Wednesday, February 29, 2012

OTF Top 30: No. 9, Eric Surkamp, LHP

No. 9: Eric Surkamp, left-handed pitcher.

Age: 24
Drafted: Sixth round (177th overall) in the 2008 MLB Draft
College: North Carolina State
2011 Regular season numbers: 10-4 W-L, 23 games, 142.1 innings pitched, 37 runs allowed, 110 hits allowed, 44 walks, 165 strikeouts, 2.02 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.37 FIP, 3.75 BB/K ratio (Double-A). 2-2 W-L, 6 games, 26.2 IP, 32 hits allowed, 18 runs allowed, 17 walks, 13 strikeouts, 5.74 ERA, 1.84 WHIP, 4.68 FIP, 0.76 BB/K ratio (MLB).
2011 Fall/Winter League numbers: None

Why you should know about Surkamp in 2012:

Surkamp is one of the more enigmatic pitching prospects in the Giants system. Scouts don't think he has the velocity to be anything more than a back-of-the-rotation or spot starter at the next level. On the other hand, stat guys point out that his dominance and command rates illustrate that he has the potential to be a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation starter in the Big Leagues. Surkamp's future probably lies somewhere in the middle (hopefully), but his brief Major League stint in 2011 didn't do anything to sway critical scouts in the other direction. Surkamp won't spend much time in the minors in 2012 (he most likely is starting in Fresno barring injury AND an incredible Spring), but he'll be an interesting arm to keep an eye out on, especially if Barry Zito or Ryan Vogelsong struggle in the rotation.

What are Surkamp's strengths as a prospect?

After being drafted in the sixth round out of NC State, Surkamp appeared to profile as a low-ceiling pitcher who could advance quickly in the minors. Not only has Surkamp advanced in the Giants system (even though he did start out his career in the Sally his first full season), but he has pretty much dominated at every level in the Minors.

Surkamp sports plus control and command, and has demonstrated that with excellent walk to strikeout ratios in the Minors, and his tenure in Richmond last season was probably his most impressive stint yet. In 142.1 innings pitched, he struck out 165 while only allowing 44 free passes, good for a BB/K ratio of 3.75 and a FIP of 2.37. Even though the Eastern League tends to favor pitchers, Surkamp's numbers in Richmond were no fluke, as he was dominant in Augusta in 2009 and San Jose in 2010 as well, posting BB/K ratios of 4.33 and 4.19, respectively. His San Jose numbers are especially impressive since the Cal League tends to favor hitters, and despite those circumstances working against him in 2010, he still managed to post a FIP of 2.54.

While he doesn't sport tremendous velocity on his fastball (it is graded a three-plus by Rob Gordon of the MiLBA and it sits in the 87-90 MPH range), his deceptive three-quarters pitching motion, excellent control and plus curve ball have contributed heavily to his dominance in the minors. Daniel Jarrett of MLB Prospect Portal gave Surkamp positive reviews in a game report of a Surkamp start against the Akron Aeros on May 29th, noting this about Surkamp in his report:

"Surkamp's fastball was topping out around 90 MPH, but he showed great command of his offspeed pitches, mixing them in to keep the Aeros lineup off balance all game. His changeup and curveball both rate as plus pitches but his fastball will be big league average at best, even if he's able to add an MPH or two as he continues to get stronger...

It's not often you see a pitcher with a league average fastball who is able to record as many strikeouts as Surkamp, but its a credit to the quality of his secondary pitches and his poise on the mound. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain those rates throughout his career but his definitely has the pitchability to be a successful big league pitcher. His upside is likely as a #2 or #3 starter, who can log plenty of quality innings while giving his team a chance to win each and every night."

Surkamp doesn't have the stuff or ceiling of a pitcher like Kyle Crick or previous pitching prospects in the Giants system such as Zack Wheeler (currently in the Mets organization) or Madison Bumgarner. However, he is a prospect who knows how to pitch and has displayed excellent poise and presence on the mound at every stop in the Minors. It's those intangibles that make Surkamp such an interesting prospect, and help make up what he lacks in terms of tools and velocity.

Where might Surkamp struggle?

Surkamp was called up to the Majors late last season and did not impress in his six-start "cup of coffee" with the Big League club. Not only was he extremely hittable (he allowed 10.8 hits per nine innings), but he displayed none of the dominance, control or command that made him such a great prospect in the minors. His BB/K ratio was putrid at 0.76, amplified by a walk rate of 5.7 (he never posted a walk rate higher than 3.2 in the minors, and that was in his first season of professional ball at Salem Keizer).

It made sense why Surkamp didn't dominate in the Majors like he did in the Minors in 2011. His stuff really isn't all that impressive. Despite sporting good size at six-feet, four inches and a 190 pounds, Surkamp tops out at 90 MPH on his fastball and is consistently in the 87-89 range. While that is passable for a Major League starter, it leaves little room for error and it certainly isn't the velocity one would expect from a major pitching prospect. Furthermore, Surkamp is a three pitch pitcher, and while his curve has gotten good reports, his changeup has gotten mixed results (most likely due to the fact that his fastball doesn't generate a lot of speed). While asking Surkamp to develop a fourth pitch at this stage of his professional career is a huge stretch, Surkamp most likely has to develop his current pitch repertoire even more to be successful. How he will induce groundballs at the Major League level will probably be the key to his success. since I doubt his 10.6 career K/9 will translate. According to Baseball America in their handbook, his two seam fastball does tail, sink and induce groundballs, but that was hardly evident at the big league level, as he only posted a GB/FB rate of 0.91 (though the 26.1 line drive rate probably had something to do with it being so low).

Hence, the big question about Surkamp is this: can his repertoire and approach transition to the Major League level? Or is Surkamp simply one of those pitchers that can succeed against marginal talent, but not against elite hitters with better approaches? The tenure in San Francisco suggests the latter, but it was only a short six-game sample, and Surkamp had logged 142.1 innings in Richmond and six innings in San Jose in addition to his stint with the Giants. Surkamp may have just been a bit worn out, and wasn't ready or in the proper shape to face Major League hitters. Of course, that's just theory, and Giants fans won't really know how Surkamp will fare in the long run at the Major League level until he logs a larger sample.

Grades on Surkamp's Tools:

Fastball: 15/20 (It certainly isn't impressive in terms of velocity, but his two seamer does offer some hope that he can induce groundballs at the next level. His size does suggest that he has the potential to increase the velocity on his fastball, but even then, it'll probably be an increase of 1-2 MPH at best. Whether the velocity increases or not, he'll need to rely on more than just his fastball at the next level in order to be successful.)
Curveball: 17/20 (His curve, according to Baseball America, is knowing for finishing off pitchers, and it has good sweeping action at 75-78 MPH according to Gordon. While we're not look at a Barry Zito-esque curve here, it is a plus secondary pitch that Surkamp will probably hinge on in order to be successful as a starting pitcher. He locates it well, so he has that going in his favor.)
Changeup: 16/20 (The report vary, but his changeup did show signs of effectiveness at times in 2011. While his lack of fastball velocity doesn't maximize the value of his changeup, Baseball America did report that it works well against right handed hitters. Considering how Tim Lincecum's success in 2010 hinged on his changeup despite a decrease in fastball velocity from the previous year, this could be the pitch in Surkamp's repertoire that makes or breaks Surkamp's projection as a Major League pitcher.)
Mechanics: 18/20 (His three quarters delivery is deceptive, and his tall frame further makes things difficult for opposing hitters when it comes to seeing his pitches. On tape, Surkamp has a steady delivery that moves smoothly and doesn't exert too much effort.  His easy delivery probably prohibits him from getting more behind his fastball, but I will take the added control and command of his delivery over one that inhibits more speed, but more wildness in his pitches.)
Command/Control: 19/20 (A huge plus tool of his. Surkamp is fearless and isn't afraid to attack hitters inside despite sporting an average fastball. While this wasn't the case in San Francisco (he was too nitpicky in his callup), his track record shows that he has the potential to bounce back in 2012 and display the command that made him such a fast riser in the Giants system. While I think the K/9 rates won't translate at the Major League level, I do think his control will, which will equalize the regression in strikeouts in the Big Leagues.)
Ceiling: 16/20 (He probably projects as a back-end starter, maybe a 3rd starter at best. Furthermore, at his age, he really doesn't have much more room for development, so it's kind of now or never right now for Surkamp. Still though, if he can recapture the control he showed in the Minors at the Big League level, he could be a valuable fourth or fifth starter for the Giants as soon as this season.)
Health/Makeup/Intangibles: 16/20 (He suffered a torn labrum in his hip in 2010 which ended his San Jose campaign early, but he rebounded from surgery in 2011 and posted solid numbers. While he doesn't have a massive injury history, the hip injury in 2010 will be something to watch out for in the near future. Surkamp also was a sixth round pick, so that goes against him in terms of projection (usually less-heralded guys are less-heralded for a reason). That being said, Surkamp has a good work ethic and has adjusted well at every stop he has been at, so that definitely bodes well in his favor.)

Overall grade: B-
Projection: No. 4 or No. 5 Major League starting pitcher; could be spot starter or long innings reliever.

Summary: Surkamp has garnered quite the fan base amongst Giants fans which can be a good thing (Pablo Sandoval) or misleading (John Bowker). I love Surkamp's repertoire and approach as a pitcher, which I think makes up for his average tools as a pitcher. While I think the stint in San Francisco isn't a total indicator of Surkamp's potential in the Major Leagues, I think it was a warning sign for a lot of Giants fans who felt Surkamp was in line to achieve automatic success at the Big League level like Madison Bumgarner. He just doesn't have the tools like Bumgarner to be that dominant. However, if he can recapture his control and confidence, then it is likely to see Surkamp achieve some success on the Giants staff. He won't have have much room for error, but it certainly isn't out of the question.

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