According to ZiPS, Daniel Poncedeleon need only throw 119.1 innings and he would be a 1.3 WAR pitcher. In other words, ZiPS thinks Poncedeleon is roughly an average pitcher if he were to pitch a full season (1.9 WAR over 175 innings). This was easily the most surprising projection from ZiPS to me.
Poncedeleon, if he were to accomplish anything close to that in his major league career, very much fits the mold of the classic old Cardinals prospects. He was drafted when he was 22, a college senior. He dominated State College, but that is to be expected of a 22-year-old pitcher facing much younger competition. He had good solid numbers for his first 13 starts in Peoria, was promoted to Palm Beach and posted better numbers in about half the innings.
At 24, he had a solid season in Springfield, but nothing that would turn heads given his age. He had also posted pretty low K rates in an age of increasing K rates as he got promoted. He struck out 28.4% of batters in State College, but then 19.2% in Peoria, 15.4% in Palm Beach, and 19% in Springfield. His relatively low K rate came with a relatively high BB rate for the first time as well in 2016. Nonetheless, most older pitchers who feast on younger competition stop doing so about the point they reach Springfield, and then burn out there. Poncedeleon did not and appear destined for a major league bullpen.
His age 25 season was going well until he got hit in the head by a comebacker. He had made six starts, and it’s impossible to say how his season would have gone otherwise, but in the small sample, he had a sterling ERA and worsening peripherals. He struck out slightly more, but also walked nearly 11% of batters.
In 2018, he became an entirely different pitcher than what he’d been previously. Previously, he seemed to be a guy who wouldn’t have enough control to overcome his lack of strikeouts. You don’t strike people out? Well you can’t walk them. And he did in increasing frequency as he went up the ladder. Last year, his walks rose for the fourth straight year. Why he’s still a prospect is that he also struck out everybody. His K% rose to 26.9%, his highest since State College. He accomplished this by getting basically no groundballs, with his GB% falling from 40.3% to 28.7%. Despite a much improved K/BB ratio, Poncedeleon’s xFIP didn’t improve at all because of the groundballs.
And then of course he pitched 33 innings in the majors. He struck out fewer than AAA, but also walked fewer. He saw a increase in GB% to a still kind of low 34.5%. He had a better FIP and xFIP in the majors than he had in the minors. I was expecting to talk myself into that projection, but I kind of think the ERA in AAA fooled ZiPS on this one.
Seeing as ZiPS is a comp-based projection system, I looked into a few of his comparable players. It will be a very basic comparison. I am interested in players who played their first season between 26-28, who posted at least 0.5 WAR and who had a K-BB% of at least 10%. They also must have started 40% of games, because I’m sure there are a lot of relievers who would fit that criteria. There were 14 people who fit that criteria.
I’m going to throw a few of those 14 out because they aren’t comparable situations. Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Wei-Yin Chen, and Hideo Nomo were all international free agents and well-established as professional by the time they pitched their first season in the US. One other pitcher, Ariel Miranda, had the necessary bWAR, but was a 5.25 FIP pitcher and thus not terribly comparable to the season Poncedeleon just had. Jacob deGrom might have been a relevant comparison before he pitched his rookie season, but after it, he separated himself from Poncedeleon pretty easily. And then there were seven.
(I used Baseball-Reference to search for the comps, but used fWAR. Thus, the inclusion of De Vries, who was too close to cut in my opinion) Okay so all of these pitchers pitched considerably more innings than Poncedeleon did last year. Cisco Carlos is the most comparable and that was in 1967.
Even though he did it in less innings, you can kind of see why the favorable projection. Carlos threw 122 innings of replacement ball in 1968 and was out of baseball two years later. De Vries’s listed season happened in 2012 and that should tell you all about how his career went after that season. He wasn’t that comparable anyway, with a 15.5% K rate. Geraldo Guzman from 2000 pitched 9 innings of his baseball after his reasonably strong rookie season.
The other pitchers are much more favorable options. Anderson’s rookie season was quite a bit better than Poncedeleon, because he plays in Coors, but he ultimately ended up as an average pitcher. Chase Anderson appears to be smoke and mirrors at this point, but has been a 1.8 fWAR pitcher per 200 innings and he has quite the ERA-FIP disparity, so he’s been better than that indicates.
Ross Stripling had the misfortunate of playing on a team that had very little room in its rotation for him... much like Poncedeleon. The year after his first season, he pitched 74 innings mostly in the bullpen with 0.7 WAR. I can’t see Ponce throwing that many innings, but this would seem to be the most likely outcome for his 2019 to me. Of course, then Stripling entered a new world last year with a 2.3 WAR season in about half a season. And Dereck Rodriguez is in the same position as Ponce, except he plays for a bad team, so the Giants will figure out what they have in him, whereas Ponce is going to need to scrap for playing time.
I’m sure a better, more extensive list of criteria could have been listed, but to be frank, for most of baseball history, pitchers didn’t strike out anywhere near what Ponce did, especially not rookie pitchers in their age-26 season. So this is admittedly a very basic and cursory look at who his comps may be. But it is encouraging. Now we wonder if Ponce will get the chance.