Monday, May 9, 2011

Eric Surkamp's Fast Start in Richmond and His Stock as a Prospect

If you have to give a pitcher of the month award for pitchers in the Giants system, Eric Surkamp probably deserves the award. He's been absolutely dominant in the Eastern League in his first six starts with the Richmond Flying Squirrels.

After a bit of a slow start where he didn't pitch past five innings, Surkamp has had three quality starts in a row and has had ten strikeouts in each of his last three outings (against Trenton, New Britain and Altoona, the EL affiliates of the Yankees, Twins and Pirates, respectively). Surkamp has had four 10 strikeout games this year in his six starts (he had 10 Ks in 4.0 IP in his EL debut this year), and has shown good control, walking 3 or less in five of his six starts. The lone start where he had some control issues was an April 20th start where he went 4.1 IP and had five walks, six strikeouts and allowed 3 runs on six hits, including one home run. (I wonder if he was celebrating the "holiday" a little too much that day? Just kidding.)

This excellent start to the season really shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who has followed the Giants' minor league system or Surkamp's career closely. Here's a look at Surkamp's overall career in the minors:

Year Age Tm W L ERA G IP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2008 20 2 Teams 0 2 5.71 7 17.1 1.615 11.9 0.5 2.6 11.9 4.60
2008 20 Giants 0 0 2.70 2 3.1 0.900 8.1 0.0 0.0 18.9
2008 20 Salem-Keizer 0 2 6.43 5 14.0 1.786 12.9 0.6 3.2 10.3 3.20
2009 21 Augusta 11 5 3.30 23 131.0 1.282 8.9 0.4 2.7 11.6 4.33
2010 22 San Jose 4 2 3.11 17 101.1 0.997 7.0 0.4 2.0 9.6 4.91
2011 23 Richmond 2 2 1.65 6 32.2 1.194 6.6 0.6 4.1 14.1 3.40
4 Seasons 17 11 3.19 53 282.1 1.190 8.1 0.4 2.6 11.2 4.33
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/9/2011.

As you can see, Surkamp has been very consistent over the course of his career, sans a bumpy 14 inning stint in the Northwest League. The keys to Surkamp's success in the minors have been his good strikeout rates (career 11.2 K/9), solid control (2.6 BB/9) and excellent command (4.33 K/BB ratio).

Many scouts and writers though have questioned Surkamp's ability to transition his minor league success to the Major League level. Minor League baseball analyst John Sickels only has him graded as a C+ prospect, and Surkamp is considered a "finesse" lefty because he doesn't have a power fastball or stuff in general. According to the blog "When the Giants Come to Town," Surkamp's fastball tops out in the high 80's and he has an average changeup (though he has a good curve ball, which is his best and most effective pitch, according to reports; Quick hat tip to Splashing Pumpkins for their post which made this info easier to find.)

However, to those who think Surkamp doesn't have the ability to garner any Major League success, I would point to another tall Giants lefty who dominated in the minors: Madison Bumgarner. Here's a glance at Bumgarner's minor league numbers.

Year Age Tm W L ERA G IP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2008 18 Augusta 15 3 1.46 24 141.2 0.932 7.1 0.2 1.3 10.4 7.81
2009 19 2 Teams 12 2 1.85 25 131.1 1.020 6.9 0.4 2.3 6.3 2.71
2009 19 San Jose 3 1 1.48 5 24.1 0.986 7.4 0.0 1.5 8.5 5.75
2009 19 Connecticut 9 1 1.93 20 107.0 1.028 6.7 0.5 2.5 5.8 2.30
2010 20 Fresno 7 1 3.16 14 82.2 1.331 9.6 0.5 2.4 6.4 2.68
3 Seasons 34 6 2.00 63 355.2 1.057 7.6 0.4 1.9 8.0 4.09
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/9/2011.

Bumgarner had superior control (a 1.9 BB/9 is pretty darn impressive) and his ERA and WHIP numbers are better than Surkamp's (and he did so out of high school, while Surkamp posted his good numbers out of college). However, Surkamp's command is actually comparable with Bumgarner's (Surkamp has a better K/BB ratio in the minors) and Surkamp was a lot more dominant against Eastern League hitting when it came to striking guys out. Surkamp's K/9 with Richmond is almost three times Bumgarner's K/9 in Connecticut in 2009 (and Richmond is a more hitter friendly park than Connecticut), and his K/BB ratio is 1.10 points better than Bumgarner's 2.30 K/BB ratio in Double-A. (Of course, Surkamp has to maintain these numbers over the full course of a season in the Eastern League, so we'll have to wait and see if Surkamp will indeed have a better Double-A campaign than Bumgarner.)

Now, am I saying Surkamp is better than Bumgarner? Absolutely not. Bumgarner had better tools (Bumgarner's stuff is a lot better, including his fastball, which averages 92.6 MPH this year) and his ceiling is higher than Surkamp's (he's two years younger than Surkamp, and Bumgarner has No.1/No.2 starter potential). Also, Bumgarner has pitched in the majors and in the playoffs, while Surkamp hasn't pitched above Double-A.

That being said, on a statistical note, Surkamp is comparable and that should be a sign that Surkamp could maybe hold his own at the Major League level. Is he going to be a future No. 1 starter? Probably not unless he's playing for the Pirates. However, with Barry Zito hitting a wall, and Jonathan Sanchez's career as a Giant very uncertain (he's always constantly in trade talks), Surkamp might be given a chance with the big league club in the near future. (I wouldn't be surprised if he makes the 40-man next year or even some point this season if we waive someone.)

His first six starts in the Eastern League (and his entire minor league career in general) illustrate that the Giants wouldn't be crazy to lean on the tall, lanky lefty sooner rather than later.

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