With six quality starts in a row, I may be reaching to say that Foster Griffin has completely turned it around in his prospect status. His prospect status has really taken a hit this year. I took a long, hard look at the numbers from last year and the numbers from this year and combined them with the eye test of seeing multiple starts last year and this year. My conclusion is below.
First, the eye test. It seems that Foster’s stuff has dropped off slightly from when I saw him last year. Especially early this season when he was working 86-88 most of the time. Now he seems to be working 88-90 much more. His fastball seems to have less life but it is still very deceptive. Griffin is 6’3” with long arms and the effective velocity is slightly higher for him than most guys of his height. I don’t know what his wingspan is but I would guess closer to 6’6” or 6’7” than 6’2” or 6’3”. He also gets down the mound really well and is fluid in his release. Griffin has that athletic fluidity that some people just have.
Last year, as the fastball was coming in, it had a lot of life, jumping arm side with movement. This year, that is still there, it just isn’t as sharp. This could be do to a slight loss of velo or could indicate that he is not transitioning energy into the ball as well as he did last year. As in all things, it’s probably a combination of both. I find that helping guys to use their legs better and stay over the rubber longer adds life to the ball and sometimes a little velo. Griffin does drift at times but usually does a really good job staying back while gathering.
The curveball is still deceptive although it is also not quite as sharp and late breaking as last year. That probably is caused by the same thing that has taken some of the life off the fastball. The change is still very good and he still gets a lot of swings and misses or weak contact with it.
It also appears that Griffin is catching more of the plate this year. He is missing more min hitting zones than he did last year. In several starts I saw him last year, he worked the edges of the zone really well. This year, as a whole, he is still trying to do that but is catching maybe a few more inches of the plate than in the past. Instead of a pitch being on the black, it is 2 inches on the plate and maybe slightly more elevated. It’s not that big of a difference, but enough to give up a single the other way or for a guy to fight that pitch off for another chance.
One thing to consider is that when a guy is working with less velo, such as Griffin does at 88-90 instead of someone like Scott Blewett who is 94-95, is that hitters have more time to adjust and fight pitches off. I think Griffin has fallen victim to this during this season numerous times. It would be one reason that OBA and BABIP is up against him. Instead of the pitch getting by a guy, he can still slap a pitch the other way for a single or at worst, a souvenir for those kids hanging out in the bleachers or berms. I’ve been witness to this many times. Perhaps the most glaring example for me is when Griffin threw a fastball that a hitter (I can’t remember who it was) was not expecting and slapped it to RF for a ball that split the gap and turned into a double. There were two outs and two strikes on the hitter, and he was guessing off speed. You could tell by the swing and reaction. Griffin threw a very good pitcher’s pitch but it turned into an RBI-double on a weak swing that most of us would expect weak contact.
Still, the stuff is good and similar to when I’ve seen him at his best. There is not a huge drop off from him as a whole. So the stuff still passes the eye test even with the differences I’ve mentioned from last year.
The second thing to consider is the numbers. I looked at last year and I compared it to this year. I used all innings at NWA from last and this year, not looking into Wilmington or before to much although I will mention it at times.
The first thing I looked at was ERA. We know it isn’t a great stat to use and I think this is a perfect example of that. Last year at NWA, Griffin’s ERA was 3.61 while his FIP was 4.14. This would suggest that he was getting results that were better than he should be getting. The ERA tends to be above the FIP and xFIP for most guys. Griffin’s ERA this year is 5.07 and his FIP is 4.25. That’s right, his FIP this year is almost the same as last year with much worse results and before his last start, was actually LOWER than his FIP from last year at 4.10. It went up 0.15 in his last start. Again though, FIP is a predictor of what should be happening if things were perfect. The biggest thing we can pull out of this is that his expected results are similar to last year but his actual results are much different this year.
Taking a look at opponent’s batting average is interesting as well. In 2017, in his time in the Texas League, Griffin allowed an opponent’s batting average of .271. This year’s OBA is .308. Let’s look at BABIP. Last year it was .311 and this year it is .354. Okay, so people are making better contact resulting in more runners on base. Let’s look at OBP. Last year it was 32.7% and this year it is 34.8%. But Griffin has cut down his walk rate this year so the rise is from clean hits. Last year, hitters walked 7.7% of the time compared to 5.9% of hitters this year.
So Griffin is allowing a higher average, better contact, more runners but has cut down on free passes. That would be similar to what the eye test is showing us catching more of the plate. What about power? Last year opponents SLG was .407 and this year it is .467. So he is allowing more extra base hits as well. That would be typical with missing in hitting zones.
One big number that is telling of his season is the opponents left on base rate. Last year, Griffin stranded 76.0% of runners he allowed on base. This year it has dropped almost 10% to 66.8% of runners being left on base. That would mean he is giving up more runs as well. Some of that could be that his bullpen last year was better than the bullpen this year. That is explained by situations within games. If Griffin leaves the game with runners on, perhaps they were less likely to score with a better bullpen lowering his runners scored rate. So some of this might be out of his control but some could also be due to the higher BABIP and SLG which means more guys should be driven in over the course of the year.
Breaking down data on where balls are hit and how those balls are hit shows us that hitters are pulling Griffin slightly more this year and have a higher line drive rate. The pull rate this year is 44.4% while it was 42.1% last year and the line drive rate this year is 25.7% while it was 22.5% last year. In his time at Wilmington it was under 18%. Infield popups are higher this year. Last year, Griffin had a ground ball rate of 44.4% while it is down to 38.7% this season. More line drives and fly balls are the difference between the ground ball rates from year to year. With a 3% increase in line drives when lines drives have the highest rate of success in baseball, it isn’t surprising the BABIP and SLG are up either. Even though Griffin has given up more fly balls this year, his home run to fly ball rate is consistent with last year at 10.6% which is a good thing.
Taking a quick look at splits, the handedness of the batter doesn’t matter very much. Lefties and righties are very similar in their results. The biggest difference is that RHH’s strike out less at 7.04 K/9 than LHH’s who strike out at 8.18 K/9. It’s not a big difference and their batting averages and OBP very are similar. This is also very typical with pitchers because the out pitch is usually the change up vs. the curve ball or slider.
What about swing and miss numbers? Last year in NWA, Griffin had a swinging strike percentage of 9%. This year it is 10% showing an improvement. Griffin is still striking out 18.3% of the batters he faces. It is basically the same as last season which was 18.5%. Perhaps this is a case where some wildness makes him more effective. Perhaps Xavier Fernandez or Nick Dini need to go out and say, “On the next pitch I want you to try and hit Strike or Sinker.” Strike and Sinker are the two mascots of the Naturals if you are confused.
Third and final, let’s take a look at his recent outings. In Griffin’s last six starts he has a record of 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA. In those six games he has thrown 36.1 innings allowing 8 ER on 38 H, 7 BB, and 24 K. That’s 6.0 innings per start on average and just over 1 run per start. His swinging strike rate was 12%. That’s a great stretch for anyone giving the team a chance to win every start.
Looking back on his six starts before his awesome stretch it was the exact opposite with a record of 0-6 and a 7.29 ERA and a 31.6% OBP. The OBP wasn’t terrible which is why Griffin was able to go 33.1 innings in that time frame which is about 5.5 per start. In those six games Griffin allowed 27 ER (19 more) on 43 H, 12 BB, and 34 K (more than 1 per inning) but he allowed 8 home runs. The SwS% was 10%.
Is this season for Griffin the product of bad luck or better contact? Well, it’s kind of both. He is pitching almost identical to last season in terms of projected results but with his stuff down a tick for most of the season, he is giving up more base runners and as a result, runs. If it was a stat that was kept he would probably be leading the Texas League in fluke hits.
I think Griffin is figuring out how to make things work at NWA and has learned some valuable lessons about adjustments and failure along the way. Griffin still has a decent future in the Royals organization and could end up being in a major league rotation. I think he still needs to find a way to create more velo and I think a great adjustment would be to add a cutter. Griffin needs to find a way to get in on RHHs more and several LHPs I’ve talked to have talked about cutters changing their careers. I don’t know if Griffin has experimented with a cutter and how the Royals feel about him experimenting with a cutter, but it would be what I would recommend to him and may extend his career or make him a completely different pitcher.
Griffin has been really good and had some really rough stretches. We may have over reacted by dropping him so far on our top prospect list but we may have overreacted by moving him up so far on the same list last year. I’m excited to watch him make adjustments as he continues to pitch. Griffin is still only 23-years-old. There is time for him to make adjustments and contribute in the big leagues. I expect him to move to Omaha next year and begin the next level of challenges in his journey to the big leagues.