If someone told you about a minor league pitcher who struck out over a batter per inning last season, what would you expect? One season of data doesn't tell us much. Now, what if you add in the fact that this pitcher struck out 309 batters in 289 2/3 innings while pitching in college? Pretty impressive, right? Odds are you would be thinking of a big pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, and many others fit this profile.
In this case, two out of three isn't bad. Tigers prospect Austin Kubitza is definitely a big pitcher, at 6'5" and 225 pounds. He also features a wipeout slider, one that helped him fan 140 batters in 131 innings last season. However, that mid-90s fastball isn't part of his repertoire. Instead, Kubitza features a heater that sits in the high 80s with a lot of sink, topping out around 90 miles per hour. It didn't limit him while he was racking up strikeouts for Rice University, and it didn't stop him from becoming the Tigers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2014. Will it hinder him going forward? The 2015 season should give us a much better idea of what to expect from Kubitza down the road.
Like many of the pitchers in the Tigers' farm system, Kubitza is a large Texan who pitched for a big-time college program. While Rice University is a stray from the Tigers' usual SEC stomping grounds, Kubitza fell to the fourth round of the 2013 draft after a stellar career. He went 20-14 with a 2.33 ERA in 289 2/3 innings across three seasons with the Owls. He was an All-Regional performer in 2012 and was named a third-team All-American in 2013. After being selected by the Tigers, Kubitza allowed 15 runs (13 earned) in 25 1/3 innings, most of which came in relief to limit his innings total for the year.
Kubitza was sent to Single-A West Michigan to start the 2014 season. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Mike Henneman, Kubitza held opponents to a 2.34 ERA and a .547 OPS in 131 innings. His innings total and 10 wins led the team, while his ERA was second to Kevin Ziomek's 2.27 ERA. Kubitza also struck out over a batter per inning while walking just under three batters per nine innings. He was named the Tigers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and MLB.com recently ranked Kubitza third in the Tigers' farm system.
Like former Tigers prospect Jonathon Crawford, Kubitza already has a wipeout slider to his name. In fact, it's good enough that it actually lowered his draft stock, as teams were concerned that he was relying on it too much while pitching in college. MLB.com referred to the pitch as "a mid-80s breaker with a lot of bite." Baseball Prospectus' Nick Faleris said that Kubitza was still relying on the pitch heavily during an early season look ($) in 2014, but also praised the slider by saying it "works well around the quadrants and as a chase pitch out of the zone."
Kubitza's other solid pitch is his fastball. It doesn't have the premium velocity that you might expect out of a 6'5" right-hander, sitting in the high 80s. However, he generates a ton of ground balls with the pitch, helping him and the talented West Michigan middle infield to turn 15 double plays last season. Kubitza induced ground balls on 67 percent of the balls in play against him last season, an astronomical figure that shows how overmatched his competition was. He won't maintain this going forward, but anything above 55 percent in the upper minors should be impressive enough to play at the major league level.
One of the more impressive parts of Kubitza's 2014 stat line is his high strikeout rate. This doesn't normally jump out for an experienced college pitcher in Single A ball, but Kubitza's aforementioned fastball velocity (or lack thereof) makes him a bit unusual. Had Jonathon Crawford or another pitcher with a mid-90s fastball done this last year, no one would have batted an eye. It's not entirely shocking -- velocity or not, Kubitza should have dominated Single A hitters last year -- but it is something to keep an eye on as he moves up through the minors. He also struck out a ton of batters in college. It may not be fair to call him a "power pitcher without the power," but that's what his numbers feel like.
Kubitza has a solid fastball-slider combination to his name, but his changeup is still lagging far behind. Reports suggest that the pitch has improved since arriving in the Tigers' organization. This is a good sign, considering how heavily the pitch is emphasized by the organization. However, he still has a ways to go before it plays as a legitimate big league offering. If he can't develop it further, left-handed hitters will be able to sit on his fastball. Kubitza was able to overwhelm both lefties and righties in 2014, but the slight difference in platoon splits suggest that lefties will hit him much better as he faces more experienced competition.
Kubitza's lack of velocity hasn't hurt him yet, but he may start to run into trouble as he moves through the minors. While the pitch has a lot of movement, a heavy two-seamer in the high 80s is a lot different from one thrown five miles per hour faster, a la Drew VerHagen. Kubitza will have to be spot-on with his command in order to be effective with the pitch at higher levels, something he didn't necessarily show in 2014. A walk rate under three batters per nine innings isn't bad, but for someone with his arsenal, that rate should be closer to two batters per nine innings.
Video via Jason Cole and MLB Farm
Projected team: Lakeland Flying Tigers
This one is a toss-up. Kubitza and Kevin Ziomek are experienced pitchers that were both dominant enough to jump from Single A to Double A in 2015. Moving them up to Erie would also keep them with pitching coach Mike Henneman, who seems to do a great job working with the Tigers' young minor leaguers. Ziomek is a left-hander and has the better stuff, so I'd give him the edge, but it's tough to say which pitcher the organization likes better. Kubitza could stand to move slower through the organization to refine his command and improve his changeup, though some would argue that he is better served by a move to the bullpen due to his limited upside. Don't worry, though; Kubitza will be starting somewhere in 2015, and should get every opportunity to prove himself as he moves closer to the major leagues.
New addition: Kyle Lobstein, left-handed pitcher
Frankly, I didn't realize that Lobstein was still considered a prospect. Tigers fans are well aware of the left-hander's talents after he allowed a 4.35 ERA in 39 1/3 innings down the stretch in 2014. Lobstein doesn't have the physical talents of many of the other pitchers in the system, so his addition to the poll is timely. A former 2nd round pick, the 25 year old Lobstein should slot into Toledo's rotation and be one of the first call-ups if a starter is needed in 2015.