Looking for a sleeper entering 2013? Keep a close eye on Atlanta Braves pitching prospect Aaron Northcraft. Although it may be easy to overlook a guy with a 3.98 ERA in High-A, there are all kinds of sabermetric sleeper markers with this one.
Northcraft is 10-11, 3.98 in 152 innings for High-A Lynchburg in the Carolina League. Of greater note is his 2.64 FIP. In his 152 innings, he's given up 143 hits, only four home runs, and posted an excellent 2.61 GO/AO ratio. He's also posted a 160/53 K/BB ratio and leads the Carolina League in strikeouts. The strikeout/ground ball combination stands out as a huge positive.
Sickels goes on to talk about an adjustment that Northcraft made in his mechanics. He links an article that essentially says he moved to the other side of the pitching rubber. Here's a quote from the article:
[...] pitching coach Derek Botelho encouraged Northcraft to make a change. Northcraft used to set up with his lead foot on the far right side of the rubber. Because he’d fall away on his delivery, he struggled to throw his fastball and sinker for strikes. And when those pitches did find the zone, they were often hit. Hard. So Botelho had Northcraft move to the left side of the rubber and begin pitching out of a full windup. "That’s an old-school thing, righties on the right, lefties on the left," Botelho said. "Some guys, because of the movement of their pitches, because of their line to the plate, they can’t allow that to happen. Now they’re throwing across their body and they’re working side to side. Now, it’s an effort to throw the ball in the zone. "Moving on the other side, now their line is a true line going to the middle of the plate. The arm works a lot freer and easier."
I like this quote for multiple reasons. First, you have a young pitcher willing to make adjustments in the middle of the season, and second, you have a minor league coach on staff who can suggest and help a player make those changes. Minor league coaching is an often overlooked aspect of an organization, but it is a critical component to a successful franchise, and the Braves have historically had great minor league coaches (and, in my opinion, currently have great minor league coaches).
It was widely discussed when we released Talking Chop's mid-season top-25 prospects that not including Northcraft was a huge snub. I admitted as much at the time, but as John says later in his prospect writeup, Northcraft is a sleeper because he doesn't have that dazzling fastball or singular out-pitch (though he does have an improving sinker that has been compared to Tim Hudson's at times). He's been getting better throughout his professional career by developing more pitchability -- something the Braves teach and love in their prospects.