So I'm writing about college players today; college left-handed pitchers to be exact. And I tell you that to say there was a weird thing I noticed the other day about another college player. (Though not a pitcher.)
I was listening to the Baseball America podcast not too very long ago, and they were doing a rundown of college baseball. One of the hosts of the program made the point that there really haven't been any big offensive performances in this year's college class, none of the huge breakouts that we've seen occasionally in the past. I paused the podcast a moment at this point and pulled up the baseball cube, because I was suddenly confused, thinking D.J. Stewart, the slugging corner outfielder slash possible future first baseman who has become one of my personal cheeseballs in this year's draft, must have fallen off a cliff. To my surprise, nope, he hadn't. His OPS was still over 1.100 on the year (it has since fallen below that mark, to 1.099), he was still walking nearly 50% more often than he strikes out, and he had already exceeded his previous career high for home runs, having put 10 over the fence this season in just 130-ish at-bats. I'm not exactly sure what the definition of offensive breakout the BA guys are using, but it certainly seems to me that those numbers would fit most, if not all, possible definitions.
Now, to be fair, they seemed to be specifically talking about huge power numbers, so it may have been meant as much a comment on the current state of offense in college baseball, considering the bats they're using these days, as it was a specific comment about the lack of players really having big years. And maybe they're looking for 25 homer performances specifically or something, like a J.D. Drew 30/30 junior year or something. But then, Kiley McDaniel over at Fangraphs also has Stewart ranked all the way down at 25 in his latest draft rankings, so perhaps Stewart just isn't as highly thought of as he is in my mind. At any rate, it makes me feel like this is a really undervalued player, one who could make for an unbelievable value come draft day. Even more than I already did, I mean.
A second slightly weird thing: something strange is going on with my computer. The @ sign and " have become reversed on my keyboard. A single ' still works just as it should, and the number 2 is just fine. But when I hit shift and the key next to the enter key, it gives me @. And shift+2 gives me ". I have no idea how or why this happened, but it's quite irritating. I haven't altered any keyboard settings -- or anything else, for that matter -- on my laptop; it just...started happening yesterday. No clue.
Anyway, let's do some scouting, shall we?
Nathan Kirby, LHP, University of Virginia
6'2", 185 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Nathan Kirby is one of those names that has been on the radar for quite awhile, as he closed for Virginia his freshman season, showing a wicked fastball/slider combination that overmatched hitters at times (while still putting up shaky numbers, which isn't surprising for a freshman pitcher in the ACC), and then moved into the rotation last year and became probably the team's best starter. So there's certainly a track record of performance and success at a major college program over the full career.
However, I'm going to say this right out front: I'm not a big believer in Nathan Kirby. To me, he's exactly the sort of pitcher who has big success in college and then disappoints in a big way once he gets into pro ball.
Kirby's repertoire begins with a low-90s fastball he's pushed up to 94 at times in the past -- and hit 95 occasionally when he was relieving -- but tends to sit lower in that range, closer to 90 or 91 the majority of the time. The velocity this year specifically has been a point of concern, as it's been sort of all over the place, though mostly just down a tick or two from where it was last year. He does a fairly good job of spotting the pitch up and out of the zone, generating a large amount of weak flyball contact, but his overall command is just so-so and he's less capable working low than high.
By far Kirby's best pitch is his slider, a low-80s offering that shows legitimate swing-and-miss potential, not just at the college level but beyond. If he doesn't make it as a starter in pro ball, the quality of his slider alone is enough you would think he should be able to make the transition into left-handed specialty relief. I wouldn't say it's one of the absolute best breaking balls in this year's draft, but it's definitely one of the better -- and more consistent -- breakers you're going to find.
Kirby throws a changeup, as well, and it's not bad. There's good arm speed to the pitch, giving it above-average deception, but it's a bit straight. Much like his fastball, the pitch tends to generate plenty of flyball contact when it's on, getting hitters out on their front foot and under the pitch rather than generating much in the way of empty swings.
There's a bit of Mike Hampton in Nathan Kirby, both physically and from an approach standpoint, especially if one wanted to be optimistic looking at him. For me, though, I just don't see it. He's much too reliant on working out of the zone and getting hitters to chase his pitches, rather than being able to beat hitters in the zone, and I just don't think it's going to work once he gets into the higher levels of competition. It's already an approach that leads to elevated walk rates for a college pitcher, but his high fastball and slider combination have allowed him to generate enough strikeouts to offset the control issues so far. Once he gets into pro ball -- specifically, somewhere around Double A -- and runs into hitters with the discipline to force him into the strike zone, I don't think he's going to be able to be successful.
I see where people could like Kirby; I really do. Good body, left-handed, three-pitch mix, at least two of which have shown an ability to generate swings and misses from college hitters. But I don't see that. I see a straight, average fastball that works because he's good at tempting hitters with, a very good slider that doesn't come into the zone all that often either, and a changeup that could be average going forward but isn't going to be enough to offset the other issues. In other words, he's not a bad prospect, by any means, but I certainly don't see anything resembling a top ten or even top five pick the way so many others do.
Oh, and I don't love the arm action, either.
via Baseball America:
Alex Young, LHP, TCU
6'3", 180 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
You know, it's really kind of strange, given the relative difference in their draft stocks (Kirby came into the season as a top five pick lock, while Young is somewhere down in the second round consideration bin), but I actually feel as if Alex Young is sort of like the good version of Nathan Kirby. Both are lefties with good but not great stuff who relieved early in their college careers and rely on fastball-slider combos to get hitters out. They're fairly close in stature, as well.
The velocity on the fastballs is relatively similar; Young works his heater in the 90-93 range, similar to Kirby, but where the Virgina lefty's is straight and works best on a shallow plane high in the zone, Young's boasts nice, sinking movement and a little armside run to keep it away from hitter's barrels. Because of that movement, he can work better inside the strike zone, able to induce weak contact without having to entice hitters to chase. His changeup, while not a plus pitch, shows better fade than Kirby's as well, similar to the difference in movement on the two pitchers' respective fastballs.
Young's out pitch is generally his slider, and it's a good one, though probably a half-grade behind Nate Kirby's. There's plenty of depth to the pitch, and Young usually commands it well, but there are times it comes in too slow and can get loopy. If a team drafting Young tried to get him to tighten the pitch up into more of a cutter, I'm not sure I would agree with the decision, but I'm also not sure I wouldn't, if you get what I mean.
Young's arm action isn't my favourite; he's an elbow-lifter, but the timing isn't terrible. It's not exactly where I like it, but I've certainly seen worse. There is some definite effort to the delivery, also, and while I tend to think 'effort' as a buzzword for mechanics discussions is a tad nebulous, too often used simply to describe a guy who looks like he's throwing hard -- often because he is, in fact, throwing hard -- in this case I definitely think the amount of oomph Young is putting into his pitches is something that might be worthy of worry. If he were under my watch, I would probably get him to try and extend his stride slightly and land with his foot square, rather than slightly closed, and see if that would improve his timing over where it is now. But, that's just me, and it's always touchy to try and mess about with what a pitcher is doing too very much mechanically. Particularly when the pitcher in question is relatively polished and looks as if he could move through the minors pretty quickly. You don't necessarily want to knock a guy like that off track.
Alex Young is probably my favourite of the three pitcher I'm covering here today. He doesn't have a super high ceiling, but I think he's a very good bet to make it to the majors as a mid-rotation sort of arm, the sort of pitcher who chews up innings and contributes a bulk to a starting rotation that is absolutely necessary. With the slightly low arm slot and good sinking action on his pitches, he should be a groundball-heavy number 4/3 starter in the Mark Mulder mold, if not quite to that level. (It's easy to forget that Muldoo was actually really, really good once upon a time in Oakland.)
via The Prospect Pipeline:
Andrew Suarez, LHP, Miami
6'1", 205 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Anyone who follows college baseball knows how many crafty lefties there are plying their trade at the collegiate level. Guys without a single plus offering, but who get results because they can put the ball where they want, can outthink the opposition, and just generally do all those crafty lefty things to frustrate and confuse and ultimately retire college-level hitters. For every one crafty left-handed pitcher in the big leagues (most of whose names we Cardinal fans know because of a long, long tradition of them shutting down our team), there are literally thousands of them in the lower levels of baseball; guys whose brains and guile are more than adequate to get them through, until they finally hit whatever level of ball it is where the lack of stuff just becomes impossible to overcome.
Andrew Suarez is ever crafty left-hander you've ever seen. And here's the thing: the stuff might just be good enough to keep him from hitting his ceiling before he gets to the majors.
He works with a fastball in the 90-92 range, usually, though from start to start that can vary more than you would like to see. The pitch doesn't have great movement, but Suarez does do a very good job locating it most of the time. There have been times in his college career when he's thrown a bit harder here and there, but everything I've seen of Suarez tells me this is a guy who tops out at 92. Which is just fine, of course; pitchers have been successful with less velocity than Suarez. Particularly considering his ability to locate to both sides of the plate, I don't have any problem with Suarez's fastball.
Beyond the heater, Suarez has a wide repertoire, with three separate offspeed pitches he'll work in in a give outing. The best is probably the slider; it's short and quick and nearly a cutter at times, and Suarez can throw it in or out of the zone as needed. It doesn't have the kind of wipeout break that can overmatch hitters and generate tons of empty swings, but it's sharp enough that I could see slapping a 55 on it; it's probably the only pitch in Suarez's arsenal I could see grading above-average, honestly.
He throws a curveball and changeup, as well, and both are very much 45/50 grade pitches, with the curve perhaps a bit lower. The curve is too soft and loopy, and when he tries to throw it with more power it just morphs into a bad version of the slider. I could see scrapping it entirely, or working to try and improve the depth on the pitch; if Suarez could turn it into more of a true 12-6, even if it rolled coming to the plate, it could be a good show pitch. As it is now, he can get it over against college hitters early in the count, but the poor thing is going to get killed in pro ball.
The changeup is fringy as well; it's deceptive, but too straight. There are times when the pitch will have decent sink to it, and could be a groundball-generator, but I've never seen much in the way of lateral movement at any point. It's kind of a think for Suarez, honestly; something about his arm slot and release just doesn't allow him to get much in the way or lateral run on the ball. The fastball and change are both just too straight for my tastes, though I have to still give him credit for putting those relatively straight pitches where he wants them most of the time.
It probably sounds like I'm not all that high on Andrew Suarez, and I'm really kind of not. However, I'm definitely not of the mind he couldn't end up a very useful pitcher in professional baseball, and perhaps even a major leaguer, as he definitely does have some good points. That craft and guile so many lefties seem to have is present in spades with Suarez, as even with the average-at-best quality of his offerings he mixes them up effectively enough that they all play up and he's able to keep hitters off-balance. The curveball really isn't a very good pitch, but he uses it intelligently to surprise hitters or to steal a strike early in the count, when they're looking dead red for something in the middle of the plate to drive.
Suarez's best quality, though, is simply this: he doesn't walk anyone. His walk rate in college has been below 2.00 each of the last three seasons, and it's the biggest reason he's been successful despite such middling stuff. He forces hitters to beat him, rather than giving away extra baserunners, and that can go a long way for a pitcher. I may have my doubts he'll be able to get out high-level hitters with the stuff he possesses -- there always comes a point when the stuff just doesn't fool hitters enough to keep them from making hard contact -- but I feel confident he'll never fail for lack of throwing strikes.
There's also the matter of Suarez being a college senior, meaning his leverage -- and, hence, price tag -- will likely be very low comparatively. As a value-conscious signing, he could actually end up going a bit higher than you might expect, but receiving a modest payday from a club looking to save on his bonus and transfer the savings to some tough-to-sign high school stud. (Think of Andrew Morales last year getting a light bonus for the Cardinals, helping them to land Jack Flaherty.)
The delivery for Suarez is a bit weird, stiff and long in the back (and I'll stop this sentence before it gets any more uncomfortable), but the timing isn't bad. It's not my favourite delivery, but I've seen worse. He's got just enough stuff to keep him out of being classified as a true soft-tosser, but the effect is much the same. Wide repertoire, good control, lots of offspeed stuff. I'm not a huge believer in this guy, but as a value signing with a chance, he's probably one of the best in the draft for his specific situation.
And that's an even dozen, folks. I'm running a bit short on time, so I'll just end this here. See you all Sunday.
Oh, one last thing: I'll be doing a phone interview on ESPN 1440 in Quincy, Illinois this morning at 8:35. If you're in the area, give it a listen.