Bryan Mitchell’s problems as a pitcher are very simple. He can throw baseballs very hard, but he cannot throw them where he wants them to go. Pitch F/X has clocked his fastball at 99 mph, and he has a wipeout curve and a nasty cutter to compliment his heater. But even in the lower levels of the minors, walks have always been an issue for the hard-throwing righty.
Selected in the 16th round of the 2009 Draft, Mitchell reached the majors in 2014, making three appearances for the big league club. In 2015, most of his big league work came out of the bullpen, while he started at Triple-A Scranton. He was showing improvement out of the bullpen, cutting down on his walks in relief. But in August, he was hit in the face with a line drive, and wasn’t the same afterwards.
This year, in spring training, he once again showed improved control. And once again, he was bitten by the injury bug, missing most of the season with a foot injury. In five starts with the Yankees, he had more walks than strikeouts, although he managed to pitch to an ERA of 3.24.
His chronic inability to find the strike zone might beg the question: why is Mitchell still being used as a starter? Mitchell is 25 years old, roughly the age at which Dellin Betances was permanently moved to the bullpen. Like Betances, Mitchell can light up the radar gun and has a dangerous curveball.
But aside from the Yankees’ shaky starting rotation, there is merit in giving Mitchell the opportunity to start. In the recent past, the Pittsburg Pirates have remained in contention by betting on pitchers who were struggling, but had shown considerable upside in the past. Two examples include Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez.
Both pitchers were wildly inconsistent, but both also had shown flashes of dominance. In 2012, Liriano had a 5.34 ERA with five BB/9. The next year, he maintained a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts in the Steel City. Volquez had a 5.71 ERA in 170.1 innings in 2013, with over four BB/9. In 2014, he cut his ERA to 3.04 with the Pirates, winning a World Series title with the Royals a year later. Another thing they had in common is that they both had two solid secondary offerings. Liriano and Volquez always had nasty changeups and breaking balls, but their fastballs and sinkers were routinely crushed by opposing hitters.
To be fair, the Pirates’ ability to reclaim pitchers who had lost their promise and turn them into front-of-the-rotation starters is a point of fascination around the league. PNC Park is also known as a pitcher’s paradise, a trend former Yankees like AJ Burnett and Ivan Nova can attest to. But the difference between Bryan Mitchell and someone who has been moved to the bullpen is that Mitchell has two promising secondary pitches in his curveball and cutter. In addition, both pitches should help him neutralize left-handed hitters.
If he only had one secondary pitch, it would probably be time to send him to the bullpen. But at 25 years of age, he still has time to improve upon his arsenal while learning to locate his fastball. In the short term, it might not make sense that he is being used as a starter. However, pitchers like Liriano and Volquez show that betting on a pitcher’s stuff alone is never a completely crazy idea.
Data is courtesy of Fangraphs.