The Giants’ No. 1 pitching prospect is Zack Wheeler, and there’s really no question about it. He was a high school pitcher plucked out of the first round, much like Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, and he possesses a mid-nineties fastball (with sink) that’s swell enough to make even the coolest-minded scouts drool. Despite his pedigree, he’s not the Giants’ current ‘Minor League Starter Most Likely to Make the Show First.’ That title belongs to another.
Eric Surkamp was a sixth-round draft pick out of North Carolina State in 2008. In his first full professional season, he dominated the Sally League, striking out 169 batters (11.61 per nine innings) with an excellent strikeout to walk ratio (4.33). As a season cap, he whiffed 12 batters to pitch the San Jose Giants to the Cal-League championship. Still, the fact that he’d been a college pitcher dispatching raw prospects was enough to allow talent evaluators to ignore him for a while longer.
In 2010, he continued to dominate hitters in High-A (San Jose) before going down with a season-ending hip injury. To that point, he’d made 17 starts with an excellent 9.59 strikeout rate while walking fewer than two batters per nine (4.91 K/BB ratio). And as he had in the Sally League, he’d been keeping the ball in the park for the most part as well (0.41 HR/9 in 2009, .044 in ’10).
Apparently, the injury, the fact that his only full (and impressive) season came as a college arm in Low-A, and the lack of a fastball above 90 mph, was enough to keep him off the radar for the most part coming in to 2011. On most Top-Ten lists, he garnered an honorable mention or barely made the cut. For most, whether or not he could continue his success in Double-A was the big test; it’s been said a few times that Double-A sorts the pretenders from the real-deal prospects that happen to be on the cusp.
Well, so far, so good.
Surkamp, who hails from Cincinati, Ohio, is missing more bats than ever. He’s made seven starts and thus far has a 1.88 ERA to go with 56 punch outs in just 38.1 innings. That’s good for a 13.15 K/9 rate. He is, however, walking a few more batters thus far with a 3.99 walk rate. Still, his 3.29 K/BB ratio is plenty impressive in the Eastern League. As far as giving up the long ball, he’s given up three so far for a rate of 0.70 per nine.
The fantastic start to his season hasn’t made total believers out of anyone, but it has grabbed the attention of people like Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus who had this to say recently:
All of his pitches play up due to a delivery than [sic] involves hiding the ball behind his head until nearly the moment of delivery. It’s hard to say what Surkamp is right now other than very good statistically, and he’ll likely get a chance to prove his game can work at Triple-A at some point in the second half of this season.
He also mentioned this about Surkamp a few weeks ago:
Surkamp rarely gets even to 90 mph with his fastball, but he’s proof that velocity isn’t everything when it comes to missing bats. Tall and angular with a low ¾ crossfire delivery that is hard to pick up, Surkamp’s deception, combined with above-average command and control, gives hitters fits, as does his ability to mix in a quality curveball and changeup at any point in the count… he’s quickly proving that his style can work at the upper levels, which is doing wonders for his prospect stock.
If there’s one thing I find most interesting about his stats page, though, it’s his career average on balls in play (BABiP) numbers. In two very abbreviated stints in 2008, he posted a .500 and .442 BABiP, which is obviously extremely high. In 2009, he posted a .369 which probably does a lot to explain why his ERA was good but not great at 3.30. In 2010, it was much more normal at .288 in the California League. But, in 2011, it’s currently sitting at .342 which seems pretty high to me. I wonder how better defenses will help him in that area as he climbs the ladder.
I wouldn’t say anyone is completely sold on Surkamp, but he’s doing everything possible to prove early doubters wrong. Without being a heralded international signing or a top pick, as well as lacking a dominating fastball, he’ll likely stay under the radar for a while. But if he continues to pitch like he has, missing bats while keeping the walks at a minimum, he’ll likely be headed to Triple-A at some point this season to see if his stuff continues to play well there.
The Giants came into the season with almost zero starting pitching depth. Luckily, Ryan Vogelsong has been a nice story and, if he continues to pitch well, will give the Giants six options when Barry Zito returns. But outside of those six starters, if one or two of them goes down or gets moved for some reason, Surkamp is probably the mostly likely to step in over the next 12 months, and not Wheeler.
Much like we’ve done with Gary Brown, we’ll try to keep you informed of his (and other prospects’) progress throughout the year.