I have a weakness for right-handed junkball pitchers. They are the underdogs of the baseball world, right-handers who don't burn radar guns.
Lefties who don't throw hard still get some respect, given the premium put on southpaw pitching and the smaller number of athletic left-handed people in the general population. But a right-hander with a mediocre fastball, well, those are a penny a dozen. They don't get drafted directly out of high school very often. Even if they have a good track record of success in college, they seldom get much respect on draft day, most of them being late-round roster-filler picks, if they are lucky enough to get drafted at all.
There's a good reason for that. History shows that most finesse right-handers can't sustain long-term professional success. Even if they thrive at the lower levels, they will usually get exposed in Double-A or Triple-A.
But not always. Sometimes these guys continue to pitch well and force their way into the big leagues. Even if their success is brief and they don't stay in the Show very long, I love it when a guy beats the odds like that. Such occurrences are one of my favorite things about baseball, and to be honest I have more respect for a guy who can succeed throwing 87 MPH than pitchers who just blow guys away at 98.
Mike Fiers: Fiers was drafted in the 22nd round in 2009 from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. He was a sabermetric monster in college, posting a 2.65 ERA with an amazing 145/19 K/BB in 109 innings his senior year (which is why I first noticed him), but he was old even for a senior at age 24.
He destroyed the low minors, kept pitching well in Double-A and Triple-A (1.86 ERA with a 132/36 K/BB in 2011), then spent most of 2012 in the big leagues with a nice run of success (3.74 ERA, 135/36 K/BB in 128 major league innings). He was hurt last year and ineffective, but seems back in good health so far in '14 and is back to making Triple-A hitters look dumb (0.87 ERA with 26/2 K/BB in 21 innings thus far).
Fiers has already proven that he can get major league hitters out when healthy, despite a fastball that tops out at 90 MPH and is usually just 86-89. He's incredibly deceptive with his breaking ball, changeup, and over-the-top delivery. His margin for error is thin and always will be, but he is an admirable exemplar of the craft of pitching.
Josh Smith: Smith has yet to reach the majors, but on a meritocratic basis he deserves a shot. A 21st round pick in 2010 from Lipscomb University, Smith was immediately successful in the low minors (14-7, 2.97 ERA, 166/33 K/BB in 144 innings in Low-A) and has remained so at every level. Last year he posted a 3.26 ERA with a 139/50 K/BB in 160 innings in Double-A, and this year he's off to another sharp opening with a line of 3-0, 2.18, 22/8 K/BB in 21 innings for Triple-A Louisville.
Despite his persistent and consistent success in the minors, Smith is seldom mentioned as a prospect outside of Reds fan circles. He was not mentioned in either the 2013 or 2014 versions of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, not even in the "others" section, despite his performance. The Reds didn't protect him on the 40-man roster, and nobody picked him in the Rule 5 draft.
This is all understandable: like Fiers, Smith doesn't throw hard at all, working with an 86-89 MPH fastball. Like Fiers, he got a miniscule bonus ($1,000). But also like Fiers, Smith keeps hitters off-stride with a curve, slider, and changeup, and he's deceptive enough that everything plays up. Smith also has the additional handicap of a boring name: one of my pet theories is that players with boring names are sometimes subconsciously slightly downgraded by evaluators. It may sound silly, but I know a couple of scouts who think that this might be true and take steps to prevent themselves from falling into that trap.
In any event, if Smith continues to pitch well in Triple-A, a big league cup of coffee should come eventually. It remains to be seen if he can duplicate what Fiers has done, but I'll be rooting for the underdog.