In a day and age where the front offices of baseball's most powerful clubs are putting more and more emphasis on player development, scouts are being sent farther and wider than ever before to find a potential diamond in the rough. The fact that many times these expeditions come up with very little of substance is no matter. The occasional gem that gets uncovered is worth it to these teams.
One front that is being increasingly exploited is the land down under: Australia. While historically there may not be many players in the majors from that part of the world — Baseball Almanac lists 30 in the history of the game — they slowly are becoming increasingly more common. One such example is Tigers' reliever Warwick Saupold, who is quietly putting together a solid season on a bad team.
While the Tigers are one of the vanguards in international scouting when it comes to Australia, it was the Baltimore Orioles who were the ones to sign lefty Alex Wells in 2015. Alex and his twin brother Lachlan are both pitchers, but it was Lachlan who was signed first.* Inking a deal with Minnesota, it is likely that the reason Lachlan was the one to turn pro first was because of his fastball operates at a faster velocity that Alex's. It is Alex, however, that is becoming the better prospect.
*From here on out, when I refer to Wells, I mean Alex unless I specifically mention Lachlan. It seems like that'll be simpler and more professional than using first names every time.
The biggest strong suit of his game is command. It is very rare that an opposing batter will draw a walk, and this is a skill that is becoming less and less common in today's velocity-centric environment. Just take a look at his numbers:
As fellow Minor League Ball writer Quinn Barry recently reminded me, walks are not everything when it comes to evaluating a pitcher's command, but these numbers are outrageous. Posting a K/BB mark upwards of 10 is an extreme feat of pitching skill that is generally out of reach of all but the best high-strikeout power pitchers. That's what makes Wells fascinating, he's anything but a power pitcher.
He throws a fastball that can only be described as meek. John Sickels, in his preseason ranking of Baltimore's farm, mentioned that it tops out at 90 mph and can sink as low as the high 80s. A May scouting report at Orioles Hangout gives 86-90 numbers.
It plays up, however, due to his spectacular control and the fact that he is able to play it off his best offering — an above average changeup. He throws the latter with convincing arm action and nice sinking action.
His curveball is the farthest behind of the three weapons in his arsenal. It has 12-6 downer movement and he has made large strides with it since coming stateside, but it still lacks power and can be inconsistent at times and still needs to be refined. The whole package would add up to a below average player if not for his biggest standout tool, his command.
One would expect a pitcher who throws the occasional 86 mph fastball to get laughed out of baseball faster than you can say "Jered Weaver," but Wells has been pitching like a star in 2017. It makes you pause and wonder if the obsession with triple-digit heat is nothing but a striving after the wind.
All of this comes with a few asterisks.
First, Wells is still in Single-A ball. Not only are hitters far less polished and far more easily fooled there than in more advanced leagues, command pitchers who can place their fastball are known to tear up the low minors.
Secondly, we're working with relatively small samples. This is only Wells' second season in affiliated ball. Thirdly, his BABIP is resting at an unsustainably low .251, indicating that he has gotten lucky.
However, that is not to say that everything he has done is a mirage. Not everyone can simply saunter into full-season ball and walk only ten guys in 130.0 innings of work. Secondly, his batted ball numbers look really good. He has been inducing ground balls at 41.2%, while limiting hitters to only 12.3% line drives.
Long-term, Wells may be little more than a back-end starter. The real test of how his career will turn out is yet in the future, when he breaks into the high minors. That doesn't diminish how remarkable he has been this year, though, and he is a riveting case study in how effective a pitcher can be if he is able to put his pitches just where he wants them.