First off, as far as prospects go: it’s very important not to get too hung up on where a player is ranked on each list. Usually, the top two or three guys fall into at least a similar order on most lists. For example, every list coming out will have Brandon Belt -- here's a video of him hitting -- atop the heap for the Giants. But beyond that, there’s very little consensus in terms of placing each player in the exact same order.
There’s no doubt that some part of the ebb and flow of prospects lists is due to the biases of the pupils that produce them. A prospect maven that has been burned (completely wrong) on a certain type of prospect over and over again, i.e. multiple players with the same skill set, is likely to be more cautious with their ranking in the future, and certainly more apprehensive in giving them solid projections in the future. It’s very similar to what behavioral economists have observed in the stock market, that financial markets are often inefficient because consumers make biased decisions, often based on their personal experience in the market.
With that, I want to talk about Eric Surkamp. Here’s a guy that’s sure to stir up some debate. Back in early November, I threw a quick list of 10 together, and although I think I struck out by missing a few prospects worth mentioning, I'm pleased I placed Surkamp 10th. He’s cracked most lists at this point, but no one is yet sure where to place him. Baseball America placed him 19th last season in their 2010 Prospect Handbook, and their Top 10 Prospects list for 2011 will be available January 26. Fangraphs had one too few spots for him to rank on their Top 10 list. John Sickel’s placed him 12th on his list of the Top 20 Giants Prospects, calling him an "intriguing finesse lefty." And Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus had this to say about him: Surkamp “…has a plus curve ball and good change…” and “[he’s] not a future All-Star, but [he likely] is a future big leaguer, and likely a back-end rotation starter at that.”
That may sound like a put-down, but it’s not. Calling a prospect that doesn’t have excellent fastball velocity --he is said to sit in the upper eighties and just touch ninety-- and still hasn’t yet reached as high as AA, is high praise. What Kevin is essentially saying is that not only does he have the ability to make a major league roster, but he also is a decent candidate to crack the rotation instead of just flaming out as a LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY, meaning a left-handed reliever specializing in getting one out, typically in critical situations).
In his professional debut, Surkamp whiffed 169 batters, third most for minor league pitchers in 2009, a rate of 11.61 per 9 innings pitched to just 2.68 walks per nine (a ratio of 4.33) , prompting Baseball America to call him a “[steal] as a sixth-round pick” in their 2010 handbook. Despite suffering an enormous .380 BABiP in that full season, with the help of an excellent rate of .41 home runs per nine innings his ERA was a reasonable 3.30 and his 2.20 FIP (fielding independent pitching metric) proved he was doing an excellent job controlling what he could. That earned him a promotion for the California League playoffs. In his first start, he threw two innings, gave up six runs and two home runs for the loss.
His next start didn’t begin much better, he struggled again early giving up three runs in the first two innings, but that would be it as he finished strong by going eight innings and striking out twelve; his start clinched the California League Championship. I was at that game, and it showed a lot of poise to get knocked around in one start in a new league, then start the potential-clinching game by getting knocked around some again in the first two innings, only to respond by stifling a solid High Desert lineup for the next six innings, accumulating nine more strikeouts along the way.
Before going down with a hip injury* in 2010, he was again pitching brilliantly in the A-Advanced California League. His strikeout rate was still excellent at 9.59 per nine but a reduction of his walk rate to just 1.95 per nine produced an even better strikeout to walk ratio (4.91). He was again pitching to a solid ERA (3.20) and an excellent FIP (2.54). His home rune rate was, again, (.44). For starters with at least 100 innings pitched, that placed him second in strikeouts per nine, second in home runs per nine and fourth in strikeouts per walk. He was dominating.
*In July of this year he injured his hip and it cost him the rest of the sesaon. If not for that, I think he may have seen AA at some point given how well he'd been pitching. He's expected to return, fully healthy in 2011.
In looking for a decent comp for Surkamp, I found one: Barry Zito -- here are his minor league stats. Both are left handed, and both are tall and slender types around 6'4" and 200 lbs. Zito, like Surkamp, is more of a finesse lefty. His average fastball over his career has been 86.2 mph and his highest average in a season was just 87.3. Both also possess excellent curveballs. Zito was fast-tracked and approximately a year younger at each level than Surkamp has been, and that counts, but the numbers have similarities. And of course we must keep in mind each league varies and from year to year. While Zito struck out a few more batters in the lower levels than Surkamp has, he also walked nearly twice as many. And Surkamp's home run rate has been better, too. It's not the perfect comp, but I think it's worth noting.
Surkamp’s next challenge will be his biggest. They say the biggest one level jump in the minors is from High-A to AA, and that’s likely where Surkamp is headed. If he can flourish in the challenging Eastern League, the Giants may well have a future starting pitcher in him. It may seem a bit rash to say, but how he responds in 2011 will likely determine his future. If his changeup is already an average pitch or if he can improve it any, and if he's able to maintain a fastball that averages around 87-89 on the gun, I like his chances.