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High School | General | 4/5/2019

NHSI Day 2 Scout Notes

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Anthony Volpe (Perfect Game)

NHSI Day 1 NotesNational High School Top 50

New Jersey state rules prohibit schools from playing games in state until April 1, so this early April tournament is spring training for Delbarton High School compared to the schools in Cary from California, Georgia, Florida and Arizona. But that didn't seem to bother the entire team, and especially PG All-Americans righthander Jack Leiter (2019, Summit, N.J.) and shortstop Anthony Volpe (2019, Watchung, N.J.) in Delbarton's 17-0 win on Thursday.

Leiter worked in the 90-94 mph range with his fastball, hitting the upper ranges generally when ahead in the count and with visibly a bit more effort into release. His best and most successful pitch was his mid-70s curveball, which was thrown for about 80-percent strikes with big and sharp downer break down into the strike zone.

Given a big lead early in the game, Leiter didn't have the need to break out his slider and changeup aggressively, as he has done in the past. Interestingly, and far more young pitchers should follow this warmup routine, Leiter was ready to use all four of his pitches at the start of the game. When he took the mound in the bottom of the first inning, Leiter opened his warmup with a pair of 91 mph fastballs, then threw a 74 mph curveball and 80 mph slider that seemed to satisfy him. He then bounced a low-80s changeup that clearly didn't satisfy him based on his body language, so he signaled the catcher he was throwing another changeup and threw a much better version before finishing with two more fastballs. So in eight warm up pitches he'd thrown all four of his offerings and made sure he had a feel for each pitch.

It would be impossible to guesstimate how many times during the course of a year we will watch a pitcher warm up throwing only fastballs before a game, only to throw a curveball the first pitch of the game.

The highlight of the game for Leiter may not have been on the mound, however. After grounding out in his first at-bat hitting in the seven-hole, Leiter turned on a mid-plate fastball and drove it off the left-center field fence, missing a long home run by mere feet. For the record, Leiter's father, Al, who was watching very enthusiastically from the stands, did not distinguish himself as a hitter in his 18-year big league career, hitting .085 in 530 at-bats with only eight extra-base hits, none of which were home runs.

Scouts have always had a strong appreciation for Volpe's baseball skills, especially on defense, and the very mature and high-energy way he plays the game. But performances like Thursday's are showing them that Volpe has plenty of tools to go with his advanced skills. In his first at-bat, Volpe crushed a towering home run to left field to show his raw power potential. He almost took the pitcher's knees off with a hard line drive single up the middle while running a hard 4.28 turn at first base, then reached on an infield single his third trip running a 4.20 dig to first. He wasn't challenged defensively during the game with Leiter racking up the strikeouts.

It would not be surprising to hear Volpe's name mentioned more and more as a potential first round pick over the next eight weeks as scouts further appreciate his physical tools, while almost considering him the equivalent of a college pick with his skill level and maturity.

The generalization among scouts, built up over years and decades of time, is that players from Southern California tend to be slower runners than their peers from other parts of the country, especially from the Southeast. Aside from Pete Crow-Armstrong, one of the fastest high school players in the country right now, there are plenty of other plus runners from Southern California at this event.

Perhaps the fastest, and best prospect, in the non-Crow-Armstrong category is Orange Lutheran right fielder Jasiah Dixon (2019, Riverside, Calif.). Dixon has been a well-known prospect since his freshman year but has been hampered consistently by hamstring problems. He appears healthy now, with a chiseled 6-foot, 180-pound build and an explosive first step. Dixon didn't produce any home-to-first run times in the two games observed, although he has run around 4.1-seconds many times in the past, but did register a 3.21 time on a straight steal attempt. That speed, and a present plus throwing arm, profile Dixon as a potential above average defensive outfielder either in right field or center field.

Scouts were noticeably bearing down hard on Dixon these past few days and will have to project some on his righthanded bat. He has plenty of strength and hand quickness to become a solid hitter, but his current set-up, with bent knees and a hunched over stance with hands tight to his body, is more tailored to line drive, middle-of-the-field contact.

Dixon doesn't play center field on the loaded Orange Lutheran team, which will play Harvard-Westlake in an all-California final on Saturday, because of the equally speedy Chad Born (2020, Placentia, Calif.), the 61st-ranked overall player in the junior class. Born has a long and projectable 6-foot-1, 170-pound build that can carry plenty more strength without sacrificing speed. A righthanded hitter, Born has an uncanny ability at the plate to square up the baseball and is an on-base machine at the top of any lineup. He showed his extra-base potential with a drive up the right-center field gap on Thursday and projects to keep adding to his present gap power.

The third California high school at the NHSI, Huntington Beach, also features a similar leadoff hitting center fielder in junior Jake Vogel (2020, Huntington Beach, Calif.), a UCLA commit and the 130th-ranked player in the junior class. Vogel ran a 4.24-second home-to-first time from the right side on one ground ball Thursday and didn't appear to get out of the box cleanly. He also showed off his arm strength later in the game with a perfect, on-the-fly strike to home plate to almost nail a runner scoring from second base on a single to center field.

Huntington Beach lefthander Eddie Pelc (2019, Huntington Beach, Calif.) is a recently converted outfielder who has also recently signed with University of San Diego. Based on the stuff he showed on Thursday, he's going to win plenty of games at the college level. Pelc is listed at 5-foot-10 but has four solid present pitches that he showed he could throw for strikes. His fastball sat at 86-88 mph the entire outing and his best pitch was a big-breaking curveball with some bite in the low-70s. He also threw a upper-70s slider and a nice changeup. Pelc got in trouble, especially with righthanded hitters, by throwing his curveball too often but it looked in flashes like he was capable of working off any pitch in his arsenal to either right or lefthanded hitters.

– David Rawnsley

Day 2 of the NHSI saw a more-than-full slate of games, given the expected inclement weather coming on Friday in the general Cary area. We saw the contending teams whittled down to two, with Orange Lutheran and Harvard-Westlake scheduled to battle in an all-California championship game on Saturday evening.

Kendall Williams (2019, Olive Branch, Miss.) got the start for IMG Academy in their quarterfinal matchup with Blessed Trinity, and while BT ended up winning the game in extra innings and moving onto the semis, Williams was still exemplary in his outing. A PG All-American last summer, Williams is the No. 26 player in the class right now and looks like he could end up being a top two-round pick this June.

Long and lean with a solid combination of strength and projection, Williams was a bit rough out of the gate in terms of command and feel to spin the ball, but found both quickly in the second inning and was essentially untouchable for the rest of his outing. He worked in the 91-93 mph range consistently, hitting 94 mph a couple times, and generating steep plane to the plate while working the fastball to both sides. He does a good job of staying down in the zone with the pitch, and when he’s at the knees with that amount of plane and velocity, the pitch is tough to hit.

He worked in a full arsenal of off-speed pitches as well, all of them flashing at least average. The curveball is his preferred breaking ball, thrown in the upper-70s with 12-to-6 to 11-to-5 shape, showing power depth and spin when he’s on top of it. It’s a pitch that could be projected as plus long term. His changeup was actually better than the curveball for a fair amount of his time on the mound, thrown in the 81-84 mph range with outstanding tumbling action and fade to the arm side. He throws the pitch with conviction and trust, and it accounted for a great deal of the swings-and-misses he elicited on this day. There were also flashes of a slider, a pitch he’s been trying to master for a while now and seems to have found a grip that he likes and is comfortable with. It’s not as consistent yet as the rest of the arsenal, but he broke off a couple with sharp tilt and firmer velocity from his curveball. He does a good job of tunneling everything out of that high slot as well, and his overall upside on the mound is pretty substantial overall.

Blessed Trinity (Ga.) got that extra-innings win over IMG and moved onto the semifinals, where they eventually lost to Harvard-Westlake. CJ Abrams (2019, Alpharetta, Ga.) is a contender for the top five overall selections, and he hits leadoff and plays shortstop for BT. A lithely-built, extraordinarily twitchy lefthanded hitter, Abrams draws superlatives for his athleticism, speed, and bat-to-ball skills, and while it hasn’t shown up in this tournament thus far, he has some sneaky power in there as well.

Abrams is a plus-plus runner who is lightning-quick out of the box and capable of turning in sub 4.0-second dig times, and his approach seems geared towards just putting the ball in play and taking off. This approach doesn’t necessarily portend to extra base power as currently constructed, but if Abrams gets on first he’s going to be on third base soon enough, that’s just the kind of speed he has. The hands work well in the swing and he’s amongst the best pure bat-to-ball hitters in the country, but he does show an overly aggressive approach at times and this leads to him making weak contact on bad pitches. The approach needs refinement in pro baseball, as Abrams won’t be able to get away with it against professional defenders nearly as often as he does vs. prep defenders, but a change in approach will also help him get to more and more of that untapped power he has both now and will in the future.

Defensively, evaluators are split as to Abrams’ future position, but there is no question of his athleticism and ability to stick in the middle of the diamond. He’s got the range, footwork, and twitch to play shortstop long term, but his hands and arm strength are average-ish. There’s a growing consensus that he’s likely to be a center fielder when all is said and done, but make no mistake, that’s not a knock on his profile, as potentially plus defenders in center field do not grow on trees and Abrams has every chance to be absolutely dynamic out there.

Riley Greene (2019, Oviedo, Fla.) has long been on the PG radar, near the top of his class for years now, and he’s still considered a potential top 10 overall pick for the draft this June. An outfielder with excellent size and physicality, Greene plays center field for Hagerty High School now, and while his athleticism and overall ease of action in the outfield has continually improved, he’s likely a left fielder long term, which does ding the profile a bit.

Regardless of all of that, Greene’s profile is built around his bat, and he has a case for being the best pure prep hitter in this class. He’s got tremendous hand-eye coordination, plus bat speed, an approach beyond his years, and plus raw power to go with it. There is the potential here for an absolute offensive monster, and his upside is that of a plus hit/plus power guy at the major league level, something that doesn’t come around all that often. There is inherent severe risk with any high school player at any position, but as far as prep bats go, Greene is one of the best of the past several draft classes to be sure.

Though obviously we’re two months from the 2019 draft, several 2020 prospects have stood out at NHSI, including Pete Crow-Armstrong (2020, Sherman Oaks, Calif.), the No. 3-ranked player in the class of 2020 and leadoff hitter for NHSI finalist Harvard-Westlake. Crow-Armstrong is loaded with tools, plays the game with his hair on fire and always hits. Sounds like a pretty good combination, right? A plus runner who absolutely goes and gets it in center field, Crow-Armstrong glides to the ball with ease and can run down balls launched into either gap. Offensively, there is innate bat-to-ball skill with plus bat speed and a very good understanding of the zone, giving him an extremely well rounded offensive game. He’s able to barrel pitches all over the zone, and while the swing plane is built more for line drives at present, he shows the ability to drive the ball up both gaps with authority and projecting power is pretty easy. He’s got an exciting package of all five tools and is just downright fun to watch play the game, and we at PG are extremely excited to watch him quite a bit more this summer.

Crow-Armstrong’s teammate and fellow top 2020 prospect Drew Bowser (2020, Encino, Calif.) has stood out all week as well, hitting in the middle of the Harvard-Westlake lineup and playing shortstop. He’s a physical, well-built 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, and while he wasn’t tested enough defensively to make any sort of future position determination, he definitely has the arm strength, with consistent zip and linear carry on his throws across the diamond. A righthanded hitter, Bowser has been smashing baseballs all week, hitting missiles all over the field and showing easy ability to work the ball up the gap. He’s got plenty of strength and present bat speed, and given his already-advanced abilities to recognize spin and battle in minus counts, he has the upside of an offensive monster. He’s committed to Stanford.

Kurtis Byrne (2019, Chesterfield, Mo.), one of the top catching prospects in the class of 2019, came down to NHSI with Christian Brothers College and has had a solid week. A righthanded hitter with excellent physical strength, Byrne shows an advanced understanding of the zone and his hand-eye coordination allows him to manipulate the barrel around the zone and get bat-to-ball on pitches all over it. He’s got things to like offensively to be sure, and is viewed as one of the more advanced prep hitters in the general Midwest area this spring, and his strength/bat speed combination gives him pretty substantial raw power as well.

Defensively, Byrne has both positives and negatives to his game behind the plate. He receives well, framing pitches with little extraneous movement and presenting the ball well upon reception. He’s quiet in general behind the plate, and this aids him in his receiving/framing efforts. The arm strength is a solid tool as well, and that’s not a concern as far as Byrne sticking behind the plate. His physicality, while extremely strong, also makes him somewhat stiff in terms of overall athleticism, lateral agility, and explosive twitch. This makes his projection as a catcher long term somewhat tenuous from the professional baseball perspective, but he should be just fine catching in college, and given his abilities as a receiver and thrower, the TCU pitchers should love throwing to him.

– Brian Sakowski

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