Last summer, the Royals’ 2008 5th round draft pick, left-handed starter John Lamb, became the youngest pitcher to ever play with the Royals’ Texas League Affiliate, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Getting promoted to the team as a 19 year old encouraged Lamb’s meteoric rise to prospect stardom. After he began his 2010 season with a fantastic stretch in the Midwest League, Lamb proceeded to tear apart competition in the Carolina and Texas Leagues en route to a Baseball America Minor League All-Star selection. Overall, Lamb’s 2.38 ERA and 159 strikeouts through 148 innings earned him the organization’s Paul Splittorff Pitcher of the Year Award.
During his junior year at Laguna Hills high school, Lamb went 9-2 with a 1.48 and batted .389 while leading his team to a Conference Championship. However, a car accident that broke the young southpaw’s left elbow caused him to miss his senior season– killing his draft stock. He ended up falling to 5th round of the 2008 draft and signing a relatively small $165,000 bonus from the Royals. He made fantastic progress in 2009 and followed with a breakout 2010 campaign, pitching with improved velocity, mechanics and with better command of his breaking pitches.
Strengths: (Control, Command, Pitching IQ, Changeup)
Lamb has evolved from promising finesse pitcher to a hard throwing southpaw with phenomenal fastball command and a strikeout changeup. In 2010, his fastball velocity made the jump from the 89-91 mph range to regularly sitting 91-93 mph, and occasionally touching 94-95 mph. He spots his heater in all four quadrants of the strikezone, and can paint the “black” of the plate with his four-seamer. His coordinated and compact delivery helps add life to his fastball and although he generally keeps the pitch down, he can blow it past batters up-and-in.
While Lamb made strides with his curveball in 2010, with it now grading as an above-average offering, his changeup is the better offering and has developed in to a second plus pitch. Like his fastball, Lamb commands his change precisely. His athletic, repeatable delivery adds nice deception to his changeup and other pitches, and he keeps opposing batters uncomfortable and guessing at the plate. His change sits in the low 80s and he uses the pitches’ speed differential, tumble and sink to put-away right-handed batters. If he can add more depth and consistency to his curveball, or resurrect his cutter, he could become the leader of the Royals’ pitching staff.
Weaknesses: (Injury Concerns, Experience, Inconsistency)
While Lamb seems to have all of the makings of a good MLB starter, his stock certainly comes with risk. He’s already had a serious elbow injury, and isn’t used to a heavy workload. While he’s a very efficient pitcher, his pitch count needs to be closely managed as his elbow won’t be able to survive another serious injury. Prior to his breakout 2010 season, he had totaled less than 70 innings pitched since his junior year in high school. Under a much heavier workload than he’s used to, Lamb tired by the end of the 2010 season, and he posted a couple of ugly starts during his August stint in the Texas League.
Other than injury and durability concerns, Lamb’s game has only minor flaws. His curveball has progressed in to an above-average pitch—flashing plus potential– but he’ll still lose the pitches’ depth and bite in some of his starts. Although he puts good run on his fastball and he keeps it on the corners and in the bottom of the zone, his four-seamer can straighten out and will get hammered when he’s tiring or out of rhythm. He’s a similar pitcher (left-handed however) to Diamondbacks righty Ian Kennedy, and like Kennedy, he’ll need to trust his stuff and limit baserunners if he’s going to succeed in the MLB.
Overall: At just 20 years old, John Lamb has a formidable combination of command, athleticism and stuff. If he can stay healthy and improve his consistency, he will grow in to a strikeout-oriented left-handed starter, pitching at the top of the Royals’ rotation. His ceiling can challenge nearly any pitching prospect in baseball. His similar pitching style– working off of his low 90s fastball with good offspeed stuff– could give him a career in line with All-Star lefties like Ted Lilly, Denny Neagle and Randy Wolf. Even if he’s unable to reach his potential, he’ll still be a better pitcher than most of the Royals’ staff– as long as he stays healthy.