Prospect Smackdown: Justin Verlander vs. Matt Cain vs. Chad Billingsley
There is a vigorous debate right now in sabermetric circles about these three young pitchers. . .which one is best? My own ranking is Verlander/Cain/Billingsley in that order, although I consider these three pitchers (along with Minnesota lefty Francisco Liriano) as the best pitching prospects in baseball. But other people have different rankings. I've had several requests for a smackdown for this trio, so here goes.
BACKGROUND AND INTANGIBLES:
Verlander: Verlander was drafted in the first round in 2004, by the Tigers out of Old Dominion, second overall. His college career was impressive but erratic. He showed overpowering stuff, but his mechanics and control were inconsistent, and there was some concern about how quickly he would adapt to the upper levels of pro ball.
Those concerns were quickly dispelled in 2005, as he was utterly dominant at the minor league level. Regarded as intelligent, he sometimes lacked confidence as an amateur, but looked just fine last year, although he overthrew to some extent in the majors.
Cain: Cain was a first round pick in 2002, 25th overall, out of high school in Memphis. He was regarded as being a bit raw when first drafted, but his development in pro ball was quite smooth. He adjusted very quickly to professional competition, maturing rapidly emotionally, intellectually, and physically. He's made the necessary adjustments as he's moved up, and scouts regard him as possessing the intelligence and confidence necessary to be a top-notch rotation anchor.
Billingsley: Billingsley was a first round pick in 2003, 24th overall, out of high school in Defiance, Ohio. He was well-known to scouts for many years as an amateur, he suffered a bit from "overfamiliarity," in the sense that scouts knew about him for a long time and started to focus on his weaknesses, rather than his strengths, some teams seeing him more as a second-rounder on draft day. The Dodgers have been quite pleased with his pro performance. He's intelligent and confident, with all of the intangibles necessary to be a top flight starter.
Comparison: All three pitchers have the mental, intellectual, and emotional intangibles to be top-notch major league pitchers. Verlander and Billingsley had higher amateur profiles than Cain, but all three have shown rapid development over the last two years. It's about as even as you can get here.
PHYSICALITY AND STUFF:
Verlander: Verlander has a good pitcher's build at 6-5, 200 pounds, with fine overall athleticism and top-notch arm strength. His fastball is 92-93 MPH on a bad day, 98-99 on a good day, and a consistent 94-95 most days. The fastball has excellent movement as well as velocity. He also has an above-average curveball, and his changeup proved to be better-than-advertised. It was erratic in college, but just fine as a pro, giving him three plus pitches.
Cain: Cain is big and strong at 6-3, 230 pounds. Although reasonably athletic, he's a big guy and may have to watch his weight as he gets older. His fastball is excellent at 92-94 MPH, hitting 95-97 MPH at times. His curveball is above average, and he was more willing to uses his changeup last year. The change still needs some work, but should be an above average pitch in time.
Billingsley: At 6-2, 215 pounds, Billingsley has a somewhat stocky build and some believe he will have to watch his weight as he gets older. However, he's a fine natural athlete with plus arm strength. His fastball is a consistent 92-94 MPH pitch, touching 95-96 at times. His curveball and slider are both considered to be above-average. His changeup is mediocre right now, but he works hard at it.
Comparison:: Verlander has the best fastball in terms of peak velocity, and all three can hit the mid-90s. All three also have above-average breaking balls. All three also need to improve their changeups. I think Verlander has a slight advantage due to better peak velocity. Physically, Verlander is also closest to the ideal physical specimen.
PITCHABILITY AND PERFORMANCE:
Verlander: Verlander's statistics in the minors last year were beyond outstanding: 11-2, with a 1.29 ERA and a 136/26 K/BB in 119 innings. The Tigers tweaked his mechanics before the season, resulting in much better command than he showed in college. His power/precision combination was more than most minor league hitters could deal with.
Cain: Cain went 10-5, 4.39 in the Pacific Coast League, with a 176/73 K/BB in 146 innings. Given his age (20) and the difficulties of the PCL environment, his performance was very good. He looked good in seven late-season starts with the Giants. Stat-wise, Cain's biggest problem is a higher-than-ideal walk rate. He knows how to pitch and is not a thrower, but his control is still unreliable on occasion.
Billingsley: Billingsley went 13-6, 3.51 with a 162/50 K/BB in Double-A at age 20. His component ratios were all very good, and he acquitted himself well against generally older competition. He understands the intellectual side of pitching, and is not a thrower, though he needs to use his changeup more effectively and more often. Although his walk rate was good last year, he occasionally has trouble with command within the strike zone.
Comparison: Verlander had the best numbers in '05, although both Cain and Billingsley pitched quite well, especially considering age/competition factors. Cain did better than Verlander in their major league exposures. All three have good command for a power pitcher, with Verlander possibly having a slight edge.
PROJECTION AND HEALTH:
Verlander: Verlander is unlikely to gain additional velocity, being physically mature right now. Mechanical refinements have eased concerns about his durability. Injury is a risk for any pitcher, of course, but if he continues to throw strikes like this, Verlander should be a durable power pitcher.
Cain: Cain is physically mature and unlikely to pick up additional velocity. He had some elbow soreness early in his career, but has been durable the last two seasons.
Billingsley: Billingsley is physically mature for his age and unlikely to add additional velocity. He's been healthy as both an amateur and a pro, and his injury risk is no higher than normal for his age group.
Comparison: Cain has the highest injury risk due to his 2003 elbow trouble and his weaker command. All three are at their physical peaks now and aren't likely to improve much further from where they currently are in terms of velocity.
Overall, I give Verlander a slight edge. Cain ranks a notch ahead of Billingsley because he has Triple-A and major league experience as opposed to "just" Double-A success. So I make it Verlander/Cain/Billingsley.