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Wednesday Rzepczynski Banter: Snowed In (Again)

Well, we just survived 2 1/2 feet of snow here in Washington over the weekend, only to face another big snowfall today.  Not sure of the inchage, but things are pretty well shut down here for more or less the 5th day in a row (we did get a semblance of return to normalcy yesterday for a few hours, though schools and many workplaces, including the federal government, were still shut down). 

Me, I like snow, so I don't mind, though it's been hard to get work done with intermittent power loss and being stuck in the house with an almost 3-year old.  I've trudged out to a couple of coffee houses just to get some work done.  Sledding with the little one has been fun, and Mrs. Hugo is ecstatic that her entire school week has been called off (make no mistake, snow days are for the teachers). 

But with the constant white-out, it's been hard to remember that spring training is just around the corner.  Typically, when spring training starts down in Florida, spring in Washington isn't too far behind. 

Anyway, enough about that.  I thought this fangraphs piece on Marc Rzepczynski was interesting: 

This past year, Rzepczynski zipped from Double-A to the majors. He began 2009 in the Eastern League, compiling a 2.64 FIP in 76.2 innings with 10.3 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9. Rzepczynski’s stuff passed the two-level jump with flying colors, and he burned worms with a 61 GB%. After just two starts at Triple-A (11.1 IP, 16/4 K/BB), Rzepczynski reached the majors in early July.

In 11 starts and 61.1 innings with Toronto, the 24 year-old had a promising 3.70 xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent ERA, based on strikeouts, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate). He struck out 8.8 hitters per nine frames, with 4.4 BB/9 and a 51.2 percent groundball rate. Not wanting Rzepczynski to zoom past the previous year’s innings pitched total (he threw 28.1 more IP in 2009 than in ‘08), the Jays shut him down in early September.

I definitely encourage you all to read the whole thing.  Rzep has flown under the radar outside of Jays-dom, with first-round lefties Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil grabbing more of the attention.  We took our guesses at what Marc's 2010 would look like a few days ago.  Rzep is somewhat similar to Cecil in that he combines a sinking fastball and effective slider and while Cecil has typically been thought of as having the higher ceiling, Rzepczynski had the better mlb debut last season, using his arsenal to greater effect:

Rzepczynski tossed his 88 MPH sinker 55 percent of the time with Toronto, going to his 80 MPH slider a whopping 39 percent and sprinkling in some 82 MPH changeups (six percent). It’s difficult to glean much from such a small sample size, but Rzepczynski scuffled with the sinker (-1.05 runs per 100 pitches) while baffling batters with the slider (+2.9 runs/100). 

That is a lot of sliders.  My guess is that he will need to change speeds a bit more against right-handed hitters in 2010 if he wants to continue his effectiveness, but it's an open question as to whether his changeup is good enough to sustain additional use. 

The biggest questions about Rzepczynski going forward are (1) the extent to which his K-rates, terrific in the minors and in his pro debut, will translate to the majors over the long term; and (2) the extent to which he can improve his command or, if not, to what extent his mediocre-at-best control (4.4 BB/9 last season) will hold him back.  

Unlike some other young pitchers getting their first taste of mlb (Brad Mills is an excellent example), Rzep's control problems don't stem from him nibbling around the zone or trying to be too fine.  His issues stem from the fact that his mechanics and delivery give all his pitches excellent movement that tends to baffle hitters (hence his success in 2009 despite only 42% of his pitches being strikes - league average is just a smidge under 50%) but also mean that he doesn't quite know where his deliveries are going - particularly his slider, which was the key to his success in 2009. 

Scrabble does throw first-pitch strikes more often than not (52% as opposed to league average 58%), suggesting he does have some ability to toss strikes with his sinker when he wants to.  The issue is that the same thing that is holding back is control is what makes him an effective strikeout pitcher.  I think his ability to induce ground balls is ultmately critical to his success, since it keeps his home runs down, which is important when you are giving away a free pass every other inning.  

It'll be very interesting to see how Rzepczynski does this season: on one hand it is hard to imagine him pitching as well as he did in 2009, when he was under-the-radar and hitters were not prepared for his offerings, but on the other hand if he can show better control, particularly on the first pitch, without allowing hitters to get the best of him, he could be very tough to hit for a long time.  Unfortunately, I don't think he can continue to be so stingy with hits allowed, particularly with the Jays' defense trending down, so he may need to show better command if he wants his success to continue.  One the other hand, if he can continue to strikeout almost a batter an inning and keep the HRs to a normal rate, he can afford the occasional free pass.  He'll have a tough time throwing 200 innings that way, though, as efficiency has been another issue for Scrabble.