|Brad Glazer/Milb.com photo|
Coming off Tommy John surgery last year, Sparkman, a 20th round choice by the Royals in 2013 out of Wharton County (TX) JC, was very much an under-the-radar Rule 5 candidate after pitching 60 innings at 4 levels this year, the highest of which was AA. Sparkman's 2015 was limited to 4 AA starts.
"The arrows were pointing right at him," GM Ross Atkins told the media after the draft. "It was clear he was the guy that we'd like to select if he was still available. We feel like there might be some upside to his stuff as well."
Much of the information that we've received about Sparkman since he was drafted is stats-based. I like to go deeper than that, so I've conducted some research, asked people some questions, pored over his secondary numbers, and watched a number of his 2016 outings online. Here's a summary of my efforts:
Sparkman grew up in Ganado, TX, a town of 2 000 about two hours southwest of Houston. He was not heavily recruited as a high school shortstop, so he walked on at nearby Wharton County CC, where he was converted to pitching. He struck out less than a batter per inning in his two years there, but he also showed a feel for the strike zone, walking only 8 batters over 78 innings in his final season.
Sparkman moved quickly through the Royals system, missing bats along the way. He averaged 11.5K/9 in his first pro season in rookie ball in 2013, and he skipped Low A to start his second season, which he attributes partially to learning how to pitch. When he arrived at Wharton, he didn't really know how to throw off of a mound, but under the tutelage of his college and then his pro coaches, he made up for lost time in a hurry.
In his final start in 2014, he felt a strain in his forearm in his final inning of the year, but his elbow felt fine. He woke up the next morning with severe pain in the elbow, but an MRI revealed only a 10% UCL tear, and he was ordered to rest and rehab his arm. The regimen did not work, however, and he underwent Tommy John in June of 2015.
Even though minor league back-of-the-baseball-card stats can be incredibly misleading, Sparkman did post the second-lowest ERA in all of minor league baseball in 2014 (and was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year), and even though he posted an inflated 5.22 ERA this year, take two outings out of that record and you have a 3.93 ERA. More impressively, despite a 4.58 ERA at his last stop in AA, he had a 3.24 FIP.
But let's go behind the numbers
Sparkman showed some obvious signs of rust this year. His command began to improve as the summer progressed, but his velocity didn't make a full return. Prior to the surgery, he touched 96, and sat anywhere from 89-94 with his fastball. Reports this year had him sitting at 90-92.
Standing on the 3rd base side of the pitching rubber, Sparkman has a smooth, drop and drive delivery, which can be deceptive, both from the angle it presents to right-handed hitters, and the slow-fast tempo of his windup, making him tough on hitters from both sides to time. He can command his fastball to both sides of the plate, as well as his curve and slider. His change up has good depth and some glove-side run:
If the best pitch in baseball is strike one, Sparkman has one of the better ones in minor league baseball. He often gets ahead of hitters (despite his command issues in his comeback this year, he allowed only 10 walks), when his secondary pitches become more effective. He can also use his fastball in pitchers' counts to induce whiffs, as hitters are often sitting on his secondaries.
Because he is around the plate so much, Sparkman does give up some contact, but it's not often of the hard variety. He was victimized by less-than-stellar defence in his AA outings this year, which inflated his numbers.
A preview of this year's Rule 5 draft by Baseball America made no mention of Sparkman, who was the Royals' 17th-ranked prospect after the 2014 season. And to tell the truth, given the success of Joe Biagini in his conversion from middling MiLB starter to MLB bullpen stalwart, it was easy to overlook Sparkman in favour of more projectable arms (with far less control, however) that could be more reasonably expected to add velocity in a relief role. This is a guy who knows how to pitch - how to set up hitters, and how to command the strike zone. With a catcher who can frame pitches effectively, and a sound defence behind him, Sparkman could one day become a mid to back of the rotation pitcher.
Perhaps limited to his fastball and one of his offspeed pitches, Sparkman's fastball could return to its former velocity, and he could become 2017's Biagini. He has experienced more success than Biagini as a minor league starter (and please, please don't throw Biagini's 2.42 ERA at AA in 2015 at me, or I will bury you with secondary stats and scouting reports), so he is an interesting choice, because he appears to profile better in that role in the long run. Just the same, you can never have enough good arms in spring training, and even if Toronto feels Sparkman won't fit into their plans, he only will have cost $50 000 if the Royals take him back.