I’ve resisted writing about Louisville baseball for a while. It started months ago, but back then it wasn’t my fault: the Cardinals were one of the last teams in all of college ball to release their updated roster, so I had to wait anyway. Staying away even once the roster was published can be explained away to a point (even a patient guy like me has to move on eventually), but the most honest reason why I didn’t write about Louisville before today is because I didn’t know what to say about their star player and potential top ten pick, JR RHP Kyle Funkhouser. I still don’t.
I’ve personally seen Funkhouser twice. The first was way back in Louisville’s Big East days on 5/4/13. It was a blink and you’d miss it appearance with Funkhouser only pitching to two batters. He threw more balls than strikes that day while allowing a single and a walk. It wasn’t the kind of outing that had you walking away thinking you just saw a future lock first round pick, but there were indicators (arm speed, delivery, frame) that better days were ahead. Most of the scouts around me that day — and there were about a half-dozen or so, a pretty good crowd for any Villanova home game — didn’t pay much attention to Funkhouser’s appearance, busying themselves instead with their guarded chats about the starting pitchers they were here to say who just exited (Pat Young and Jeff Thompson) and the relief ace yet to come (Nick Burdi, who struck out two in getting his tenth save of the season). They also talked — far more openly and enthusiastically — about the forthcoming annual BBQ planned by one of the local veteran scouts in attendance. Thought long and hard about trying to angle for an invite to crash that party, but I would have been the youngest guy there by about thirty years so I opted to stay in my lane.
The next time I saw Funkhouser he was pitching for a team now in the AAC against Temple in one of the Owls last ever games. He was a little better this time out: 8 IP 4 H 0 ER 1 BB 12 K. The game also featured another shot at seeing Nick Burdi up close and personal (two strikeouts again) and an impressive complete game loss thrown by future Phillies ninth round pick Matt Hockenberry. I don’t recall if the scouts had a BBQ planned that weekend or not, but I do remember hearing from many that only a nasty injury would keep Funkhouser out of the 2015 first round. I also remember an older gentleman — not a scout as far as I could tell — refer to the pitcher having his way with Temple that day as Doogie Howser, so, all in all, it was a pretty good day.
Even for a prospect that I’ve seen multiple times (pro tip: multiple is almost always used to mean twice, at least when I use it) and have gotten a lot of feedback on from actual baseball men, I still don’t know what to say about him. He’s really good, obviously, but I’m not sure what I can add to the conversation beyond that. The fastball has a chance to be a plus pitch that he can lean on heavily when the offspeed isn’t working (and even when it is) due to premium velocity (90-95, 97-98 peak) and movement. The missing component there is command, an area of Funkhouser’s game that remains inconsistent despite the progress he’s made there this spring. He’s overall command has improved (fastball more so than offspeed, which I’d rather see if forced to choose), but it’s still not much better than average on his best day. I don’t see why he couldn’t make a jump in his command grade in the future because his delivery is clean and repeatable (I’m far from an expert, but I personally really like his motion — really well-balanced with outstanding tempo — minus the rushed finish), he’s reasonably athletic, and he’s already shown the capacity for improvement going back to his high school days in Illinois. The assortment of secondary offerings (SL, CB, and CU) speaks to the relatively high floor that a strapping four-pitch righthander with a track record of striking out a batter an inning at a big-time baseball school is expected to bring to the pro ranks.
I personally really like his slider (80-86) because it’s a pitch that he can throw down for swinging strikes and backdoor it to get guys looking and/or set up the next (better) pitch. It’s been consistently above-average for me and (reportedly) often gets better as the game goes on and he gets a better feel for it. His curve is still a pitch in progress, but I’ve been told that he’s firmed it up enough (73-77 when I saw him, 75-82 this year) that I should consider bumping up my average upside for the pitch (usable currently, but more of a “wasted” show-me pitch at the moment) to slightly more than that. His change ranged from 80-87 in my look and has varied this year from outing to outing (80-84 one week, 85-89 the next, then back to the low-80s again, etc.). I actually prefer his a little bit on the firm side because I don’t really see the pitch ever becoming a consistent swing and miss offering for him. The added firmness should encourage him to use the pitch earlier in counts when velocity separation isn’t as big a deal, and hopefully the pitch will help him get some nice, quick ground ball outs in the process. My 100% “not a scout, just a fan” observation after watching nine innings of him in person (and a bunch on video, but mostly just for fun) is that the arm action on Funkhouser’s change seems quite consistent with his heater, a fact that, again, could have something to do with the fact he can throw it close to as hard as where certain unnamed big league pitchers get their fastballs. I’m more bullish on it becoming at least an average pitch before too long with even more upside as he begins to use it more, which will hopefully be the case if he pumps it in there within the first few pitches of every few at bats.
Add it all up and you get a pitcher with a fine delivery, solid athleticism, inconsistent yet improving command and control, a clear plus fastball (with plus-plus upside if he learns to better command it), an above-average slider, and a raw curve/firm changeup combination that should produce at least another average or better pitch but should at least give him two additional usable pitches that hitters will have to at least mentally account for. A few pitching prospects came to mind when watching him that I feel are worth sharing with the group. In addition to my own potential comps, I also asked around and got two names from smart people. I like this because these guys are all peers of Funkhouser, so, hopefully, one of the bigger criticisms of comps that I hear (they create unfair expectations for players!) can be bypassed this time. One cautionary name that Funkhouser’s game brings to mind is Kyle Crick. Cautionary is perhaps a tad harsh sounding because there’s really nothing wrong with Crick, a fine pitching prospect with the Giants with the chance to be a very good big league pitcher. Check Kiley McDaniel’s report on him from earlier this month, mentally sub in Funkhouser’s name for Crick’s, and tell me they don’t share some similarities…
Crick has electric #2/3 starter stuff, is still only 22 and is in the upper levels of the minors, but his command has never been strong. Some guys with big stuff just take time to develop the feel and find consistency in their delivery, so the Giants will give Crick more innings to figure it out…At his best, Crick sits 94-97, hits 99 mph and will show heavy sink down in the zone. His mid-80’s slider flashes plus with hard cutting action, he mixes in an average curveball to change eye levels, and his changeup is above average when he throws it perfectly. Crick’s feel still wanders a lot, affecting the crispness and consistency of his off-speed stuff and command.
Again, Crick is really good, so getting a guy with his kind of talent in the draft is a wonderful thing. It’s just the uncertainty over a guy like Crick’s (and potentially Funkhouser’s) future role — many, as McDaniel alludes to in his full article, think of Crick as a potential closer — and his persistent control problems combine to make it a dicey gamble within the draft’s top ten picks. Another interesting comp (and I guy I completely whiffed on) is Jake Thompson. This would be another “cautionary” comp only because of the potential you’re drafting a guy too early that is destined to get stuck in the bullpen due to below-average command. I like this comp a little less because Thompson is more of a classic “whoa, this stuff is suddenly GREAT in short bursts” future reliever, and that’s an issue that Funkhouser simply doesn’t share. Joe Ross, formerly of San Diego and currently with Washington, came up as a point of comparison as well. Funkhouser and Ross share explosive fastballs, strong sliders, athletic builds, and a reputation for spotty command. That’s not a bad one (Ross is a little leaner and a better athlete), and I could see the two having similar pro ceilings. Finally, there’s Chris Anderson. Here’s what I wrote about him in his draft year…
Jacksonville JR RHP Chris Anderson: 88-92 FB; good breaking ball; Cape 2012: 88-92 FB, 93 peak; good 75-76 CB; SL; 79-81 split-CU; held velocity well; iffy control; FB up to 94-95 at times; 2013: 89-95 FB, 96-97 peak; above-average to plus 80-85 SL; 78-84 CU with above-average upside; average to good 77-80 CB; sinker; holds velocity late; Matt Garza and Andy Benes comps; 6-4, 225 pounds; (2011: 7.11 K/9 | 50.2 IP) (2012: .273/.346/.339 – 8 BB/28 K – 0/0 SB – 121 AB) (2012: 7.13 K/9 | 3.97 BB/9 | 4.36 FIP | 88.1 IP) (2013: 8.86 K/9 | 2.24 BB/9 | 3.64 FIP | 104.2 IP)
I don’t love how the Anderson report is organized with the most recent stuff (at the time) at the end, but if you look at the draft year (2013) update you see this: 89-95 FB, 96-97 peak; above-average to plus 80-85 SL; 78-84 CU with above-average upside; average to good 77-80 CB; sinker; holds velocity late. Again, not entirely dissimilar to the Funkhouser package. Funkhouser (9.04 K/9 and 4.39 BB/9 in 242 IP) has performed at a higher level than Anderson (7.71 K/9 and 3.73 BB/9 in 244 IP) against better competition, plus he gets bonus points (from me) for being a fairly well-known prospect for the better part of the past two seasons. Funkhouser has been picked apart by just about everybody with a vested interest in this stuff by now; Anderson was a bit more under the radar, so the newness of his prospect status engendered a feeling of untold possibility for dopes like me who can get fatigued by talking about the same old prospects for years on end. Here’s Kiley McDaniel again with an update on what Anderson has done since his draft days…
Anderson popped up in his draft year (2013) out of Jacksonville U. in Florida, going in the middle of the first round after delivering on his physical projection by flashing a plus fastball and slider with starter traits. Anderson’s changeup was average in most outings in his draft year, but it’s coming and going in pro ball. His command also wandered a bit and it showed in his numbers, but getting out of the hitter-friendly Cal League for 2015 should help in that regard. Anderson made a mechanical change late in 2014 to revert back to his pre-draft mechanics and it looked to help both issues. There’s #3 starter upside if it all comes together and a 2015 campaign in Double-A could be the place that happens.
Sounds about right for Funkhouser’s pro projection, though, now that he’s the “new” prospect to talk about (always funny how pro guys get excited about all the college/HS prospects we were once thrilled to cover at the start of their amateur journeys) it’s understandable and perhaps even reasonable to think there’s a little more ceiling to Funkhouser. When it comes to ceiling, I do like to talk in terms of big league comparisons. This is where those who hate comps for the unrealistic expectations they create — one of my favorite lines I heard on this is “Just let (Blank Player) be the first (Blank Player)!” Sure, sure. Thankfully, I don’t think that will be a problem here as there very clearly can be one, and only one, FUNKHOUSER — can tune me out. Crick, Ross, and Thompson are all tough players to compare to Funkhouser as prospects because a) they are themselves still prospects and comparing unfinished things to fellow unfinished things is a sure way to drive yourself mad, and b) comparing prospect peers currently on different developmental paths can be quite messy, what with attempting (and, in my case, failing) to define similar points of development and getting all turned around when looking at HS prospects (like the aforementioned group) with college guys (like Funkhouser). As the lone college product Anderson is probably the closest of the four previous comps (I think). Anderson was selected 18th overall in 2013, so it only makes sense that the superior Funkhouser would go higher in an inferior draft talent-wise.
Beyond the prospects we’ve covered, three big league stars (and all college guys) came up in conversations (both with real life talent evaluators smarter than myself and in my own head because, yeah, I sometimes talk to myself about this stuff) centered around trying to find an honest comparison for Funkhouser. The first mystery comp can be found below with his pre-draft (2009) scouting report excerpted from Baseball America as his only identifier…
He routinely sits at 93-95 mph with life on his fastball and touched 98 in a relief outing against Wichita State. He has a mid-80s slider with bite that peaked at 89 mph against the Shockers. And if that’s not enough, he has a power curveball and flashes an effective changeup. He has a quick arm, a strong 6-foot-2, 217-pound build and throws on a downhill plane with little effort…He has the raw ingredients to become a frontline starter, and on the rare occasions when he has command, he looks like an easy first-round pick.
Next we have a heavily redacted college pick from 2007…
[His] stuff was improving as the season went on, and he was consistently working in the low 90s and showing a quality slider as [his team] entered the [conference/division/league] playoffs. He also throws a changeup with promising action and uses a loopy curveball as a fourth pitch. [He] regularly touched 93-95 in the Northwoods League, and scouts expect him to show that velocity more often as he adds more strength to his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame.
And finally we have a player with a pre-draft scouting report that looks so goofy now that I won’t even quote it. Fine, fine…you’ve twisted my arm. Here it is…
[He] has pitched more at 91-92 mph, often peaking at 95. While he has one of the best pure arms in the draft, he doesn’t consistently have a second plus pitch. His slider is effective but usually rates as a 50 or 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He has added a wide-grip changeup and a two-seam fastball in the last year, and he’s still refining his secondary pitches. While he has toned down his delivery in college, he still throws with more effort than Joba Chamberlain or Luke Hochevar.
Ironically enough, the pitcher in question directly above was the highest (11th) player selected out of the three pitchers we’re talking about. Needless to say, he has surpassed the expectations that BA had for him pre-draft back in 2006 (they strongly suggested he’d be in the bullpen before long) by a healthy margin. I think we can more or less throw this one out because I think of him as a pretty big outlier in terms of player development. In other words, thanks for playing Max Scherzer. Comping anybody to the $210 million man is probably a mistake anyway, but it was largely based on Scherzer’s incredibly effective fastball/slider usage and slowly improving change that he’s relied on a bit more almost every year since hitting the majors.
The top scouting note from above refers to Garrett Richards. Richards is another fastball/slider pitcher, but what makes him most like Funkhouser (potentially) is the way he has overcome his command issues and while drastically improving his control. The notion of Funkhouser being all stuff with little touch is perhaps a bit unfair and outdated since, again, he’s improved his command in small measures every year since enrolling at Louisville, but it’s still his closest player archetype in my mind because, as much credit as I give him for improving this year, we’re talking going from below-average to average at times and not some miraculous leap just yet. Literally just had a conversation with the wife where she bragged about filling up the PUR water pitcher more than she used to. That’s all well and good, I say, but when filling it up more means doing it once a month instead of never, then I’m not sure how much love should be given for that improvement. In other words, both command and control are still issues for Funkhouser, though neither look like a potential fatal flaw. Or, alternatively, just sub out shoe shining for command and you get the idea…
I don’t love the Richards comparison for a few reasons (stylistically, the two couldn’t have deliveries that look more different to my eye), though statistically the two put up some interestingly close numbers. Take it with the same grain of salt you would whenever stats are used to compare amateurs, but Richards at Oklahoma did this (9.07 K/9 and 4.93 BB/9) compared to Funkhouser at Louisville doing this (9.04 K/9 and 4.39 BB/9) so far. Hmm. In terms of career path and ultimate value, maybe it’s a fit. Finally, there’s the man behind the second scouting blurb: Jordan Zimmermann. He’s yet another fastball/slider big league pitcher with little time for much else. He uses the curve as a de facto changeup because, quite honestly, like the other two stars mentioned, his change isn’t very good. I bring up Zimmermann not as a direct comp per se, but as a potential developmental path that Funkhouser could mirror once he hits the pro ranks. I think Funkhouser’s change should be given room to grow rather than ditched, but Zimmermann’s below average change was once said to have “promising action,” so what do any of us really know?
One last bonus comp came to mind as I was working my way through this piece. Before I get to it, an obvious disclaimer that I’d feel guilty leaving unwritten: these are all extreme ceiling comparisons and the likelihood of all but the surest of sure thing amateur prospects (Stephen Strasburg comes to mind) becoming a consistent above-average or better big league pitcher on the level of any of those star players isn’t all that high. This whole profile may not do a great job of getting this point across, but I like Funkhouser more than love him. That’s based on a nagging intuitive feel more than anything concrete, so don’t take it as too big of a knock. I still would strongly consider him with a top ten selection, but I don’t think he’s the slam dunk single-digit pick that many have made him out to be. A guy that was just compared to Richards, Scherzer, and Zimmermann should really be a lock to go 1-1, but that’s why I want it to be clear that I’m only trying to compare elements of his game (and, in some cases, potential best case scenario career paths) to those guys. No literal comps here today. Anyway, the last pitcher that jumped out at me when thinking about Funkhouser had this written about him pre-draft by Baseball America…
He pitches at 90-91 mph, touching 94, and his delivery is clean. The strong-bodied Texan has an intimidating presence on the mound, and he pounds the zone with four pitches. His slider is the better of his two breaking balls, and he features an average changeup.
Funkhouser has a little more present velocity, but otherwise the stuff matches up fairly well to a young Corey Kluber. This article makes plenty of interesting points, but what caught my eye was the mention that Kluber’s fastest and slowest pitches fall within a narrow range of velocity. That’s something I can see Funkhouser eventually doing as he finds his way and adjusts his arsenal to the pro gram. It isn’t something you’d typically consider a good thing for a pitcher, but certain guys can take this perceived negative into a positive. The smaller velocity gap allows the hard stuff to work without a major change of speed because so much of that hard stuff is moving every which way before it gets to the catcher. Timing velocity is one thing, but timing velocity that comes in various shapes is a whole other challenge for a hitter. Movement is paramount, and Funkhouser has the fastball movement and hard breaking ball (slider) to potentially pull off this trick. Like Scherzer, Kluber is a unique developmental case so convincing somebody that you’ve found the “next Kluber” is a justifiably challenging uphill battle. Other fine examples of articles well worth your time can be found here and here; the latter is the best one out there, I think, and reading about Kluber’s impossible to classify breaking ball is something I could do all day. There’s really only one Kluber, just like there’s only one Scherzer, Zimmermann, and Richards, but Funkhouser, at his best, shows elements of each that make him an undeniably intriguing prospect.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you. If you skimmed to the last paragraph to see if I made an attempt to wrap everything up with a pithy conclusion, you’re in luck. Kyle Funkhouser is a really talented young pitcher with the fastball/slider combination that rivals similar one-two punches thrown by some of the game’s best starters. Both his command and control will need to be closely monitored as he transitions to pro ball, but there appears to be no real indication that he is physically or mentally incapable of improving in those areas going forward. There are no concerns about his mechanics nor is their any doubt about his ability to mix his pitches to get through lineups multiple times, so a move to the bullpen doesn’t appear necessary. He’s a future big league two hundred inning workhorse with the ability, especially with improved control and feel for pitching, to one day pitch in a team’s postseason rotation. He should be off the board within the draft’s first dozen or so picks.
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