Pitching Prospects Who Improved Their Stocks in 2017
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Pitching is one of the most unnatural things a human being can do to their bodies in all of sports, so actually projecting or evaluating a pitcher is often purposeless folly. Just taking a look at an old draft and looking at highly drafted pitchers is always good for a nice chuckle. In today’s instance, I took a look at the 2009 draft that also produced the greatest baseball player in history: Mike Trout. On the pitching side, for every Stephen Strasburg (taken No. 1 overall), there’s a Matthew Hobgood (No. 5) or Jacob Turner (No. 9) who have given little to no production in the majors.
All of this amounts to my favorite acronym: TINSTAAP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect). Basically meaning that even the best draft prep, hard work, discipline, and plan can be worthless all due to the whims of the pitching gods. So with that in mind, we’re going to try to evaluate some pitchers today! Whether it’s a return from an injury, adding velocity, improving that elusive third pitch, or even just gaining some confidence and experience, every year certain pitchers make the jump from intriguing arm to top-flight prospect. This list is going to look at some of those prospects who have made enough of an impact that they should be on your radar pretty heavily now. With the advancement they have made, maybe, just maybe, they are more Strasburg than Hobgood.
AJ Puk: Oakland Athletics
Puk has quickly found himself in my good graces, as he’s one of my favorite pitching prospects in all of baseball. The towering 6-foot-7 left-hander was drafted sixth overall in the 2016 June Amateur Draft and debuted in 2017 at No. 83 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect’s list. Questions remained about his control and endurance (and somewhat still remain), but he upped the ante by posting insane strikeout totals (184 in 125 innings) and keeping the walk rate at high but reasonable levels. If he can get the BB/9 down from the 3.52 he posted in Double-A as a 22-year-old, then we are looking at a bonafide ace. That’s always a big “if,” but Puk keeps the ball in the yard and, despite a so-so ERA right above 4.00, advanced run metrics like FIP and xFIP love him at closer to 2.50. That nice season gave Puk a 53-spot jump on the top 100, now pegging him at No. 30 overall.
2017 Ranking: 83
2018 Ranking: 30
Ceiling: Ace/#2 Starter
Mike Soroka: Atlanta Braves
Soroka is a mere puppy amongst dogs at only 20 years old. He is a talented Canadian lefty who was taken 28th overall in the 2015 draft and was largely just considered an under-slot signing, meaning that it was largely believed he would take less money at the pick so the Braves could spend more later in the draft. The truth is that the Braves may have actually gotten a bit of a bargain. Soroka sports a fastball in the low to mid-90s, a solid slider, and a changeup that is a work in progress, but certainly not a junk pitch.
Mike Soroka shows off his two-seam fastball in the All-Star Future’s Game.
In the 2017 Top 100 list, Soroka came in at No. 48, then proceeded to repeat his excellent 2016 numbers at the all-important Double-A level. In 153.2 innings, Soroka posted a 2.75 ERA, 7.32 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, and limited opposing hitters to a 6.8% HR/FB percentage. That bumped his stock and position in the Top 100 up to No. 27 overall. It’s important to note that, obviously, his strikeout percentage leaves a bit to be desired, but the Braves think he could gain a bit of velocity as he ages. Even if it stays the same, his excellent control will make Soroka a very low-floor kind of player.
2017 Ranking: 48
2018 Ranking: 27
Ceiling: #2/#3 Starter
Triston McKenzie: Cleveland Indians
Drafted 42nd overall in the 2015 draft, McKenzie was a tall, lanky high-schooler whose stock had risen thanks to a velocity increase over the previous few years. He was one of the youngest players taken in the draft (just 17 years old), and the hope was that he would grow into his 6-foot-5 frame. Well, at only 165 pounds, “growing into his frame” is still something he needs to do. However, he certainly doesn’t need the weight to perform, as he’s shown flashes of brilliance since his debut, culminating in a 2017 season at High-A with 143 innings, a 11.71 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, and 3.46 ERA. McKenzie reached No. 68 on the Top 100 list in 2017 and jumped all the way up to No. 33 after this past season. Some questions still abound, including whether or not he can hold up to the rigors of 200 innings while weighing less than most shortstops half his size. And though the fastball-curveball combo is great, he needs to continue to develop the changeup to be able to maintain success multiple times through a lineup. I still think that, because of his age and size, we likely won’t see him until late 2019. That said, there’s a chance that with continued development and a good showing early this season (likely starting in Double-A) that he gets a cup of coffee with a September call-up. However you look at it, the future is bright for this kid.
2017 Ranking: 68
2018 Ranking: 33
Ceiling: #2 Starter