It’s time for every Cardinals’ fans favorite activity as of late: getting irrationally mad at dumpster dive pickups. The latest player is left-handed Packy Naughton, who may very well have been claimed on his name alone, who’s to say. But I just am never going to understand the fans who get mad at a move like this, when they will drop him tomorrow with the drop of a hat if needed. They had a 40 man roster spot open, saw a player that they maybe wanted to see in spring training and see if there was something there, and claimed him. If they need the 40 man spot, he will be non-tendered.
He’s just another arm to add to the pile. They kind of have a lot of pitchers that require rose-colored glasses, but that wouldn’t also seem too crazy if they were actually good. Johan Oviedo, Angel Rondon, Johan Quezada, Aaron Brooks, TJ Zeuch. These are all pitchers who, by projections, you should not count on, but who I can see what they bring to the table if things work out without feeling like I’m delusional. I don’t know if Packy Naughton belongs in that group or with the Brandon Waddell’s, so that’s why I decided to write this post. To see if there’s any reason for some wishful thinking.
Naughton grew up in Boston and had Tommy John surgery his junior year of high school. Whether or not he had a chance to be drafted if he stayed healthy is anyone’s guess, but I’m guessing the TJ surgery pretty much killed any chance he had. He went to Virginia Tech and the fascinating part is that he didn’t really have good stats in any of his three years - 4.92 ERA, 6.75 ERA, and 6.24 ERA - but he was named a league All-Star while pitching in the Cape Cod between his sophomore and junior years. That had to be the reason he was drafted in the 9th round of the 2017 draft by the Cincinnati Reds.
He had a fairly strong debut in the Pioneer League and earned his way into a full season minor league season for Low A in 2018. He pitched the entire season there, having a solid season. He struck out 21.3% of batters while walking only 5.3% en route to a 4.03 ERA and 3.48 FIP. It wasn’t enough to put him on any prospect lists but his 2019 was. As a 23-year-old, he dominated High A and got promoted to AA within 9 starts. He had a solid 19 starts in AA, though unexciting. He only struck out 18.1% of batters and 38.5% of groundballs. He didn’t walk guys either (5.8%), but of course he didn’t, because you can’t have those two numbers and walk guys and be good.
He was ranked 20th by Fangraphs and 14th by MLB Pipeline after the season was over. He was on the Reds 60 player pool during the COVID season and in the last moments of the trading deadline, was traded for Brian Goodwin to the Angels. He never appeared in the majors for either team and to begin 2021, he started the year in AAA. I’m not entirely sure why his numbers are as unimpressive as they are. I’ll tell you what I mean. He struck out more in AAA than in his AA season (21.7%), walked less (5.3 BB%), and got significantly more groundballs (48.9%). And yet in AA, he had a 3.66 ERA, 3.54 FIP, and 3.87 xFIP. In AAA, he had a 4.76 ERA, 4.36 FIP, and 4.35 xFIP.
This does not make sense to me. Well, the ERA and FIP do. He had a .363 BABIP against in AAA, and a 14.9 HR/FB%. That all tracks. The xFIP being that low is what makes no sense to me. Anyway, it surely means the offensive environment in AAA was considerably more offense-prone than his AA season, so the unimpressive numbers are perhaps better than they seem. The 14.9 HR/FB% seems high but was evidently league average since his xFIP is essentially identical to his FIP. I’m not necessarily arguing he was good in AAA, but usually when you improve your K rate, lower your BB rate, and get 10% more groundballs while advancing a level, it’s considered an improvement.
If you were feeling any optimism after that paragraph, well the bad news is that he then pitched in the major leagues. Poorly. Even a hypnotist would have trouble making you believe anything positive about these stats. He walked more than he struck out and allowed a ton of homers. Not typically the best route for success. On the bright side, it was just 22 innings. On the downside, about as bad of a 22 innings as you can get.
Despite this, the 26-year-old Naughton still ranked 17th on Fangraphs Angels list back in December, which either speaks to the Angels’ poor farm system or some sort of belief in him. The words written are not entirely encouraging on the other hand.
A decimated Angels staff and Naughton’s own velo rebound pushed him all the way from Double A into the Angels rotation last summer, where he made five starts. He’s a bit of a throwback, relying on a sinker-changeup combination that works because his three-quarters slot helps the movement on both pitches play up. Ultimately though, the southpaw doesn’t throw hard and neither of his breaking balls generate many whiffs. He projects to pitch in a low-leverage, multi-inning role.
A long reliever essentially. I’m curious what his velocity was at if his current velocity is considered a rebound though. Because his average fastball velocity in his 22 innings was 90.6 mph. Was he sitting mid-80s or something?
Also, the first thing I thought when I saw sinker-change combo was groundballs. Which is interesting because for most of his minor league career, he didn’t really get groundballs. He was at 38% in Low A and AA, and at 44% in High A. By all accounts, it seemed he wasn’t a groundball pitcher. But in AAA last year he generated a groundball on 48.9% of balls in play and in the majors, 51.2%. He suddenly became a groundball pitcher last year. Something to follow, I suppose.
Is Naughton some hidden gem? Probably not. He was bad last year in the majors and he’ll probably be bad again this year. But you can sort of see how a groundball-heavy innings eater could be appealing in the bullpen if things break right.