There are some players who are no brainers to make prospect lists because of name recognition. For the St. Louis Cardinals those are players like Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson, in terms of pitchers. There are also players who show ingredients of potentially having some tools to build on. That is Inohan Paniagua.
The Cardinals signed Paniagua in December of 2017 out of the Dominican Republic. He’s a 21 year old right-handed pitcher that stands 6’1” and is listed at 148 pounds. The reason I mention all that is to say there is room to grow on his frame. So maybe dreaming on that a bit, mixed in with some of what he has now and there is a lot to like. To say the least, he’s an intriguing arm.
Admittedly, I was first drawn in by the name. It’s so cool. But it took me three pitches to realize I might’ve stumbled on a potentially fun pitcher.
When I mentioned dreaming on adding to his 148-pound frame, this is the pitch I had in mind. There was a clear drop in velocity as the start went along, and I’ll get into that. However, Paniagua came out firing 94-95 MPH bullets in this start.
In general, Paniagua was able to pepper both sides of the plate. He liked to work the fastball outside and at the knees. He gets armside run with it, so it makes sense to, at least early in the count, try to spot it up there for weak contact. Later in the count might be a different story, keep reading. For now though, just realize he can move the pitch east/west depending on the handedness of the batter.
Paniagua does a good job peppering those corners without giving in velocity. He was fairly consistently able to throw in that 92-94 MPH range. He may still be stretching out, but it’s worth noting that number was 90-92 MPH by the end of the start. I like the thought though. For a final measure before moving on to a different aspect of the fastball, this pitch is where that armside run was most on display.
Elevating fastballs is tricky. Big velocity helps, and so does the ability to make sure you can spot it well. That includes not sailing it or putting it into a location that is super hittable. One thing to note before I hype Paniagua’s fastball up more is that he has a tendency to sail it. Here’s a couple examples, and they are not the only ones.
Getting the ball up there is not the easiest thing for Paniagua sometimes. He also inadvertently sets up his breaking ball well because he can tend to miss up and in on righties. All that being said, I think he can work up effectively. The armside run comes from his arm slot, which is a low-3/4. That, combined with an eyeball test of his release height, tells me the fastball will play up when put in the right spot. This is, somewhat, of an example here.
Overall this isn’t the best pitch, but it certainly is a useful one. Some more good weight might bring that velocity up and that will help the pitch. Not that consistent mid-90’s if he can carry it deep into starts is anything to scoff at. Of anything in his arsenal, this is the offering that could take the biggest jump for Paniagua. The ingredients all seem to be there.
The best offering Paniagua has is a big sweeping breaking ball. Here’s the thing. I think it’s a curveball, but it also presents as a slider. Frankly, he might have both. One thing I know for sure is that he’s got a wicked breaking ball. In general it sits in that 78-80MPH range. The only reason I doubt that is the one breaker that hit 84 MPH. So take that for what you will, it’s all lumped together here as some good breaking balls. Starting with the could-be-slider.
That pitch has more sweep than the rest of these, but that could also be location. Either way, let’s dive in to the other shape of breaking ball Paniagua was throwing in this start.
A lot of times Paniagua can set up his breaking ball because of where he tends to miss with his fastball. When a righty is at the plate and the fastball starts missing up and in, it sets up the offspeed away. It becomes nearly untouchable. It can also buckle knees. Take this example where the batter just took the pitch and ran off because he knew it was strike there. No shot at touching it.
The one issue with this breaking ball is that Paniagua kind of becomes a one trick pony. He can command it better than his fastball, but that only takes him so far. Hitters start to expect it with two strikes so they can spit on it, even when it’s thrown well. Like this one is beautiful, but it doesn’t draw the swing. Chalk it up to good hitting since this came in the first inning, but this trend continued through the start.
There were so many more breaking balls that were worth sharing, but quite frankly the point is made. This is some pretty tight movement on the pitch with some very good command of the zone. He uses it to lefties and righties, too. It’s his bread and butter offering. The low-A hitters he was facing didn’t stand a chance.
To be honest, this pitch is here because he technically has one. Paniagua maybe threw five of them in the start and only two of them were really usable to show the shape of the pitch. The velocity separation off of the fastball is good, and that adds some potential to the pitch. If the feel for command improves it might be a usable third pitch. Right now, it’s got a ways to go.
It did get some whiffs, as you can see. The changeup is just Paniagua’s clear third pitch with some potential to it.
Maybe I’m crazy, but this seems like an arm that could pop off and jump into relevance if just a few things go right for him. Ultimately, he might be a decent two pitch reliever. I think the book still isn’t finished. I’d like to see what a more physically mature frame looks like before making a judgement on that.
For as much as I downed the command, his control is good. And has a track record of being good. Through two years of rookie ball in 2018 and 2019 he had a sub-three BB/9. So far in 2020 he’s at 3.38. The strikeout numbers will regulate, but his 2021 K/9 start is 14.06 in 16 innings.
Right now, Inohan Paniagua may not be a name necessary to know. For my money, the skills are there and he could be if things break the right way. Keep the name in the back of your head, I know I will.