They've been running the Ken Burns "Baseball" documentary the last week on MLB Network. I was stunned, initially, to realise it was filmed in 1994, which was both the darkest year in recent memory for baseball and also, somewhat more shockingly to me, over 20 years ago now. Of course, it never occurred to me until now that "The Civil War", the documentary which made Burns into at least somewhat of a household name, came out in 1990, will turn 25 years old this annum, and was a big deal in a Schafer home when I was just ten years old. A wise man once said it's funny how time slips away, but the older I get the more inclined I am to find it appalling, terrifying, and malicious rather than humourous or even simply peculiar.
i don't know how the documentary intelligentsia thinks of Burns' work, but I will admit to personally loving at least the one about my favourite sport in the world pretty much unequivocally. I didn't seem to manage to catch many of them while MLBN was broadcasting them, and while I have the DVD set somewhere around here, I couldn't find it with a cursory search, and so I simply did what any good, lazy 21st century consumer would do and pulled up Netflix to see if they had it. Lo and behold, they did, and so I dove right in. I'll probably give the Tenth Inning a miss this time around viewing; it just doesn't hold up the same way the rest of the documentary does, at least for me.
It's kind of funny; I've never been one of those people who have a routine, preparing for the baseball season to come again. I feel as if I should be that sort of person, really; I feel like I should have a handful of well-worn VHS tapes somewhere in my house with classic games captured from Channel 5 way back in the day that I dig out in early February, but sadly, my MLBClassics subscription on YouTube is as close to that as I have. (Well, technically, I suppose my World Series DVD sets are closer, but not as old as what I'm picturing in my head.) I did watch Game 2 of the 2011 Series while avoiding the Super Bowl, but that was strictly out of boredom and the wish for baseball, rather than any sort of tradition or habit.
Maybe I'll start this year; it's never too late to establish a tradition, is it? Perhaps the first two weeks of February every year, beginning the day after the Super Bowl, I shall go into a sort of training camp of my own, to mentally prepare myself for that magical day when Pitchers and Catchers Report, and all the choirs of all the angels rejoice as one. I'll watch the Burns documentary all the way through, watch "Eight Men Out" and "Bull Durham" and "League of Their Own" and both "Major League" films, go back to the last two World Series championships on DVD, and even dig out my Celebration record, the one with Jack Buck narrating the 1982 season. I have to say, putting on my big can headphones and listening to the voice of my childhood tell me about a World Series title sounds like an okay thing right about now. I watch virtually no television that isn't sports anyway, so it isn't as if I'll be missing out on much.
Or maybe I won't do that. Maybe I'll just sit and stare out the window and wait for spring, as some are wont to do. That would probably be okay as well.
I bring you three scouting reports today, of the type most likely to be of real interest to Cardinal fans: that of right-handed college pitchers. You can never go wrong betting on a college righty early in the draft if you want to know what the Redbirds are going to stock up on. These three pitchers also share the trait of being somewhat on the short side, at least by big-league pitcher standards; by general human standards they're all of above-average height. Oh, and two of them are actually from the same school, as two-thirds of what could be an historically great first-round crop of talent for the Vanderbilt Commodores in June.
Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt
5'11", 195 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Okay, so who here remembers Sonny Gray? Show of hands. Hopefully yours is up, because Gray is kind of a big deal these days, serving as the de facto ace of the Oakland Athletics, not to mention one of the very, very few players they didn't trade away this offseason. So, you have a picture of Sonny Gray in your head now? Undersized, dynamic stuff, big velocity, outstanding curveball, concerns voiced about the delivery by a fair number of people (including, it should be said, yours truly), track record of great success at Vanderbilt? Now do you have it?
Okay. Good. Now take that picture, add those Joe Kelly goggles pitchers occasionally wear. Congratulations! You've just created Carson Fulmer.
Actually, Fulmer might have even better stuff than the former Commodore-turned-Athletic, as he throws a bit harder than Gray. Otherwise, though, the similarities are striking. Fulmer has some of the best stuff in all of college baseball this year, working consistently in the mid-90s with a fastball which, while lacking much in the way of sink, does ride hard in on same-handed hitters, effectively neutralising most righties out of the gate. His breaking ball, a power curve in the low- to mid-80s, gives him a second plus or better pitch and allows him to simply overpower most hitters at his level of competition. His changeup shows promise as well, with solid sink and a fair amount of deception aided by one of the fastest deliveries you're ever likely to see. It's positively Manessian. Actually, even quicker than that.
And that delivery is where most of my concerns about Fulmer come from. Much like the guy I'm comping him to, Sonny Gray, Fulmer's arm action is definitely not my favourite. He short-arms the ball, and while his timing isn't as bad as you might think upon initial viewing, it's still not very good. He's small, which is going to be more of a deal-breaker for most scouts than it is for me, but it's not completely irrelevant to durability, either. His control tends to wander a bit as well, possibly as a result of that delivery, which is more difficult to repeat than others with more traditional paces might be.
If you read any other scouting reports on Fulmer before the draft, you'll likely see at some point the suggestion he could, or perhaps should, move permanently to the bullpen as a way to mitigate injury risk and focus his high-energy, high-octane approach to pitching into a dominant relief role. The thing is, he's almost certainly too good for such a move. Even if he never develops his changeup into a true weapon, or adds some other variety of third pitch to widen his repertoire and combat opposite-handed hitters, his ability to attack the zone with power stuff and a 60 grade or better curve is enough to think he can be successful at the highest level in a starting rotation. He did close for Vandy his Freshman season before moving to a starting role midseason in 2014, so the idea isn't entirely foreign to him, but the difference his presence made in the Commodore rotation was borderline transformative. It's one of the most difficult conundrums in the game; the role which might help preserve Fulmer's arm for the longer haul is the role he's too talented to occupy.
Fulmer will pitch exclusively in the rotation for Vanderbilt this spring, and if he pitches anywhere close to the level he set last season, he should cement himself as a top half of the first round talent come June. For me, Fulmer is in much the same category as I put Phil Bickford in back in one of the very first posts I put together for this draft preview series: I'm not sure I want to bet on him for the next decade to be healthy and productive, but the potential payoff is so high I'm also not sure I could pass on him, even if only as a three-year bet to have monstrous trade value sometime before, say, 2017 comes to an end.
Riley Ferrell, RHP, TCU
6'1", 200 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Riley Ferrell is the top college closer in the 2015 draft class. What Louisville's Nick Burdi was last year, Ferrell is this year as the college season gets underway.
While Ferrell may not be able to quite match Burdi in the pure velocity department, working 94-97 rather than regularly hitting triple digits, his heater doesn't appear any more hittable than that of the former Cardinal, as players tend to look badly overmatched when swinging at a high hard one from the Horned Frogs closer. In 2014, Ferrell's sophomore season, he allowed fewer than 4.00 hits per 9 innings, showcasing just how difficult his deliveries are to square up.
As good as his fastball is, Ferrell's best weapon may actually be his slider, a wicked mid-80s bender that accounted for most of the 70 strikeouts he amassed in just 45 innings last year. When he locates the pitch (and sometimes even when he doesn't), it's an almost completely untouchable offering to hitters from either side of the plate. He hasn't shown much of a split to this point in his career, which bodes well for his future value.
There's an interesting wrinkle to the story of Riley Ferrell; namely, he's going to be used as a starter this season. If he shows any inkling of being able to handle the role, he could see his draft stock take a big jump forward, but I personally just don't see it. Ferrell has shown little in the way of a third pitch, and while he has yet to look especially vulnerable to left-handed hitters to this point, pure fastball/slider guys are almost always forced into bullpen roles in pro ball. The delivery is fairly ugly, as well, making me think relief offers a much better fit for Ferrell long-term than attempting to tough it out in a rotation role he's not all that well suited for to begin with.
It must be Vanderbilt day today, because the pitcher Ferrell probably puts me most in mind of, honestly, is a former Commodores closer, Casey Weathers, who was selected eighth overall by the Rockies back in 2008 and has since endured a career riddled with false starts, poor performance, and a season lost to arm surgery. Both are shortish, stocky righthanders with power fastball/slider combinations, lower arm slots, and not very clean mechanics in general. Weathers had all the markings of a future big-league closer, and Ferrell looks much the same. The problem, of course, is that Casey Weathers did not, in fact, become a dominant closer. Or, rather, that's not actually the problem (well, I suppose it is for Casey Weathers, but not so much in a general sense); the problem is that pitchers limited enough to be relieving in college don't have nearly the range of outcomes other pitching prospects do should they fall short of their potential upsides. It's why I've become increasingly leery of drafting pure relievers high in the draft over the years, and why as dominant as Riley Ferrell has looked at times, he isn't a player I would be falling all over myself to draft in June.
Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt
6'1", 160 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Well, first off, Walker Buehler's Twitter handle is @buehlersdayoff, so...there's that that's pretty great about him already. Also, pretty much all of the baseball stuff.
While his pure velocity isn't quite on par with his teammate Carson Fulmer, Buehler has the wider, deeper repertoire of the two, not to mention a level of polish Fulmer cannot match as of yet. He works his fastball in the 91-94 range, touching 96 occasionally, and complements his heat with a changeup I think has a chance to be a 60 in the future but is so far lacking in consistency outing to outing, and even inning to inning some nights. The pitch has that natural tumble and fade that can be coached but never truly taught, and when he maintains his arm speed Buehler can put any hitter away with it. It's not there yet, but I'm a big, big fan of Buehler's change in the long view. He has a fast arm and great body control; both point to an ability to naturally change speeds to my ever so humble scouting eye.
Ferris, er, Walker throws both a slider and curveball, and both show real potential to be average or above in the future, even if they do tend to bleed into one another at the moment. I prefer the curve to the slider, both in this specific case and in a general philosophical sense, and I wonder if tightening the slider up into a cut fastball while keeping the curve as his primary breaker would be the best course of action in this case. Perhaps not, as the slider does show real potential in and of itself, but if a pitcher is having trouble throwing both a curve and slider while keeping them separate, then perhaps a change is in order.
Buehler's best weapon may not be, in fact, any of his pitches. Rather, his athleticism and body control give him an ability to repeat his delivery, and spot his pitches, that puts him a cut above most pitchers of his age, even at the major college level. His arm action, balance, size, body type, and overall athleticism are all fairly similar to Ronnie Williams, the high school righthander the Cardinals selected in the second round last year and who just may be my favourite pitcher they selected. (Though it's hard not to love Jack Flaherty's wide arsenal and remarkable maturity.) Actually, Buehler's delivery is more balanced and smoother, more conducive to throwing strikes than Williams's, who occasionally has a real problem with rushing and losing his rhythm. Buehler is a bit of an elbow-lifter, which isn't the ideal way to start the pitching arm swinging up, but his timing is
Of the three pitchers here today, Buehler is clearly the prize for me. While Ferrell is a strong-armed late inning reliever at best for me, and I see Fulmer having an erratic-if-occasionally-electric career for at least the first five years of his professional career, Buehler I see insinuating himself near the top of a major league rotation sometime in those same five years. He has dynamic stuff, a wide repertoire, a sound, lower-stress delivery, excellent balance nda athleticism, and what is by most accounts a precocious mind for the craft of pitching. He made huge strides from his freshman to sophomore seasons at Vanderbilt, cutting his hits per nine innings by nearly two, his walk rate by nearly one, chopped his home run rate in half, and upped his strikeout rate by close to two per nine. All that while throwing nearly 40 more innings, and then going on to win playoff MVP honours in the Cape Cod League over the summer.
Which, of course, all points us toward the biggest negative about Walker Buehler, at least from my perspective: his draft position. As things stand right now, he's easily a top ten pick come June, and as usual, the Redbirds are not picking inside the top ten. Sadly, I see Buehler continuing his ascent this spring as the Commodores attempt to defend their College World Series championship, meaning he'll likely be long gone by the time the Cardinals make their first selection. If not, however, I would call his name before the new commissioner had even finished saying, "The St. Louis Cardinals are now on the clock." He's definitely near that favourites group I started off with this year, and may actually have moved past one of the pitchers I covered therein. (Though we'll see how things go from here on out before I decide on my ultimate favourites for June.)
The one saving grace could be Buehler's size; or rather, the distinct lack of it. While he is a couple inches taller than Fulmer, Buehler's frame is slender, and he has very little bulk as of yet. Personally, I'm not at all worried about the durability when the arm action is so clean, but I'm also not above crossing my fingers and hoping a guy falls in the draft because teams look at him and say he doesn't have the kind of frame that holds up to a full season of punishment in the big leagues.
via E. Tyler Bullock (who is just fantastic, by the way):
And that's another batch of scouting reports in the can, folks. It ran a little long and a little late; I apologise, but I would rather you get the best version of the work an hour late than an inferior product right on time.
I'll see you all again next Wednesday; until then, take care.