Keith Law see Cardinals' top pitching prospect as a possible reliever

Keith Law of the Athletic released his top-100 prospects recently. His analysis of Tink Hence, his No. 73 prospect, is interesting.
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Keith Law has been writing and releasing prospect lists for seventeen years. He searches far and wide to find the top prospects in all of baseball, and he is well-connected within the league. In his 2024 rankings, Law placed three St. Louis Cardinals' players in his top 100: Masyn Winn at #16, Victor Scott II at #55, and Tink Hence at #73.

Law's analysis of Hence is similar to what we have seen before; he's a high-octane pitcher with a fantastic changeup and a strong fastball to play off of it. Hence's third pitch, a "slurvy low-80s breaker" according to Law, has decent effectiveness, but Hence hasn't been able to command it well enough. Currently, the Cardinals are aiming to keep Tink Hence as a starting pitcher.

The old adage with starting pitchers is that they need three pitches to be successful. With a plus-plus changeup and a good fastball, Hence has two pitches that he can use to carry his workload. However, as Law states, with only two reliable pitches, the right-handed pitcher may be best served out of the bullpen. These two pitches will be most effective in shorter durations, so being a starter, a situation where batters will get to see him multiple times may make his two superior pitches less effective.

There are examples of starting pitchers who have had success in the majors with only two good pitches. The first to come to mind is Spencer Strider. Strider relies primarily on his fastball and slider while mixing in a changeup. His fastball averages 97 MPH, and his slider had a run value of twelve last year according to Baseball Savant. Tyler Glasnow also uses his fastball and slider as his two primary pitches, but he's been mixing in a curveball more recently. Other pitchers like Jack Flaherty, Framber Valdez, and Kevin Gausman have also seen success using two pitches heavily although even these starters have expanded their repertoires in recent years. FanGraphs author Carmen Ciardiello broke down some of these pitchers a few years back. Read about it here.

Plenty of relievers have seen success with only two pitches. Josh Hader's fastball and slider account for 97% of his pitches used. Emmanuel Clase uses solely a cutter and slider. Ryan Helsley uses his fastball and slider as his two primary pitches (a combined 93% of the time). These relievers are able to focus on their two best pitches and hone in on them. Because they only see batters once per game, they don't have to hide their best pitches or conserve energy for 80-100 pitches. Instead, they can let it all go and focus on their two best pitches.

There are signs in Hence's minor-league stats that he may be best suited as a reliever. The Cardinals have been patient with the former second-round draft pick; he has an injury history that is extensive, so the organization has put him on an innings restriction. In 2022, Hence only pitched more than three innings six times across sixteen appearances. In 2023, he never pitched more than five innings. When looking at his game logs from last season, it is clear the team didn't want him to exceed eighty pitches or five innings, whichever came first.

Hence pitched five innings in nine of his twenty-three appearances last year between High-A Peoria and AA Springfield. In those nine games, he had an ERA of just 2.39. This low ERA shows that he has the ability to pitch later in games and still see success. His strikeout rate decreased between 2022 and 2021, but it was still a modest 24.5% in 2023.

Tink Hence is being stretched out more, and he has been used exclusively as a starting pitcher, but if Hence is unable to pitch more than five innings or eighty pitches, he may be best served in shorter bursts where he can let loose on his pitches rather than conserving energy for the long run.