Saturday, December 21, 2013

Thoughts on Eric Surkamp

Eric Surkamp's story makes a nice case study in the differences between scouting and statistical analysis in how they impact the evaluation of baseball prospects.  The Giants drafted Surkamp in 2008 in the 6'th round out of North Carolina State where he was part of a 1-2 starting pitcher tandem with the much more heralded Andrew Brackman.  Surkamp put up strong numbers for NC State, but scouts were less impressed by his stuff.  Here is a pre-draft scouting report from PG Crosschecker, a scouting oriented site:

"...Surkamp does not throw particularly hard and his stuff is marginal by pro standards.  His fastball is just in the 86-89 mph range though will touch 90, but he has an advanced feel for pitching and can keep hitters off balance with a 3 pitch mix...He has a good changeup and an average breaking ball, but needs to spot those pitches, along with his fastball, consistently to be effective."  An update later in the college season said, ".....a good feel for pitching but ordinary stuff."

He signed fairly late in his draft year and pitched just 17.1 innings between Arizona and S-K. He knocked around a bit, but had a solid 23 K against 5 BB's with a 1.55 GO/AO.  He put up remarkably consistent and quite dominant numbers over the next 3 seasons while moving up one level per season:

2009  11-5, 3.30, 131 IP, 39 BB, 169 K, GO/AO= 1.16.
2010   4-2,  3.11, 101.1 IP, 22 BB, 108 K, GO/AO= 0.91.
2011   10-4, 2.02, 142.1 IP, 45 BB, 170 K, GO/AO= .97.

I googled Eric Surkamp Scouting Report and found a lot of interesting articles from this period mostly making the case that Surkamp's numbers trumped his mediocre scouting reports.  I remember a few internet legends sprouting up.  One was that the secret to his success was a devastating curveball and another that his velocity was actually closer to 92 MPH.

He was called up from AA in 2011.  I had never actually seen him pitch in the minors so I watched his first MLB start with some anticipation and curiosity about his stuff.  I remember being disappointed.  The scouting reports were remarkably accurate.  His fastball might have touched 90 mph once, but sat at around 88 and tended to be up in the zone.  The curveball, which was supposed to be his big strikeout pitch was more of a slurve and did not appear to do much on it's way to the plate.  The changeup certainly did not make anyone forget Noah Lowry's MLB debut.  He made a total of 6 starts and finished with line of 2-2, 5.74, 26.2 IP, 17 BB, 13 K, GO/AO= 0.68.
I read a PitchFx analysis of his MLB stint which confirmed that his average FB velocity as just under 88 MPH and tended to be up in the zone.

John Sickels of Minor League Ball who is a statistics oriented analyst ranked him at #7 in his 2012 Giants Top 20 prospect list 1 slot ahead of Kyle Crick.  I think his comment is most interesting and stands in contrast to the earlier PG Crosschecker comments:  "Doesn't throw hard, but has the statistical components of a power pitcher, excellent K/IP's and few hits, in the minors anyway.  Was more tentative in the majors once the scouting reports got aroundand was hit hard.  I think he can adjust and become a solid number 4 starter." His comment about Crick, "High ceiling arm, potential for four major league pitches with a workhorse body, still refining command.  Could be a top prospect in the system in 2 years but isn't there yet."

I think you can sense the distinct difference in tone between Sickels, who looks at Surkamp's numbers and sees dominance, and his relatively faint praise for Crick's raw talent as opposed to PG Crosschecker's fairly open disdain for Surkamp's stuff.

I saw Surkamp pitch in spring training of 2012 against a relatively weak Mariners travel squad, but came away more impressed than I was from what I saw in 2011.  His fastball seemed to have a little more life and he commanded his 3 pitch mix well keeping the Mariner batters off balance.  He outpitched none other than Felix Hernandez that day!  I thought he would start the season in Fresno but be the first option for a callup and I was optimistic that his second chance in the majors would go a lot better than his first.  Of course, the 2012 season was the lost to injury and ultimately TJ surgery.

Surkamp came back from TJ around mid-season of 2013.  He pitched well for Fresno winning 7 games with a sub-3 ERA, but his K/9 took a hit coming in just under 7 and he continued to show a strong flyball tendency.  He got 1  MLB start and was hammered as we all know.

He got caught in a numbers crunch and was DFA'd from the 40 man MLB roster yesterday to make room for Mike Morse and Ryan Vogelsong.  This does not automatically spell the end of his Giants career, but certainly puts up a huge question mark around his future with the team.  Just the fact that the Giants apparently prefer to keep Hunter Strickland on the 40 man roster than Surkamp probably tells you a lot.  Personally I was willing to chalk up the drop in K rate and the shellacking he took in the MLB start to not being back to full strength from the TJ surgery.  I was kind of looking forward to seeing what he could do in his first full season back, figuring he would start out in Fresno where we might see a return of the high K numbers.  I did make note that Sabes sounded annoyed with his performance at the end-of-season press conference and wondered if that might be a sign of trouble ahead for Surkamp's Giants career.  I guess we found out yesterday!

The story is not finished yet, and the ending may be forever inconclusive because of the injury that came at a key moment in his career, but as it currently stands, the lesson is, don't trust minor league stats if they are not supported by the scouting report!


  1. ...and it looks like Brett Pill has reached an agreement with the Korean team, so I'm guessing Surkamp will be pulled back off waivers. Maybe I should have written my thoughts on Brett Pill?

  2. This is a great prospect case study. It's a great bit of advice to use caution when examining #'s from Richmond.

    Sabean may have other plans for the 40 man slots. Do you have any favorites you'd like to see Sabean target on minor league deals? - some bodies to round out the Fresno rotation that seems to have Escobar, Gloor, Snodgrass, Lively, ???

    On a Brett Pill note, I saw that the Twins are trying to sell a player with a very similar profile to a Korean team - a 30 year old with great AAA #'s and unimpressive MLB #s.

    1. Thanks for the comment. No, I have not scrutinized what might be out there in the dumpsters late in the offseason, but Sabes usually manages to find at least 1 or 2. What's nice about minor league deals is he doesn't have to burn a 40 man roster spot unless the player makes the 25 man active roster to start the season.

      There is also Jason Berken who has some MLB experience, though very mediocre. They signed Caleb Clay too, but I read somewhere that he moved on to Korea or Japan himself.

  3. Like I said over @Shank's site...Surkamp - Minors stats that sabers love. Majors stats that won't play for the Giants. Shows you just how many things must break your way to get even a cup-o-coffee in the Bigs. Wish the best for Surkamp. Hope he gets a chance as a 5th starter on a pitching weak team. Was a great follow in AA.

    What's interesting is stats don't lie. Objective truth. Just the facts. Science. That's all we want.

    But stats without perspective - well they don't get you very far. Add some experience, insight and wisdom to the recipe. Now you're cooking.

    That's part of the beauty of baseball. We all add our own perspective.

    1. Good point. It's a proven fact that Surkamp indeed posted those numbers in the minor league. What gets subjective is what those numbers mean for the future. The answer is not much if you don't understand the context in which they were generated.

  4. What separates Surkamp from guys like Tommy Millone or the effectiveness of Kirk Reuter? Just command? Better changeups? Luck?

    1. Reuter: 1. He kept the ball on the ground a lot better. 2. He was working with a different strike zone. When MLB cracked down on umps calling strikes on pitches that were off the outside corner, pitcher's like Reuter started to struggle more.

      Milone: 1. I don't know much about him to be honest, but my impression is he might have better secondary stuff, particularly a better changeup 2. Milone did not strike out nearly as many batters in the minors as Surkamp but he also walked significantly fewer too, so that may be a clue that he has better command.

      Just going to add here that if you are looking for a nice counter-example to the scouts vs stats argument, Sergio Romo makes a nice case study. Of course what the scouts missed on with Romo was just how devastating and deceptive that slider was and is. Combined with his tremendous command of his pitches, he beat the odds big time.

    2. I don't have the facts to back this statement up (much like most of my statements) but my best guess is that there is a much tighter strike zone in the majors than at any minor league level and pitchers like Surkamp have a harder time living on the corners. It doesn't help that he doesn't possess a single pitch that is elite. Zito would have probably never gotten as far as he did without that huge curveball. Rueter and Moyer and Lowry and many other soft throwing pitchers who have had relative success all had junk that was good enough to keep major league hitters on their toes so they didn't just jump all over the FB when it came. Part of the problem has to also be confidence and a bulldog mentality that I think every pitcher has to have to be successful and especially the ones without great stuff or velocity. Vogelsong is a good example of a guy who mentally willed his way to success with lesser stuff. Surkamp would have to find that "bad ass" mentality if he were to ever be successful with the limited talent he has.

    3. Let's remember that Surkamp has only pitched a total of 11 games at AAA level so far. We're talking about him here in the past tense, which I guess is my fault, but he's not out of the organization yet. I think he can still be a successful #4 or 5 SP at the MLB level. He just needs more refinement, command and savvy that could come from more seasoning exposed to the rigors of the PCL. He might consider adding a cutter and/or splitter to his repertoire if it looks like he's stalling out in his progress.

  5. OT Note: Looks like Tanaka-San ain't US bound, at least right now. Make the Bums wait.

  6. Good points by all..I said my fill in the other thread...One thing about Surkamp coming back from the TJ surgery last year is that except for the implosion against CINCY( for whatever reason) he improved as the year went along (common for TJ rehabs) and was pitching his best ball over the last month of the season which could bode well for next year....We shall see...If given a chance, I won't be surprised to see him being the better pitcher than Petit, Escobar, etc. as an option at the BEGINNING of the season


    1. Possibly, but he either needs to achieve supreme command of his current pitches or he needs to add a wrinkle like a cutter and/or split. It will be extremely difficult to be consistently successful at the MLB level with a high 80's FB that is up in the zone as shown by PitchFx plus average secondary stuff.

  7. Surkamp has been claimed by the White Sox, apparently now a repository of unsuccessful Giants prospects. Will be interesting to see how he does.