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Pebble Report: Franklin Morales vs Scott Elbert

I'm going to go over the rest of the links in a little bit, but an article by Chris Constancio at the Hardball Times on the Best Left Handed pitchers under 25 reminded me of something I've been meaning to do for a little while. Frequently you'll see Franklin Morales and the Dodgers' Scott Elbert lumped together as people take a look at their statistics, see the similar rates of high K's and high BB's, read about how they both have scorching heat, and then come to the conclusion that they are in the same boat. Constancio did this today, on Elbert's control problems and why he gave Scott only a "good" ceiling:

Most people don't see this as limiting his ceiling because you can teach a pitcher better mechanics while you cannot teach him the kind of stuff that Elbert has. I view this a bit differently, because realistically very few pitchers completely overcome mechanical/control issues they haven't solved by their third year of professional baseball.

On Morales, who was ranked similarly:

See the above entry on Scott Elbert. The same warnings apply to Morales, another southpaw who does a better job of lighting up the radar gun than throwing strikes.

Alright, first of all, I'm not going to say that I disagree at all with Constancio on the importance of both these pitchers learning to control the strike zone a little better before we can fully expect them to meet their potential, but I am going to point out that there is sufficient reason to believe that Morales' upside is being considerably underestimated relative to Elbert's here.

Okay, a couple of the reasons:

  1. Morales' GB% is considerably higher than Elbert's and regularly over 50%. This is the big one, actually, as pitchers who can both limit the damage caused when the ball is put in play, as well as limiting how often it gets in play are at a considerable premium. Francisco Liriano, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, these are the kinds of pitchers you hold onto. This aspect is what vaults Franklin from being a potential top of the rotation starter to being a potential Cy Young candidate.
  2. Elbert had a substantially lower than league average BABIP against him last season -particularly after his call-up to Jacksonville- while Morales' (albeit still low) was a little closer relative to league to what we'd expect from  starters of their caliber. I'm thinking that in 2007, the luck doesn't hold as well for Elbert as advanced hitters are able to see him more often. What's more, Elbert's high pop-up rate tells me that hitters are getting just underneath, meaning that he's leaving stuff up compared to the GB's induced by Franklin, and in AA hitters started pulling him to left field more, this could spell trouble when he meets even more advanced batters. I think Scott's still highly talented, top of the rotation (#2) material with his pitch repertoire, but the walks plus the elevation of his pitches leave me less high on him by a fair margin than I am on Morales.
This isn't just a homer article, either. I'm okay admitting that Chad Billingsley's a better pitcher now and down the road than Ubaldo Jimenez, for instance, even though I like U-ball a lot. I'm just pointing out that a lot of people are missing some key aspects that separate these two talented LHP's rising in the NL West. The measure that should be taken is to imagine both being able to reduce their walks to an acceptable MLB level and deciding which you would rather have at that point. Neither is nearly there yet, but the answer if you look at everything in total should point you to seeing Morales with the higher potential.

Scott Elbert's Minor League Splits index

Franklin Morales' Minor League Splits

Some targets to be looking at for Franklin's early performance to know if he's on track:

  1. 20 BB's or thereabouts allowed for April and May combined. Early projections will have him eclipsing the century mark, or at least coming close to it on walks for the season. If he can manage a 3.5 BB/9 IP or less early, we might have reason to start getting excited.
  2. Similarly, watch the wild pitches and hit batsmen as a sign of his control. Last year he hit ten batters in the first three months, and only one in the last two. He also had 24 WP's on the season, meaning that he was missing low a lot and that he probably didn't have the best of defensive receivers behind the plate. At any rate, a reduction in those early will be a further sign that he's taken a step forward this offseason.
  3. He's maintained at least a K/inning ratio throughout his minor league career, but regression says that should slip below that as he climbs to more advanced levels, as soon as this season. If he can still keep his K rate up, while lowering the walks, we can really start to hope that he'll be able to step into that ace role for the Rockies.