By all indications, the current draft class is shaping up to be one of the best ever. That’s at least the take on the combined high-school, junior-college and college talent a month into the 2011 season, and yet the real driving force behind the unusual depth and quality of this draft is college pitching.
Even with a marked change in the bats being used this spring at the college level that have deflated the amount of offense, pitchers have been dominating hitters in a manner rarely seen, and it is a tribute to the quality and depth of arms in this year’s draft class.
The real determining factor in what constitutes a great draft class, of course, doesn’t become apparent until the draftees have a chance to reach and perform in the major leagues. Both 1985 and 1977 were vintage drafts and have stood the test of time, and this year’s draft holds out similar promise.
In reviewing the last 20 years of the draft, there has been an average of about nine college pitchers picked among the first 30 selections, with a high of 13 (1993) and a low of six (three times in the early- to mid-1990’s). On two occasions, in 1994 and 2006, five of the first six selections were college pitchers.
Overall, though, the highest concentration of college pitchers at the top of the draft was probably in 2004, when 17 of the top 35 picks came from the college-pitching ranks. That included the likes of Justin Verlander (Tigers, No. 2 overall), Jeff Niemann (Rays, No. 4) and Jered Weaver (Angels, No. 12). Amazingly, Rice had three pitchers claimed in the first eight picks, Niemann, Phil Humber (Mets, No. 3) and Wade Townsend (Orioles, No. 8), all of whom played pivotal roles as the Owls won the College World Series a year earlier.
There is a chance that all those high-water marks will be threatened in 2011.
Looking over the top 20 pitchers in the 2011 class listed below, a couple of themes are obvious.
First, the 2008 and 2009 draft classes had an above-average number of very highly-regarded high-school pitchers that chose not to sign and attend college instead.
UCLA’s Gerrit Cole (2008) and TCU’s Matt Purke (2009), in particular, have already been first-round picks, but turned down offers from the Yankees and Rangers, respectively, and are positioned to cash in on those decisions. Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray, Texas’ Taylor Jungmann and Kentucky’s Alex Meyer were all Aflac All-Americans in 2007, and could very well have been top-round picks in 2008 if they had been signable. Much of the same could also be said for Virginia’s Danny Hultzen, as well.
The other obvious theme in this year’s crop of college arms is the depth of quality lefthanders, which also could reach historic levels.
Over the past 20 years, there has been only one college southpaw selected in the first round roughly half the time, though lefties have never been completely shut out. A banner year for lefthanders previously occurred in 2007 when six southpaws, headed by No. 1 overall pick David Price (Vanderbilt), went in the first 30 picks, and current Blue Jays starter Brett Cecil (Maryland) was grabbed at No. 38 overall.
Eight of the top 20 pitchers listed below are lefthanders, with Purke, Hultzen, Georgia Tech’s Jed Bradley and Oregon’s Tyler Anderson all near-certain first-round picks at this point.
Of course, not every college pitcher that is considered a top prospect today was highly-regarded by scouts coming out of high school. Bradley, Baylor’s Logan Verrett and Kent’s Andrew Chafin weren’t even drafted three years ago. UCLA’s Trevor Bauer wasn’t selected, either, but he skipped his senior year at a California high school and stepped directly into the Bruins starting rotation as a freshman. He would have been a member of the 2012 class, otherwise.
Here’s my take on the Top 20 College Pitchers in this year’s draft, in a rough order of how I see them being selected (stats through Sunday’s games):
1. GERRIT COLE, rhp, UCLA (1-2, 1.78 ERA, 30 IP, 14 H, 5 BB, 37 SO). Cole has been outstanding this spring, taking perfect games into the seventh innings of both his last two starts, and it would be hard to find even a sliver of criticism for either his performance or raw stuff. Most notable, Cole walked 52 hitters in 123 innings as a sophomore, but only five in 30 innings this spring. Whether this improvement in control is due to improved mechanics or a better mental approach I’m not sure, but it’s a great sign for the future.
2. MATTHEW PURKE, lhp, Texas Christian (2-1, 0.66 ERA, 13 IP, 13 H, 5 BB, 13 SO). Purke has battled a blister problem thus far this spring, and it undoubtedly contributed to his first college loss at the hands of previously winless Houston Baptist (0-14). As a freshman at TCU, Purke was a perfect 15-0. It’s hard to see the sophomore lefty losing any draft stock due to this minor setback, however.
3. JED BRADLEY, lhp, Georgia Tech (2-0, 1.85, 24 IP, 12 H, 10 BB, 38 SO). Don’t be surprised late in the spring when you start hearing that some big-league scouting directors like Bradley as much as or more than Cole or Purke, who have received considerably more publicity. Bradley’s stuff is routinely described as “electric” by some, and he has command of three pitches. He is one of the few pitchers at this level that scouts look at and still see some physical projection.
4. DANNY HULTZEN, lhp, Virginia (4-0, 0.66 ERA, 27 IP, 13 H, 4 BB, 50 SO). The leading candidate for National Player of the Year at the quarter pole has always had solid stuff and plus pitchability, but his velocity has moved up another notch this year, to the mid-90s, and he has been dominant with 50 K’s in 27 innings. Don’t forget that he’s hitting .372-0-16, as well.
5. TAYLOR JUNGMANN, rhp, Texas (4-0, 0.78 ERA, 35 IP, 18 H, 3 BB, 31 SO). Some teams don’t seem to like the 6-foot-6 Jungmann as much as others due to his mechanics. But, in my eyes, they certainly don’t seem to affect his command, stuff or potential for injury. Jungmann hasn’t been throwing as hard this year as in the past, but one senses that is by intent, given his extremely-low pitch counts and walk-to-strikeout ratio.
6. SONNY GRAY, rhp, Vanderbilt (4-0, 1.71 ERA, 26 IP, 12 H, 9 BB, 36 SO). I really like the comparison that Perfect Game’s Patrick Ebert made on Gray earlier this year: former Brewers all-star Ben Sheets, who was selected 10th overall in the 1999 draft. Sheets is an extra-strong, six-foot righthander who in his pre-injury prime had one of the nastiest curveballs around and the ability to spot it in or out of the strike zone almost at will. Gray should also go about the 10th pick.
7. TREVOR BAUER, rhp, UCLA (2-1, 1.71 ERA, 32 IP, 18 H, 14 BB, 46 SO). While some of the pitchers on this list appear to be pitching better to contact, Bauer is going in the opposite direction. Over his last two games, 38 of the 67 hitters he faced had either struck out (30!) or walked (8). That ratio is also a reflection on how hard it is to make contact with Bauer’s raw stuff. His pitch counts in those two games (129 and 123) might concern some scouts, however.
8. MATT BARNES, rhp, Connecticut (2-2, 1.53 ERA, 29 IP, 15 H, 8 BB, 28 SO). Barnes’ masterful two-hit shutout Sunday over San Diego, with only one walk and two strikeouts, showed a different side of his talents, one that scouts undoubtedly appreciated.
9. JOHN STILSON, rhp, Texas A&M (1-0, 1.33 ERA, 27 IP, 19 H, 6 BB, 29 SO). Stilson has had no problems thus far making the transition from do-everything reliever to starter, although he’s toned down his raw stuff and pitching to contact more effectively.
10. TYLER ANDERSON, lhp, Oregon (2-0, 1.23 ERA, 29 IP, 17 H, 13 BB, 41 SO). A scouting director remarked last week that Anderson had improved his stock this spring more than any college player in the class. Some may still feel that his raw stuff doesn’t measure up to first round standards, but Anderson has four quality pitches to go with deception and command.
11. ALEX MEYER, rhp, Kentucky (2-2, 2.60 ERA, 28 IP, 16 H, 13 BB, 39 SO). The 6-foot-8 Meyer gets the nod over Cole as the hardest thrower in the 2011 college draft class as he has topped out at 99 mph frequently this spring. He’s still not a polished product by any means, but there is no mistaking his improvement from 2010. One scout has aptly compared Meyer to a young Kyle Snyder, the seventh overall pick in the 1999 draft out of North Carolina.
12. ANDREW CHAFIN, lhp, Kent State (2-0, 0.00 ERA, 20 IP, 8 H, 5 BB, 19 SO). Chafin and Josh Osich (below) are the two pitchers on this list who are Tommy John survivors, which may make them medical concerns for some clubs. Even in his conversion to a starter, Chafin doesn’t seem to have missed a beat in his level of stuff or performance from before the surgery that cost him the 2010 season.
13. ADAM CONLEY, lhp, Washington State (4-0, 0.93 ERA, 29 IP, 19 H, 2 BB, 32 SO). We’re all used to seeing a pitcher’s velocity increase when he moves from a starting role to the bullpen, but Conley seems to have pulled off the opposite, going from a 90-92 mph reliever to a 93-97 mph starter. Some have concerns about the effort in his delivery, but how about two walks in 29 innings for a power pitcher?
14. TONY ZYCH, rhp, Louisville (0-1, 3.68 ERA, 5 SV, 7 IP, 8 H, 4 BB, 8 SO). Louisville’s starting pitching has been so dominant (staff ERA of 1.20) that there hasn’t been many innings left over for Zych and his mid-90s sinker. Some teams may hesitate at taking a projected reliever at the top of the draft, so Zych and Austin Wood (below) might not be this high on every team’s board come June.
15. AUSTIN WOOD, rhp, Southern California (1-2, 5.23 ERA, 21 IP, 21 H, 10 BB, 18 SO). A scout who has seen Wood this year says that the hard-throwing righty is clearly a reliever for him, and his early performance as a starter this spring, and on occasion in the past, appears to back that up. The same scout, though, said it was hard to argue with a 94-97 mph fastball, no matter what the role.
16. JOSH OSICH, lhp, Oregon State (2-0, 2.92 ERA, 12 IP, 13 H, 6 BB, 15 SO). The most important thing for Osich is that he’s finally healthy this spring, taking the ball regularly and throwing strikes. His mid- to upper-90s velocity for a lefthander will almost assuredly get him drafted high if he maintains his current performance/stuff level until June.
17. CORY MAZZONI, rhp, North Carolina State (2-1, 3.29 ERA, 27 IP, 23 H, 9 BB, 30 SO). Mazzoni has flown under the national radar somewhat, but that anonymity may not last much longer. I’m told he’s sitting at 92-94 mph, and topping out at 96, with a hard breaking ball that is a second potential plus pitch.
18. LOGAN VERRETT, rhp, Baylor (3-1, 2.55 ERA, 25 IP, 19 H, 6 BB, 30 SO). Verrett is a classic Minnesota Twins-type pitcher (picture Kevin Slowey, a former second-rounder). He’s not going to overwhelm anyone with raw stuff, but he has three very solid big-league pitches to go with command and pitching instincts.
19. RYAN CARPENTER, lhp, Gonzaga (0-1, 5.16 ERA, 23 IP, 20 H, 13 BB, 31 SO). The 6-foot-5 Carpenter has flashed impressive raw stuff over the past two years, but might be the biggest enigma on this list. He has all the physical tools to be a dominant college pitcher and first-round type pick, but none of the consistency to firmly put his name in either category.
20. KYLE WINKLER, rhp, Texas Christian (4-0, 0.00 ERA, 28 IP, 14 H, 2 BB, 26 SO). I really don’t think Winkler will get picked in the first round or supplemental first round, but in my mind he should. So this is my editorial pick. There’s no question for me that he will pitch in the big leagues one day, probably after a very short trip through the minors. Winkler’s critics say he is 5-foot-11 with a wacky delivery. I say he has three solid big-league pitches he can use, repeats the wacky delivery well while creating deception and has been very successful every moment of the last five years (including 23-4 at TCU, and counting). Additionally, he has a completely clean health history. He doesn’t need to get much better at all to pitch at a high level.
The Next 20 College Pitchers (alphabetical order)
Bryce Bandilla, lhp, Arizona
Madison Boer, rhp, Oregon
Carter Capps, rhp, Mount Olive (N.C.)
Anthony DeSclafani, rhp, Florida
Brian Dupra, rhp, Notre Dame
Drew Gagnon, rhp, Long Beach State
Grayson Garvin, lhp, Vanderbilt
Sean Gilmartin, lhp, Florida State
Erik Johnson, rhp, California
Larry Linsky, rhp, Hawaii
Scott Lyman, rhp, UC Davis
Nick Maronde, lhp, Florida
Anthony Meo, rhp, Coastal Carolina
Navery Moore, rhp, Vanderbilt
Scott McGough, rhp, Oregon
Kyle McMyne, rhp, Villanova
Noe Ramirez, rhp, Cal State Fullerton
Burch Smith, rhp, Oklahoma
Carson Smith, rhp, Texas State
Sam Stafford, lhp, Texas