Frisco, Texas —— It was a wise move when the Texas Rangers moved hard-throwing right-handed pitching prospect Connor Sadzeck to the bullpen earlier this summer for the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders. I had originally observed the big righty in a late May start for the RoughRiders, and while his raw velocity and power arm stuck with me, his stuff suggested he didn’t quite have enough to see a lineup multiple times through moving forward. Armed with an upper-90s fastball, Sadzeck figured to be in a better position out of the ‘pen as he could finally let loose in short stints.
Unfortunately, that has yet to really happen; a transition to the bullpen is proving to be its own challenge for the hard-throwing righty who is 1-2 with an 8.83 ERA in 12 relief appearances this year, having allowed 26 hits and six walks in 17.1 innings pitched out of the bullpen, while striking out 15 batters. A small sample size, to be sure, but certainly not ideal considering his familiarity with the level and raw stuff that should allow Sadzeck to make relatively quick work of hitters in short spurts. So what’s going on?
Connor Sadzeck, RHP, Texas Rangers — Bullpen future
When I saw Connor Sadzeck throw earlier this year, as a starter, in a late May game against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, he flashed a consistent 95-97 mph fastball that had a little bit of cut to it at times. He coupled that with both a 77-81 mph power curve that was big and sweeping but at times far too horizontal in its break, though sharp and hard. He also flashed an 83-86 mph changeup that functioned as a change of speed but did little by way of tumble or any sort of run on its way to the plate.
Here’s a full video from that outing—every single one of the Texas Rangers prospect’s pitches against Northwest Arkansas:
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The struggle for Connor Sadzeck, then as now, was an inability to take advantage of his large frame and exceptional raw arm strength and work on a downward plane with his repertoire. His fastball, while showing signs of life both arm-side and glove-side as a two-seam and a cutter, lacks consistent downward plane, not to mention the fact that he was missing the above-average command necessary for its one-plane existence. The curve, while thrown in an ideal velocity band and flashing a nasty sweeping action that should no doubt give righties fits on occasion, never showed me the true downward break ideal to consistently miss big league bats. And the changeup wasn’t consistent enough to be counted on for much of anything more than an off-speed show-me at the time (though as a bullpen arm now, Sadzeck ought to be able to get buy solely on fastball/curve if he’s in command with those two pitches). When you combine a one-plane fastball and a surprisingly one plane breaking ball (no matter how hard it may be, or how far horizontally it may break), you run into trouble with far too much contact and far too few missed bats, and that’s been happening to Sadzeck in his early transition to the bullpen.
Maybe I’m more down on Connor Sadzeck than many evaluators, and it’s really, really hard not to like him—the guy is huge and physical and he throws incredibly hard—but there’s a lot still to work on here before he can become a viable pitching prospect beyond just having people drool over his raw stuff. At his height, he ought to be pounding the knees with upper-90s fastballs that show hard downward life—an unhittable downward-plane look that would push him quickly to the big league bullpen—and hard breaking balls with legitimate tilt that make for a legitimate two-strike offering. He hasn’t been doing that, and uneven command is among the factors to blame, likely along with mechanical flaws that need to be ironed out for him to get back on top of the ball consistently. His stuff is hard, but it’s flat, and that leaves him susceptible to getting hit hard—especially when he misses up in the zone.
Don’t get me wong: there is a lot to love about Connor Sadzeck. He could yet become a lights-out relief pitcher thanks to his naturally hard repertoire, and he’s well-suited for the role. He could still move back into a starting role if they decide the bullpen isn’t a good fit. But right now, the execution certainly isn’t there, and he’s going to struggle against better and better hitters if he doesn’t improve pitch life and command down in the zone. He must make it tougher for hitters to square him up, and he must throw more consistent pitcher’s strikes to the corners with multiple pitches; velocity alone is very rarely enough. That said, with the Texas Rangers boasting a fairly deep set of high-quality pitching prospects with starter potential, moving Connor Sadzeck to the bullpen now to give him time to work out the kinks may prove to be a shrewd move down the road by the organization.