Making a list like this isn’t easy. Well, that’s a lie: it can be very easy if hastily thrown together without much more than a shallow dive into a nationwide prospect pool. I know I’m just another internet hack making lists that don’t matter so I won’t try to pretend that I’m above anybody else doing the same, but I would like to stress that I don’t take my published rankings lightly. While it’s true that nobody who will ever make a decision on draft weekend takes these rankings into consideration, it’s also true that there are fans, parents, and coaches who have deep personal investments into the hard work of the talented amateurs trying to make their mark on the great game of baseball who very much care about what is being written about their future franchise saviors (no pressure, everybody!), sons, and players. I don’t write it if I can’t back it up. This isn’t meant to be a justification of the ranking itself, but instead a quick look behind the curtain as to how I try to make sense of slotting so many talented guys into one cohesive ranking.
Off the top, I’ll make the obvious admission that I have not personally seen every name on every ranking. Even if I had, as a baseball fan first and a wannabe scout last, it wouldn’t do nearly as much good as I would like. I do take my own firsthand observations into account, but I rely much more heavily on collecting as much publicly issued data as possible (love you, Twitter) and making good use of my modest connections made back in my formative years hanging on the periphery of the game. That last point is critical: I’ve grown to have no problem bugging an area guy who has seen two pitchers multiple times into telling me which arm he prefers going forward. Whenever you see two otherwise similar prospects from a reasonably close geographical area, you can assume that I differentiated between the two using that approach.
My original sorting system (before pressing contacts for info) goes a long way in how the final version of a ranking looks. I don’t try to do too much, basically. Sort by velocity to start. John Manuel of Baseball America mentioned in yesterday’s chat that they are doing research about the very topic of fastball velocity and first round selections; he said that 93 MPH was a possible threshold (the study is not yet completed) for first round consideration in recent years. A guy throwing 90 with projection is nothing to sneeze at, of course, and there are easy arguments to make why he should be ahead of harder throwers, but as a general rule of thumb, I do like to see early round arms capable of hitting 92+. Mitch Hart at 25 is the highest exception for me this year (have him listed at 87-91, topping 92), but many of the usual suspects (projection, command, deception, secondary stuff) help give him a boost.
The Hart example leads me to the next thing I want to see in a young arm: feel for a changeup. Hart’s happens to flash plus, but I’m happy with a teenager who can at least show a usable change. Any more than that is gravy. I love changeups. Hitting = pattern deduction + timing + coordination + violence. A good change can mess with those first two things as much as any offspeed offering. Replicating fastball spin out of the hand is critical, as is maintaining a consistent arm action. Changeups can also keep you healthy. There are certainly some underdeveloped changeups near the top of these rankings, so don’t take the changeup love as gospel but rather as a tie-breaker when things are close. I won’t kill a young guy for not showing a changeup because that automatically assumes he either doesn’t throw one at all (very rare) or can’t be taught one professionally. I will use a plus changeup — Keaton McKinney’s comes to mind — to pump a guy up the board.
I’ll then look at the overall body of work, focusing mainly on the entirety of the pitcher’s arsenal. How many different pitches can you throw for strikes? How many project to be average or better professionally? Is there a pitch you can consistently count on with two strikes? The ability to repeat one’s delivery, overall athleticism, level of deception, mound demeanor, body type, and mileage are all also taken into account. Nothing revolutionary here, but all of these basics must be addressed.
The most difficult thing to assess in HS arms for me is fastball command. It seems like it should be easy, but it isn’t. Much like the challenges evaluators face when assessing a hitter’s plate discipline, the talent gap between these top talents and the rest of the high school field shove certain aspects of the game into the shadows. If you can throw 95 MPH against your average high school hitter, it doesn’t really matter how effective your command is in the zone. Get it over, watch them flail away. Precision isn’t necessary. This same logic is often also used when scouts express frustration about only seeing a HS pitcher’s changeup in the bullpen before the game begins. If you can throw 95 MPH against your average high school hitter, it doesn’t really make sense to speed up anybody’s bat.
You might now be able to understand why I — and seemingly everybody else — love Brady Aiken. He checks off every conceivable box. His fastball, curve, change, and cutter all show average or better, with the curve being good enough to be a professional separator. He’s an athlete with a sturdy yet still projectable 6-4, 200 pound frame who gets good deception from an easily repeatable delivery all while showing consistent command of his deep, varied four-pitch mix. There’s no such thing as a perfect pitching prospect, and, if there was, Aiken wouldn’t be the first name in the entire universe to come to mind, but for this prep pitching class he has no equal.