The Tampa Rays minor league system rightfully earned the reputation as a bit of an MLB pitcher factory. David Price, James Shields, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Wade Davis are successful MLB pitchers churned out by the Tampa organization over the last decade. Keeping true to tradition, the Rays currently boast the best stable of young pitcher prospects in the game, highlighted by highly touted arms like Brent Honeywell and Jose de Leon, as well as post-hype top prospect Blake Snell. Yet perhaps the most impressive young pitcher in the Tampa organization is a little known right-hander named Jacob Faria.
Faria in the system
Faria, well-built at 6’4″, 220lbs, was drafted by the Rays out of high school as a 17-year old in the 10th round of the 2011 amateur draft. Faria spent three seasons in rookie ball before graduating to the professional circuit in 2014 with the A level Bowling Green Hot Rods, where he made quick work of opposing batters with a 3.46 ERA across 119 2/3 innings.
Faria began 2015 with high-A Charlotte Stone Crabs and outclassed the competition, with a 1.33 ERA and 0.98 WHIP before getting promoted to the AA Montgomery Biscuits. Faria was perhaps even more impressive in AA, increasing his strikeout rate to an astronomical 31.9% and holding the opposition to a 2.51 ERA.
2016 wasn’t as kind to Faria initially, with a 4.21 ERA in AA and elevated WHIP, however he was still striking out his fair share of batters. A mid-season promotion to the AAA Durham Bulls came with improved performance and a 3.72 ERA for the rest of the season.
Faria really broke out in 2017, with a AAA International League-leading 34.7% strikeout rate and 2.55 xFIP in 58 2/3 innings. Despite being a relative unknown and certainly the least recognized of his fellow Durham rotation-mates (Snell, de Leon and Honeywell), his outstanding performance earned Faria an MLB call-up to pitch in place of the injured Matt Andriese on June 7th.
MLB performance to date
To put it succinctly, Faria’s production in the majors has been nothing short of a revelation. Continuing his success from AAA, Faria has relied on high strikeout rates and strong command to stymie MLB hitters. Since his June 7th call-up, Faria has amassed 32 1/3 innings across five starts. In terms of more traditional statistics, Faria earned a quality start each time out and a 3-0 record. But more impressively, the underlying statistics suggest more quality starts and wins to come.
121 MLB starters have pitched at least 20 innings since Faria’s June 7th debut. Faria ranks in the 80th percentile or higher in the following statistics: strikeout rate, walk rate, strikeout minus walk rate, infield fly ball rate, ERA, FIP and xFIP. Of particular acclaim is Faria’s combination of strikeout ability and command, with his 23.6% strikeout minus walk rate occupying the 93rd percentile.
One potential flaw in Faria’s performance thus far is a general lack of ground balls, with his 40.5% rate at 33rd percentile. As we all know, keeping the ball on the ground is preferable to leaving it in the air because it reduces the risk of home runs and extra-base hits. Fortunately, many of the flyballs that Faria allows consist of weak contact, with his 18.8% infield flyball rate at 95th percentile. His 22.4% soft contact rate is 73rd.
All of the above has resulted in a fantastic 2.23 ERA, supported by a 2.84 FIP and 3.40 xFIP, across Faria’s first five starts. Of particular intrigue is the fact that Faria has gone up against some decent AL offenses, facing Baltimore twice as well as Detroit and Toronto once.
How he gets it done
Faria’s pitch repertoire consists of a fourseam fastball, changeup, slider and seldom-used curveball. Over 72% of Faria’s usage is based on the fastball/changeup combination, while around 24% is his slider.
Faria’s fastball sits at an acceptable but not great 92.4 MPH on average, with the potential to get into the mid-90s on max effort. Similar to fellow Rays pitcher Jake Odorizzi, Faria’s fastball relies on deception and movement more so than pure speed. According to Brooks Baseball, Faria’s fastball has 11.5 inches of upward vertical movement. Of course, the pitch doesn’t actually rise 11.5 inches from the release of Faria’s hand, however it doesn’t drop as quickly as anticipated, creating the illusion that the pitch is rising. Faria’s fastball has definitely been above average thus far in the MLB, earning a 10.8% whiff rate (very good for a four-seamer) and holding opponents to a .359 slugging percentage against.
While Faria’s fastball is impressive on its own, its effectiveness is accentuated by a terrific changeup, which is 11 MPH slower than his fastball. This speed differential enables Faria to keep hitters off balance, evidenced by a terrific 20.8% whiff rate on the pitch. And when hitters do make contact, they do very little with the pitch with a .143 slugging against. In additional great speed differential, Faria’s changeup also possesses a tremendous six inches of horizontal movement, which accentuates his ability to generate whiffs.
Faria also throws a slider 24.5% of the time. While his slider was graded as below average in the minors, it has been successful at the MLB level, with an outstanding 15.3% whiff rate and .360 slugging against. The ability for Faria to to finish hitters off with a slider gives him a true plus third pitch, which is often the hurdle that prevents young pitchers from having long-term success in the majors.
All told, Faria’s devastating fastball and changeup combination would make him a serviceable MLB arm on their own. The presence of a good third pitch in his slider vaults him to front-line starter status.
How hitters react to Faria’s stuff
Now that we’ve seen Faria’s arsenal, the next step is to evaluate how hitters react to it. Pitchers who can consistently generate swings on pitches outside the strike zone will rack up strike outs and induce weak contact, so that’s naturally the first place to look when assessing a pitcher’s plate discipline skill set. Faria passes this test with flying colors, generating swings on 33.8% pitches outside the strike zone, good for 91st percentile among 2017 starters. He also combines this penchant for inducing outside swings with a large amount of misses, with an outside contact rate of 53.8%.
Faria’s zone contact rate of 87.6% is fairly average, which is good. One sign of a pitcher getting lucky, particularly one who doesn’t throw hard, in a small sample size is a zone contact rate in the 70%s. Eventually hitters won’t miss those pitches as much, so it’s a good sign that Faria isn’t relying on in-zone whiffs to generate strikeouts.
All told, Faria’s 75.6% contact rate measures in the 79th percentile while his 12.3% swinging strike rate is in the 84th. Those are both very solid metrics and provide support for the strikeout ability he’s displayed thus far.
The last thing to note is Faria’s overall command of the strike zone. He’s thrown a first pitch strike to batters 59.8% of the time, which is well below the MLB average. Generally speaking, good pitchers get ahead in the count early, so this might be something Faria wants to remedy. However, his changeup and slider are so good that he seems to have no difficulty gaining in the count through swings and misses. Moreover, his 47.2% zone rate is in the 69th percentile, meaning he’s well above average when it comes to throwing strikes in all counts.
Jacob Faria has come a long way from the 17-year old high school kid drafted in the 10th round. Now, at 23, Faria has cemented himself as one of the best young pitchers in baseball in spite of lack of media attention and fanfare. However, if he keeps throwing up quality starts and sub 3.00-ERAs the masses will be forced to pay attention.