Prospect Retro: Jimmy Key
Jimmy Key was a very successful pitcher for Clemson University during his junior year in 1982, going 9-3, 2.79 in 16 starts, with a 94/28 K/BB in 116 innings. He was a good hitter, too, earning ACC All-Star Honors as both a pitcher and DH. This earned him a spot in the third round of the draft that spring. The Blue Jays assigned him to Medicine Hat in the Pioneer League to begin his career, and he went 2-1, 2.30 in five starts. Jumped to the South Atlantic League in August, he went 5-2, 3.27 in nine starts with a 49/18 K/BB in 58 innings. He didn't throw especially hard, but he was very polished. Nowadays I'd likely rate a similar pitcher as a Grade B-, based on draft position and early pro performance, but no higher due to the need to pass the Double-A Finesse Pitcher Acid Test.
Key was impressive in spring training in 1983, earning a spot in Double-A. He went 6-5, 2.85 in 14 starts for Knoxville in the Southern League, with a 57/40 K/BB in 101 innings. Promoted to Triple-A Syracuse at midseason, he went 4-8, 4.13 in 15 starts, with a 71/33 K/BB in 89 innings. His strikeout rate in Double-A was quite weak, but it improved in Triple-A despite slippage in his other numbers. I would rate a similar pitcher now as a Grade B- prospect in all likelihood, praising his rapid progress and ability to handle the advanced levels without a hot fastball, but warning that the component ratios were mixed and that more adjustment time could be needed.
Key unexpectedly earned a spot in the Jays bullpen in 1984, saving 10 games with a 4.65 ERA, used as a LOOGY and occasional closer. . .he pitched 62 innings in 63 games. His K/BB was 44/32 and he allowed 70 hits. . .not very impressive components. He converted to the rotation in 1985, going 14-6, 3.00 in 32 starts. But in 212 innings, his K/BB ratio was 85/50....the control was good but the strikeout rate was very low. At the time I remember being skeptical about him being able to maintain successful pitching without boosting his strikeout rate at least a little.
He did this in 1986, going 14-11, 3.57 but fanning 141 in 232 innings. Key remained in major league rotations for the next 12 years, finishing with a 186-117 record, 3.51 ERA, and 1538/668 K/BB in 2592 innings. In the 1990s he was considered the personification of the "finesse lefty" succeeding without a great fastball.
Key's minor league record was good but not spectacular. He moved up very quickly, but his component ratios weren't superb, and it was an open question whether he'd be able to be successful in the long run. A lot of finesse southpaws with a similar approach to Key only have brief bouts of success, rather than strong 15-year careers. He made it work.