Is there a prospect in the Dodgers' system that has faced more scrutiny or been over-analyzed more than Zach Lee? It seems that Lee’s prospect status is often weighed against the expectations placed on him by his draft hype and signing bonus, and less on the real value he can bring to a major league team. While there’s little doubt 2014 took some luster of the star, there’s still a lot to like about a pitcher that looked very much a future rotation stalwart just one year ago, and is still young enough to meet those expectations.
Admittedly, analyzing Zach Lee’s Triple-A performance is a little difficult when the prevailing amount of video comes from his High-A and Double-A seasons, but the promise those seasons showed should still hold true given his age. What’s clear that still went right for Lee in 2014 has been true of him as a player throughout his minor league career; durability and ground balls.
Listed at 6’3 and 195 lbs., Lee appears much larger than that one the mound, with long limbs and a sturdy, athletic frame. Lee has taken his turn in the rotation at least 24 times in each of his professional seasons, and pitched through six innings in 14 of his 28 outings last season as a 22-year-old in Albuquerque. Lee’s athleticism should surprise no one that’s followed him from his draft year, where he turned down a scholarship offer to quarterback the LSU Tigers. He repeats his delivery with ease and moves well around the mound.
Lee’s delivery checks off the proper boxes for a ground ball pitcher. His release point is high three-quarters and comes in on a downhill plane thanks to his height and long arms. Lee also shows good shoulder tilt and finishes on line to the plate. His arm action is a little long and he will show the ball in back of his delivery, but it doesn’t hamper his control of his pitches. Lee repeats his delivery well and it looks like he maintains his arm slot into later innings as well.
Lee’s fastball is a little firmer than your typical ground ball pitcher. He reportedly can run the fastball up to 95 mph and sits comfortable 91-92 with the pitch. His fastball has good sink and can be tougher to pick up from a high three-quarters slot than a typical two seam fastball thrown from ¾ with arm-side run. Lee shows good command of the pitch to both sides of the plate.
From his Double-A film, Lee has two other pitches that flash above average in his slider and changeup. The slider looks like his go-to out pitch; it has late 11-5 break and Lee likes to bury it under the hands of left-handers or as a chase pitch to righties. His change up is thrown with good arm speed and shows decent fade, and he will throw the pitch to either side of the plate. Lee also has a show-me curveball that, if not ditched before making the majors, will likely be used early in the count as a change of pace.
None of Lee’s pitches would be considered plus pitches, but they all can play up because of his command. With work, I believe Lee can sharpen his slider enough to be his best swing-and-miss pitch. With his aptitude for pitching, athleticism, and repeatable delivery, Lee is also a good candidate to add an additional pitch, like a cutter, to give him one more pitch to keep hitters off balance.
Lee’s strikeout rate and walk rate both went backward in Triple-A, and part of that can be blamed on the environments of the Pacific Coast League. Because none of Lee’s pitches flash plus, it’s plausible that altitude took enough of the edge off his breaking pitches to give him problems both with location and with sharpness. It’s also important to remember that Lee was ahead of the curve as a 22-year-old in Triple-A and having to repeat the level as a 23-year-old isn’t the worst thing for his career. Oklahoma City should be a much friendlier home environment to get his peripherals back on track.
I also want to explain why I rank a number 3-5 starter prospect this high in my rankings, given some players behind him might have flashier potential. 34 pitchers threw 200 innings or more in the majors last season, only six of those pitchers were less than 2-WAR contributors (Fangraphs version). You have to be more than durable to pitch 200 innings, you have to have some skill in getting hitters out to keep yourself in the rotation. However, there are several guys in this list that have similar stuff to Lee that were 2+ WAR guys (Dallas Keuchel, Rick Porcello, Chris Tillman; Mike Leake too, though technically at 1.9 WAR).
There’s tremendous amount of value in an arm that can take his turn every time in the rotation, limit walks, and keep the ball on the ground with a decent defense behind him. If Lee regains confidence, and is asked to fill a role in the rotation at some point in 2015, he will have the benefit of the Dodgers’ tremendous infield defense behind him, and parks like Petco, AT&T and his own to suppress big flies. With the likes of Brett Anderson in front of him in the rotation, Lee might very well be needed at some point in 2015, and he’s got the profile to be of value. Ultimately, Lee might be of greater value to a team of lesser financial resources than the Dodgers that need a guy that can be an above-average arm over a significant amount of innings, so a rebound to form could make him an enticing trade chip near the deadline.