May 23, 2006

Who Is ... Pat Neshek

I've received a tremendous number of e-mails over the past month about Pat Neshek, perhaps more so than any other Twins-related topic. Baseball America inexplicably didn't see fit to include Neshek among their top 30 Twins prospects coming into this season, but he's been on my radar for some time now.

Last May in this space I described Neshek as "one guy who is worth keeping an eye on" and since then he's improved his prospect stock dramatically. After posting a 2.19 ERA and 95-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .225 batting average in 82.1 innings at Double-A last season, Neshek has put up the following numbers at Triple-A so far this year:

 G     GS      ERA       IP      H     HR     SO     BB
18 0 2.10 30.0 21 4 53 9

Those are dominant numbers, and the native Minnesotan and former sixth-round pick out of Butler University now sports a career ERA of 2.21 with 333 strikeouts compared to just 202 hits allowed in 264.2 pro innings. Neshek has been used as a closer in the minors, saving 24 games last year and eight already this season, but as a side-arming right-hander he profiles more as a middle reliever in the majors.

In fact, the single biggest negative with Neshek at this point is that his unique delivery (shown below) leaves him vulnerable to left-handed hitters, particularly those who hit for power. Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune discussed Neshek a bit in his column earlier this week and quoted Neshek as saying that he's "retired the last 15 lefties" he's faced.

(Video courtesy of Neshek's personal website.)

That may be true--stats in the minors aren't sophisticated enough for me to check easily--but for the entire year Neshek has allowed lefties to bat .279/.326/.558 with four homers in 43 at-bats against him. What makes those numbers particularly noteworthy is that Neshek has held right-handed hitters to a remarkable .123 batting average, striking out a ridiculous 39 righties in 65 at-bats.

The inability to consistently retire left-handed hitters hasn't really hurt Neshek in the minors, but it'll certainly impact his effectiveness in the big leagues. As a closer or late-inning setup man Neshek would inevitably be faced with an avalanche of left-handed pinch-hitters to go along with the usual assortment of left-handed sluggers who reside in the middle of most lineups.

However, as a middle man he could be used against predominantly right-handed portions of lineups, and because he'd be pitching in the middle innings opposing managers would be less likely to make bench moves against him. Because of that I like Neshek's chances of putting together a lengthy big-league career, perhaps even one that is a step up from guys like Steve Reed or Chad Bradford.

Will he get a chance in the Twins' bullpen this season? I think so, although given the Twins' sudden reluctance to trust young players you never know. In Neshek's case it's going to be very difficult to keep him in the minors for much longer given that he has 53 strikeouts in 30 innings at Triple-A and has put up the following numbers at each level:

LEVEL            IP      ERA     SO/9
Rookie 27.1 0.99 13.5
Single-A 82.0 1.64 11.1
Double-A 125.1 2.87 9.9
Triple-A 30.0 2.10 15.9

It's one thing when a washed up journeyman in his thirties beats up on inexperienced competition in the minors, but when a 25-year-old former early-round draft pick consistently dominates like that at every step on the organizational ladder you've got to think that the Twins view him as a big part of the bullpen's future.

Another reason that Neshek's future is far from a given is that throughout baseball history teams have been overly cautious with "trick" pitchers. Whether it's side-armers like Neshek, knuckleballers, or soft-tossers whose great numbers don't match up with their sub par velocity, you have to work a lot harder to get a legitimate chance than someone with mediocre results who throws in the high-90s with perfect mechanics.

With that said, Neshek throws much harder and has better overall stuff than most guys with non-traditional deliveries. He's also far from the complete disaster against lefties that many seem to think, giving up a relatively acceptable .280 batting average against them over the past two years. Neshek has certainly given up too many homers to lefties this season, but we're talking about a very small sample and he's also managed 13 strikeouts in those 43 at-bats.

Neshek is one of the Twins' most intriguing prospects and in a minor-league system filled with promising young pitchers he is perhaps the most overlooked as well. I expect him to play a significant role on the pitching staff beginning in 2007 and he deserves to be the next pitcher called up should the Twins need further reinforcements in the bullpen this year.

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