From the Minor League Ball mailbag, arriving shortly before midnight last night:
I was watching the Mets/Blue Jays game yesterday and the Jays pitcher was some guy named Scott Copeland. Who is this guy? I never heard of him. He got beat up pretty good yesterday but I see he did well in his first start and he seemed to have a pretty good arm.-----Bill B., Annapolis, Maryland
Good question, Bill, because frankly I knew very little about Copeland either until he got promoted to the majors recently, which forced me to do some digging. Here are the basics.
After two years of junior college, Copeland pitched for the University of Southern Mississippi in 2009 and 2010, struggling his first season but improving as a senior, going 11-1, 3.75 with a 64/25 K/BB in 96 innings that spring. This was enough to get him drafted in the 21st round by the Baltimore Orioles. He performed well in the New York-Penn League that summer, posting a 2.91 ERA in 65 innings.
Inserted into the starting rotation at Low-A Delmarva in 2011 he got lit up to the tune of a 6.58 ERA in 108 innings with some pretty ugly peripherals: 55/46 K/BB, 136 hits. The Orioles didn't give up and promoted him to High-A Frederick in 2012. This didn't help: he was hit hard there, too, giving up a 6.88 ERA and an incredible 118 hits in 86 innings. Not surprisingly, he drew his release that summer after 18 starts.
The Toronto Blue Jays saw something in him however and signed him as a free agent a week later, sending him to High-A Dunedin. He suddenly improved, running up a 2.70 ERA in 37 innings with better peripherals. He returned to Dunedin in 2013 and pitched decently, with a 3.74 ERA in 147 innings, giving up 158 hits with a 99/52 K/BB. That wasn't great but it was enough for him to hold his job.
Copeland spent 2014 in the high minors, performing reasonably in Double-A (3.74 ERA in 140 innings, 140 hits, 89/48 K/BB) and even better in Triple-A (1.80, 16/7 K/BB in 25 innings, 19 hits). He continued showing well with Buffalo this spring with a 1.97 ERA in 46 innings, 30 hits, 25/18 K/BB, which got him a promotion to the majors. After two relief outings with the Jays he's made a couple of starts, throwing seven strong innings against the Marlins on June 10th and then yesterday's less successful outing against the Mets.
As you can see from his history, Copeland has never stood out as a prospect. His arsenal consists of a four-seam fastball in the 88-92 range, a two-seam sinker in the 87-92 range, a slider in the general vicinity of 80 MPH, a curveball in the low-to-mid-70s, and a change-up in the low 80s. He was honestly terrible in the Orioles system but after signing with the Jays he's shown slow but steady improvement.
He is a strong ground ball pitcher with GO/AOs well into the 2.00+ band for his entire career. The oldest reports I can find dating back to his days in the Orioles system reference his ground ball tendencies but note difficulties with consistency and command of his secondary pitches. There has been a gradual but real improvement in his strikeout and walk rates as he's moved up, which would be consistent with the idea that his secondaries have gotten better since switching organizations. Another factor is likely environment and team support: a strong ground ball guy like Copeland should benefit from tighter and more experienced infield defenses at higher minor league levels.
Overall, what we have here is a pitcher with a decent arm who has improved enough to move from minor league roster filler and release victim to Grade C prospect, someone who can be a fifth starter or bullpen asset under the right conditions. The Jays deserve credit for seeing potential in a guy with an ERA over 6.00 in A-ball, and Copeland deserves credit for working to improve and not giving up.