Who is John Lamb?
He’s a 69-year old right-handed starting pitcher who made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 1970. Obviously. Lamb had a good rookie season, posting a 2.78 ERA over 23 games out of the bullpen for a Pirates team that won the National League East before falling to the Reds in the NLCS.
Wait. Something tells me you’re more interested in Major League Baseball’s other John Lamb, the lefty who went six strong innings Sunday for Cincinnati, allowing just two runs on five hits, striking out eight while walking none. Okay, have it your way. Let’s talk about him.
This John Lamb is a 6-foot-4, 25-year-old who was acquired, you may remember, from Kansas City back on July 26 along with Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed in exchange for Johnny Cueto. He’s a southern California boy—you probably guessed that the first time you saw him; he just has that look—who was drafted by the Royals in the fifth round back in 2008, a hot prospect with a very live arm.
After tearing through the minors in his first two professional seasons, Baseball America listed Lamb as the #18 prospect in all of baseball in the spring of 2011. Then disaster struck when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow after only eight (solid starts) in AA. Tommy John surgery awaited.
The story of Lamb’s comeback from that injury is a fascinating one, and it has been well documented by Royals beat writer Andy McCullough. He threw only 13 innings in 2012, and in 2013, Lamb posted ERAs of 6.75 at AAA and 5.63 in High-A. His career was on the rocks.
By his own admission, Lamb had been “lazy” up to that point. He didn’t care for the weight room, and he had always assumed his natural talent would land him in the big leagues. For the first time, he was required to put in a little extra effort, and in the winter of 2013, he resolved that. Whatever the reasons, Lamb has since worked his way back into the conversation, although he’ll probably never again be the prospect he once was.
In 2014, he put up a 3.97 ERA for AAA Omaha. This season, however, Lamb has finally put it all together. Before the trade to Cincinnati, Lamb was 9-1 with a 2.67 ERA in 17 starts at AAA. In three starts after the trade, he posted a 2.65 ERA for Louisville before getting the call-up and making his major league debut. It’s back together, it’s just in a different package.
The blazing fastball is now merely a good one. It’s a four-seamer that averages 92 mph, but has been known to touch 96. He has a good cutter that tends to generate more swings-and-misses than the average cutter, while inducing an extreme number of ground balls. Lamb’s changeup has been his best pitch, but it’s that curveball that I like. Sure, it’s his least-consistent pitch, averaging only 70 mph, but we saw him drop one in at 67 mph over the weekend against Milwaukee. When he drops one in like that to fool a hitter, it’s fun to watch. When he hangs one, it’s not going to be so much fun.
A couple of weeks ago, that big league debut finally happened, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect setting. Sure, he took the loss after giving up five runs in six innings to the Dodgers. But the game was in Dodger Stadium, where Lamb’s grandfather, John Ramsey, was the public address announcer from 1962-1982. A cool footnote to a big day for Lamb and his family.
Since that debut, Lamb has continued to improve. Over four starts, he’s still winless (0-3) with an ERA of 5.24, but his xFIP is an excellent 2.82, and he has struck out almost 12 hitters per nine innings. The command has been good, and he’s given Reds fans reason for optimism.
As you know, I’m always searching for reasons to be optimistic. Kiley McDaniel, the prospect guru over at FanGraphs, likes to throw cold water on my optimism from time to time. In the wake of the Cueto trade, he had this to say about Lamb:
Lamb is at least a solid inventory arm that could be a fifth starter or long man sooner than later (one scout called him “an extra guy”), but he’s big-league ready and one or two out of every ten of these type of pitchers turns into something better than a fifth starter, so getting the chance to find out if Lamb is one of those guys (and find out soon) is a solid gamble for a third piece in a deal.
In this lost year, finding out just what the Reds have and what they need is pretty much the only thing that keeps them from just turning off the lights and calling it a season. From what I’ve seen, Lamb has a solid chance to stick around and be a member of the next good Reds rotation. He’s not going to be Raisel Iglesias, but he could be a good complementary piece.
Let’s just hope that we see that “next good Reds rotation” sooner rather than later.