“It’s too bad they don’t put a stat on the board for first pitch strikes,” my friend Andy said to me somewhere around the fifth inning of Saturday night’s Louisville Bats game. “If they did, I feel like it’d be close to zero.”

Of all the things I could say to sum up my first experience watching Keyvius Sampson pitch, that probably sums it up best. Sampson, whom the Reds claimed off waivers in January after the San Diego Padres released him, made his Louisville debut Saturday after ripping through AA ball with an impressive 1.85 ERA (though, in doing so, he did post a slightly less impressive 3.88 FIP). And while he did walk out of Louisville Slugger Field with a win, that says very little about Sampson’s evening, and even less about the question I had going into the game, which was: What, exactly, do the Reds have in Keyvius Sampson?

Before we dive into that, though, let’s start by getting the traditional statistics from last night’s game out of the way:

IP

ER H K BB Pitches-Strikes
Sampson 6 3 7 5 2

100-57

If you opened up that stat line on you MiLB app this morning, you probably thought, “Not bad – a win, a quality start, decent strikeout numbers.” But heading to the game optimistic about seeing the young man who’d shut down AA hitters most of the season, I walked away from last night’s game less bullish on Sampson’s potential to help the Redlegs in the near future.

The reason for that goes back to Andy’s statement in the fifth inning – and to that last box in the graph above. Out of 100 pitches, Sampson threw 57 for strikes. Initially, I was prepared to attribute a great deal of this to first-start jitters; after all, we give rookies a bit of a pass on their first couple of innings in The Show because of nerves. Sampson seemed to be having a bit of this in his first inning as a Louisville Bat, giving up two runs and prompting a visit from the pitching coach after recording only one out. At that moment, I thought this article might have less than an inning’s worth of material to draw from.

DSC_0231

But Sampson followed the visit by getting the next two batters out – the first on an absolutely scorched line drive right at shortstop Hernan Iribarren, the second a beautiful backward K of Durham shortstop Hak-Ju Lee. And from there, Sampson seemed to settle down a bit; he gave up another run in the second inning, then threw four shutout innings to complete his night and earn a respectable line for the evening.

Even in those later innings, though, Sampson was more effective than dominant. In the effective category, he gave up only two hits after the second inning, and walked none, helping support the “Debut Jitters” theory. But he also never seemed command the strike zone; he had difficulty locating the low strike, which meant many of his pitches (particularly early) were either low balls or meatball strikes. And while he never threw more balls than strikes in an inning, his ratio was disturbingly close in every inning save the 1-2-3 third.

Inning

Pitches Balls Strikes

1

31 15 16

2

22 9

13

3

10 3

7

4

17 7

10

5 11 5

6

6 9 4

5

As a result, Sampson spent a good portion of the evening pitching from behind, which forced him into throwing a lot of fastballs and led to a number of loud outs. Again, with his worst innings coming at the beginning of the game, I was ready to write all of my concerns off to debut jitters … until I clicked over to Sampson’s FanGraphs page and found that most of what I saw fit pretty nicely into the norms he established in Pensacola.

In AA, Sampson walked nearly five batters per nine innings (he struck out about 8.3), but thanks to some good luck (a strand rate of more than 83%), his ERA stayed well below 2. So in spite of his lack of strike zone command throughout the night, Sampson’s walk rate was actually below his Pensacola numbers (though factoring in his one HBP last night – which is, essentially, a pitch-efficient walk – brings him substantially closer to that norm). However, his strand rate luck ran out a bit (70% last night), and his BABIP increased from his AA average of .275 to a whopping .368 last night, leading to a slightly rougher outing.

Of course, some might suggest that the BABIP number is unsustainable, and it probably is. But here’s where the eyeball test comes in; when Durham hit Sampson, they hit him hard. And while there was both a bunt single and an infield single among his seven hits, they were balanced by a number of very loud outs. In short, a .368 BABIP didn’t look like luck.

Conclusion

The best coach I ever worked with asked all of his pitchers the same question: “Do you know what the best pitch in baseball is?” The answer, of course, was, “Strike one.”

That is the lesson Keyvius Sampson needs to learn if he’s going to be an effective pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Last night, we saw flashes of a pitcher who can be effective – a pitcher who has the stuff to strike out nearly one hitter per inning, with an effective fastball and a curveball strong enough to freeze more than one Durham hitter.

But until he is able to find the strike zone on a more consistent basis, Sampson is going to continue running into trouble. Last night, AAA hitters punished him for pitching behind in the count at a much higher rate than AA hitters have this season, which shouldn’t be surprising – that’s why these guys are in AAA, and the others aren’t. Imagine how Major League hitters would punish him.

So while Sampson’s AAA debut showed flashes of a pitcher who can get even Major League hitters out, it’s hard to imagine him doing so with any consistency if he doesn’t learn to command the zone and pitch ahead in the count.

DSC_0245

Other Observations from Louisville

  • Irving Falu is fun to watch: The Bats second baseman hit his second home run of the season last night – a shot off the facing in right field that capped off Lousville’s five-run second inning. He followed it by leading off the fifth with a bunt single, stealing second, and coming around to score on Steve Selsky’s double. I can’t say much about his glove – he was efficient in making routine plays last night, but nothing particularly tested him during the game – but on a night when he went 4-for-4, scored three runs, and stole his ninth base, Falu was fun to watch.
  • Yorman Rodriguez and Josh Satin aren’t ready: Again, this is based on watching one game, so take it for what it’s worth. But you know how folks on this site frequently bemoan the number of Reds hitters who swing freely and lack patience at the plate? Well, I saw two more of those guys last night, with both looking particularly bad in back-to-back strikeouts with Selsky on second in the fifth inning. To be fair, Rodriguez did work a full-count walk in the five-run second.
  • The Bullpen: You know what’s worse than watching the dumpster fire bullpen in Cincinnati? Watching a bullpen full of guys who couldn’t supplant the guys on the big league roster. Pedro Villarreal, Sam LeCure, and Jumbo Diaz all pitched in this game, and the Bats still won … that’s the nicest thing I can say. It’s hard to watch what’s happened to LeCure, who seems to be an absolutely great guy, but who has just dropped off a cliff in terms of his ability to be an effective professional pitcher.
  • The Pitch Clock: I’m not one who usually feels that big league games are slow or boring – I like the pace and strategy of a big league game. But I have to say – the pitch clock was nice. In spite of 26 hitters coming to the plate in the first two innings, and the Bats bullpen coming in to build a fire and pour gasoline on it after, the game still came in well under three hours. I want to see this in every stadium next year.
  • Bobbleheads!: Last night was Devin Mesoraco Bobblehead Night in Louisville, which was a nice touch on what was already a great experience at the park. Good seats, friendly people, and a very family-friendly environment – I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed watching a game at Louisville Slugger Field, and hope to get back again later this season!