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2018 Draft Preview No. 7: More College Pitching

Polish, polish, and more polish. (And maybe, secretly, some real upside as well.)

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Oof, that game last night. That, ladies and gentlemen, was as frustrating a loss as you’re ever going to see. Anytime a game gets away in the late innings, it’s going to be a frustrating night, and there’s always going to be plenty of doom floating around in the air. The sky never feels quite so sure to be falling as when your closer — or you closer of the moment — happens to pick exactly the wrong time to give up a pair of runs.

Really, though, the more frustrating part of the game was watching the Redbirds fail to add on more runs after jumping out to that four-run lead. The opportunities were there; if Matt Carpenter sneaks a line drive through somewhere instead of grounding into the shift, the game is probably out of reach. Or if Kolten Wong could just hit a simple fly ball, rather than fouling out, we at least see no worse than a tied game after that second Milwaukee dinger. There were plenty of other chances, but in what felt uncomfortably like a replay of the 2017 Cardinal offense, we saw a diverse, dynamic attack that somehow, maddeningly, still struggled to score runs at a pace commensurate with their actual production.

Then again, to be fair, if we look at the overall offensive lines of both teams, we could argue the game really shouldn’t have looked anything like the tense, close, relatively low-scoring affair we saw. After all, the Cards came to bat 39 times last night, collected one walk, one hit by pitch, and struck out seven times. That’s just under a 19% strikeout rate, which isn’t bad, considering one of those K’s came from the pitcher, and two came from Wong, whose current .083 OPS is making my prediction of a second base controversy by the first of June look preeeetty smart. Take the three home runs out, and you get seven hits on 27 balls in play, for a .259 BABIP, which is actually low. So that traffic on the bases, and those scoring opportunities? They were pretty well earned, by what looks like potentially an extremely potent offense.

By contrast, the Brewers came to bat exactly the same number of times (39), walked twice, hit those two homers, struck out thirteen times, and collected ten hits on just 22 balls in play. That’s a .455 BABIP, which, yeah, is probably not likely to continue. In short, it was one of those games where you feel your team clearly outplayed the other side, in all the ways we believe to be sustainable and just and right, and in the end it just didn’t really matter.

Sometimes, being a baseball fan sucks.

Anyhow, here’s some draft reports. Three college pitchers of interest, all with top 30-40 pick pedigrees.

Sean Hjelle, RHP, University of Kentucky

6’11”, 215 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 7 May 1997

So, what’s so great about this guy?

The things that’s notable, in a good way, about Hjelle is also, it must be said, notable in a not so good way as well. It should be fairly obvious, really; you don’t see many baseball players, even pitchers, listed at 6’11”. Maybe you read that and assumed it was a typo, that I meant six-one and just hit the key twice. But no, Sean Hjelle is six-eleven, and there are both benefits and concerns that come with that.

Extremely tall pitchers, in general, usually struggle a bit to command their pitches, a result of struggling a bit to command their bodies. Longer levers are more difficult to time up properly, and the development curve for these sorts of guys tends to be somewhat long as a result. The good news with Hjelle is that he’s made remarkable strides the last couple years in improving his body control and, subsequently, his command, to the point he is maybe one of the more polished pitchers coming out of college this year. So that negative is mostly negated, as Johnny Mercer never sang but maybe should have.

The nice thing about that, then, is that Hjelle’s height turns back into a positive, as he has excellent downward plane on his two best pitches: a low-90s fastball that tends to get on hitters a little faster than the velocity would suggest, and a really good knuckle curve that can eat hitters up when he stays on top of it. He’s got a decent little changeup, as well, more of a straight change than any kind of crazy split or screwball action pitch, and he locates it well enough.

So the height doesn’t look to be an issue; rather, Hjelle’s body control makes it into a positive, and helps his pitches play up. He’s polished and mature, even if he could still stand to gain at least 25 pounds. Where’s the actual downside, you’re probably asking.

Well, honestly, the downside is that the upside just doesn’t seem all that extreme, if I’m being honest. I like Hjelle, and if we’ve learned nothing else from the last decade of Cardinal player development history, it should be that limiting a player’s ceiling in our minds is potentially a bad idea. Really, though, the stuff for Hjelle is pretty good, but not great. The fastball isn’t overpowering by any means, and while it has plane there’s not a ton of movement. He sells the changeup well, and mostly locates it, but it’s not a swing and miss offering. The curveball is the one pitch that’s tough to find fault with, and in this modern era of baseball a team selecting Hjelle could encourage him to lean on it a little more.

The delivery is simple and pretty good, with a long arm swing in back and a little extra twist to the forearm that concerns me a bit, but nothing fatal going on. Hjelle has been good this spring, with a 42:9 K:BB ratio in 43 innings for Kentucky, but barring a huge second half of the season that performance isn’t really going to catapult him any higher than back of the first round, maybe supplemental pick territory.

I think Hjelle would be a solid, safe pick in the draft, particularly for a club with a pitching track record like the Cardinals. Nineteen feels a little high for him, but if he were still on the board when their second pick comes up at 42 I would jump. He looks to have a mid-rotation sort of ceiling, but I think he’s a good version of that type of pick.

via Brian Sakowski:

Ugh. Sorry, everybody; back from dealing with day job woes. This column was going to be on time, I thought, but instead you’re getting a mid-afternoon throw-in. Apologies.

Steven Gingery, LHP, Texas Tech

6’1”, 210 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Left

DOB: 30 September 1997

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Hey, you remember Marco Gonzales? Of course you do; he was a Cardinal as recently as last summer. Would you like to draft him again? Well, if you answered yes to that question, then Steven Gingery is your man.

Like Gonzales, Gingery is a slightly undersized lefty with below-average fastball velocity and a devastating, disappearing changeup. It might be the best change in the draft this year, or at least the most consistently excellent one.

Unlike Marco Gonzales, though, Gingery’s fastball, which sits in a similar 88-91 range (there’s a little more in the tank here and there, though, to be fair), has very good sinking action, rather than coming in flat like Marco’s. That makes Gingery more of a groundball pitcher than Gonzales, which is encouraging.

The bread and butter, though, is the changeup, which Gingery throws to both right- and left-handed hitters, showing unusual feel for, and confidence in, the pitch considering he’s a young college junior who won’t turn 21 until this September. His ability to locate both his fastball and changeup help both pitches play better than their raw quality, and Gingery on his best days has hitters lunging and flailing, pretty consistently off-balance, on the front foot or stuck on their heels. In short, if you looked up ‘draft eligible crafty lefty’ in the dictionary, Steven Gingery is going to be, like, the third listing.

Gingery’s third pitch is an average sort of curveball that lacks depth, and might benefit to my eye from a little more tightening to try and turn it into a slider. Otherwise, in order to make the curve bigger he would probably have to slow it down further, which might actually make it too slow and obvious.

This is not a perfect pitching prospect, pretty obviously; if Sean Hjelle has a somewhat limited ceiling, then Gingery’s ceiling might be low enough Sean Hjelle would be uncomfortable trying to stand up in his room. On the other hand, Gingery really knows how to work his sinker/change combo, and at worst he ends up looking something like the current version of Ryan Sherriff, I think.

All of which is just an interesting way to bury the lede, which is that if you want to draft Marco Gonzales, you’re also going to have to deal with the injury issues of Marco Gonzales. Like the former Redbird lefty, Gingery just went under the knife last month for Tommy John surgery, and will not return until next year. Now, it’s tough to say how much that will actually effect his draft stock; we’ve seen teams pretty confidently stride into the waters of drafting injured pitchers, secure in the knowledge that Tommy John is a fairly routine repair at this point in baseball history.

On the other hand, you had a fairly limited ceiling guy before surgery, who now adds health concerns to his package of positives and negatives. I really don’t know what to do with him. Probably he drops a round or two, gets popped in the third or fourth instead of the second, and heads off to pro ball and pro rehab facilities. It’s also possible if he falls too very far he could return as a redshirt junior in 2019 to try and rebuild his value. Gingery is a bit of a wild card right now, which is interesting considering how much of a safe, boring, sure thing he was seen as prior to getting hurt.

via Baseball America:

Casey Mize, RHP, Auburn

6’3”, 210 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 1 May 1997

So, what’s so great about this guy?

And now we come to the main event of this post in Casey Mize. The prior two pitchers written up here have represented polish over stuff, with feel for pitching helping to make up for perceived lack of upside. In Mize, though, we have all the polish of Hjelle or Gingery, combined with stuff that could put him closer to the front of a rotation than the back when it’s all said and done. The only real downside here is the chances of Mize being on the board when the Cardinals make their first pick would seem to be fairly slim at this point.

Mize has a chance for three plus pitches when it’s all said and done, and an ability to pound the strike zone that’s second to none in college baseball this year. He works with a fastball in the 92-95 range that features plus armside movement and a little sink. Hitters very rarely square up the fastball, and Mize locates it so well within the zone they rarely get a mistake to attack. While the velocity is good but not exactly notable in a world of ever-greater pitch speeds, the movement and command are so good the heater probably plays to a 60, at least in my book.

He complements said plus fastball with a pair of offspeed pitches that could each garner 60s as well, with an 86-88 mph cutter the lesser of his two complementary offerings. You could call it a slider if you wanted, but it’s shorter and harder than that to my eye, and it’s throwing with cutter intent, I think, if that makes any sense. It’s an above-average pitch for a college kid right now, and has a little more upside left. Maybe it settles in more at 50-55 in terms of a grade, but I think there’s a decent chance for more.

Mize’s best pitch overall is a wicked split-finger fastball that just disappears at the plate, and which he sells with outstanding arm speed. Hitters don’t get any comfortable swings at all against the split, and more often than not are left just helplessly flailing as the ball drops out of the zone. I’m a sucker for splitters anyway, but let me tell you that Mize’s is really something special.

He actually does throw a slower breaking ball, as well, in an ~82 mph curveball, but it’s a definite show pitch right now. For stealing strikes early in the count you could do worse, but it’s not good for much more than that currently. Of course, he could improve the pitch, but for now the curve is only a partial factor in his repertoire. (Though I will say he actually appears to be throwing the curve a little more often this spring, based on the limited looks I’ve had, so maybe he’s made it a priority to work on.)

Mize is probably my second favourite college pitcher in this draft class, right behind Logan Gilbert of Stetson, whose arsenal is notably a bit more powerful, but probably no more effective. I fully expect Mize to be off the board when pick nineteen comes around, but Michael Wacha wasn’t supposed to be available late in the first round either, and we all saw how that worked out. If Mize were to fall to nineteen, it would feel like a slam dunk to me to draft him.

via Adam McInturff: