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Taylor Clarke Q&A primer: My thoughts on Clarke’s game and my projection for 2017

Thanks to Jim and Clarke’s agent, Paul Kuo of the Ballengee group, yours truly managed to land an interview with the Diamondbacks pitching prospect.

Taylor Clarke was the Diamondbacks 3rd round pick of the 2015 Draft. One of the reason I believe Deric Ladnier took him was because Clarke was an easy MLB starter projection and needed very little refinement in the minors. In his first full season with the organization Clarke advanced from Class A Kane County to AA Mobile, with a quick stop at Class A Advanced Visalia. Clarke dominated in the first two stops of 2016 before holding his own at AA. Overall Clarke posted a 12-9 record with a 3.31 ERA in 149 13 IP, with a 118/33 strikeout to walk ratio. The bulk of his starts came in Mobile, where he posted a 3.59 ERA and a 72 to 21 strikeout to walk ratio in 97 23 IP.

Clarke comes out of my hometown of Ashburn, Virginia and went to high school less than two miles from where I lived in 1993-1997. In fact, he’s only 2 months and 17 days older than I am and it’s a reminder we live in a very small world. I moved from Ashburn to Austin, TX and lived there until 2002, where I moved to Arizona and became a Dbacks fan. Clarke is a consensus Top-7 prospect in the Diamondbacks organization, with Clarke finishing 4th in MLB Pipeline’s final 2016 prospect rankings, 7th in Baseball America’s rankings for 2017, and 4th behind LHP Anthony Banda, RHP Braden Shipley, and OF Socrates Brito by yours truly although my prospect rankings also includes Shipley who wasn’t on BA or MLB Pipeline.

Clarke’s repertoire features a low-90s rising 4-seamer that he likes to use up in the zone to produce weak fly ball contact, a slider in the low-80s that misses bats, and a change-up that started out as a fringe-average pitch but has progressed to average. His delivery is more over the top than your average pitcher, but it’s not as extreme as Josh Collmenter’s. I have him projected as a future #3/4 starter in the Dbacks rotation with an ETA of September 2017-July 2018. The biggest takeaway from Clarke’s pitching from both college and the minors has been his plus control. Clarke does a good job of limiting walks and keeping the ball in the park, even as a fly ball pitcher. His summer debut he was more of a ground ball pitcher, but that’s an aberration because that was as a reliever and not a starter.

Clarke wasn’t challenged enough before getting to AA Mobile, as batters struck out more than 20% of the time and a K-BB ratio of 16.8% and 15.6% and a BABIP of .277 and .262. Coming out of a top-end D-1 college program, it’s not surprising that Clarke handled the Midwest and California Leagues easily. In AA, his strikeout rate dropped from 22.9% to 17.6%. His walk rate dropped to 5.3%, which kept his K/BB ratio similar, but K-BB% dropped to 12.4% while BABIP jumped to .297. Looking at his numbers at AA, it was apparent that the Southern League was the right level of difficulty and he handled it very well. I’d put his odds of sticking in an MLB rotation of about 60% given the numbers in AA, but a good 2017 season likely raises those odds to over 90% in my estimation.

Clarke is likely on the same track as Aaron Blair was 2013-15. With similar upside and career arc as a starter, we could see Clarke start 2017 in Jackson, Tennessee before a midseason promotion to AAA Reno. Depending on how the team performs in 2017, his debut could be sooner rather than later. Right now he’s behind Braden Shipley, Matt Koch, and Anthony Banda on the organization ladder for rotation depth, although Koch might wind up in the bullpen instead of the rotation anyway. Between the four, Clarke has the second best odds of sticking in the rotation behind Banda, who I think is good enough to challenge for a rotation spot this Spring.