Of the many young internationally born players filling the Indians’ farm system, Felix Sterling is one of the guys that I have the most faith in. Still, his upside doesn’t pique my interest enough to make me put him higher on this list.
As a 6’3″ 200 righty, Sterling definitely has the build you want in a big-league pitcher, and he’s still only 18. Since he doesn’t have to worry about growing into his body, he can focus his next three-to-four years in the minors solely on maturing as a pitcher.
To date, Sterling has pitched a meager 119 innings since joining the organization in 2010. This isn’t due to any injury—the Indians are just being cautious with the young hurler. His stats thus far seem encouraging—3.71 ERA, 0.7 HR/9 rate, 9.3 K/9 rate—but there is one part that concerns me: his 4.0 BB/9 rate.
Sterling’s ERA is solid and he does a good job of keeping the ball in the park, but his high walk rate really jumps out of those otherwise strong statistics. One could argue that the fact he strikes out over a batter an inning should offset this, but while his whiff rate is sure to drop as he rises in the minors his walk rate probably won’t.
There’s other reason to be concerned with Sterling’s numbers, too. In 2010, at age 17, he had a very good K/9 rate of 10.0 and a sparkling 3.16 ERA in 51.1 innings in Rookie ball, despite a somewhat high 3.5 BB/9 rate.
Starting off 2011 in Rookie ball again, Sterling lowered his walk rate (2.7 BB/9) and even slightly raised his K/9 rate (10.6) in 26.1 innings. Despite the better statistics, his ERA went up almost a whole run to 4.10. The small sample size means that we shouldn’t put too much stock into that, but it is still interesting. The increase can be blamed in part on his alloweing more homers than in the year prior (1.0 HR/9 as compared to 0.4 the previous year)—a potential problem.
Still, the growth demonstrated earned him a promotion to Single-A Lake County, where things started to go wrong. In 41.1 innings his walk rate doubled to 5.4 BB/9 while his strikeout rate dropped dramatically to 7.6 K/9. Despite this, he kept his ERA around the same (4.14).
So what does this all mean? For one, these stats should all be taken with a grain of salt. For the most part Sterling has had an encouraging start to his still-young career, but 119 innings means he still has a lot of growing to do, and we can’t judge him just yet. In 2012, Sterling needs to show more than what he did at Lake County. He is young for the level, but to see him drop off so dramatically last year was disheartening.
Despite his struggles, many prospect raters are still high on Sterling as I am. He probably won’t be much more than a No. 3 starter in the majors, but he has shown some nice strikeout ability and could end up being a solid middle-of-the-rotation candidate.