I've spoken before about the absurd depth of college pitching in this year's draft, but it should also be specified: when talking about the incredible pitching depth, we're talking almost entirely about righthanders. The class of college righties coming out this year is one of the most remarkable segments of the draft I can remember in the recent past. On the other side of the ledger, however, things aren't nearly so rosy.
The left-handed half of the college pitching class this year is, in fact, profoundly average. I wouldn't say it's necessarily worse than usual, necessarily, just very average. If you forced me to come up with a top 50 draft prospects list, there would probably be three, maybe four left-handed pitchers on it. Probably three. And that feels about normal to me. No better, but also probably not much worse. A group that doesn't necessarily inspire any kind of excitement, but also doesn't really cause any existential dread in the observer. I've covered one of my favourite lefties in the draft this year, Eric Lauer, back earlier in the preview series, and if pressed, I would say he's probably the second best overall college LHP prospect to be had this June. At least for now; things can certainly change along the way.
All that being said, about the profound mediocrity of the crop, there are still some prospects a team might want to draft, including one who lives at the very tippy-top. These are three such individuals.
A.J. Puk, LHP, University of Florida
6'7", 230 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
A.J. Puk is one of those players for whom one does not need to cast about for a comparison to make. The comp is easy, and obvious, and really staring you right in the face. A decade ago, there was a tall, hard-throwing left-handed pitcher helping his powerhouse of a college team make it to the college world series, who went on to a top ten draft position, and was seen as having perhaps remained on the board longer than he should have, considering the level of talent. Now, there's A.J. Puk, anchoring the starting rotation of the most stacked team in all college baseball, as the Gators just might produce three first-round picks come June.
The previous pitcher I'm referring to, of course, is Andrew Miller, who led a dominant North Carolina squad to a loss in the CWS finals (losing to the oh-so plucky Oregon State Beavers for the first of two straight seasons), anchoring a rotation that included another first-round draft choice in Daniel Bard. And honestly, if I were to write up a scouting report on Miller at the time he was drafted, and then switch out the names, you wouldn't be able to tell I hadn't written about A.J. Puk originally.
Puk is a pure power pitcher, working off a mid-90s fastball that seems to get on hitters even faster than the sheer velocity would suggest, perhaps because of a somewhat unorthodox delivery with a bit of awkward timing to it. He also falls into that class of pitchers fairly described as 'effectively wild', as he works out of the zone with equal aplomb to in the zone, and every once in a while will uncork a pitch that would appear to suggest he's not particularly certain where his heater is going. Between the velocity -- he's topped out at 97 on multiple occasions -- the movement, the deception of the delivery, and the plain discomfort of facing him hitters seem to demonstrate, Puk's fastball is probably a 70, and more than good enough to form the basis of a potentially dominant repertoire.
He backs up the heater with a nasty breaking that's equal parts curveball and slider, that fits the 'slurve' naming convention perfectly, and occasionally will look like a realistic plus offering. There are also times it will show, instead of the best of both worlds, the worst qualities of both pitches, coming in without enough power to be an effective slider, sitting in the low 80s, but without the strong vertical action of a curve. Wide and lazy and prone to hanging, and all too easily crushed by opposing hitters with the discipline to recognise a bad pitch and pounce on it.
There's a changeup, as well, and it has it's moments, particularly in terms of movement. Nearly every change I've seen Puk throw, however, has been accompanied by a noticeable slowing of the arm in the delivery, and I have a feeling it would be easily recognisable to higher-level hitters. Still, it will fade and sink at times, so it's not as if there's nothing to recommend the pitch.
The biggest problem for Puk, the one thing that could legitimately keep him from going in the top five or so in June, is a lack of consistency and command. That effectively wild thing is all well and good, except for the times when the 'effectively' half doesn't show up, and he's just plain wild. The delivery concerns me as well, and I worry about long-term durability.
All of which, of course, could lead to A.J. Puk continuing to be compared to Andrew Miller for years to come, as it wouldn't surprise me to see him end up a high-octane relief arm down the road, leaning on two plus or better offerings and a slightly funky, slingy delivery (though Puk is a little higher with the arm slot than Miller), and being so good in that role that barely anyone remembers once upon a time, he was supposed to be much, much more than that.
via, um, sorry, but I don't know how to display the characters here properly:
Ben Bowden, LHP, Vanderbilt
6'4", 225 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
There are currently two, count 'em, two left-handed starting pitchers in the Vanderbilt rotation who will not only be drafted this June, but are solid bets to go in the top, say, 75 picks. And that's not even counting Jordan Sheffield, the righthander with easily the best stuff of the bunch, but whose history of arm injuries might push him down draft boards a bit unless he proves this spring to be fully healthy and dominant.
Of the two lefties, Bowden has the better stuff, and the more interesting story, as he has been a reliever only his first two years of college. He's attempting to make the same transition to starting this year Cody Sedlock is making at Illinois, and the same one Carson Fulmer made for Vandy last year en route to a top ten draft spot. So far, the results for Bowden have been mixed; he's maintained a very good strikeout rate and excellent walk rate (just seven walks in 25 innings), but has been more hittable than you want to see, not only giving up more hits than is ideal, but specifically allowing hard contact relatively often. Watching him briefly this spring, it would seem to me hit hittability is at least partially a function of a very aggressive approach (I won't mention the word bulldog, but just know that I could, if I wanted, on the mound that may actually be around the plate a bit too much.
As for the stuff, it's quite good, beginning with a fastball in the 91-94 range (topping out at 95), that also features very good sinking action. It's that movement, and an ability to consistently locate the pitch at the very bottom of the strike zone, that has made Bowden incredibly difficult to square up for the most part in his college career, and nearly impossible to take over the wall, evidenced by the fact he allowed just one home run each of his first two seasons pitching for the Commodores. Particularly in a relief setting, the fastball alone is enough for him to have success.
Which is probably a good thing, because I have my doubts that either of Bowden's offspeed pitches are going to end up being legitimate weapons for him. He throws both a changeup and a slurvy breaking ball that's probably closer to a slider than a curve. I like the change a little better; if he could add some consistency of location I would maybe throw a future 50 grade on the pitch. The slider, though, I just don't think much of. It's too slow, too wide, too flat. Which isn't to say he has no chance of improving his breaking ball, of course; just that I don't see much quality in the pitch right now, nor do I see a ton of potential in it for the future. If he were my charge, and I was under strict orders to develop him as a starter, I would try to get him to scrap the current breaker entirely, or at least tighten it up severely, and go with a cutter coming out of his hand closer to the sinker.
But then, if he were my charge, and I was only concerned with getting the best I felt I could legitimately get out of the player, I would probably keep him as a bullpen arm, focus on pounding the bottom of the zone with his sinker, work the change in occasionally down out of the zone entirely, and shoot for something like a poor man's Zach Britton. Probably not quite so extreme a pitcher -- and also almost surely not nearly as dominant -- but that same sort of groundball machine from the left side.
via Jheremy Brown (and featuring my favourite uniforms in all college baseball):
John Kilichowski, LHP, Vanderbilt
6'5", 215 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Of the three pitchers here today, Kilichowski is the one I feel best about projecting in a starting rotation for the vast majority of his career. He also happens to hew closer to the stereotypical image of the crafty lefty we collectively understand, so perhaps I'm simply falling for the familiar, and finding it easier to picture a thing that looks like what I know.
But where A.J. Puk is a two-pitch power monster with shaky pretty much everything else, and Bowden is basically a one-pitch wonder (though admittedly, it's a really good pitch), Kilichowski has the classic repertoire of the lefthander, the arsenal of the thinking man's (or thinking woman's; I hate to exclude all you ladies in the audience), hurler. He has more than enough weapons to take on the challenges hitters present, or more specifically, he has enough weapons to have the flexibility to do so. Maybe none of those weapons approach the level of something one might call dominant, but he has options in his arsenal that some others perhaps lack.
Kilichowski actually could have been featured earlier in this series, as he just happens to be a returning 2015 draftee, having been selected very late by the Cubs as a draft-eligible sophomore. The fact he was selected with the 1163rd pick last year was a strong indication no one thought he was signable, and lo and behold, that turned out to be the case. Which is interesting, because it's hard to imagine him posting much better numbers this spring than he did last year, and basically all of Kilichowski's draft stock is going to be based on his performance. The stuff, as Ryan Theriot might tell you, pretty much is what it is.
And what it is, honestly, is good, but not amazing. He'll work from 88-91 with his fastball, topping out a couple miles per hour higher at his absolute best. He works from a slightly lower arm slot, and generates very nice run and sink on the fastball as a result. He features a wide variety of offspeed pitches, including a solid-average changeup, a curve that he throws mostly early in counts to throw hitters' balance and timing off, and a very nice slider that shows tight rotation and very good tilt down and to the glove side. The slider is particularly tough on lefties, while he leans on the change and tricky use of the curve to opposite-hand hitters. I've never seen him back-foot a slider to a righty, but the pitch is good enough I feel like he could be successful doing so, at least on occasion.
The fastball I could see putting a 50 on, simply because it moves and because Kilichowski spots it extremely well. The curve is the worst of his complementary pitches; it's a below-average pitch on balance, probably a 45, but he utilises it intelligently enough that it's rarely exposed. The slider and changeup I would both feel comfortable putting 55 grades on, with the slider probably the offering I'm most impressed by when it's on.
What makes Kilichowski so impressive, beyond the quality of the stuff, is the command, and the intelligence. This is a pitcher very much at home on the mound, who understands how best to attack hitters with what he has, and has multiple avenues available at any given moment. Jeremy Sowers, another tall, thin lefty of the crafty variety from Vanderbilt, comes to mind as a good comp in terms of the pitching acumen and command, but Kilichowski has stuff that is a tick or two better pretty much across the board, with the possible exception of the changeup, of which Sowers was admittedly possessed a deadly one. Kilichowski also features a far less complicated -- and potentially much less problematic -- arm action than Sowers, who likely gained deception from a funky delay in his delivery, but which also, I think, led to many of his arm troubles.
Kilichowski may not have huge weapons at his disposal, but he's been remarkably effective so far in his college career. He struck out better than four hitters for every one he walked last season, but still limited hits allowed to the tune of a 6.88 H/9 rate, all while playing in the ultra-competitive SEC. What Marco Gonzales was a few years ago, a polished lefty with good but not great stuff who presented a decent bet to be fastest to the big leagues of his draft class, Kilichowski could very well be this year. He's never going to have amazing stuff, but he knows how to work with what he has far better than the vast majority of his contemporaries, and could have a relatively short stay in the minors. And actually, if you want my personal opinion, I like him a fair bit better than I did Marco at the time he was drafted.
via Baseball America:
and via The Prospect Pipeline, with a closer look at the delivery: