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A.J. Schugel (now with video): Top Prospect Performances of 2012

Keep in mind that this is not a traditional top prospect list because it focuses entirely on 2012 contributions. I rank guys according to advanced metrics which, for position players, include batting runs above average, positional adjustment, defense, and a replacement level calculation that scales the total to "Wins Above Replacement" (though the concept of replacement level doesn't really apply to minor leaguers). I use a standard "runs allowed based" WAR formula for pitchers.

Just another righty popping out
Just another righty popping out

9) AJ Schugel, 23, RHSP - 3.0 WAR, +10 runs saved. 140.1 IP, 2.89 ERA, 117 hits, 109 K/55 BB

Consensus has it that, after Kaleb Cowart and Nick Maronde, the Halos' system is a barren wasteland. Following those top guys is a mish-mash of flawed position prospects and talented-but-underperforming rookie and A-Ball arms. The main criticism is that there isn't another decent starting pitching prospect anywhere above... Well, anywhere, since even the best of those lower-level arms project as relievers.

All of that isn't exactly true, because A.J. Schugel is better than most folks realize. He's no budding superstar, but he is a solid B- prospect who will contribute at the major league level within the next year or two. You can take that to the bank.

He doesn't draw more hype because he's a hard guy to profile. Scouts and analysts love comps, but Schugel doesn't go easily into any of the common buckets. For lack of an appropriate category, his talents are going unappreciated.

The Halos drafted Schugel in the 25th round in 2010 with little hype. What commentary there was dealt with the fact that his father is a scout with the organization, meaning that many - me included - initially wrote him off as a nepotism pick. There just wasn't much reason to pay attention.

However, the Angels didn't draft Schugel to play 3rd base, where he had spent his entire amateur career. Instead, they had seen him throw an experimental bullpen session as a college junior, so intended to move him to the mound. That was just two years ago, and by July of last year he was one of the best starters in the Texas League. When I first saw him pitch in the summer of 2011, he went five innings with a high 80's fastball and what looked like a lollipop, high-school-style curve (yes, I know everyone called it a slider, but if it walked like a duck...). He was still effective due to command and the movement on his fastball, but he didn't exactly wow.

On August 15th of 2012, Schugel was sitting at 92-94 mph while touching 95 and employing a plus (could be plus-plus in time) change-up and a usable slider. He could really pull that string, with his change-up dropping into the high 70's with big-time fade, even while he maintained arm speed. His fastball command and movement remained excellent over 100-pitch stretches due to smooth, consistent mechanics. That's a profile that should be getting much more attention; and, if you believe in any sort of ongoing learning curve, he might get even better soon.

But why doesn't anyone notice? I think it's because the usual conversion narrative involves a failed position player who takes the mound and immediately lights up radar guns with horrific, yet "deceptive" mechanics. They slot into bullpen roles from the start. Raw is the expectation; furthermore, it is exciting. Think Troy Percival, Jason Motte, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Marmol, or Sean Doolittle. Them be the archetypes. Schugel, on the other hand, quietly crafted a smooth delivery, worked his way into the rotation with good control, and only then did the tick-above-average velocity consistently show up. That just doesn't fit the storyline - twenty-one year old converts aren't supposed to morph into Jeremy Hellickson - so Schugel's late start, and potentially unusual development curve, is getting lost in the shuffle.

Schugel's arsenal further obscures his talent. At the beginning of your prototypical right-hander's career, he has a blazing fastball, a plus breaking pitch, and, perhaps, "feel for a developing change-up." How many times have you seen that profile? "With more consistent command and an improved change-up, Joe Schmo (insert preferred prospect's name) profiles as a frontline/mid-rotation starter." Only rarely does the swing-and-miss change come first, like it did in Schugels' case.

The change-up has led to extreme splits. Against righties, Schugel is Jon Garland, whiffing an unexciting 13.5% of batters (4.7 K/9). It hasn't mattered much so far, because over the last two years, including a stint in the Cal League, those right-handed hitters have managed a pathetic .231/.297/.296 line and 4 HR's against him because they just can't do much with the tailing fastball. Meanwhile, against lefties, Schugel is Justin Verlander, fanning them at a 26% clip (10.5 K/ 9), or almost double the rate of the righties. The end results are about the same, since lefties also do much better working him for walks and hammering mistake pitches, but that K-rate against opposite handed batters is astonishing. And confusing. I'm confused. This just doesn't fit the story line. Where are our comps?

Lastly, the advanced metrics folks are getting better at quantifying the efficacy of a pitchers' stuff by looking for extremes in their BABIP data, either to the groundball side, or the infield flyball side, and hypothetically that would draw more attention to Schugel's talent for befuddling right-handed hitters. If he achieved a 60% ground ball rate, for example, it might clarify how good the movement on his fastball is. But he doesn't do that. He lives in on the hands of right handers, and sometimes that turns into a shattered-bat pop-outs; sometimes a tapped GB back to the mound; and sometimes a fisted fly ball to shallow left. So they don't hit the ball hard, but the distribution of balls in play looks entirely normal (we eagerly await you, "Hit F/X," to give us average velocity of the ball off the bat!).

So, to recap: my argument is that Schugel is a solid pitching prospect but continues to fly under the radar because of (1) low draft position, (2) an unusual conversion story that obscures his dramatic learning curve, (3) a pitch-mix that doesn't include a plus breaking ball, and (4) the failure of common stats to capture one of his primary skills, eating righties alive on contact. Are you convinced? Awesome.

Time and innings in Salt Lake will tell us everything we need to know about who's right on Schugel. In the meantime, I think of him as the guy that Dipoto managed to hold on to even while emptying the farm in trades for Zach Greinke and Ernesto Frieri. However, in the interest of perspective, here's what other smart people have to say about him:

From John Sickels:

Strike-thrower with slightly above average stuff, posted 2.89 ERA with 109/55 K/BB in 140 innings in Double-A at age 23. Classic fifth starter or long relief profile...

From Ben Badler at Baseball America

Just missed the Top 10, but he was close... not a high-ceiling guy, but he's got a nice fastball/changeup combination, sits around 89-93 with downhill angle and then uses a changeup that's improved quite a bit to get some swings and misses. The breaking ball is slurvy and that's always going to be a red flag for me especially with a righthanded pitcher, but if things break right for him you could have a back-end starter.

Marc Anderson at Baseball Prospect Nation:

A 25th round pick in 2010, Schugel jumped two levels in each of his first two seasons and settled in to make 27 starts for Double-A Arkansas last year. The 23-year old right-hander won't blow anyone away, working with an average fastball that he locates well throughout the zone. His best pitch is a plus change-up that he can throw in any count. His breaking ball is below-average and has made little progress as a pro. Schugel could max out as a number five starter but everything would have to break right for that to happen.

From Fangraphs:

"A two-way player prior to turning pro, Schugel is still playing catch-up on the mound. He shows an average fastball but his secondary stuff is still rounding into form. Despite that fact, he spent all of 2012 in double-A and held his own, although his fly-ball ways and low strikeout rate could become an issue if he stays in the starting rotation. Schugel slings ball and could stand to use his lower half better to take some of the stress off of his shoulder. Hitters seem to get a good look at his pitches but all three of his offerings showed solid movement when I watched him pitch."


"Schugel has an average fastball that sits around 89-93 MPH with good life and sink, coming at hitters on a downhill angle. His changeup is very good and keeps hitters guessing, generating swings and misses. Schugel has a slurvy breaking ball that needs tightening up if he wants to continue his success against tougher competition. Schugel has exceptional command and a good idea of how to put away a batter by pitching to contact or via the strikeout."