ideally. But there are plenty of other pieces to this puzzle to like, and remember this: he’s in Double-A in his age 20/21 season and getting a lot of guys out. There’s plenty of time for him even if he repeats this or the next level, and he still has potential he has yet to access.

Jace Fry

After ten starts in 2015, his first year in full season ball, Jace Fry went down with a torn UCL and subsequently underwent his second Tommy John surgery. This meant that for many, the 2014 3rd round pick disappeared not only from the diamond, but also from the prospect radar. Recovery rates for a first TJS are quite good, but for a second, the odds swing the other way. Not surprisingly, Jace told me that at least for now, the plan is for him to work purely in relief to protect his health.

As it turns out, he was the best reliever profile I saw while in Birmingham, and there are some reasons to be hopeful. You might as well throw away whatever book you had on Fry before his latest medical leave – because the current package of pitches is quite a bit different. Here’s some words from Fry himself on the new set:

Since my 2nd Tommy John, my stuff has changed. My slider is now a cutter. Fastball, curveball, cutter and a change-up now. Using all four, but not the change as much. My repertoire has actually changed a lot. I used to just spin a lot of curveballs for strikes, now it’s more of a strikeout pitch. Kind of dropped the slider to protect my health. So the stuff has changed a lot.

And here’s a bullet point report on his new repertoire, from my viewing:

  • His fastball now works from 93 to 95, which is a little quicker than what he generally showed as a starter. His location with the heater was quite good as well. It’s got some fade too.
  • That cutter works 86 to 90, and behaves like a cut-slider with some decent movement
  • Fry’s best pitch on this day was his curveball, running in the upper 70’s that showed pretty big bend and wasn’t given away out of his hand.
  • He’s also got a change-up that I saw in the low 80’s

Fry always works from the stretch now, like many relievers, even with no one on base. His delivery has some effort to it, from a 3/4 slot. His leg kick is low and sweeping, almost more of a slide step. On defense he moved athletically off the mound. Here’s a representative video of a full at bat where he shows his complete arsenal of his pitches (cutter, fastball, fastball, change-up, fastball, curve, fastball) to strike out Art Charles:

I’ll close on Fry with a fun fact. He was rehabbing at the same time as Aaron Bummer, his current bullpen mate and fellow lefty TJS survivor. Bummer has become a significant name in the system, in part due to a new slider that local reports indicate has some serious bite. Guess who he learned it from? Jace Fry. So in a manner of speaking, Fry traded his slider to Bummer for a cutter to be named later.

Connor Walsh

Walsh has some good velocity, typically throwing in the mid to upper 90’s with his fastball. In this particular viewing, he threw about 15 fastballs, and every one of them was at 95 mph. No 94’s or 96’s – just 95, all with a some some arm-side run. He also has a low 80’s slider that moves mostly down – horizontal movement is minimal, but the drop is late and deceptive. His delivery is consistent, though the acceleration is high effort, which could explain some of the command issues.

Here’s a video of Walsh showing what amounts to being mildly but effectively wild. He missed the catcher set-up to the inside on three of the four pitches (he nailed the last one), but he struck out Angel Ortega on velocity, movement and good sequencing:

Walsh’s two-pitch punch should keep him on the radar, but he’ll need to hit his spots more effectively to make the big leap.

Thad Lowry

After spending basically his full pro career (which started in 2013) as a starter, Thad was recently moved to the bullpen. This was a move many thought was inevitable. He’s a big, strong kid with an excellent pitcher’s frame, and has athleticism to spare.

Early on in his new role, it appears his stuff is unchanged from what he showed as a starter. In this late June outing, Lowry’s bread-and-butter sinker was running 87 to 92 mph, and certainly did show heavy. His slider was in the 78-81 range, but didn’t show as much bite as I’ve seen it have before, but I’m guessing this was just an off night for him on that pitch. I only spotted one change-up, at 80 mph, so that’s one small shift – he seems to lean more heavily on the slider now and less on the change of pace.

I only got one video of Lowry, but he certainly made the most of this one, striking out Johnny Davis on three pitches, including that one change-up:

Robin Leyer

The report card on Leyer hasn’t changed much in his six years in the system. The slender 24-year old throws hard – 95 to 97 mph heat on this day (he’s reportedly been higher at times), from a high-effort, cross-fire-heavy delivery. He also doesn’t yet seem to be able to keep that delivery consistent, falling off and skipping around, which correlates with the effort level. Leyer’s slide piece was coming in at 82 to 86, and did show some movement that hinted at above average potential. Command overall was quite loose, which has long been his bugaboo.

Here’s a video where you get to see a few of both the fastballs and sliders:

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