The Yankees have found their fifth starter for 2024 in dynamic pitching prospect

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Alexander Lewis / MyCentralJersey / USA TODAY NETWORK

Entering the 2023 season, to say that Drew Thorpe would be in Double-A by season’s end would have been enough to consider his season a success. The 22-year-old out of Cal Poly, the Yankees selected him 61st overall in the 2nd Round of the MLB Draft, but the 6’4 right-hander lacked the overpowering velocity or elite breaking ball to project as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. What he did have was a great changeup and stellar command, but neither of those traits would be enough to justify even the thought that Thorpe could make big league starts in just one season.

Defying the expectations placed on him, Drew Thorpe hasn’t just been good; he’s been the best pitcher in Minor League Baseball. The Yankees’ rotation was expected to rival some of the best rotations in baseball, but instead is bottom 10 in both ERA and FIP on the season. Luis Severino, Carlos Rodon, Nestor Cortes, and Frankie Montas have all either been hurt, ineffective, or both. While Clarke Schmidt has shown signs of improvement, it’s been the Gerrit Cole show the whole way through.

In need of a workhorse and potential fifth starter ahead of the 2024 season, the Yankees could look internal and turn to one of the most electric young arms they’ve ever had in their farm system.

The Dying Art of the Workhorse in Major League Baseball

Starting pitchers are going deeper into games less often than they ever have before, with the 200-inning threshold being seen as a rarity in today’s breed of pitchers. This is for good reason, as increasing velocity over the years has put greater stress on the human body. To some, the solution is simple: don’t throw as hard as often, but hitters have been trained to face pitching that’s better than it’s ever been at any point in human history. Back in 2010, batters posted a .347 wOBA against fastballs between 92-93 MPH; in 2023? It’s up to .364.

The league-average MPH in 2010 was 92.3 MPH on fastballs, and now it’s up to 94.1 in 2023. Pitchers have been put in an impossible arms race that takes an unprecedented toll on shoulders and elbows across the league. Thus, shortening their workloads is the only feasible way for teams to protect their arms while having them remain effective. Improving bullpen depth also helps teams shorten games and turn to their dominant relievers sooner, with the Yankees serving as an excellent example.

Oct 18, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga (43) reacts after striking out Cleveland Guardians first baseman Gabriel Arias (not pictured) to end the sixth inning in game five of the ALDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Why allow Clarke Schmidt to pitch deep into the sixth or seventh inning of a game if they can get five strong innings and turn to a bullpen that usually gets the job done? Outside of Gerrit Cole and a healthy Carlos Rodon, no one in the Yankees’ active rotation inspires much confidence the third time through the order, but how does this tie back to Drew Thorpe? Well, a huge part of his value and advanced skillset stems from the ability to pitch deep into games and routinely get past the sixth inning, which allows him to be the rare workhorse in today’s game.

In just 21 starts, he’s at 130 innings, which means over 30 starts, he would be on pace for roughly 185.2 IP, a great total for someone in their first professional season. Thorpe’s career-high in college for innings pitched was 104.2 in 2022, and the way he’s handled the innings leap this season has been nothing short of brilliant. Getting promoted in August to Double-A, he was already past his collegiate high in innings pitched at High-A (109 IP), so fatigue was a legitimate concern at this point in the season.

Add on top of that the fact that Double-A is universally considered the hardest jump to make for a prospect and the 4.68 average ERA in the Eastern League, and it looked like Thorpe would finally be challenged. Instead? He’s tossed three starts, pitching into the seventh in all three and completing eight scoreless frames in his debut against the Binghamton RumblePonies. His ERA sits at 1.29 in those outings, striking out 41% of batters faced and walking just 2.7% in comparison.

Through 21 starts on the season, Thorpe has averaged over six innings a start while maintaining an ERA of 2.56, which is sixth among all qualified MiLB pitchers (excluding DSL/CPX pitchers), and he’s only improved upon his promotion to Double-A with Somerset. He’s going out there and giving his team reliable innings, and for the Yankees, that’s going to be a highly sought-after skill set for their rotation next season.

This is Clarke Schmidt’s first season fully healthy with the Yankees, breaking the 100-inning threshold for the first time as a professional, and while that’s an amazing feat for the 27-year-old, it also means that there’s plenty of skepticism regarding how reliable he is over the course of a season. He’s had Tommy John Surgery right out of college, and the Yankees are going to be careful with managing his innings this year in the hopes that they can build him up for a full-time role in 2024.

Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon are going to come off of seasons with massive injury issues that will require the Yankees to watch their innings as well. In Cortes’ case, the first pitch he throws in Spring Training will have been the first time he’s been on a mound for the Yankees since August 5th. For Rodon, he’ll have to work all the way back from likely tossing well under 100 innings the year prior.

Drew Thorpe, on the other hand? He’s one of just four MiLB pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched, although his teammate Richard Fitts and Triple-A farmhand for the Yankees Mitch Spence are also members of that unique club, having good seasons in their own rights on the mound. Gerrit Cole is the Yankees’ reliable innings eater, but he alone cannot reduce the tax on the bullpen that’s begun to rear its ugly head in the month of August.

New York Yankees, Tommy Kahnle
Jul 31, 2019; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Tommy Kahnle (48) pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Barring any injuries to Thorpe, it’s likely that he ends the season with more innings pitched than all of the starters in the Yankees’ projected 2024 rotation besides their $324 million ace, and in today’s day and age, volume is more of a rarity than it’s ever been. Only eight pitchers in 2022 crossed the 200-inning threshold, but just 10 years prior, in 2012, 17 pitchers had over 210, and three had more innings pitched than Sandy Alcantara in 2022, who led all of baseball in innings pitched and won the NL Cy Young Award.

If Thorpe can be a 170-inning guy in 2024, he provides immense value to the rotation and helps to save a bullpen that has routinely been asked to cover for starters who just can’t pitch every fifth day reliably or when they do, can’t consistently get into the sixth and seventh innings. That being said, volume alone won’t make you an above-average MLB starter, so what does Drew Thorpe have in his arsenal that could translate to the Majors?

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The Unique Swing-And-Miss Weapon in Drew Thorpe’s Arsenal

Throwing a lot of innings is a great start for the Yankees’ prospect, but will Thorpe’s stuff and skillset translate well to the Major League level? Well, first, we have to evaluate who Thorpe is from a pitch-shape standpoint. Everything stems from the fastball, and Thorpe sits between 91-94 MPH on his, which isn’t a great start in terms of how it’ll grade out. As mentioned earlier, low-90s fastballs are getting hit harder than they have before, and that’s due to a league-wide velocity shift, but Thorpe’s fastball has strong vertical life that plays well up in the zone.

In terms of how it profiles in its release point, velocity, and movement, it’s extremely similar to Lucas Giolito’s fastball. Giolito has struggled with the Angels, but his four-seam fastball has +3.4 Pitcher Run Value, making it a plus-pitch. His fastball averages 93.1 MPH with 18.2″ of Induced Vertical Break and 5.6″ of horizontal break, and while, according to Eno Sarris’ Stuff+ model, it’s a below-average pitch (84), the way it plays off of his changeup is what makes it so valuable. Giolito also gets 6.9 feet of extension, giving his perceived velocity an extra tick up to 94.1 MPH.

May 14, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito (27) throws the ball against the Houston Astros during the first inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Now you may be asking yourself, Ryan, what are IVBs? Induced Vertical Break may be a foreign concept for some, so to properly understand what makes Thorpe’s changeup unique, we have to understand pitch movement first.

Induced Vertical Break (IVB) is a metric that measures short-form movement, which is just movement without the effect of gravity included. The higher one’s IVB is, the more “ride” it gets, meaning it’s generating backspin and fighting the force of gravity that naturally makes any ball drop. With high enough IVB totals, you create the “rising” effect on a fastball, and while it is physically impossible to have a baseball rise, the deception is enough to fool hitters.

For reference, here is the average IVB on different pitch classifications in the 2023 season:

  • Four-Seamer: 15.7
  • Sinker: 7.9
  • Cutter: 7.7
  • Slider: 1.7
  • Sweeper: 1.4
  • Curveball: -9.3
  • Changeup: 5.8
  • Splitter: 3.5

As you’ll notice, the 15.7″ of vertical movement on the average four-seam fastball helps support my earlier claim that Thorpe’s fastball has plus vertical life, and that’s important because it gives his fastball more viability against Major League hitters, but also helps set up his stellar changeup. Changeups tend to have lots of arm-side movement, and Thorpe’s certainly does, but it’s in the vertical movement where we see some interesting characteristics.

In Spring Training, the Yankees’ top pitching prospect threw multiple to everybody but Statcast. The 85.2 MPH “four-seamer” with 15 IVBs and 10 inches of run? That’s his changeup. The 83.6 MPH “sinker” with 13 inches of run and 16 IVBs? He even threw one that clocked in at over 18 inches of Induced Vertical Movement, an insane number for a pitch that usually relies on sidespin or topspin, not backspin, to generate movement that results in whiffs.

Only seven non-position players all season had three or more instances of throwing a changeup with 18 or more IVBs; Drew Thorpe had three in Spring Training alone, where he had thrown just two total innings of work. Only 83 changeups fit that criteria out of the over 60,000 changeups thrown this season, and that gives Thorpe a unique offering of his own that has helped him put up some incredible swing-and-miss numbers in the Minor Leagues.

This is where our comparisons for Drew Thorpe circle back to Lucas Giolito, who, when he was at his best (2019-2021), had a great changeup with similar properties. He had +23.3 Pitcher Run Value on his changeup in those three seasons, average 12.6 IVBs in that timespan, which was one of the 20 highest marks in the sport (min. 150 changeups thrown). He began throwing his changeup middle-high, and it was an effective location for a pitch that was above average for a changeup, according to Stuff+.

Graded out at a flat 100, it may seem like Stuff+ is considering Giolito’s changeup as an average pitch, but it’s actually well above average for a changeup in the model. Changeups are usually not well-received in Stuff+, and they overperform the grades given, and that’s due to how much it relies upon fastball shape and how it plays off of it to make it effective.

Drew Thorpe’s changeup plays extremely similarly to Lucas Giolito’s, relying on high IVBs and the velocity separation off of each other to fool hitters into reading “fastball” and swinging out in front. With low 80s velocity on the pitch, his high-velocity separation coupled with a unique amount of Induced Vertical Break for a changeup makes the pitch a unicorn changeup, and with such a unique weapon in his pitch mix, it helps his fastball play up in the zone.

Deviating from the median and creating a unique pitch can single-handedly transform a pitcher’s arsenal, and by having a changeup with characteristics that we rarely see in the league, Thorpe projects like a strikeout machine. Don’t believe me? Well, we could look at his MiLB-best 168 strikeouts, or we could also look at his 18.5% Swinging Strike Rate, with no pitcher with 90 MiLB innings eclipsing even 17% on the season. The gap between Thorpe and 2nd on the list (Cristian Mena, CHW) is larger than the gap between 2nd and 23rd on that list.

Getting whiffs is Drew Thorpe’s game, and we can thank a changeup that’s been downright unhittable for that. He’s also developed a better breaking ball this year, something that was a concern for him coming out of college, and he also has a cutter that he can mix into lefties and righties. As a whole, it’s resulted in one of the best seasons we’ve seen by any pitcher in the Yankees’ farm system in recent memory.

Thus far on the season, he has a 2.56 ERA with a 33.7% K% and just 7.0% BB%, giving him an incredible 26.7% K-BB% on the year. Among full-season pitchers, he’s the best in MiLB in that metric, we can look at K-BB% as one of the most important metrics when projecting future success. Since 2021, 15 qualified pitchers have a K-BB% better than 20%, and none of them have an ERA- worse than league average. Expand that number to better than 18%, and only four of the 39 qualifying pitchers have an ERA- above 100.

Other aspects of pitching can affect your run prevention, and there are some amazing starters who don’t generate high K-BB rates, like Sandy Alcantara, Framber Valdez, and Merrill Kelly, but isolating that one variable can tell us a lot about a pitcher’s ceiling and their future success. Contact management matters as well, and for Drew Thorpe, his heavy reliance on a changeup has helped him limit hard damage and the long ball, with a 0.83 HR/9 as well.

Changeups have an xwOBACON (Expected Weighted On-Base Average on Contact) of .342 in the Statcast Era (since 2015), whereas the league average in that timeframe is .369, which explains Thorpe’s ability to hold batters to an average of .200 on the season. He’s a hard pitcher to get solid contact against, and that heavy changeup usage plays a huge role in that. If you’re a changeup pitcher, it’s likely that you excel at preventing damage contact, and that checks off another important box for Thorpe.

wandy peralta, yankees
Sep 5, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Wandy Peralta (58) pitches in the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Typically, strikeout pitchers struggle with command in one of two ways; either they walk too many batters, missing out of zone and inflating your pitch count, or a pitcher can struggle with executing in-zone, resulting in pitches that are easy to barrel up for HRs and extra bases. Gerrit Cole struggled with his fastball command in 2022, resulting in an ugly 1.48 HR/9 and 91 ERA-his worst mark since his days in Pittsburgh. By improving that command and decreasing his xwOBACON allowed, his ERA- is far and away his best for any 162-game season in his Yankee career.

Thorpe has a smaller margin for error with command due to the lack of velocity creating an underwhelming fastball, but with his stellar command and excellent mix of secondaries, his arsenal plays not just as one that will get strikeouts at an above-average clip but also allow at the very least league-average quality of contact, which results in above-average run prevention in most cases.

We’ve spent a good portion breaking down what makes Drew Thorpe a strong starter, but could we take things a step further with how ready he is for the Big Leagues?

Should the Yankees Call Up Drew Thorpe in 2023?

On the Yankees’ active roster, they have a combined starting ERA of…4.73. Their Achilles heel has been the long ball, allowing a 1.58 HR/9, but could Drew Thorpe be the solution to some of their issues? We know the Yankees are out of it, as they sit four games below .500 with August coming to a close. They’re not close to a playoff spot, and with Luis Severino entering free agency and Clarke Schmidt nearing a potential innings limit, there’s a lane for Drew Thorpe to get starts at the end of the season.

First and foremost, the jump to Triple-A seems like a waste of time for many pitchers with the way the ball flies there. The average ERA in the International League is a whopping 5.59, a result of what seems to be juiced baseballs. Would Thorpe be able to learn anything in a league where the baseball is flying? I’d argue no. It’s hard to know for sure, but projections already like the Yankees’ 2nd Rounder from last year’s draft more than their own MLB starters, and that’s encouraging, considering the lack of experience at Double-A.

Steamer has him at a 4.31 ERA, which is tied with Clarke Schmidt and makes him one of the Yankees’ more steady options in the rotation. Projections aren’t everything, but they certainly matter when we’re trying to project future outcomes. He certainly has all of the traits of a starter you promote aggressively, with the advanced ability to pitch through a lineup three times being a standout trait unrivaled by any pitcher in MiLB.

In 21 professional starts, Drew Thorpe is yet to face fewer than 20 batters, and with 19 representing the mark in which you begin facing the third time through the order, it means that Thorpe is regularly facing the top of the lineup three times a night, and yet he’s still dominant.

You could certainly make an argument that finishing the season in Double-A is best for his development, especially considering his innings are being pushed into uncharted waters for the 22-year-old righty. If the Yankees want to take a more careful approach, Spring Training should serve as Thorpe’s chance to win a starting job, even if he ultimately doesn’t get it. There are some things I’d still like Thorpe to work on, and this offseason will be his first following a season in professional baseball.

Adding a tick to his fastball could mean more 93-94 MPH fastballs instead of 91-92, and while we’ve seen velocity gains, it’s still a work in progress. Thorpe is also a pitcher, which means that injuries are always around the corner. He’s going to have to stay healthy, and in most cases, that’s out of the control of the athlete and organization. There’s no way to know for certain whether Drew Thorpe will make for a great starter or not, but if he continues on the path he’s been on this season and stays healthy, there’s no doubt in my mind that 2024 will be his year to claim a rotation spot in the Bronx.

The Yankees’ youth movement has centered around offense due to the lineup’s deficiencies this season, but the Yankees’ ability to develop a young starter and plug them into the rotation successfully could open up financial room to get more big bats. As of right now, the Yankees do not have their 5th starter for 2024 penciled in, but Drew Thorpe is doing everything he can to make sure he’s in that conversation, likely a year or two earlier than anybody anticipated he would last summer.