The Marlins’ 2011 second-rounder Adam Conley has turned some heads so far this year. Anytime a left-handed pitcher with above-average velocity puts up outstanding numbers in the lower levels of the minors, people are going to notice. With that taken into consideration, Conley is facing fairly inexperienced hitters and we only have collected a small sample size of data from his games. Let's take a look at Conley's hot start and what the future may hold for this young lefty.
In high school in Western Washington, Adam Conley had an extremely successful career despite throwing a fastball that topped out at about 86 MPH. Conley turned down other Pac-10 offers and a 32nd-round selection by the Twins in the 2008 draft, in order to attend Washington State University, and that's where his career took off.
As a freshman at WSU, Conley set the school record for freshman game appearances (25). In both his freshman and sophomore years, Conley worked out of the bullpen. During his time at WSU, Conley gained around ten MPH on his fastball. Junior year the Washington State coaches decided to try Conley as a starter. Conley was never a consistent mid-90's pitcher, but he had enough velocity to potentially be drafted somewhere between the second and fifth round.
The Marlins picked Conley in the second round, seventy-second overall. Conley was the highest drafted player to come from Washington State since 1991, when Aaron Sele and Scott Hatteberg were drafted in the first round. He signed with the Marlins in early August and received a $625,000 signing bonus. There is no question that the Marlins reached to get Conley. Conley's being affordable and easy to sign probably factored into the Marlins’ decision. If Conley had been a right-handed pitcher, there is little chance he would have been drafted in the first five rounds.
Due to Conley signing late and the wear and tear of a college baseball season, Conley only threw two minor league innings last year. This offseason, the Marlins didn't really surprise anyone by assigning Adam Conley to their A-Ball affiliate, the Greensboro Grasshoppers. After a couple more starts in Greensboro, Conley probably deserves to be promoted to the Marlins’ High-A team in Jupiter.
In his three starts this year, Conley has been phenomenal. On April 6th, Conley pitched five shutout innings, striking out seven and only walking one. On April 11th, he gave up one unearned run in six innings with eight strikeouts. Then, on Monday, Conley continued his dominance, striking out seven in six innings and allowing two earned runs. So far, the statistic from Conley's small sample size in 2012 that has impressed me the most has been his 22:3 K/BB ratio. In the minors, it's enough to not give up runs and pitch deep into the game. However, Conley has been doing that and also striking out more than one batter per inning and not allowing hitters to reach base.
I was fortunate to talk with a trusted source who has watched two of Conley's three starts this year. He told me that if he had to predict who would be promoted quicker between Marlins’ first-rounder Jose Fernandez (who has also gotten off to a quick start) and Conley, he'd take Conley because he is a more experienced pitcher. Another thing he told me was that the reasons for Conley's success have been his ability to work both sides of the plate and, more importantly, his slider. The fact that Conley's slider has been working is the best news we could have heard about Conley. Conley's key to success as a starter is going to be the development of his offspeed pitches.
Conley's fastball has been sitting at 92-93 MPH and topping out at 95 MPH. For someone who has had issues maintaining a consistent fastball velocity, that's a good omen.
The main reason why scouts see Conley as a reliever is because he relies too heavily on his fastball. His slider and changeup are both a long ways from being even average pitches at the major-league level. His slider in particular has been criticized for not having enough movement. If Conley wants to be a MLB starting pitcher, he has a lot of work to do on his changeup and slider.
On the other hand, Conley does have a clean delivery and a relatively low arm slot, which coming from the left side can be devastating for hitters who struggle against lefties. Another positive about Conley is his great work ethic. Obviously, a pitcher can’t gain so much velocity without putting in hours during the offseason. He also works fast and appears to be in a rhythm when he pitches. Conley really has a lot going for him.
Adam Conley is probably going to be a reliever in the Marlins’ bullpen not too long from now. There is a chance he could be brought up as a starter but I don't see how he could succeed unless his arsenal of offspeed pitches drastically improves. Nonetheless, the news about Conley's slider improving is positive and significant. The Marlins organization should be proud that their second-round pick is beginning to live up to his potential.
Conley is going to struggle before reaching the Majors. The Marlins need to take their time with him and let him develop as a pitcher. Yes, the Marlins will need bullpen help the next couple seasons and Conley will arguably be ready to contribute as soon as 2013. However, if the Marlins take their time with Conley he has the chance to become the best pitcher from the second round of the 2011 draft.