Editor's Note: Red Baron has compiled this year's top prospects in three parts, which can be found by clicking on Part I, Part II, and Part III. The post below is a portion of those massive posts, focusing in on a single prospect at a time, which should make a search of any one prospect easier to find. All of our 2016 prospect coverage and write-ups can be found at the Viva El Birdos 2016 Prospects hub.
#10: Ronnie Williams, RHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 20
2015 Level: Short-season Johnson City
Relevant Numbers: 3.70 ERA, 4.80 FIP, 45 Hits allowed, 56.0 IP
So, what's so great about this guy?
It would be easy to look at Williams' 2015 line and call it disappointing. And, to be honest, the results were very much up and down, with probably a few more downs than ups. He walked far too many hitters, struggled to find consistency outing to outing with his secondary pitches, and just generally looked like a middling prospect much of the time.
However, obscured by the numbers somewhat is the fact that 2015 was a big step forward for Williams in his development, even if the results are not yet where one might hope. Remember, this was a player who never pitched full-time in high school, even his senior season when it became obvious his future paycheck was going to be on the mound. He played shortstop and center field both, taking advantage of his outstanding athleticism and speed. It's the arm that got him drafted, though, and it's the arm that's going to get him where he wants to go.
Early in the season, Williams struggled to find the strike zone, running up high pitch counts and high walk totals both. To wit, in his first six starts at Johnson City, Williams threw 28 innings, allowed 26 hits, and walked 17. Beginning with his first start of August, however, Williams made six more starts the rest of the year, threw 28 innings, allowed only 19 hits, and walked just eight hitters. That's a 1.53 WHIP through the 28th of July, and a 0.96 the rest of the way. That includes a real clunker in his second to last start of the season, when he recorded just two outs while allowing five runs (four earned), on two hits, two walks, and a home run to top off his afternoon.
So what happened? Simple: Williams improved. We might call 2015 an experimental year for Williams, if we wanted to be a bit generous, but also fairly accurate. He added a cutter/slider to his arsenal, and had a mandate from the development staff to work on his secondary offerings in general. Early in the season, he worked on mixing pitches, tinkering and experimenting, and the number of baserunners he allowed reflected a pitcher working out of the zone too often, trying to find consistency with his stuff, and being forced to groove too many pitches in deep counts in an attempt to limit the free passes.
As the season went on, though, Williams began to find consistency in his delivery, began to make real strides with both his breaking balls, and was able to start attacking hitters more aggressively earlier in counts, leaning on his fastball to set up his offspeed stuff, rather than trying to feel his way along. That clunker I mentioned in his second to last start of the season was followed up by his best start as a professional, when he closed out his first full year as a pitcher only by facing down a powerful Pulaski Yankees lineup. He threw five innings, allowed one run on three hits and a walk, and struck out seven.
In short, while the performance for Williams in his first full pro season was not astounding, he improved dramatically as the year went on, and made huge strides with his full repertoire. That being said, 2016 will be a big season for him. I expect the Cardinals will challenge him with a promotion to open the season at Peoria, his first shot at full-season ball. It's a big jump, and how Williams acquits himself there will go a long way toward determining whether he continues to move up these rankings, or whether he will continue to be a case of the stuff not translating into results.
Speaking of the stuff, Williams has a premium arm, generating remarkable power from a frame that does not look like a classic power pitcher's. He works with a fastball in the 92-94 mph range, and it has heavy sink and squirrelly run when he keeps it down. It will be important, obviously, for Williams to continue developing his secondary stuff, but his fastball is good enough it's possible to imagine him dominating just on the strength of that power sinker for long stretches in the future. He can run it up into the 95-96 range at times, particularly when he elevates, but his bread and butter will likely be a little lower than that.
The best of his secondary pitches at the moment is a wicked changeup that has remarkable knucking action at times. I'm reminded of Rich Harden's knuckle/split/change thing he used to throw. When the fastball and change are both on, Williams can cruise on those two pitches and be nearly unhittable. He throws a curveball that shows nice spin and occasional shape, but the pitch needs plenty of work to be more consistent. At its best, it can flash 55 potential, but probably only on three out of every ten pitches.
The slider/cutter that Williams began throwing this year at the behest of the Cardinals is interesting. It's not a great pitch just yet, being occasionally slurvy and occasionally flat, but it makes for a promising complement to his sinker. I'm not a huge fan of pitchers who lean on the cut fastball heavily, in terms of long-term health, but as an occasional weapon to run a pitch near the velocity of his fastball in the opposite direction, a hard cutter could be devastating for Williams.
Williams also possesses perhaps my favourite delivery in the Cards' system, with a fantastic arm action I would hang in a museum if I could. His athleticism should help him repeat it well down the line, allowing him to throw more strikes than he does now, helping all his pitches play up.
Here's a bit of footage of Williams lighting up radar guns the spring he was drafted, as well as giving some feel for how much movement the fastball has.
via Scot Drucker:
Player Comp: the turbo sinker reminds me of Kip Wells; the array of intriguing offspeed stuff and a potentially dominant changeup reminds me of Rich Harden. He's also not dissimilar to Harden in terms of build.