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2020 Draft Preview No. 6: Pick Your Poison With Prep Pitchers

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A trio of high school pitchers pretty much guaranteed to get picked early.

Washington Nationals v New York Yankees Photo by John Capella/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

It’s going to be a weird draft this year; I think we’ve already mostly established that. The shortened format will, of course, be a huge reason why, but just as germane to the weirdness is the lack of actual games played by any of the players being considered since around the beginning of March. The draft board is, in a very real way, as much time capsule as scouting board, devoid of the usual helium guys and weak performances which might make a player a value bet placed on an unfairly depressed stock.

I tend to think this landscape will produce a more conservative draft approach than usual, with clubs desperate to extract some kind of value from their five or so picks, even if they miss on the big swings they might normally be willing to take. The lack of recent info would also seem to point toward clubs sticking with players who already have track records, which mostly translates into college players. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s where I’m at right now.

There are, however, some players whose talents were already well established enough by the time the lockdowns took hold that they will avoid getting lost in the rush of clubs trying to out-conservative one another come June. Within that number are three high school pitchers who represent the surest things among their demographic. All three could go in the top half of the first round on talent, though history tells us that’s almost certainly not going to happen, simply because of the way draft demographics tend to play out.

This draft class looks like it will be a little light on high school pitchers in the first round. These three, though, are in a separate class, and will absolutely hear their names called early on come draft day.

Mick Abel, RHP, Jesuit HS (Oregon)

6’5”, 190 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 18th August 2001

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Each of the three pitchers I’m covering here today have one quality to recommend them over the other two. If you’re looking for the most advanced, closest to a real pitcher of the three, Mick Abel is your guy. He has the best combination of present stuff and polish of any high school pitcher in this draft, and should probably be the odds-on favourite to push ahead of the other two pitchers here in draft order.

It isn’t enough that Abel can cruise comfortably at 92-95 with his fastball and will flash a plus slider about half the time; what’s really impressive is that his repertoire by no means stops there. I honestly can’t tell if he throws two fastballs or is just good at manipulating his four-seamer, but he can work up with good velocity, then jump to the bottom of the zone with a little less velocity, but above-average sink and run. It looks to my eye like he’s throwing both a two- and four-seam fastball, which always jumps off the page to me whenever I see an amateur pitcher already capable of doing so.

Abel’s slider will flash 55, sometimes 60, and it’s his best present offspeed pitch. However, he also throws a solid changeup that will show above-average potential, and also also throws a bigger, slower breaking ball that has definite potential, and which he usually breaks out against left-handed hitters. On the downside, the curve and slider do tend to blend into one another at times, but this is an eighteen year old kid throwing four 50 grade or better pitches, possible five if he’s actually working two fastballs instead of just manipulating the one. The fact his two breaking balls aren’t always perfectly distinct is a minor concern in a talent this precocious.

It’s not hard to look at what Abel brings to the table and see a young Jacob DeGrom in his wide variety of weapons and solid command of all of them. Of course, the velocity jump which saw DeGrom go from very good pitcher to top three pitcher in baseball isn’t necessarily something to be projected, and so I won’t do that. My one big concern with Mick Abel is his delivery; his arm action is very long in the back and he’s a classic elbow-lifter, leading to what looks to my eye like a pretty serious timing problem. That worry probably wouldn’t be enough to keep me from drafting him, but it is something I have to mention.

This combination of present stuff, already-solid command, and future projection for improvement is pretty much impossible to resist in a high school pitcher. Abel should be a top ten pick in June, with the weirdness of this spring really being the only thing that could act as much of a depressor on his value.

via Dad’s YouTube:

Jared Kelly, RHP, Refugio HS (Texas)

6’3”, 215 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 3rd October 2001

So, what’s so great about this guy?

As I said, all three of these pitchers have one quality that stands out above the other two. For Jared Kelly, it’s the velocity that immediately makes an impression. He’s just the latest in a long line of Texas-based hard throwers, of which pretty much every draft seemingly has at least one. It’s the lineage of Kerry Wood and Josh Beckett and Shelby Miller and Jameson Taillon, not to mention earlier Lone Star state hurlers all the way back to Nolan Ryan.

Kelly has touched 99 mph already as a high schooler, and sits comfortably around 95 with his fastball. The pitch has a little run to the arm side, and is overpowering up in the zone. He hasn’t reached quite the velocity peaks of legendary draft smoke artists like Tyler Kolek or Riley Pint (neither of whom, you may notice, have panned out into anything at all, which I turned out to be right about), but just because he hasn’t actually popped a 101 or 2 on the gun doesn’t mean his heater isn’t a force to be reckoned with.

Kelly owns one good complementary pitch already, a surprisingly solid changeup that might be close to major league average right now. His command of the pitch isn’t necessarily great yet, but he sells the pitch with good arm speed and it possesses good movement right out of the box.

The breaking ball is more of a work in progress; Kelly’s current breaker is very much an in-between slurve, without a real strong lean toward either the slider or curveball side. His arm slot looks more suited to a slider to me, but the pitch could really go either way. Or, I suppose it could just stay where it is, but that’s usually not the track teams try to get their developing pitchers on.

Kelly throws strikes, particularly with his fastball, but his command of his offspeed pitches leaves a lot to be desired right now. It hasn’t hurt him yet; you can blow 95+ past high school hitters pretty regularly, whether you put the ball where you meant to or not. How well he develops that command will be the biggest stumbling block to how high Kelly’s ceiling ultimately is. I’m not a fan of his delivery much the same as I worry about Abel’s; Kelly gets there in a different way, but still has a delayed arm action that probably helps with the velocity but concerns me in terms of his long-term health. Of the three pitchers I’m covering here today, Kelly is my least favourite, the guy I think is most likely to follow the Shelby Miller career path and fall short of the promise those radar guns are making.

via 2080 Baseball:

Nick Bitsko, RHP, Central Bucks East HS (Pennsylvania)

6’4”, 225 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 16th June 2002

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Mick Abel has the polish and the variety. Jared Kelly has the pure velocity. Nick Bitsko has the youth and, to my eye, the ceiling. He also has the delivery I feel best about, but your mileage may vary on how much you wish to consider that.

The first thing to know about Bitsko is that I really should have been talking about him this time next year; he was originally slated to be part of the 2021 draft class, and would have been one of the top prep pitchers, if not the number one guy. However, he reclassified to graduate in 2020, much like Trejyn Fletcher did last year, and so enters the draft almost a full year younger than Mick Abel. I talked about the precociousness of Abel’s talent, but it’s worth considering where Bitsko might be by the time his nineteenth birthday is approaching.

Which isn’t to say Bitsko is all future projection; he has more than enough present stuff to justify a place in the first round. Last summer he was up to the 92-94 range with his fastball, touching 96 occasionally, and the pitch has above-average armside run whether it’s up or down. He fills the zone with his fastball, and shows an ability to work to both sides of the plate. He tends to miss out of the zone rather than over the plate, as well, which I like seeing.

Bitsko’s best pitch might be a power curveball he throws in the low 80s and which features extremely sharp break. He can throw it for strikes right now, but I haven’t really seen him bury the pitch way out of the zone to try and put hitters away just yet. The spin and shape are there, certainly, but he seems more inclined to throw the curve in the zone rather than bounce it, even with two strikes. So far it hasn’t mattered; Bitsko’s one-two punch is as overwhelming to competition his age as Kelly’s velocity, and there’s only so much refinement you can expect from a pitcher who can simply outclass hitters to that degree.

There’s also the makings of a solid changeup here, surprising for a seventeen year old so capable of overpowering hitters to date. It’s not a consistent pitch yet, sometimes flashing 55 grades, other times floating in belt high, saved from obliteration only through the surprise factor of a high school power pitcher dropping in a third pitch. His arm speed on the change is excellent, but it looks like he’s still refining his grip of the pitch, considering some of the inconsistent-looking releases I’ve seen. Still, there’s a 60 fastball, 60 curve, 50-55 change potential arsenal here, all with a repeatable, solid delivery and what looks to me like future plus command. This is a Walker Buehler starter kit, is what I’m saying.

Bitsko is the most complicated of these three to scout, given his cold-weather background, his decision to graduate early, and the fact the spring he decided to graduate early featured very, very little baseball. Again, like Trejyn Fletcher in 2019, I’m just not sure how good a feel teams have for Bitsko considering those factors, though he was obviously on the radar as a 2021 draftee already. I think he’s the most likely of these three pitchers to be available at 21 when the Cardinals make their first pick, and his upside would be extraordinarily tough for me to pass up were I making that decision.

via Perfect Game Baseball: