When the Mariners acquired Hector Noesi from the New York Yankees as part of the Michael Pineda - Jesus Montero trade, there was talk that many pro scouts liked Noesi's upside as a starter. They pointed to the success that he had as he climbed the organizational ladder in New York; posting good strikeout rates, limiting his walks and keeping the ball in the ballpark.
Since he broke into the big leagues in 2011, however, Noesi hasn't found the same level of success in those aspects, and in 2012 for the Mariners Noesi allowed the fourth most home runs per nine innings of any of the 142 pitchers in the Major Leagues with at least 100 innings at 1.77. As Jeff Sullivan so Jeff Sullivan-esque-ly points out here, one of those home runs wasn't hit very well and may not have been deserved by Noesi. But it still seems that Hector has a penchant for giving up very hard hit fly balls when he should be in control.
Looking a little deeper, the problem with the home run ball appears to have been exacerbated by a dramatic increase in his fly ball rate, too. In 2011, Noesi induced 40.9% ground balls and 33.5% fly balls. Those numbers shifted to 37.0% ground balls -- the 18th lowest number in the big leagues among those 142 qualified pitchers -- and 45.3% fly balls -- the fifth highest number out of those 142 qualified pitchers -- in 2012. And in conjunction, his HR/FB rate shot up from 10.2% in 2011 to 13.7% -- the third highest rate among all pitchers that allowed more than 37% fly balls -- in 2012.
So what changed for Noesi? What led to the huge increase in HR/9 and HR/FB rates for the young right-hander?
Noesi was signed by the Yankees out of the Dominican as an 18-year-old in 2005. Assigned to the Rookie Gulf Coast League the following year, he would suffer an elbow injury, eventually requiring Tommy John surgery. That surgery cost the right-hander all but 10 appearances between the 2006 and 2007 seasons, so when 2008 rolled around, Noesi was repeating at the Rookie level of baseball, but this time as a 21-year-old. He would pitch well and earn a promotion to the New York Penn League, where he continued to pitch well and all seemed to be back on track for him. Over the next three minor league seasons (2009 through 2011), Noesi would work his way up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with the Yankees, winning 21 games and posting a 3.10 ERA in 302 innings before finally cracking the big league roster for New York in a bullpen role in mid-May.
Over those final 302 minor league innings, Hector allowed only 17 home runs, a HR/9 mark of 0.51. But dating back to his MLB debut with the Yankees, Noesi has allowed 34 HR -- a HR/9 rate of 1.37 -- over his last 222 2/3 innings combined between his time in New York, his time with the Mariners and his time in the PCL for Tacoma. The HR/9 rate in Major League Baseball since the start of the 2009 season is 0.99. So what changed in Hector Noesi that changed him from being roughly 40% better than league average at preventing home runs to roughly 40% worse than league average at preventing home runs?
To be clear, Noesi does have good, legitimate big league stuff at his disposal. With a fastball that sits 91-94 and has good movement down and in to right-handers, a slider that is 84-87 and a curveball that is 77-80 as well as a decent changeup that he throws at 84-87, he has the weapons to succeed in a starting role with hitters getting more looks. Looking at Noesi's pitch use breakdown from the 2012 season, he used his fastball and changeup more in 2012 than he did out of the pen in 2011, but that makes sense as he was pitching in a different role. His HR rate allowed went up as his rate of mixing up his pitches went down. Coincidence? I don't think so.
And asking around, it seems that everyone agrees that the problem is more about his pitch sequencing and location than his stuff. One area scout that saw Noesi extensively in his Yankees minor league days told me that, back then, "his stuff was definitely ahead of his approach." Asked if he sees some of the same mistakes from Noesi now, he added that Hector seems like he, "still has to learn how to pitch."
Scout.com's resident prospect expert Frankie Piliere sees much of the same, but still likes Noesi as a candidate to turn things around. "Honestly, his penchant for the home run ball surprised me this year. When I scouted him in the minor leagues, he was by no means an extreme ground ball pitcher but he did pretty well in that department. I think (the home runs) are mainly a matter of poor location right now." To which Piliere added, "When he's right, I don't see him as a guy who will give up a lot of home runs long term."
Which begs the question, what do the Mariners and Noesi need to do to get him right? What is there that he needs to learn? If they keep running him out on the mound in the big leagues with troubling results, he won't be learning anything except that big league hitters punish mistakes, and the damage being done to his pitching stats may start to have some lingering effects on Hector's psyche, too.
The good news on that front is that the Mariners front office alerted us earlier this month that Noesi had qualified for an "extra" option year (his fourth). Meaning that the club has the ability to let him figure things out and season a bit, if you will, with some more time pitching in the minor leagues. If Noesi uses that time in the minor leagues to hone in on and correct the problems that have led to his dramatic increase in fly ball percentage and home run percentage, there is still a good chance that Hector can reach his upside as a starter and prove to be a valuable asset to the Mariners.
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