Left-handers Derek Holland and Martin Perez provide the Rangers with two of the most talented young left-handed pitchers in baseball. If he can produce strikeouts and ground balls for six innings every fifth day at rates that are similar to what he did as a reliever, C.J. Wilson could be one of the better left-handed starters in the league. After his first professional season, Baseball America (BA) considered Robbie Ross to be the 16th-best left-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball. If he is as good in 2010 as he was in 2009, Ross should move into BA's Top 100 prospects list after checking in at No. 118 this year.
All four of the Rangers' pitchers feature fastballs whose average velocities would have ranked in the top 10 among left-handed starters in 2009. Only seven left-handed starting pitchers last season had fastballs that averaged greater than 92 mph -- CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Jorge de la Rosa, David Price, Brett Anderson and Derek Holland. C.J. Wilson's mixture of four-seamers and two-seamers averaged 93.3 mph. Martin Perez and Robbie Ross both feature low- to mid-90s fastballs.
Interestingly, Rangers fans might not have to wait for Perez and Ross to get their next dose of left-handed heat. Both Matt Harrison and Michael Kirkman have turned heads in spring training this year with 93-94 mph four-seam fastballs and three complementary pitches. ESPN's Keith Law has taken note of both pitchers during spring training this year: "Harrison threw two innings on Saturday and averaged 93-95 mph with a hard cutter at 88-90 mph that he used heavily even in changeup counts -- even though he has an average change-up. Harrison's delivery is rather striking: He's incredibly quick for the first half, as though he has somewhere else to be, but he's a little more deliberate after he separates his hands.
"Texas lefty Mike Kirkman threw about a half-dozen pitches before leaving when a comebacker nicked the side of his face -- he's OK! -- but I did like the little I saw, fastball 89-93 [mph], hard-breaking curveball at 78-81 [mph], with one change-up mixed in. He even threw the curveball at a right-handed hitter's back foot for a strikeout just before he exited the game."
Both Harrison and Kirkman pitched during the Rangers' spring training game against the Padres on March 12th. The Pitch f/x system in Surprise produced the data presented in the two tables below.
[Harrison's final line: 3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K, four swinging strikes, six foul balls, and seven called strikes.]
Harrison debuted as a 22-year-old in 2008 with a fastball that averaged 90.3 mph. His fastball velocity was up slightly in 2009, with an average of 91.1 mph. According to FanGraphs, Harrison also added a two-seamer/cutter that averaged approximately 86 mph last year before being shut down to deal with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Removing a rib apparently contributed to improved velocity, as his fastball spiked to an average of 93.3 mph in the Arizona Fall League.
Harrison has always been effective at inducing ground balls, averaging 1.54 ground balls per fly ball in 2009. A 92-93 mph four-seamer, plus a 86-87 mph cutter, should improve Harrison's lackluster strikeout rate (4.7 K/9) while likely also improving his walk rate (3.3 BB/9) by allowing him to be more aggressive in throwing strikes. If everything breaks right, Harrison could combine a 1.5 GB/FB with 6.0 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9, which would likely be good for an ERA in the neighborhood of 4.50.
[Kirkman's final line - 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K, two swinging strikes, six foul balls, and two called strikes.]
On this day, 22-year-old Michael Kirkman produced slightly higher velocity readings than Harrison though, according to Jason Parks, his command was a little shaky. Kirkman throws both a cutter and sinker in the low-90s, which is impressive for anyone and especially so for a left-handed starter. He also throws a hard curveball. Kirkman also threw in a slider for good measure, generating the third strike against the second hitter he faced. In an interview with Jason Cole, Kirkman indicated that he believed his slider to be his best off-speed offering. Trip Somers agrees.
Both Harrison and Kirkman are using the same combination of pitches: four-seam fastball, cutter, curveball, and change-up. Only five left-handed starting pitchers used that assortment of pitches in 2009 (see table below). The three who feature 90-plus mph fastballs alongside their other three pitches are considered to be among the better lefties in baseball. Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle were highly regarded as well before their fastballs lost their zip:
It is worth noting that while Harrison and Kirkman use the same assortment of pitches as some very effective major league starters, that movement and command are as important as velocity and pitch selection in determining major league success. Harrison's command appears to be major league-ready. Kirkman apparently has a ways to go in that regard, but he is definitely someone to keep an eye on when the minor league season begins in April.