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Quick look: James Kaprielian off to strong start in MLB rotation

Longtime prospect looking good so far

Oakland Athletics v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s acquired three prospects in exchange for Sonny Gray in 2017, and two of them are now out of the organization. Only pitcher James Kaprielian remains from the original trio.

At the time of the trade, Kaprielian was a high-risk gamble and long-term project. He’d been a 1st-round draft pick with velocity and a great arsenal of pitches but was recovering from Tommy John surgery, so it would be a while before he even returned to the mound much less reached the majors.

But the right-hander did eventually get back into action in 2019 and his stuff was still impressive, and then he made a brief MLB debut out of the bullpen in 2020. This May he finally got the call to make a start in the majors, and now he’s taken five turns in the A’s rotation, with promising results.

  • Kaprielian: 3.08 ERA, 26⅓ ip, 28 Ks, 12 BB, 3 HR, 4.09 FIP, .321 xwOBA

Breaking it down by game, he’s been sharp four times and got knocked around once. (Note: League-average xwOBA for starters is in the .320 range)

  • 5/12 @ BOS: 5 ip, 1 run, 6 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR, .268 xwOBA
  • 5/21 @ LAA: 5⅔ ip, 2 runs, 9 Ks, 1 BB, 2 HR, .279 xwOBA
  • 5/26 vs SEA: 7 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR, .268 xwOBA
  • 5/31: @ SEA: 3⅔ ip, 4 runs, 3 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, .511 xwOBA
  • 6/6 @ COL: 5 ip, 2 runs, 6 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR, .305 xwOBA

He’s pitched almost exclusively on the road so far, including once at Fenway Park against the mighty Red Sox, and once at Coors Field. He hasn’t made a habit of working deep into games yet, which isn’t unusual for a rookie, but he’s generally kept the opponent off the board. One factor in the short leashes is that the team hasn’t let him go past 100 pitches yet, but he’s also had a tendency to limit himself by getting wild for one extended inning before settling back down.

However, that last note also highlights the best thing we’ve seen from Kaprielian so far, which is his ability to bear down and work out of jams. In the 1st inning of his first start he loaded the bases with nobody out but limited it to one run, then later in the 5th he overcame his own frustrating throwing error to squash an unearned rally. In his gem against the Mariners he loaded the bases in the 4th but stranded them, and while the rematch the following week was a disaster it could have been much worse. On Sunday the Rockies loaded the bases in the 4th but got only one out of it.

One thing helping him escape trouble is that he can generate plenty of strikeouts, though he doesn’t miss as many bats as you might think. He gets a lot of extra Ks by painting the corners and getting the calls, as you can see in his outing against the Angels.

Meanwhile he allows a lot of hard contact (averaging 92 mph exit velo, 90+ most games), but he’s mostly kept it low enough or high enough to stay in the park, and the weaker contact has almost all been auto-outs rather than potentially useful bloops and doinks. He showed off some of that when blanking Seattle for seven innings with only four strikeouts.

In terms of stuff, he doesn’t get a lot of spin on his fastball, and the velocity has dropped a couple ticks from last year’s short-stint relief work down to around 93 mph with a top of 95. But he does boast a wide variety with three secondaries (slider, change, curve), and his changeup in particular gets a ton of vertical drop and contrasts well against the movement of his heater. His Boston start works as a useful scouting report.

Kaprielian’s high stock as a 1st-round draft pick came from his combo of power and command and secondaries, but even with the power taken down a notch he’s still retiring MLB hitters as a starter. Perhaps it’s a red flag that the Mariners figured him out in their second meeting after he dominated them the first time, but he also gets credit for surviving both Fenway and Coors. He’s shown some bulldog mentality, and enough overall ability and work ethic to field his position and lay down a sacrifice bunt.

Only time will tell how the 27-year-old will respond to a larger sample size against the league, but he’s off to an encouraging start so far. There are details yet to work on, like cutting down the walks and hard contact, especially as opponents get the chance to adjust to him. But between his prospect pedigree, raw talent, early success, and what appears to be strong makeup, he’s certainly earned some attention.