It’s 9:30 A.M. in Staten Island. Yankees pitching prospect Jorge Guzman stands atop the bullpen mound getting loose. Staten Island’s position players sprint out of the dugout to begin their warm-ups, while I, armed with my camera and media pass, scour the scene.
Fifteen minutes into this routine, busy researching Jorge Guzman scouting reports and simultaneously videotaping his bullpen session, I spot a skinny, awkward teenager sauntering onto the field.
“Is that the batboy?,” I think to myself. There is no way a professional athlete could look so clumsy in a baseball uniform and have the body of a high school player.
Sure enough though, as he sports a goofy smile, converses with the pitching coach, and walks by me to begin his own, separate stretch, I realize that this mystery man is Juan De Paula, the prospect I came to see, but was ostensibly scratched from his start earlier that morning.
After I quickly check the updated lineup card in the press box to confirm De Paula is starting, I lurch into scout mode. What follows are my observations of De Paula’s performance and a brief projection of his future.
Before I delve into my scouting report on De Paula, I think it is useful to provide some background on the youngster.
Signed as a 16-year-old by the Mariners in 2014, the Dominican performed well his first professional season, posting a 2.32 ERA, an impressive 4.53 strikeout to walk ratio, and a shiny .991 WHIP in the 2015 Dominican Summer League. De Paula followed up his pro debut with a solid showing stateside in 2016.
He improved his strikeout rate per nine from 7.9 to 11.6 and gave up just 3.07 earned runs per nine in the Arizona Rookie League, all while being three years younger than the league average player. The then-18-year-old also increased his fastball velocity from the high-80s to low-90s. He came to the Yankees as part of the Ben Gamel trade this past offseason.
Juan has continued to better his velocity in his new organization. This year, De Paula is sitting 92-94 miles per hour and touching 95, at least he was in my viewing. However, the righty has failed to master Low-A, struggling in areas he dominated in his previous two minor league stops.
While the former-Mariner owns a respectable 3.60 ERA this season, he also sports a career-high 4.3 BB/9 and career-low 6.8 K/9. De Paula’s age (he is two and a half years younger than his average competition) is somewhat-forgiving. However, his numbers are also deflated by the pitching-friendly New York-Penn League, so it has not been a great season for the right-hander, even grading on a curve.
This inconsistent performance makes my task more difficult. Should we expect De Paula to return to his high-strikeout, low-walk numbers of his rookie ball days? Or is the righty just another player who has met his match in his first taste of advanced hitting, and will flame out against full-season competition?
It is remarkably impressive that De Paula throws as hard as he does with the body that he has. And, moreover, it is a testament to the powerful life within his arm. Standing at 6-3, 165 pounds, this kid has a ton of room to build muscle and fill out. His frame could hold at least 20-30 pounds of extra weight. Only 19-years-old, the potential for increased strength alone is enough to keep De Paula an interesting prospect.
While De Paula’s slight frame does not greatly effect his velocity, it dramatically influences how he hits his high numbers. The Dominican relies almost entirely on his live arm and maximum-effort delivery to throw hard, with minimal help from his upper body and almost no input from his legs. This approach does not appear repeatable or sustainable.
De Paula starts his wind-up on the left side of the mound, standing straight to maximize his 6-3 height. His delivery is extremely quick and up-tempo, designed to create energy to increase pitch velocity.
He begins his motion shifting his glove to the right side of his body to build momentum, then he brings his left foot in front of his right so his body is perpendicular towards the batter, lifts up his back foot briefly and places it back down, before dramatically pulling his left leg all the way up towards his elbow, so the two parts almost converge.
De Paula angles his left leg forty-five degrees toward second base, then snaps forwards to home plate, extends his front leg, touches down, and uses this leverage to throw over-the-top at a downward angle toward the batter.
De Paula plants his foot in the ground facing home plate relatively early in his windup, then delivers the ball afterward, creating a disjointed motion that excessively relies on his relatively short arms for velocity and fails to utilize his legs. De Paula’s upper body and intense leg kick play a role in creating power, but it mostly depends on the snapping motion that stems from his arms.
That means that Juan’s intense, herky-jerky delivery with multiple timing mechanisms does little to share the pitching load onto different parts of the body. Further, it makes it more difficult for the righty to hit his spots.
If he wants to remain a starter, De Paula needs to simplify his delivery so that he can maintain a consistent release point and avoid injury from over-relying on his arm. A solid weight gain, so that he has a power source other than his arm, and improved mechanics should help De Paula in these areas.
Unsurprisingly, Juan’s fastball is his best pitch. It sat in the low to mid 90s in my viewing, and touched 95 miles per hour on three occasions. De Paula’s heater does not have much left-to-right movement. This makes it difficult for him to put batters away when he misses the strike zone or cannot locate the pitch perfectly.
However, when he does locate, the over-the-top angle at which he throws, in combination with his 6-3 height, shoots the ball on a downward plane that significantly diminishes opposing batters’ hard hit potential.
Late in the game I scouted, he utilized this effective combination by painting low-and-away fastballs on the black against right-handers. De Paula has pretty solid command of his heater and is comfortable throwing it inside.
I give this pitch a relatively poor current rating (considering its velocity) due to its lack of movement. But I am bullish on its future value since I could see his fastball being electric at 96-97 when he adds weight. The Baby Bomber maintained his velocity throughout the game, sitting 94 in the fourth inning and blowing by hitters frequently even in the sixth.
Current value: 50
Future value: 65
De Paula gets on top of his curveball well, but the pitch looks more like a slider when it is successful. The way in which the Dominican short-arms his pitches enables him to increase break on this offering, but he may be selling out velocity in the process.
As a result, his curveball moves too early, allowing the hitter to detect it, and is not sharp, sitting 77-78 miles per hour. It does; however, keep hitters from sitting on the fastball, as he uses his curve wisely.
His curveball is good enough for Low-A, but it will not be effective in its current form against more advanced hitters. I recommend he drop this pitch.
Current value: 35
Future value: 40-45
This pitch is much better (sometimes) than the curve. It showed really good, sharp movement to strike out a batter in the first inning. It is less consistent than the curveball currently, but has higher potential and is a better complement to the fastball.
Current value: 35-40
Future value: 55-60
De Paula’s change-up is a legit pitch. It is sharp, he throws it with good command, and he keeps it down in the zone. Further, Juan maintains his arm speed when delivering the pitch, which sits 82-84 miles per hour. This ten mile per hour difference between his change and fastball makes this pitch a weapon.
Current value: 45
Future Value: 55
De Paula is an incredibly mature pitcher for someone his age. He understands how to pitch, but his stuff does not yet match his brains. The righty pounds the zone, frequently starting hitters with a fastball on the corner, then delivers an off-speed pitch to get the hitter off balance, before finishing with a fastball or occasionally the slider.
I am conflicted whether Juan’s maturity bodes positively or negatively for his development. On one hand, knowing how to pitch and owning a mid-90s heater should be enough for the righty to survive the minors. On the other, though, it seems to limit how much the 19-year-old can improve, since he is already maximizing his current arsenal.
Review and Projection
This case typifies the challenge of prospect writing. De Paula is just a teenager and will need to make significant changes to succeed at higher levels. The talent; however, is certainly there, as is his knowledge and understanding of the game.
The 19-year-old is aggressive and delivers his fastball with good life and downward movement. He gets on top of his breaking pitches and maintains his arm speed, so even though his secondary offerings are not spectacular right now, I see potential there. He lives in the bottom of the zone and his whip-like delivery reminds me of power relievers. Finally, De Paula is very athletic and bouncy. The ball jumps out of his hand.
I am going to take a risk here and assert that De Paula’s fastball will gain velocity, his slider will develop into a plus pitch, and his change-up will be just good enough to make him a potential number four starter or late-inning reliever.
The opposite scenario, in which the Dominican’s straight fastball dooms him at higher levels and he cannot improve his off-speed pitches, is also possible, but I think slightly less likely than the bullish outcome.