A reader recently asked me to explore the career of San Diego Padres pitcher Eric Stults, the lefty who seemingly emerged from nowhere in 2012 and has sustained his success in 2013. I love looking at these sudden success stories, digging for clues that could have tipped us off and might, possibly, help us spot similar cases in the future. That's the whole point of Prospect Retrospective, so let's take some time today and do just that.
Eric Stults was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 15th round in 2002, from Bethel College in Indiana, where he was a pitcher/outfielder. He was successful as a full-time pitcher in his pro debut, pitching 42 innings for Vero Beach in the High-A Florida State League, posting a 40/20 K/BB and a 3.00 ERA.
Jumping from Bethel to High-A and succeeding was certainly a good sign and by itself should have marked him as a sleeper. Bethel had a good team and won their association championship, but that's a considerable leap in competition. I had him rated as a Grade C prospect entering 2003, a guy who had done well in his first look and should be tracked. He didn't throw especially hard, but knew what he was doing.
Pushed quickly, Stults reached Double-A in 2003, but was limited to just 38 innings by injury, with a 4.97 ERA, and a weak 14/13 K/BB ratio and 46 hits allowed. The K/IP and H/IPs marked him as a college lefty who hit the wall against more advanced minor league hitters; a dozen guys like that fizzle out every year. He went back to A-ball in 2004 and saw action in the bullpens for Low-A Columbus and High-A Vero Beach, performing well (2.56 ERA in 32 combined innings) but seen as more good organization arm than prospect. At this point, I didn't have him rated.
2005 was better. Healthy again and returned to starting, he was solid in Double-A (3.31 ERA, 58/14 K/BB in 68 innings) but got crushed after moving up to the pinball machine in Triple-A Las Vegas, posting a 6.58 ERA with an incredible 107 hits in 78 innings, albeit with a good 60/24 K/BB ratio. I saw him pitch once for Vegas; my old notes from that game refer to an 88-90 MPH fastball and a pretty decent changeup, but a flat breaking ball.
Stults made some adjustments in '06 and took a big leap forward, posting a 4.23 ERA for Vegas (that's quite good for the environment) with a 128/63 K/BB in 153 innings, 153 hits allowed. He made his major league debut for the Dodgers and wasn't great, with a 5.60 ERA and a 5/7 K/BB in 18 innings. But he got to the Show, which is more than most 15th round picks can say. I saw him pitch again that year for Vegas and noted that his slider was much improved. I rated him a Grade C entering 2007, writing that he was too old at age 27 to be a top prospect, but that he had a shot at being a fifth starter.
As you know, Stults wandered between Los Angeles and Triple-A in '07, '08, and '09, effective at times but never laying permanent claim to a job. 2008 was his best season, with a particularly strong showing at Vegas (3.82 ERA, 102/35 K/BB in 118 innings) and a decent bout of pitching in the majors. It didn't last though, and Stults eventually found himself pitching for Hiroshima in Japan.
After a solid year in the Colorado Springs bullpen in 2011 (4.63 ERA, sharp 69/16 K/BB in 68 innings), Stults decided to get the hell out of thin air bandboxes and signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent. The Sox gave him one start in the majors, then put him on waivers. He was claimed by the Padres and has pitched quite well ever since, going 16-10 in 34 starts, with a 130/50 K/BB in 219 innings with a 3.20 ERA. His home park certainly doesn't hurt, but his FIP home/road splits are virtually the same: 3.50 vs. 3.58.
So, what gives? Was this predictable in any way?
I wouldn't say predictable, but it isn't completely out of the blue either; the hints are there in the record. Stults was erratic in the minors but would flash ability often enough to keep himself employed. Although he didn't sustain it, he did pitch well at times with the Dodgers. He held his own in some difficult pitching environments. Las Vegas and Colorado Springs are very tough venues that punish mistakes, yes, but a pitcher can get hit hard there even without making mistakes. The Pacific Coast League will certainly teach a guy to deal with adversity. Stults also showed an admirable ability to overcome health problems, learn from his mistakes, make adjustments, and bounce back if he got blasted in his first exposure at a new level.
Stults himself credits refinement of his breaking stuff, better command, and the simple realization that you don't have to throw 97 MPH to get people out. Stults talked with David Laurila of Fangraphs recently and told him
"I’m comfortable with who I am now. When you’re younger, you want to fit in with the guys who are throwing hard. Too often, guys turn around and look at the radar gun; they want to see how hard they can throw. I stopped worrying about that and just started worrying about executing pitches. Once I did that, I felt I was more focused on the pitch I was going to throw next, rather than how fast it was. I think that’s part of the reason things have changed a little bit for me."
At age 33 it is an open question how long Stults can remain at his current peak, but the Padres deserve kudos for recognizing his talent and giving him a chance. More importantly, Stults deserves them for taking full advantage of the opportunity. He earned it.