UCLA JR RHP James Kaprielian
USC JR LHP Kyle Twomey
Arizona State JR LHP Brett Lilek
Oregon rSO LHP Cole Irvin
UCLA JR RHP Cody Poteet
Stanford JR RHP Marc Brakeman
Arizona State JR LHP Ryan Kellogg
Arizona State JR RHP Ryan Burr
Oregon JR LHP Garrett Cleavinger
Oregon State JR RHP Andrew Moore
I’m oddly fascinated at the idea of a pitcher with a “four-pitch mix” because I feel like that phrase almost exclusively is thrown around at the amateur level. Maybe you’ll hear it at times for minor leaguers, but depth of repertoire is not something discussed much in the big leagues. Obviously this is because we’ve got a self-selecting sample and pitchers without the requisite three or four pitches needed to run through lineups multiple times have already been converted to relief, but I still think there’s perhaps something to the way evaluators overrate prospects with a ton of decent pitches (who must be starters then!) and underrate young arms with two knockout pitches (relief all the way!) without factoring in that pitchers can in fact develop additional effective pitches along the way. I’m not saying a young guy who can’t throw a curve will one day wake up finding one in his wrist, but there have been enough recent examples of pitchers tinkering around the edges with grips that help previously unusable pitches (changeups, cutters, occasionally sliders) suddenly work to help get advanced hitters out. Even my old notes on Michael Wacha, a player that I think compares in certain respect to the guy we’re eventually going to talk about, make mention of this phenomena…
Texas A&M JR RHP Michael Wacha: big velocity jump during college tenure – once peaked only as high as 92, but now regularly sits 90-95 FB, hitting 96-97; like many young arms, can get himself in trouble when he overthrows fastball and it begins to straighten out; somewhat similar to Kyle Zimmer in the way he relied on excellent fastball command before seeing a velocity spike; holds velocity well, very rarely dipping below 90; have heard he’ll throw his legitimate plus to plus-plus CU with two distinct grips: one at 82-85 with the circle change grip, the other more of an upper-70s straight change; either way, the CU should be a weapon from day one on; occasional 81-85 SL with cutter action; also will go with a very rare upper-70s CB that could be the breaking pitch he’ll be asked to run with as a pro; neither breaking ball is pro-ready, but both have flashed enough that it is easy to imagine a pro staff believing it can coach him up; natural comparison is Ryan Madson, especially if Wacha never develops a consistent third pitch and is used out of the bullpen; as a starter, I think there are some similarities in terms of stuff when you compare him to Braves prospect Julio Teheran; 6-6, 200 pounds
Wacha wasn’t quite a two-pitch guy in college, but he was close. The idea that a player capable of hitting the mid-90s with an easy plus change, clean mechanics, and a prototypical starter’s frame would be relegated to the bullpen because of an iffy present third pitch was silly at the time and downright preposterous in hindsight. Thankfully, it also represents a learning experience and the chance to reevaluate what elements are most crucial when projecting pitchers into the future. Going back to the idea that amateurs need three or four pitches to start spurred me to look up what big league arms actually throw four quality pitches. The only three starting pitchers I found with positive pitch values (per Fangraphs) for each of the four pitches in the classic “four-pitch mix” (FB/CU/CB/SL) last season were Felix Hernandez, Anibal Sanchez, and Tanner Roark. If you expand it to include relievers, then Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Zach Duke join the fun. If you let David Price’s cutter in stand in for a slider, then you can add him to the starter party. Many players were close (Clayton Kershaw, Julio Teheran, Matt Garza, and Scott Kazmir to name a few) and the whole thing is about as unscientific as you can get, but I found it interesting and a fine use of five spare minutes.
This whole discussion goes back to a “four-pitch mix,” which admittedly is a bit of a strawman of a premise in the first place. I don’t know of anybody who says you NEED four pitches to make it as a starting pitcher in the big leagues. Three pitches is the most common baseline and a quick spin around Fangraphs Pitch Type leaderboard validates this idea. The only two pitchers you could even make a flimsy argument for being two-pitch starters (out of the 88 player sample of 2014 qualified pitchers) are Bartolo Colon (11.8% SL, 5.6% CU) and Lance Lynn (10.2% SL, 8.4% CB, 2.4% CU). Those two might be closest, but neither is what I’d expect anybody to call a two-pitch pitcher. Lynn, who is literally (!) a four-pitch pitcher, being included in this conversation at all is somehow both absurd (he throws four pitches!) and justified (showing a pitch and throwing a pitch aren’t the same, right?), but the whole thing is still a stretch. The three pitch minimum lives on.
That was a lot of words when I could have simply said that even though years of being in and around the game have conditioned me to want to see three usable big league pitches on any amateur (college, especially) before feeling confident enough to project him as a big league starter pitcher, I’ve come around to the idea that young guys with two above-average or better pitches can be just as likely to develop a usable third pitch as a more advanced at present peer. Even shorter still: give me the pitcher with two nasty pitches over the one with four average pitches, assuming all else (delivery, athleticism, command, control, etc.) is equal.
This all brings me to the guy I think Wacha compares to on some level, UCLA JR RHP James Kaprielian. Draft people like me who sometimes try to get too cute for own good have fought it in the past, but there’s no denying that Kaprielian warrants a first round grade this June. Well-built righthanders with four pitches (ding!) and consistently excellent results in a tough conference profile as big league starting pitchers more often than not. I’m going to just go with an excerpt of some of my notes on Kaprielian because they are among the longest running that I have on any player in this college class…
JR RHP James Kaprielian (2015): 87-92 FB, 94-95 peak; potential plus 79-84 CB, commands it well; potential plus 80-85 CU with serious sink; above-average 79-85 SL; good athlete; excellent overall command; 2014 Summer: 88-92 FB, 93 peak; above-average to plus or better 75-79 CB with plus command, still gets it up to 85 depending on situation; average or better upside with 79-82 SL; FAVORITE; average or better upside with mid-80s CU with splitter action; UPDATE: 83-85 SL, flashes above-average; average 78-80 CB with above-average to plus upside; good athlete; commands both breaking balls well; 2015: 89-94 FB; above-average 78-81 CB flashes plus; above-average 83-85 SL; above-average mid-80s CU, flashes better; 6-4, 200 pounds (2013: 12.39 K/9 | 5.09 BB/9 | 2.20 FIP | 40.2 IP) (2014: 9.17 K/9 – 2.97 BB/9 – 106 IP – 2.29 ERA)
The UPDATE and 2015 sections give the most pertinent information (88-94 FB, 95 peak; above-average 78-81 CB, flashes plus; average 83-85 SL, flashes above-average; above-average mid-80s CU with drop, flashes plus; good athleticism; commands both breaking balls ably; plus overall command), but I like including the whole thing (or as much as can be published) to highlight the growth he’s made. Kaprielian is damn good and smart team picking in the latter half of the first round will get a quick-moving mid-rotation arm who still might have a bit of upside left in him beyond that.
On the other end of the spectrum (kind of) is USC JR LHP Kyle Twomey. Twomey has long been a favorite thanks to a fastball/changeup combination (just two pitches, gasp!) good enough to get big league swings and misses within the year. His fastball doesn’t have premium velocity (87-92, 94 peak), but the heaps of movement he gets on it make it a consistent above-average to plus offering. His change does a lot of the same things from the same arm speed, making the 78-82 MPH pitch above-average with plus upside. Those two pitches and room to grow on a 6-3, 170 pound frame make him a very appealing prospect. There are some issues that will need ironing out at the pro level – deciding on whether to further refine his cutter/slider hybrid or tightening up his soft curve, plus improving his overall control and offspeed command – but the pieces are there for him to make it as a big league starting pitcher.
I was all about UCLA rSO LHP Hunter Virant heading into the season as a prospect with no college track record storming up boards and claiming his spot in the first round. I think on the original iteration of this list he was in the top five. Whoops. His situation in school isn’t exactly the same as Matt Purke’s, but there are enough depressing similarities to the two that I think citing their stories might give the push to recommend pro ball to any young arm. That’s not to say that anything specifically done to Virant while at UCLA has damaged his pro prospects; pitchers get hurt no matter the time and place. Heck, if anything you could argue that Virant is better off with (presumably) three years of coursework towards a degree at a fine university than he would have been taking bonus money out of high school and flaming out of pro ball by now. Other HS arms I loved once upon a time that have fallen into hard times collegiately include the Stanford duo of JR RHP Freddy Avis and JR RHP Daniel Starwalt. I still have hope for all these players, but every day that passes without them pitching effectively on the mound (or pitching at all, really) makes it a little tougher to justify the faith.
In happier news, Oregon rSO LHP Cole Irvin’s return from injury (Tommy John) has gone fairly well to date. I’d say he’s done enough to show he should be in the top five round mix this June, especially when his pre-injury talent level, athleticism, control, and plus-plus pickoff move are all taken into account.
Somebody at Perfect Game (I believe) compared Arizona State JR LHP Brett Lilek to a lefty Phil Bickford. I can buy it to some degree as their stuff (and frame and command) isn’t too far off, but Lilek has never shown the same ability to miss bats as Bickford, admittedly at a different level, right now. He’s still a lefthander with size (6-4, 200), velocity (90-94, 95 peak), and three offspeed pitches each with a varying degree of promise (I’d rank them slider, curve, change). Yes, I fully understand the irony of pumping up Lilek, a potential four-pitch pitcher (though more likely three-pitch) with a prospect status built more on the strength of a high likelihood of at least some success (league average starter?) rather than sheer upside, right after my weird little tangent about no longer wanting to overrate prospects just like him. Maybe every prospect should be evaluated on their own merits or something? Lilek’s teammate JR LHP Ryan Kellogg is a similar prospect (size, command, smarts) but has neither the same fastball (87-92) nor the same quality of offspeed stuff. That’s not meant to diminish his ability as he still has a chance (just slightly less so than Lilek for me) to make it as a back-end big league starter.
I swear I’m not making this up, but my notes on UCLA JR RHP Cody Poteet include this exact phrase: “legit four-pitch mix.” I mean, it is true after all. What Poteet lacks in physicality he more than makes up for with the depth of his stuff. I like more than love him as a prospect, but his slider has the makings of a really good pro pitch. USC JR RHP/C Kyle Davis and Oregon State JR RHP Andrew Moore (easy plus command and control guy) give the class two additional short righthanders with well-rounded stuff and strong track records.
Stanford JR RHP Marc Brakeman is more of a two-pitch prospect (like Twomey) that I’ve referenced above. Armed with a nice albeit inconsistent heater (88-94, 95 peak – though I’ve seen him sit more on the low end of that range at times) and an outstanding low-80s changeup, Brakeman could move up boards quickly once he gets healthy again. I’ve been the low man on him in the past, but that’s more due to an intuition thing than anything I can reasonably express.
Arizona State JR RHP Ryan Burr and Oregon JR LHP Garrett Cleavinger stand together as the two best 2015 relief prospects likely to come out of the conference. Burr has gotten some recent love as a possible starter at the next level, but I don’t really see it. Been there, done that. He has the stuff (90-96 FB, above-average low-80s SL, ability to mix in raw yet intriguing mid-80s CU and upper-70s CB) to pull it off, but the delivery, control (though improved), and command all scream reliever to me. I haven’t heard anybody mention Cleavinger as a potential pro starter. Keeping him in the pen also makes sense to me because, though he has the pitches (90-96 FB, above-average breaking ball, average CU) to face a lineup multiple times through, he has the arm action and stamina (stuff plays way up in short bursts) to thrive in the relief role in the pros. There has been some market correction on how teams value college relievers in recent drafts, but I still expect to see Burr go higher than he’ll wind up on my personal board this June. He’s really good, so it isn’t as though that will be a horrible mistake…but assuming Cleavinger (and other “second tier” college relievers) wind up going multiple rounds lower, that’s the value play I’d lean towards.
I’ve said many times I don’t believe in sleepers. I find the whole concept a tad demeaning to all involved. To call somebody a sleeper insults the player, the audience, and the profession (or, if you’d prefer, industry). If you’re any good, somebody somewhere knows who you are, so you’re not a sleeper by my own personal, admittedly crazy narrow, definition. Still, insults might be too strong a word because I don’t take any of this stuff that seriously – I do this entirely for fun, I acknowledge that my influence is nonexistent, I don’t buy into scouting as some sacred insider only thing that only real baseball men can participate in, I actively root for all prospects (even the ones I “miss” on) to do well and make millions and live out all their dreams, etc. – but few things bug me more when reading draft or prospect stuff than really famous players being called “sleepers.” I realize the interest in the MLB Draft isn’t on par with the NFL or NBA counterparts, but when actual paid professional draft writers start with the assumption that their audience only knows players expected to go in the top five picks and then pat themselves on the back years later when their draft “sleeper” (picked, like, fourteenth overall) winds up a great player, a little part of me dies inside. Another example of this is the way that most publications write up at least thirty prospects per organization, but then the one that limits it to ten has the gall to name an additional prospect from each system a “sleeper” and crow when that player — nominally the eleventh ranked player in the system — has a good year. Come on.
I guess instead of sleepers I can just call them players I think I’ll wind up having ranked higher than where they’ll be drafted. Even then, if I like a guy more than most right now and wind up “right” about him as pro teams get wise to his ability/upside, then judging by that standard doesn’t seem particularly fair. Calling them guys I like more than the consensus isn’t very meaningful when most draft rankings only go about fifty deep (if that) up until the week leading up until the draft.
This tangent doesn’t really apply here since many of my potential sleepers (there’s that word again) haven’t quite lived up to expectations so far this year, but there are a few guys that will be drafted fairly late that I like quite bit. I like Arizona State SR RHP Darrin Gillies as a sinker/slider guy with size, Washington SR RHP Brandon Choate for similar reasons (90-94 FB, 96 peak; SL flashes plus; lots of ground balls), Oregon JR RHP Conor Harber (who might be too good to be a sleeper…I have no idea anymore) for his untapped upside, athleticism, and fresh arm, and, in the most decidedly non-sleeper of them all, UCLA SR RHP David Berg, who is just plain fun to watch carve up good hitters in high pressure situations with mid-80s fastballs and impeccable control. If I updated this list today rather than just reusing my existing preseason list with Virant dropped a dozen spots from his original lofty perch, all four guys would be higher than they are below. Harber would be much higher. I also try to tack on a few speculative picks at the end of these rankings when I can (the bottom quarter of many of these lists are mostly a combination of players with clearly defined potential big league roles — like a future lefty specialist or something — or players I don’t know much about with about much of a track record but with substantial upside), so don’t sleep on UCLA rSO RHP Tucker Forbes.
2015 MLB Draft Talent – Pitching
- UCLA JR RHP James Kaprielian
- USC JR LHP Kyle Twomey
- Arizona State JR LHP Brett Lilek
- Oregon rSO LHP Cole Irvin
- UCLA JR RHP Cody Poteet
- Stanford JR RHP Marc Brakeman
- Arizona State JR LHP Ryan Kellogg
- Arizona State JR RHP Ryan Burr
- Oregon JR LHP Garrett Cleavinger
- Oregon State JR RHP Andrew Moore
- Arizona rJR RHP Matthew Troupe
- UCLA rSO LHP Hunter Virant
- USC JR RHP/C Kyle Davis
- Oregon JR RHP/OF Conor Harber
- Arizona State SR RHP Darin Gillies
- Stanford JR RHP Freddy Avis
- Stanford JR RHP Daniel Starwalt
- Arizona JR RHP Nathan Bannister
- Washington SR RHP Brandon Choate
- Washington State rSR RHP Scott Simon
- California JR RHP Ryan Mason
- UCLA rSO RHP Nick Kern
- Arizona State JR RHP/OF David Graybill
- California rSR RHP Dylan Nelson
- Arizona JR LHP Cody Moffett
- Washington JR RHP Troy Rallings
- UCLA SR RHP David Berg
- UCLA SR LHP Grant Watson
- UCLA rSO RHP Tucker Forbes
- Washington rSR RHP Josh Fredendall
- Stanford JR LHP Logan James
- USC JR LHP Marc Huberman
- Stanford SR RHP David Schmidt
- Washington JR RHP Alex Nesbitt
- Utah JR RHP Dalton Carroll
- Utah JR RHP Bret Helton
- Washington State SR RHP Sam Triece
- Arizona State JR RHP/2B Jordan Aboites
- Arizona SR LHP Tyler Crawford
- Arizona JR RHP Tyger Talley
- USC JR LHP Tyler Gilbert
- Washington State SR RHP Sean Hartnett
- USC JR RHP Brooks Kriske
- USC JR RHP Brent Wheatley
- Washington SR RHP Tyler Davis
- Stanford SR LHP Jonathan Hochstatter
- Washington JR RHP Ryan Schmitten
- Washington State JR LHP Matt Bower