This past February, my BPMilwaukee colleague Dylan Svoboda wrote a piece entitled “Blindspots in Aging Curves.” I highly recommend giving it a read if you haven’t. The crux of the post is essentially that so much of the focus on minor leaguers these days is in regards to their age that perhaps a small inefficiency is being created, one that the Brewers have attempted to exploit with the acquisitions of players like Junior Guerra, Aaron Wilkerson, and even Manny Pina under the David Stearns regime. These players may have been more advanced in age than the typical “prospect,” but something in their scouting or statistical profile still indicated that there could be some big league value to be mined. This spring in big league camp, we saw some glimpses of yet another enticing Brewer investment who falls into the “old prospect” category.
One of the Brewers’ most intriguing moves this past offseason was executed way back in November, when 30 year old righty Paolo Espino was signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training as a non-roster invitee. Espino began his career way back in 2006 as a 10th round draftee by Cleveland out of The Pendleton School (HS) in Bradenton, Florida. He ascended through the lower levels of the minor leagues rather quickly, reaching the AA level for the first time in 2009 and AAA the following year. Espino has been right on the cusp of the big leagues pitching at either AA or AAA in every season since then, including the last three seasons as a member of the Nationals org, but has yet to receive his first call-up to The Show.
So what’s so interesting about a short, stocky (5’10”, 215 lbs) right hander on the wrong side of 30 who has never pitched in the MLB? Well, what if I told you that he’s been one of the most dominant pitchers in the minor leagues over the last several seasons?
Espino has amassed nearly 1,000 innings between AA and AAA over the last seven seasons, registering an ERA around 3.70 with 8.1 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. The strikeout to walk ratio is indeed rather shiny, but the ERA doesn’t really jump off the page. Fortunately we’ve got a few other statistics that should better illustrate just how good Espino has been:
Espino’s modest ERA hides the fact that he has thoroughly dominated the upper levels of the minor leagues over a number of seasons. Since 2011, he’s been worth nearly a whopping 28 WARP (!!!) during his time between AA and AAA, posting a DRA- of 90 (or 10 percent better than league average) or worse just three times in nine stops between the various affiliates. By DRA and cFIP, Espino has not once been a below average pitcher for his league in each of the last six years. Last season at AAA may have been the best of his career, as only one pitcher (Ty Blach of the Giants) out of 1,276 that made at least a single appearance on the mound was more valuable than Paolo Espino’s 7.01 wins above replacement player.
Eye-popping statistics aside, what does Espino challenge batters with on the mound? Scouting reports for Paolo on the internet are scarce, but his work in spring training for the Brewers this month finally provided some PITCHf/x data for us to dive into. According to his Brooks Baseball page, Espino showed off a diverse arsenal of five pitches during spring training: a rising and riding four-seam fastball, a sinker, changeup, slider, and a big-breaking 12-6 curveball. His hard stuff sits in that 88-92 MPH range and he does a good job throwing his changeup from a nearly identical release point as his sinker. Most impressive, however, is his Uncle Charlie; the -9.32 inches of vertical break that occurs when he snaps off a curve would have ranked 19th-best among the 569 pitchers who threw at least 200 curveballs in the big leagues last year.
Though he’s not a hard thrower, Espino’s Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA) data indicates that he has long possessed elite command of his cache of pitches. As Zach Davies and Kyle Hendricks have illustrated through their big league success, one can be a thoroughly above-average MLB pitcher even if his repertoire and velocity doesn’t strike fear into the hitter, as long as he can consistently place his pitches where the batter cannot do damage.
Espino looked solid during his 10.0 innings of work on the big league side of camp this spring, yielding four earned runs (3.60 ERA) with an 8:2 K/BB ratio before getting reassigned to the minor leagues. He’ll almost assuredly open the season in the rotation for the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox, once again on the threshold of possibly receiving the most exciting phone call and news of his life. Top prospect stalwarts Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff may also be a part of that rotation, but as we saw last year when Junior Guerra was promoted over Jorge Lopez in May, if there is a need at the MLB level the organization won’t simply promote a top prospect unless they’ve earned it over other viable candidates.
Given the possibility of negative outcomes for more than a few of Milwaukee’s big league starting pitcher candidates, this may be the best situation that Paolo Espino has ever been in to finally receive that life changing call to The Show. PECOTA has already pegged him as a sturdy presence in the back of the rotation (projected 4.27 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 1.1 WARP in 131.7 innings), and given his pitching profile and statistical track record, it seems like all Paolo Espino has ever needed was a chance in order to prove he can actualize those projections at the game’s highest level.