I like to think of prospecting as a spectrum with two distinct ends- scouting, and statistics. Different people fall in different places on this continuum, depending on how much they value scouting and numbers respectively. This is where most of the controversy in ranking minor league players is born, and I think it's even more prevalent when it comes to the evaluation of pitchers. It can be difficult to judge when a pitcher runs out of time in his "figuring things out" phase, and reaches the "put up or shut up" phase of his development. One prospect in the Astros system who has often inspired this kind of debate is Jarred Cosart, who has been consistently lauded for his three potential plus pitches. However, as someone who falls on the stat-head side of things, taking K/BB ratios as gospel and shunning ERA, Cosart and his shaky control had failed to inspire much excitement in me despite consistently positive scouting reports, even as an Astros fan.
It's always puzzling when a pitcher like Cosart, with the upper-90s fastball, sick curve and solid change only strikes out 7 batters per 9 innings. Cosart has rare stuff- perhaps one of the top 5 arsenals in the minor leagues, period, and it's stuff that should produce big strikeout numbers. This has alienated a lot of the sabermetricians, but there is some data deeper in the numbers that suggests that Cosart's strikeouts aren't an issue. On the surface, his good hit rates (<1 H/IP in both AA and AAA) are a positive marker, but where Cosart really stands out is in the batted ball figures.
Jarred was age appropriate for the Texas and Pacific Coast leagues as a 22 year old last year, and had what I had looked at as an okay season. The K and BB rates stayed relatively in line with what he had done the previous season, his BABIP rates were precisely league average, and there was altogether nothing that I saw to get particularly excited about. However, thanks to the Minor League Ball community and the folks at minorleaguecentral.com (a fantastic site for minor league stats, it's my go to these days) I saw some reason for positive thinking on Cosart. As I stated earlier, I'm very much a statistically oriented evaluator of baseball players, and when it comes to pitchers, I had always been a firm believer in strikeouts, walks and home runs. However, I neglected to look at a very important part of the equation- the batted ball data that I hinted at earlier. I have been reading up on the value of ground ball and line drive rates in pitchers, and I'm realizing that I have undervalued the power that inducing weak contact has in pitcher performance, and that there are pitchers that demonstrate inducing weak contact is a sustainable skill. Let's take a look at this in relation to Jarred (I haven't figured out how to make those handy tables yet, so I'm just going to stick with paragraph form for this post, bear with me)-
Jarred Cosart, 2012 in AA- 7.03 K/9, 3.93 BB/9, 0.31 HR/9, 14.1% LD%, 57.8% GB%
Texas League Average - 7.48 K/9, 3.26 BB/9, 0.84 HR/9, 15.7% LD%, 45.5% GB%
Jarred Cosart, 2012 in AAA- 7.81 K/9, 4.23 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9, 17.5% LD%, 52.5% GB%
Pacific Coast League Average- 7.14 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 0.95 HR/9, 18.3% LD%, 42.2% GB%
This statistical profile is intriguing but not unheard of- pitchers like Tim Hudson have similar markers- low strikeouts, high ground ball rate, low line drive rate. However, Hudson fits the traditional groundballer profile, a sinkerballer. Cosart, on the other hand possesses premium stuff on all counts and has top shelf velocity- normally things that lead to high strikeout totals. And while Jarred does strikeout around 7 batters per 9 versus totals in the 5s for pitchers like Hudson, or the Rick Porcellos and Trevor Cahills of the world, he still comes in around league average marks. Some attribute this to Cosart's heavy use of his two-seam fastball (which can come in at a freaky 95-96 MPH by some reports), but as someone who isn't incredibly well-versed in scouting players I can't really attest to this. In short, Cosart is a statistical anomaly- I can't think of another pitcher who fits his current profile to a T, and I'm very interested to see whether he morphs into a more traditional groundball pitcher a la Hudson, or if he hones his craft and becomes the K artist that many used to project. Either way, the Astros have something here, even if it's tough to tell exactly what.