Here's a Thought: Will Inman and How to Evaluate Prospects

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJuly 16, 2009

NEW YORK - JULY 13:  Will Inman of the San Diego Padres and playing for the United States Olympic Team pitches against the World Futures Team during the 2008 XM All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium on July 13, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

"Evaluating prospects is a two-part process. You have to see what they're doing, and and then you have to find out how they are doing it."

—Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus prospect expert

If you've read much of my work, you know I like to use a lot of advanced statistical data.

Often, I like to let the stats dictate my opinion, rather than letting a pre-made opinion dictate which stats I use when talking about a player.

However, I certainly understand that there's quite a bit to be gained from looking at video of a player and watching him hit or pitch. Pitchers, in particular, need to be looked at in order to be properly judged.

This applies even more in the minor leagues than the majors. In the majors, if a player is good, they're good, no matter how awkward they look doing it.

In the minors, however, players can be dominating statistically yet still have some fatal flaws that eventually prevent them from being good at the big-league level.

Quite often, a prospect will look excellent statistically, but the good old "eye test" leaves scouts unimpressed. Therefore, the player gets touted by the sabermetric crowd and derided by the traditional scouts.

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And to be fair, sometimes one side is right and sometimes the other is.

I've told people for years that Dallas Braden was going to be very good, and seemingly nobody believed me. Now here we are, and he's an All-Star caliber pitcher.

On the other hand, if you've never heard of Duane Below, I'd certainly forgive you.

One pitcher who seems to really create a rift is Portland Beavers right hander Will Inman.

So, as the quote from the great Kevin Goldstein suggests, let's see what Inman is doing.

A third-round pick of the Brewers in 2005, Inman quickly dominated Rookie ball in his pro debut.

His full-season debut in Low-A in 2006 produced one of the best statlines you'll ever see: 10-2, 1.71 ERA, 110.7 IP, 24 BB, 134 K, 3 HR, 2.03 FIP.

He dominated High-A in similar fashion to begin 2007, so Inman made his Double-A debut just a few months after his 20th birthday. He did struggle a bit at Double-A Hunstville (4.81 FIP).

Later that season, Inman was traded to the Padres (with Joe Thatcher and Steve Garrison) for Scott Linebrink.

He improved a bit at the Padres Double-A affiliate (San Antonio), but not enough to get beyond the level in 2007.

The Padres left him in Double-A for all of 2008, and Inman responded by pitching very well. Although his walk rate continued an alarming upward trend, he struck out over a batter per inning and posted a 3.80 FIP in Double-A at age 21.

Sent back to Double-A this year, Inman found his precise control again (1.62 BB/9) and dominated the level (3.47 FIP). The Padres promoted him to Triple-A after eight starts. He's struggled with the home run ball since his promotion, but it's the PCL, a hitter's league, and some of that is likely luck. 

So he's a mediocre Triple-A pitcher at age 22 who's had a lot of success in the minors.

And how is he doing it?

Here's the interesting part. Will Inman has one of the weirdest deliveries you'll ever see. He extends his throwing arm several feet behind him, then sweeps it all way around his body. It's the longest and strangest arm action I've probably ever seen.

You can take a look at it here.

Inman's arm angle is pretty low, similar to Justin Masterson of the Red Sox or former Padre hurler Brian Lawrence.

Stuff-wise, Inman throws a fastball in the high-80's that he can get up to 93 at peak velocity. He used to throw a nice curve, but when he dropped his arm angle, the pitch got worse, and is now average at best. His best pitch is his change up, which is a major league out pitch.

So the numbers indicate Will Inman fools a lot of batters and could be a solid No.2-No.3 starter.

Scouts see the arm action and mediocre velocity and get confused. They think lefties will eat Inman alive with the arm action and low arm slot.

They find Inman's velocity unimpressive as well.

Ultimately, scouts feel Will Inman's upside is as a fifth starter or middle reliever.

Who's right?

Well, scouts have two concerns with Inman that I just outlined: his ability to handle lefties and his lack of velocity.

The stats have a bit of a problem with the homer rate.

Let's look at those three issues.

First, Inman has a similar strikeout rate and batted-ball splits against lefties and righties over the course of his career. Lefties have hit for a lower average against him. 

Inman does show some mild control and homer issues vs. lefties, but not to the point where it derails his ability to succeed.

I understand this is minor league competition, but if Inman's arm action is that lefty-friendly, you'd expect a big platoon split, when there's really very little of one. The plus change up must really help him out against lefties.

As for lack of velocity, Inman averages about 89-90 with his fastball.

Here are a few right handers with that velocity in prominent big-league roles today:

Kevin Slowey
Aaron Harang
Aaron Cook
James Shields
Dan Haren
Joel Pineiro
Jered Weaver
Derek Lowe
Bronson Arroyo

So saying Inman won't be a mid-rotation starter because of his average velocity is ignoring the stories of dozens of pitchers who have been quality starters with unexceptional fastballs.

Finally, there's the statistical concern of the homers in Triple-A this year, but the 16.7% HR/FB ratio screams "outlier".

Inman is a flyball pitcher, but he's never had problems with homers in the past.

And hey, even if he does, what organization is he in?

San Diego.

That means Petco Park, a flyball pitcher's paradise, is the ultimate destination for Inman.

The homers will certainly not be an issue at Petco.

So, am I saying that the scouts' problems are disproved statistically and Inman is thus going to be the next James Shields?

Not exactly.

With a pitcher like this, if there's no obvious statistical red flags to back up the scouts, you have to proceed with caution. By that, I mean you keep the pitcher's upside where the stats say it is, but understand there are some potential problems that could occur against more advanced hitters.

So rather than saying "Inman will be a No.2-No.3 starter" or "Inman won't be more than a No.5 starter or middle reliever," one should take a more cautious approach.

Something like "Inman's best-case scenario is a No.2 like James Shields, but his delivery could cause problems with lefties, and his lack of velocity could hurt him. Therefore, he could easily wind up as just a back-of-the-rotation guy."

Another important aspect of prospect analysis, aside the "what they're doing/how they're doing it," is analyzing best-case scenario and chance of reaching that best-case scenario.

Let the stats dictate the best-case scenario, and let the scouting issues drive down the players chances of reaching it. That way, nobody's surprised when Dallas Braden translates his stats to the majors, and nobody's shocked when Duane Below finds the transition from Low-A to High-A very difficult.

You have to keep all the possibilities in mind. Will Inman has clearly shown the ability to get hitters out in the minors, and saying there's no way he'll have much success in the majors is downright ignorant, given how many pitchers succeed with below average velocity and weird deliveries.

At the same time, if all you looked at was the stats, you'd have no idea what Inman threw or how he threw it, and you wouldn't have any idea if there would be any possible issues with him transitioning to the majors.

Both sides are extremely important to take into account.

So, to the tools oriented scout guys and to stat geeks: don't put an ultimate destiny on a player just because they look bad (scouts) or they put up a 6/1 K/BB ratio in Low-A (stats). It's important to keep an open mind when evaluating upside.

Despite what the scouts say, Will Inman has a very real chance at being a very good major league starting pitcher, especially in San Diego.

Despite what the stats say, Will Inman has a very real chance at being mediocre, even in San Diego.

We'll see what happens.