MLB teams are already showing interest in a former big-league pitcher who's had a strong season in Japan
It's possible, but unlikely that Zach Neal becomes the next Miles Mikolas
With less than a week remaining in the regular season, it's that time of the year when rumors begin to surface concerning which foreign league players want to jump to the majors ahead of next year. To wit, one name is already making the rounds: right-handed pitcher Zach Neal, who has spent this season with the Saitama Seibu Lions in Japan but is reportedly drawing interest from various big-league teams, according to MLB Network's Jon Heyman.
Neal, 31 come November, has pitched in the majors as recently as last season, when he threw an inning for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His career marks are -- perhaps predictably, given the greater context here -- not great: 85 innings, an 84 ERA+, and a 3.9 strikeout-per-nine rate. Ditto for his stuff, as he averaged 90 mph on his fastball and leaned on his cutter and changeup.
As Heyman noted, Neal has pitched better in Japan, where he has a 3.22 ERA and 3.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 137 innings. But there's a catch: so far, he's struck out just 4.7 batters per nine, or less than eight percent of the batters he's faced. For perspective, the lowest strikeout rate among big-league starters with 50-plus innings this season is 9.6 percent and belongs to Gabriel Ynoa. No other starter who meets that threshold is below 10 percent.
While it's important to permit the possibility of an outlier existing, it's tough to see Neal making a transition as effectively as Miles Mikolas or even Merrill Kelly have in recent years. (Both Mikolas and Kelly struck out at least a batter per inning in their final season overseas.) In fact, just one starter with 50-plus innings and a sub-8 percent strikeout rate has posted an ERA+ above 90 -- remember, the average starter checks in around 93 -- since 2010: Justin Nicolino, who pulled off the trick for 12 starts in 2015 before his reality check arrived in the mail.
As such, it seems highly unlikely that Neal will succeed in a rotation given what he's done overseas. Perhaps he can get by in the bullpen, but even then his style does not match up with the current predilection for power arms. It's possible, then, that he'll have to settle for a minor-league deal if he does indeed return to the States ahead of 2020.
Not that we have anything against Neal -- if anything we're rooting for him to make it back and to then succeed, since that would be a fascinating story on a personal and a game-wide level. But from our seat, any team that has identified him as the next Mikolas is deluding themselves.
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