17 August 2013

A Buried Prospect - Mike Belfiore

Before the 2013 season, Baseball America ranked left-handed pitcher Mike Belfiore as the number 24 prospect in the Orioles' system. This marked a comeback for Belfiore, who had been the Arizona Diamondbacks' #6 prospect before 2010 and #15 before 2011; he had a terrible 2011 season and in early 2012 was traded to Baltimore for the designated-for-assignment Josh Bell. His reward for his bounceback 2012 was to be optioned to AAA Norfolk - a good thing - and assigned to pitch long and mop-up relief - not a good thing. As of the conclusion of the Tides' last homestand on Monday, August 12, Belfiore had pitched 64 2/3 innings in 33 relief appearances, above the norm for relief pitchers in key roles. Despite a 3.62 ERA, he had a 2-1 record with zero saves and 2 holds, and the Tides have an 8-25 record in the games in which he appeared. He's been pitching when the starter gets knocked out early, in long extra-inning games, or to finish both blowout wins and blowout losses.

It seems strange that a team like the Orioles, which has a shallow farm system, would bury a top prospect in so-called garbage relief. It should be pointed out that being ranked in a team's top 30 prospects isn't necessarily an indication that he's a really good prospect, although it's certainly better than not being ranked among the top 30. There are about 300 players in an organization at any given time; some of them no longer have prospect eligibility, of course, but there are still at least 250 players eligible for a prospect list. So a top 30 list consists of about the top 12% of prospects. Belfiore's being ranked #24 puts him just inside the top 10% of Orioles' prospects.

Right now, if Belfiore is going to have much of a major league career, it looks like he'd have to be either a long reliever (T.J. McFarland's current role) or a left-handed specialist. It would be better for his career if he evolved into a left-handed specialist, as they have longer careers than long relievers. Unfortunately, in the course of getting 76 outs against left-handed batters (through August 14), he's allowed six home runs. He's also allowed a 1.5 WHIP against left-handed batters as opposed to a 1.52 WHIP against right-handed batters. He doesn't appear to have a significant platoon split. Is this true, or does a closer look at his pitching reveal some differences?

I've seen Belfiore pitch in twelve games. In those twelve games, he's faced 58 right-handed batters and 42 left-handed batters (and no, I didn't know that I had seen him face exactly 100 batters until now.) Here is how Belfiore has faced against right- and left-handed batters:

vs. Right vs. Left
Strikeout .224 .333
Walk .121 .071
Home Run .017 .048
In Play, Other Hit .241 .190
In Play, Out .397 .357

Upon further review, it does seem that Belfiore might be more effective against left-handed batters than right-handers. In the games I've seen, he's struck out 1/3 of the left-handed batters he's faced but only 22.4% of the right-handers. He's walked a lower percentage of left-handers than right-handers. Only 60% of the left-handers who have faced him have put the ball in play. However, left- and right-handers have almost the same BABIP against Belfiore - .319 for lefties and .315 for righties.

Based on this, Belfiore may indeed have a future as a left-handed relief specialist. It would help his chances even more if he got left-handers to hit the ball on the ground, but that's not especially the case. The table below shows the number of ground balls, fly balls, and line drives Belfiore has allowed:

vs. Right vs. Left
Ground Ball 14 8
Fly Ball 15 12
Line Drive 10 5

Belfiore's not a ground-ball pitcher, either against left-handed batters or right-handed batters. As a fly-ball pitcher, he's more vulnerable to home runs. That makes him less effective as a left-handed specialist who is often called into games with runners on base. He's an all-or-nothing pitcher against lefties.

Although the Orioles are using him in garbage relief, there are some indications that Belfiore could develop into a useful bullpen piece. I don't think the Orioles are so loaded with prospects that they can afford to bury any prospect who's reached AAA, even a marginal one like Belfiore. He seems to be about as good a prospect as Zach Phillips was in 2012, and Phillips was used as a left-handed set-up man and part-time closer for Norfolk in 2012. I don't understand why Belfiore isn't being given the same chance.

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