I didn’t intend to write 1,000+ words on one pitcher, but here we are. Let’s talk everybody’s favorite reclassified young arm, Jacob Bukauskas…
Since day one at this site I’ve championed pitchers of all sizes, tossing aside the traditional belief that short righthanders should be pushed down on draft day. It’s been great to see big league teams seemingly become more open-minded towards shorter righthanders in recent years, no doubt due to my massive influence on front offices across baseball. Teams are realizing that making hard and fast rules about height, weight, and frame requirements serves only to limit one’s prospective talent pool. There will always be worries about shorter pitchers, ranging from the interesting yet unproven belief that short pitchers can’t get the same kind of downward plane as taller guys (accepted as fact by many, but I’m not there yet and I’d love to see the raw data on it) to the patently absurd fears about injury risks and general quality of stuff (“Shorter pitchers are just as effective and durable as taller pitchers“). We’re all human and as such we are all — well, most of us — drawn to pitchers that remind us of other successful pitchers. It’s not our fault, it’s just how our brains are wired. The vast majority of successful pitchers in big league history have fit the traditional height/weight mold preferred by the old guard, so it’s no shock that we look for familiar body types when searching for the next big thing. As much as I like to think I am capable of looking past physical measurements alone, there’s no way I can cop to being without my own scouting biases. Awareness of said biases can lead to over-corrections, and now you see how this whole conversation can unravel in a hurry. Deep down, like everybody else, I have a mental image of what I want my ideal pitching prospect to look like. Over time, I’ve tried to grow more open-minded towards all shapes and sizes. Then one day I wake up and realize I’m giving smaller guys the benefit of the doubt when I might not do the same for otherwise similar traditionally built player. So then I move back towards appreciating a 6-5, 220 pound specimen and the cycle repeats. Now my brain hurts, so let’s go back and see if we can extract a cogent point out of that mess.
Do you get the feeling at any point there that I was building towards a massive BUT? I hope so. We’re talking J-Lo/Kardashian/Minaj/Antonio Bastardo territory here. Was that lame reference worth forever having “biggest butt celebrity” in my browser history? I’m leaning yes. I do love short pitchers. I think there was a huge imbalance even just a few short years ago ripe to be exploited by smart front offices. The gap has closed of late, but there’s still some Moneyball-type identification of undervalued asset potential here. Let teams battle for the perfectly proportioned pitching prospects while waiting back and scooping up the oddballs who can give you similar results once the ball leaves the hand. I do love short pitchers, but there are a few things to consider on a case-by-case basis when evaluating them that may not be worth worrying about otherwise.
Fastball plane, injury risks, and quality/diversity of stuff aren’t things I will personally ding a shorter player for without specific evidence pertaining to a specific player. No generalizing if I can help it. One thing that I legitimately worry about when it comes to shorter pitchers, especially those on the stockier side, is how much growth is left in their game. Physical projection is critical when evaluating players who won’t play meaningful big league roles for five+ years down the line. It’s not quite real estate’s location, location, location, but a familiar scouting refrain is projection, projection, projection. Performance matters, obviously, and I think I do a decent job of highlighting that, especially with college players with more meaningful track records, but it’s not about what a guy has done in the past but rather a projection about what he will do in the future.
Stone Bridge HS RHP Jacob Bukauskas (6-0, 200 pounds) doesn’t have what I’d call a stocky frame by any stretch, but it is a build that looks more or less how it will look for the first dozen or so years (if he’s lucky) of his professional career. I actually think his body isn’t a concern going forward — he’s a good athlete who obviously works hard to stay in really good shape — but that alone doesn’t mean we’ll ever see a serious uptick in stuff once he hits pro ball, as many automatically assume for all younger amateurs. Obvious counterpoint is obvious: if the present stuff is good enough, then why worry? Dylan Bundy, Grant Holmes, and Bukauskas all showed the kind of premium stuff as prep pitchers to warrant early first round draft consideration. Bundy cashed in, Holmes looks like a really good bet to do the same, and Bukauskas, if you believe the hype over the past few weeks, could very well make it a trio of high achievers.
What’s tough about Bukauskas — and you can attribute this to his frame, or not — is the wide variance of stuff he’s shown from start to start. At his best, the early first round consideration makes complete sense. His fastball is hot (mid-90s, rumors of triple-digit peak early in the spring), his mid-80s changeup will flash plus, and his low-80s slider does the same. On other days, the buzz surround Bukauskas seems more about the novelty of his reclassification; scouts get draft fatigue like anybody else, so when there’s suddenly somebody new to consider the excitement of a shiny new toy can surpass the reality of a good yet not great prospect. Even at reduced velocity (88-92ish, 95 peak), Bukauskas would merit top three round consideration thanks to the flashes he has shown with the secondary offerings (though, in fairness, there are starts when those flashes are few and far between compared to his better days), the freaky high pitching IQ he’s demonstrated with every trip to the mound, and his relative youth.
I may be giant hypocrite, but Bukauskas’ size and ability to add to his frame in a positive way worries me. I’m not proud to say it, but I’d feel much better about his draft ranking if he three inches taller with a little more room to fill out. However, even with a frame that offers little in the way of projection you can see the makings of a mid-rotation or better starting pitcher based solely on present stuff, command, and pitchability. The total package is undeniably impressive, all six feet of it.