Jacob Waguespack might be an underrated arm in the Blue Jays system, but his ability to see weak contact is encouraging
Jacob Waguespack came to the Blue Jays in return for Aaron Loup before the 2018 trade deadline. Coincidentally, I think that Jays fans are underrating his potential as much as they underrated Loup’s contribution to the team—the free-agent lefty reliever has the largest gap between results (.336 wOBA) and underlying contact (.299 xwOBA) among Blue Jays pitchers who faced 250+ batters from 2015 to 2018.
In Waguespack’s case, it’s likely the 5.05 ERA across 92.2 Triple-A innings that is muting fans’ excitement. As a result, I wanted to lay out why I think Waguespack might indeed have a future as a big-league starting pitcher. First, some history. Waguespack’s pro career is unusual because he started out as a reliever before transitioning into the rotation. His first 76 pro outings were out of the bullpen, over which he produced a solid 3.15 ERA and 2.93 FIP. He struck out a quarter of the batters he faced and about half of the batted balls he gave up were grounders, a recipe for pitching success.
Desperate for rotation help in May 2017, the Clearwater Threshers (the Phillies’ High-A affiliate) gave him a shot. Over 10 starts at the High-A level, Waguespack dealt. He limited the opposition to a 3.26 ERA and a 2.37 FIP. He struck out 24.7% of the batters he faced, while walking only 5.7% of them and giving up only 0.19 homers per nine innings.
These performances earned him an August promotion to Double-A, where he made another six starts. While he (unsurprisingly) couldn’t replicate his High-A stats, he continued to pitch well, producing a 3.50 ERA and a 3.34 FIP. He produced roughly average strikeout (20.5%) and walk (7.7%) rates and continued to limit the long ball effectively (0.50 HR/9).
The start of his 2018 season saw a few more ups and downs. He started the year as a Double-A starting pitcher, making three starts before being promoted to Triple-A. From late April to mid-June, he was used as both a starter and multi-inning reliever, making a total of nine appearances at the level (the first three of which were starts).
Waguespack’s effectiveness during this stretch was metric-dependent—his 3.10 FIP suggested it was business as usual and his strikeout (22.2%), walk (8.5%) and homer rates (0.04 HR/9) all looked fine. On the other hand, his 5.13 ERA suggested otherwise. With a .385 BABIP, it’s likely that this ERA was inflated by some bad batted ball luck.
Presumably with an eye to resuming his development as a starting pitcher, the Phillies sent Waguespack back to Double-A, where he made three starts over the latter half of June. Once more, he dealt, striking out 25% of batters and giving up zero homers. Combined with a 9.6% walk rate, Waguespack produced a strong 2.36 FIP over these three Double-A starts. As was the case in Triple-A, he faced some bad batted ball luck (.353 BABIP), which drove an inflated ERA (4.76).
In early July, he was promoted back up to Triple-A as a starting pitcher, which is the role he remained in for the rest of the season. He again pitched well, producing a 3.80 FIP. While his strikeout rate dipped some (19.3%), he also improved his walk rate a bit (7.0%). And, while he gave up a higher homer rate (0.81 HR/9) than he had previously, it was still better-than-average. His ERA (5.02) once again lagged his FIP, this time the result of an unusually low strand rate (58.1% LOB rate).
All told, Waguespack pitched 92.2 Triple-A innings in 2018, across 14 starts and seven multi-inning relief appearances. 138 pitchers made at least 10 starts and pitched in at least 70 innings at Triple-A in 2018. Among them, Waguespack rates quite well. Overall, he produced a strong 3.60 FIP (86th percentile), driven by a balanced performance—he combined a very good home run rate (0.68 HR/9, 79th percentile) with roughly average strikeout (20.2%, 55th percentile) and walk rates (7.5%, 47th percentile). The latter two combined for a slightly above-average K-BB% (12.7%, 57th percentile).
While his quality didn’t shine through his ERA (5.05, 24th percentile), there are very clear, luck-based explanations—both his BABIP (.333, 28th percentile) and LOB% (59.3%, 2nd percentile) were much worse-than-average. His strong xFIP (3.70, 87th percentile) further corroborates the idea that his ERA was not an accurate reflection of his Triple-A performance.
As the title of this post alludes to, Waguespack’s primary skill is generating weak contact. While this was reflected in his aforementioned low home run rate, it’s even more clearly reflected by the fact that he didn’t give up a single home run longer than 389 feet. Out of the 138 pitchers in our Triple-A sample, only two others replicated this feat: Justus Sheffield, a 50 FV prospect who was just the centrepiece in a package that returned James Paxton, and Dakota Hudson, a 45 FV prospect who FanGraphs views as “big-league-ready and poised to play a[n] integral role on St. Louis’ staff next year”.
His weak contact generation is further highlighted by FanGraphs’ batted ball metrics. He ran one of the highest ground ball rates (52.1%, 93rd percentile) across Triple-A, while effectively limiting both line drives (17.3%, 89th percentile) and fly balls (30.6%, 86th percentile).
Finally, he performed well at Triple-A despite being young for the level—Baseball Reference calculated him to be 2.2 years younger than the average pitcher at the level. Out of the 138 pitchers in our Triple-A sample, only 16.7% of them were younger than him, with another 15.2% in their age-24 season, like he was.
I’m really curious to know if evaluators are high enough on Waguespack at this point to view him as a 40 FV SP prospect. A year ago, Mark Shreve of 2080 Baseball evaluated him as a 30 FV guy, a “AAAA arm that’s best used in middle relief”. Over the 122 innings Waguespack has pitched since then, 103.2 of those coming as a starter, he has produced a 3.45 FIP, supported by solid strikeout (20.8%), walk (8.6%) and home run rates (0.52 HR/9).
Immediately after the trade, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel evaluated him as a 35 FV prospect, so perhaps his strong 2018 to that point did boost his stock some. They described him as a “likely relief righty with fringe stuff that plays up due to weird angle at which fastball approaches hitters”. Here’s some video of him showing off his unique pitching style, while striking out 12 batters in his Bisons debut. Over the six starts he made after the trade, he was excellent, producing a 3.07 FIP, 14.7% K-BB% and 0.52 HR/9.
For what it’s worth, there are 15 pitchers in the 2018 Triple-A sample who were graded as 40 or 40+ FV prospects by FanGraphs and were Waguespack’s age or older. He produced a better FIP than all but three of them and a better xFIP than all but two of them.
It’s also worth noting that the 2019 Steamer projections view Waguespack—in a swing-man role, starting two games and coming in relief in fifteen games—more positively, in terms of FIP (4.68), than multiple Blue Jays pitchers with big-league experience, including Sean Reid-Foley (4.70), Aaron Sanchez (4.76), Danny Barnes (4.82) and Ryan Borucki (4.85).
I can’t say for certain if Jacob Waguespack can successfully pitch in the major leagues, let alone as a starter. But he has already done so at Triple-A, which counts for something. He should be proud of himself for going from an undrafted free agent relief pitcher to being an effective starter one level from the majors, an accomplishment that can only result from a tonne of hard work. That strong work ethic is the kind of trait I like betting on in prospects. He’ll likely start the season at Triple-A, where he’ll keep working at his craft and wait for an opportunity to open up in Toronto.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.