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May 30, 2014

Raising Aces

Under the Hood of the 2014 Draft, Part One

by Doug Thorburn


The 2014 first-year player draft is loaded with arms who are projected to fly off the board in the early going. The BP prospect crew recently conducted a mock draft of next Thursday's action, with each evaluator answering the question, “Whom would you draft?” The first edition covered the top 10 picks of the draft, and when all was said and done, the participants had chosen pitchers with eight of the first 10 selections, including the top four players overall. The only time in the history of the draft that the first four names announced were pitchers was in 2011, with the quartet of Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer, and Dylan Bundy, and the early indications are that the arm-saturated draft of 2014 could match that tally.

I strongly urge the readers to check out the three-part series for descriptions of each athlete's stuff and details of their development. Raising Aces is here to tackle the mechanics, but before we get started, there are some necessary caveats to consider:

1) The evaluations are based on the scouting videos that are linked for each player within the “Whom would you draft?” article, in addition to any other video data that could be unearthed. However, these videos provide just a limited lens through which to view a player's profile. The shooting angles might provide an advantageous viewpoint for some details yet be insufficient for other aspects of the pitcher's delivery.

2) Amateur players’ mechanics can be very volatile, and their motions can take different shapes in various outings throughout the year. We can get a decent read on their mechanical baselines, but these assessments are merely snapshots of their deliveries before they enter the pros.

3) Given the large grains of salt that come with the territory, there will not be defined grades given on the 20-80 scale, as I do with pro pitchers. Instead, the evaluations will be categorized based on stability (balance and posture) and power (momentum and torque), with letter grades provided to establish relative skills in each category.

In the first installment of this multi-part series, we will start at the top of the BP team's mock draft and work our way down the list, in order to gain familiarity with the mechanics of the pitchers who are likely to be chosen early next Thursday.

Brady Aiken

Aiken has a classic rock 'n' roll delivery, which combines with his left-handedness and big bender to present an Andy Pettitte-like appearance. The rock 'n' roll is characterized by a torso lean toward second base during the stride phase, with Aiken rearing back in preparation to pull the trigger of trunk rotation. Paired with a closed stride angle, the rock 'n' roll pattern adds deception to his pitches by hiding the baseball from the batter's view until near release point. The downside is that the lean-back interferes with his balance, with a ripple effect of spine-tilt after foot strike that culminates in subpar posture at release point.

The southpaw has a very modest pace to the plate. His initial move is solid, as he leads with the hip to generate energy into the lift phase, but his second gear is underwhelming. Aiken does have a late burst of momentum just before foot strike to add some power to the delivery, though such speed changes can potentially wreak havoc on a pitcher's consistency. His torque is fueled by the lower half, with a strong hip turn into foot strike and a heavy delay before firing the upper body into rotation. The combination of pedestrian momentum and hip-driven torque opens the timing window for the delivery to fall off track, thereby increasing the sensitivity of his pitch command and raising the question of how well his control numbers will translate to the pros.

Stability Grade: B-
Power Grade: C+

Tyler Kolek

Kolek has an extremely powerful delivery that fuels his triple-digit heat. It all begins with his momentum, which starts heavy and continues to accelerate throughout the phases of lift and stride, rather than exhibiting the common gear change that is centered around max leg lift. Kolek generates tremendous energy from the setup position, leads with the hip while executing a high leg lift, and mixes that plus burst and big lift to produce a long stride that gets him closer to the plate. The right-hander has immense torque, with equal parts upper-body twist and delayed rotation that combine to find plus-plus hip-shoulder separation when he lines up the gears. “When” is the operative word in that case, as he has reportedly had problems honing the timing elements of his high-octane delivery.

It’s somewhat rare to find a pitcher with a 50/50 approach to torque when he has a closed stride, as the hip angle typically makes it more difficult to get separation from the lower half, but Kolek's signature allows him to utilize the hips despite an extremely closed stride that makes it look like he’s throwing at the on-deck circle if one freezes on the right frame. His back foot stays lined up with the centerline until just prior to release point, indicating that his closed-off delivery is mostly consistent with his personal signature. He finishes out in front, but not due to imbalance so much as his heavy flexion with the spine during the late phases of rotation. His posture flashes plus but often settles closer to average, which is a tremendous accomplishment for an 18-year old with such a vigorous motion. Considering that stability tends to develop later than power (and is easier to develop), the profile gives Kolek a vaulted ceiling for mechanical efficiency.

Stability Grade: B
Power Grade: A

Carlos Rodon

Rodon receives high marks for his stability, which combines with his plus power to establish a rare mix from the south side of the rubber. His balance is near perfect, as he keeps his head above his center-of-mass in both the lateral and vertical planes with virtually no drop beyond the slope of the mound. He does have a tendency to invoke a touch of spine-tilt near release point, though he stays firmly above average even on his bad days and he has room to improve with minimal adjustment. He finishes upright in his follow-through, though his linear energy appears to hit an invisible wall immediately after release point, suggesting that he has room for improvement during the late phases of his delivery.

The lefty has a slight saloon-door stride pattern in which the lift leg swings out toward the glove side during the secondary stage of his stride. The strategy is more glaring when he pitches from the stretch, as Rodon exaggerates an extremely closed angle of setup before he swings open the saloon door. The redirection strategy might leave him open to some funky angles, but he defies convention and finishes with a stride that is nearly straight at the plate.

Rodon is another example of a 50/50 torque pitcher who combines an upper-body twist with heavy hip rotation, though his lower half is driven as much by the stride pattern as his timing of trunk rotation. He maintains a strong pace to the plate that features a very smooth transition through the lift phase of his delivery, with a good burst to kickstart the delivery that perpetuates into foot strike. Rodon’s pattern of momentum is an asset because of its magnitude as well as its ease of repetition.

Stability Grade: B+
Power Grade: B

Jeff Hoffman
Hoffman was diagnosed with a torn UCL soon after the first mock-draft article was published, and his injury would surely have pushed the college product down the draft board. The amateur player pool has not been immune from the injury plague, though the relative predictability of returns from Tommy John surgery might minimize the dent to his draft stock, with some reports suggesting that he could follow the Lucas Giolito path and still land in the middle of the first round.

The lanky right-hander deals with the balance issues that one might expect from a pitcher with a slight frame, including a heavy drop-and-drive in his delivery in addition to lateral movement throughout the motion. On occasion, his lower half has also lacked stability from foot strike through release point. He has been known to overcome some of these deficits to find solid posture at release, but his degree of spine-tilt is volatile, and the shaky ride from leg lift through foot strike opens the door to inconsistency in the future.

Hoffman's momentum is shaped by a massive gear change that takes place after maximum leg lift as part of his drop-and-drive strategy. The secondary burst is impressive, but the big transition once again presents the opportunity for inconsistency of timing. His torque is hip-heavy thanks to a big delay of trunk rotation after foot strike, but this delay often dances past the point of no return, resulting in elbow drag. In fact, Hoffman presents all three of the ingredients that produce elbow drag: a pronounced scapular load, an “inverted W,” and an exaggerated delay of trunk rotation. The drag is most apparent on pitches when the arm is late, where he misses targets to the arm-side. This is not to suggest that the elbow drag was the sole scapegoat for his injury, but it is worth noting that Hoffman exhibits many of the mechanical warning signs for elbow damage.

Stability Grade: C
Power Grade: B

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Scouting,  Mechanics,  Amateur Draft

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