Today Ben Lively was promoted to AAA to replace the injured Mark Appel. There is a lot of buzz around Ben Lively this year, a 1.87 ERA in AA will do that. Lively also has some name recognition. He was the sole return for Marlon Byrd and was a borderline Top 10 prospect coming into the 2015 season (he was a Top 10 prospect on one list in 2016). Lively disappointed in 2015, which earned him a return trip to Reading, his third year spending time in AA. While the excitement continues to grow, I continue to have large doubts about Ben Lively’s future.
I want to start with the arsenal itself. Ben Lively throws a fastball at 88-92 T93, the pitch lacks life and is flat and straight. Lively has thrown his curveball more this year, it is an average pitch in the mid 70s that he has learned to bury out of the zone for swings and misses. The pitch can be a bit long and loopy. Lively also throws a changeup, the pitch has good velocity separation from his fastball, and has some arm side run to keep it off the same path as his fastball. Lively has thrown an average slider in the mid 80s, but has not featured the pitch as much during the 2016 season.
There have been two attributes that have been called out as reasons for why Ben Lively is performing so well; fastball command and deception. When it comes to the fastball command, I have heard plus and above average, both seem off to me. Maybe it is there in his future, but I do not see it now. Stats are not a replacement for scouting, but Lively has seen his walk rate barely move this year from it’s 7.4% in 2015 to the 7.3% it has been this year. If you have plus command, you are not walking hitters in AA at that rate, at the same level in 2015 Aaron Nola posted 3.1% BB%. Nola would post a 6.4% BB% in Lehigh Valley where he struggled with command while trying to develop his changeup. Now the alternative theory is that Ben Lively is not missing his spots, but is instead walking hitters because he can’t end at bats, but that points to other problems. I see a pitcher with potentially plus control, but I don’t see a pitcher with plus major league fastball command.
What I really want to talk about is the deception and why I think it is the big chick in the armor. Eno Sarris wrote about Ben Lively’s deception before last year, but brief synopsis is that during his delivery Ben Lively hides the baseball from the batter. This coupled with good extension means the hitter gets a late look at the baseball and it can make both more difficult to pick up the baseball as well as making all of his pitches appear faster because they seem to be covering less distance. This type of deception is not new, it has given Yusmeiro Petit a decent career. The problem Petit had was facing players the second and third time through the order, and that every time a batter saw him, the less effective he was against that batter. Ben Lively has made 9 starts in the Eastern League this season, he has faced 5 times, and faced 4 of them exactly twice, so I split those games into 1st and 2nd time vs Lively:
This is extremely small sample size and I would expect some discrepancies. However, the number of strikeouts stands out starkly, and it matches the other trend that if we split Lively’s year between April and May, we see his BB% went from 5.3% to 9.7% and his K% dropped from 26.5% to 20.4%. That takes Lively from a dominant pitcher to a very average pitcher.
This is not the really concerning thing for me about Ben Lively and his deception. That is the platoon split. Deception in general tends to work against same side batters more than opposite side batters. First let’s look at the walk rate:
Given that Lively reversed this last year, I am willing to say that this is mostly noise and would not draw any meaningful conclusions from them. However, the K% is much more telling.
That is a significant gap. In the minors, Lively has mostly faced a 60%-40% split of RHBs vs LHBs, however this year he has seen almost a 50%-50% split between batters of both hands. In the major leagues Lively is likely to see opposing teams load them up with left handed batters. We have seen this strategy against Jerad Eickhoff this season, and we have seen him struggle against even marginal lineups. With Lively’s relative weaknesses in raw ability, it is hard to see him making a big improvement against left handed batters without him making a complete change in his abilities and pitch types.
All the other pieces could be in place, but if Lively cannot turnover a lineup of left handed batters, he is not a starting pitcher. I still think Lively can carve out a major league role in the bullpen, and if his velocity increases he could be a good middle reliever, especially vs right handed batters.