Monday, February 15, 2010

2010 Top Prospect List: #12 J.C. Sulbaran, rhp

Juan Carlos Sulbaran
Height 6-2, Weight 220, B/T: R/R, DOB: 11/9/1989
2009 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: "Other Notables"

J.C. Sulbaran arrived in the Reds organization with substantial hype, surpassed only by Aroldis Chapman in recent years. Like Chapman, Sulbaran generated the buzz with his performance in international competition. However, Sulbaran learned quickly that success at the international level doesn't always translate easily into success at the professional level.


DRAFT POSITION AND INTERNATIONAL CAREER

The Reds selected Sulbaran in the 30th round of the 2008 draft with the 899th overall pick. Sulbaran is from Curacao, but attended American Heritage high school in Plantation, Florida where he was a teammate of more highly regarded prospects in Eric Hosmer and Adrian Nieto.

Sulbaran really made his mark in international competition, where he pitched for the Dutch team. He held the Cuban team to 1 run in 6 innings at the Haarlem Honkbal tournament. He squared off against the Cubans once again in the Olympics, where was less impressive, giving up 2 earned runs in four and two-thirds of an inning. He was also selected to pitch for the Dutch during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where he gave up 5 hits and 3 runs in two and two-thirds innings, including a dominating 3-pitch strikeout of Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez.

His international experience earned him a great deal of hype and a spot in the rotation for the Dayton Dragons for the 2009 season.


2009 SEASON

Despite his impressive performance in the World Baseball Classic, the Reds wisely were conservative with him, sending him to low-A Dayton for the season.

For the Dragons, Sulbaran started 21 games, working 92.2 innings and posting a 5.24 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 100/51 K/BB ratio, and a 0.60 GB/FB ratio. Obviously, despite his unimpressive overall performance, there are still components to like, as evidenced by his 9.71 K/9 ratio and his 1.96 K/BB ratio. Additionally, Sulbaran was a bit unlucky, as evidenced by his .317 BABIP and 69.2% strand rate. So, potentially a few more hitters than expected reached base via balls-in-play and a few more baserunners than expected came around to score.

However, his strong strikeout rate is about the only positive to draw from his 2009 season, which was characterized by a high walk and homerun rates. He was inefficient with his pitches and struggled to keep the "balls-in-play" on the ground.


PITCHING MECHANICS

Taking a look at Sulbaran's pitching mechanics may identify reasons for the primary characteristics of his performance, namely 1) good velocity, 2) poor command, and 3) high flyball rate.

Sulbaran has a unique set of pitching mechanics. He might be the only pitcher I've ever seen who begins his windup with a movement of his pitching arm side foot. Instead of beginning his windup with a small step backward with his left foot or even a step forward and down with his left foot, he starts by rotating his right foot down onto the rubber. He does rock a bit to unweight his right foot, but his left foot stays firmly planted on the ground until his right foot shifts down onto the rubber. I really can't remember ever having seen that before.

Once he does shift his right foot down onto the rubber, he brings his left leg up into a leg kick. In his leg kick, he brings his knee up well past parallel and uses significant hip rotation, which coils his body to generate energy and results in him almost showing his back to the hitters. His leg kick involves his lower leg wrapping around his body and his left foot actually ending up outside his right hip at the apex of his leg kick. Jamie Moyer uses a similar wrapping type leg kick, one wherein the foot is drawn back farther than the knee (and, yes this is likely the first and only time J.C. Sulbaran will ever be compared to Jamie Moyer, but there are some similarities in their leg kicks).

Once he gets to the apex of his leg kick, Sulbaran begins his move to the plate, which is triggered by breaking down his right leg. He flexes his right knee to begin his drive to the plate. This knee bend seems a bit more pronounced when he works from the stretch, but one of the immediate consequences of this move is that it alters the level of his shoulders. His pitching shoulder drops in relation to his left shoulder, which means that as he begins his drive to the plate he is "throwing up-hill," so to speak. This is likely one reason for his difficulties in keeping the ball down in the zone.

Another reason for his difficulties in keeping the ball out of the air is his upright posture. His upper body remains tall throughout his delivery, which can make it difficult to finish off pitches and work down in the zone effectively. Lengthening his stride would help him finish off his pitches, but as it stands his stride is somewhat short. Aaron Harang has struggled with this in recent years, as his spine angle has become too vertical in his delivery and follow-through. "Throwing up-hill" and standing too up-right are two likely causes for his significant fly ball rate, though power pitchers in general have a tendency to work up in the zone and get a high rate of fly balls. Still, Sulbaran's fly ball rate is pretty extreme, even for a power pitcher.

After driving off the mound, his plant foot lands closer to the thirdbase side than is normal, which leaves him in a closed off position and results in him throwing across his body. This cross-fire throwing motion results in the momentum of his delivery pulling his body off to the first base side on his follow-through. This type of cross-fire throwing motion likely creates arm-side run on his fastball. In addition, Sulbaran seems to be inconsistent with his follow-through, as he falls off to first to a different extent on different pitches. Obviously, falling off to one side of the mound leaves a pitcher in less than ideal fielding position.

In addition, when his plant foot lands his heel at times hits the ground first, which can result in an unstable foundation for the delivery. Pitchers such as Gil Meche and Randy Johnson took significant steps forward in their level of performance when they began to land more on the ball of their foot. Landing on the ball of the foot more effectively dissipates the shock of the delivery than landing on the heel.

When you combine the inconsistency of his cross-fire delivery with the inconsistency in the landing of his plant foot, it's not surprising that he struggles to maintain a consistent arm slot. Right now, there is just too much inconsistency and looseness in his delivery, which helps explain his struggles with both command and control in 2009.

Here is a look at J.C. Sulbaran in action courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube:






While his command and fly ball rate aren't strong, he does generate significant velocity, which helps him wrack up the strikeouts and enables him to dominate hitters.

In terms of efficiency and effectiveness, pitching mechanics can be thought of as a kinetic chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. However, from an injury risk point of view, the arm action itself is the most important factor in pitching mechanics. Good arm action provides a strong foundation around which to build a pitcher. It's easier to alter timing, tempo, balance, lower body drive, etc. etc. etc. than it is to teach a pitcher a new way to throw the ball. Despite some unsual pitching mechanics, Sulbaran does possess good arm action.

Sulbaran's arm action does contain several positives. After he breaks his hands, Sulbaran shows the ball to second base when bringing it up into throwing position. Also, he maintains good elbow position in relation to his shoulder level. Finally, he doesn't overthrow by using so much effort that it strains the pitching arm, throws the rest of his delivery off balance, or causes the various moving parts of his delivery to fall out of sync. Additionally, Sulbaran's good arm action should provide for a reduced injury risk.

Sulbaran has long, loose limbs that allow him to generate easy velocity from his high three-quarter arm slot. He's not a max effort guy, as he has a free-and-easy arm action that gives his pitches good hop and allows his pitches to get on the hitters before they are ready. Sulbaran's height also gives him an advantage, as he both releases the ball closer to the plate and throws on more of a downward plane than shorter pitchers. The ability to generate velocity increases both the ability to dominate and the margin for error on location mistakes.

Sulbaran certainly has to refine his mechanics, but he does has some positives that could enable him to be an impact pitcher in the professional ranks. He has a nice three pitch mix with a fastball that sits 90-92 mph, a developing curveball that enables him to change the eye level of hitters, and an average change-up.


CONCLUSION

Sulbaran struggled in his first taste of pro-ball and looks to rebound in 2010. He would benefit from tightening up his mechanics, but he has a nice three pitch mix and easy velocity that could enable him to develop into a true impact pitcher. For now, Sulbaran's substantial upside outweighs his 2009 performance and the inconsistency in his mechanics to land him at #12 on the list.

17 comments:

  1. man when you were describing his delivery it sounded so wierd i couldnt picture it in my head, but watching the video i actually like his delivery. Yes, he needs some work on it but i like how he is nice and slow and in control until his leg reaches its peak then he explodes through the rest of it. That can really mess with a hitters timing. He does stand very tall through his windup but he looks like he does a good job keeping his weight back, Harang was having trouble with that particular problem. I really like sulbaran and see him as a number 2 pitcher if he reaches his potential. great post lark

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  2. Good stuff as always Lark. Having seen that video I'd agree with your thoughts. What stands out to me also would be the cutting off of himself a bit with landing his plant foot to the 3rd base side (although even here he has a tendency to be inconsistent with his plant location at times). Also agree with the landing of the heel it seems to just throw him off a bit control wise. Don't really see a problem with his stride length though, I tend to think his cutting himself off isn't allowing for proper follow thru.

    The real problem with JC might be attitude. From what someone has intimated to me he has some growing up to do and it sounds like this might just be his biggest obstacle to whether or not he makes it. One telling issue ought to be these mechanics, if he does any improving on them well that is good sign IMO.

    All that said I like his arm, his demeanor and intensity he seems to bring to the mound. That usually bodes well for young pitchers if they can make it thru the injury nexus reasonably unscathed. I can see a good solid #3 type, not sure if he has the stuff to be better than that but he is still growing and learning so we will see. Heck by the time he reaches the bigs he could have a whole different arsenal.

    Will

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  3. I saw Sulbaran pitch twice for dayton this year and was left unimpresed with his fastball toping out at 88 in both performinces.

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  4. Smitty,

    While I've seen Sulbaran work, this is the first time I've taken an in-depth look at his mechanics. And, to be honest, I was pretty surprised. Every time I took another look, something else jumped out at me, which is probably why this the longest "pitching mechanics" section I've ever written up. I'm still baffled by the right foot trigger to his delivery. In fact, part of me wonders if it is even against the rules. Probably not, but regardless I suppose it doesn't matter, as he only does it from the wind-up, so the danger of a balk is lessened.

    As for his ceiling, I do agree that it's probably that of a #2 starter. Also, I think you're right that he maintains good body control up until the apex of his leg kick. Still, he's got a long way to go and I do think he needs to refine his mechanics. On the plus side, a live arm with good arm-action makes up for a lot of sins. I'll be expecting better from him in 2010, but I do think he needs to tighten up his delivery to improve his command and control.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Best,
    Lark

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  5. Will,

    Yeah, even Sulbaran's inconsistencies are inconsistent. His landing spot, how he lands, how much he falls off to the 1b-side, his arm slot, etc. etc. etc.

    As for his cross-fire delivery, I think you've got a point. I think we've talked about this before, maybe in the Tuttle write up. When you are throwing across your body, then you are cutting yourself short. Tuttle tried to overcome it by "standing up" in his delivery, while Sulbaran has to work around it.

    On Sulbaran, I do think a longer stride would force him to get better extension and follow-through to get out over his front leg. On the other hand, he could also improve his extension by opening up his stride and not blocking himself. It seems like two different ways to address/resolve the same problem.

    When I look at pitching mechanics, I'm looking at it largely from an efficiency standpoint. Basically, getting as much output/velocity from as little work/effort as possible. You need to be able to generate the velocity/power to succeed at the MLB level, but you need to be able to generate it without being overtaxed to the point of breaking down.

    From the start of the wind-up to the apex of the leg kick, it is all about creating and storing potential energy. When unpacking the leg kick and beginning the drive to the plate, it becomes all about transferring that energy to the baseball.

    And, by and large, every mechanical flaw acts as a drag on efficiency. Either it prevents you from generating optimal velocity or it increases the effort required to attain that optimal velocity. Either way, the worse the mechanics, the worse the efficiency.

    And, a loss of efficiency is what we are seeing in Sulbaran when his plant foot lands closer to third base, resulting in him being closed off in his delivery. Sulbaran has a high leg kick and coils his body, but he simply can't bring his momentum directly to the plate because of the position of his plant foot. His momentum has to come AROUND his plant leg, which is also why he falls off to the first base side. Instead of bringing his momentum/energy directly to the plate, it has to rotate around his plant leg. So, he becomes less efficient because he bleeds some of the momentum he generates in the rotational movement around his plant leg.

    I haven't heard too much about his attitude, but young prospects frequently have to mature and learn how to work. A lot of good young prospects have no idea how to work or what constitutes hard work. They have always been the best on the field and haven't had to work all that hard to achieve success. Still, once they get into the game and get around guys who have been around the block a time or two, they begin to get a sense for the work required to succeed.

    Sulbaran definitely has some work to do, but I suspect low-A brought him down to earth a bit after his success in international competition. Hopefully, he now understands the type of commitment professional baseball requires and brings that new knowledge to bear in 2010.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!

    Best,
    Lark

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  6. Anon,

    Thanks for the info. Just out of curiosity, when did you see those two games? Were they late in the season when his arm was tired? Spaced out over a couple of months? I haven't heard that his velocity was down at 88 mph consistently, so I'm curious if there is an explanation for the velocity readings you saw.

    Thanks,
    Lark

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  7. Not me but who wrote that but according to Doug Gray (Dougdirt on RZ)he saw Sulbaran throwing some games (the whole game) in the 86-88 range but also saw him throwing some games in the 87-90 range as well. As he says and I agree 100+ innings on a new young arm from the HS ranks (HS age) is a normal thing and hopefully thru development via mechanics and/or physical growth he'll maintain what he used to throw or better. I think he'll be fine in this regard.


    Will

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  8. Will,

    Yeah, I just got my Baseball America Prospect handbook and here is one of the quotes on Sulbaran:

    "He sometimes sits at 89-92 with his lively fastball and complements it with a plus curveball and an average change-up. But at other times, he struggles to top 90 mph, fails to locate his curveball, and an average change-up."

    So, obviously, he's still young and inconsistent from start to start and even pitch to pitch. And, I think we did a good job of flushing out the reasons for it.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Best,
    Lark

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  9. Hmmm sounds like how the kids in pony league/babe ruth and little league start the delivery.
    Maybe needs some coaching up and work outside of games then.

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  10. 10 days? come on.

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  11. I agree. These reports keep comeing later and later every time. whats the deal. At this rate it will be the all star break before we see your number one rated prospect.

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  12. He's on guy people and i'm sure he has a life outside of bloggin', sometimes ya just gotta take a break. Not to mention you won't find better in depth reports anywhere on the internet those take time when you are doing most of your own analysis.

    How's about folks throw out there top 10 so we have something to discuss in the meantime. I'll start.....

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  13. #1 - Aroldis Chapman - 21, LH, has 3 plus pitches (off and on) and is polished enough to make the Reds think he has any chance at all to start the season in the bigs, need I say more?

    Major League Comp - Hate to say it but Randy Johnson is the most similiar type of player but the big unit had 7 more inches of leverage to work with.

    #2 - Yonder Alonso - Highest ceiling in the minors outside of rookie ball and below. Potential LH middle of the order bat who profiles to hit for power (despite his temporary hamate bone issue),avg, discipline. Mediocre defensive chops is a minor concern however so did Pujols (amongst others) once upon a time. Splits vs. LHP aren't real good yet but he's shown flashes of hitting them and his approach is sound, just a matter of reps.

    Major League Comp - In my mind he's Andres Galaragga like. Very late bloomer with the power but was a doubles machine.

    #3 - Todd Frazier - Not an elite ceiling but the type of player every winning team needs. Has some quirkiness in his swing but it hasn't effected him yet so perhaps it won't be an issue going forward. Still likely to make him a bit vulnerable to the inside FB, however he's a pull hitter so the pitcher better hit his spot.

    Major League Comp - His game and intangibles to me scream Mike Lowell. I think his future is at 3B and I see him giving a team similiar overall production.

    #4 - Mike Leake - A pattern emerging here with Reds prospects, polish, knowledge of the game, competitors who play to win the game. Nothing not to like about Leake except he's not likely a #1 guy but a guy who should give you 200 innings for many years and keep you in most every game.

    Major League Comp - Lots of people say Tim Hudson and while I see where they are coming from I see him more like Bronson Arroyo but with a bit better stuff and earlier in his career. Also already armed with the sinker that Bronson has just recently figured out. If you like the Bronson of the last couple of seasons. A likely #3 innings eater who will win more than lose.

    #5 - Chris Heisey - Not one plus tool but most tools (maybe all tools) average to slightly above. Solid defender, runner, arm, hits for solid avg., solid power, solid discipline, intelligent with good intangibles. Can play all 3 OF positions adequately or better. There are higher ceiling types but I like Heisey's odds of filling his role.

    Major League Comp - Used to compare him to Mark Kotsay but now he kind of has grown out of a full time borderline gold glove capable CF. But now I see him as a Melky Cabrera type a good guy to have playing LF or as the 4th OF who can do it all.

    Will

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  14. #6 - Zack Cozart - A young SS who has average to slightly above tools both offensively and defensively is a really nice prospect to have. Really just need to see him continue to improve at the plate and grow physically and he should be an above average starting SS.

    Major League Comp - I see him as a guy somewhere between Jack Wilson and J.J. Hardy.

    #7 - Travis Wood - A young, athletic LHP with again the right mix of talent and intangibles. Doesn't have a real high ceiling due to an average fastball and a small stature. Should slot in as a cheap but better than adequate #4 or #5 pitcher.

    Major League Comp - Ah, real tough guy to comp. This isn't a good one but a smallish starting LHP who is athletic and throws a nasty change up and I recall once upon a time Chris Hammond but with a better overall arsenal stuff wise.

    # 8 - Yorman Rodriguez - Maybe the highest ceiling in the organization and at a position of higher significance (CF). The traditional 5 tool freak who has speed, power and glove and playing in rookie ball at 16 and holding his own is serious. The only reason he is this low is due to his age (17) and distance from the show.

    Major League Comp - Good grief, tough to tell at this stage but early comps included guys like Carlos Beltran and Andruw Jones.

    #9 - Billy Hamilton - If Yorman isn't the highest ceiling then this guy is. A very raw 5 tool athletic freak who has the talent to stay at SS and be well above average both offensively and defensively. Has a lot of work to do on his skillset from both aspects.

    Major League Comp - Jose Reyes might be his ceiling if he stays at short. High expectations but a real long way to go.

    #10 - Neftali Soto - Strong bat and one with plenty of room to develop further. Defensive position is a real bear to figure out what with his limitations at an already young age, but holding out hope he sticks at 3rd or makes the transition to catcher. Needs some work and patience but I like his future.

    Major League Comp - I want to say Aramis Ramirez but I think that's hoping for alot to happen so I'll just go with a wait and see approach here.

    Noticeable absence - Juan Francisco - I just think he has flaws which will likely turn out to be too great to overcome, but his ceiling is top 5 worthy.

    Will

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  15. Anons,

    Unfortunately, I just don't have as much time as I would like to do these write-ups, which is slowing me down. Professionally, I'm at a different place than I was when I did last year's write-ups. I thought that would give me more free time to write them up, but it's actually been just the opposite. So, I get them done as quickly as possible, but I do need to pick up the pace to get these done before the season starts.

    Best,
    Lark

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  16. Will,

    Great list. I love the MLB comps. I have considered doing that myself, but haven't gotten around to doing it. I would love to see Chris Heisey become Mark Kotsay, who was an incredibly underrated talent.

    Interesting to see your ranking on Hamilton. Man, I went back and forth on that guy. He's got a wider range of ceiling and floor than any prospect in the system.

    As for Leake, I don't see the Tim Hudson comp either. Hudson was absurdly dominant when he first arrived. His splitter was ridiculous. I'm not sure Leake has that kind of dominance in his game.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!

    Best,
    Lark

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  17. Anon,

    It does seem like the kind of wind-up trigger that you see in pony league ball. Obviously, he's comfortable with it and it works for him, but he does need to tighten up his mechanics. Between starts and side sessions is where he'll have to do the majority of the work. His upside is significant, if he can gain more consistency.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Best,
    Lark

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