July 1, 2014
BP Top 50
Hunter Harvey vs. Kohl Stewart
In each case, the BP Prospect Staff member advocating on behalf of a prospect may or may not ultimately prefer that prospect, but in any event has agreed to argue that prospect’s case for the purpose of this series. It’s a good reminder that the differences in value between players in these rankings is sometimes quite small, and in most cases a strong case can be made for ranking players in any number of combinations.
Nick J. Faleris serves as a quasi-moderator for the debate, introducing the players and leading a question-and-answer session to help tease out the arguments for and against each player.
Introducing Hunter Harvey and Kohl Stewart
Hunter Harvey (RHP, Orioles) took a similar path, becoming the third high school arm selected in the 2013 First Year Player Draft, coming off the board to Baltimore with the 22nd overall pick. Within three months the North Carolina prep product had impressed with strong short-season performances in both the Gulf Coast League and the New York-Penn League, and three months after that he ranked as the third-best prospect on the Orioles Top 10 Prospects list.
While Harvey’s stellar showing in 2013 was enough to jump him over many 2013 draftees on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 last winter, Stewart maintained a slightly elevated footing, ranking as the 54th overall prospect in the game, four slots ahead of Harvey. That slim four-player gap may have narrowed further during the first half of 2014, and perhaps even eliminated, as Harvey has been most impressive in his full-season debut with Low-A Delmarva, striking out over 10 batters per nine (85 strikeouts in 71.2 innings) while limiting opponents to a .178 batting average. Stewart’s production in the Midwest League has been likewise impressive, with opponents batting just .216 against the young righty, though he is striking out hitters at a lesser rate (sub-7.0 strikeouts per nine; 45 strikeouts over 64 innings). Both are in the early stages of their development, with plenty of challenges ahead, and their similarities as first-round high school righties from the 2013 draft class made them an interesting duo for this debate.
The Case for Hunter Harvey (Chris Mellen)
If the fastball wasn’t already enough, Harvey’s secondary stuff shows both advancement and opportunity for strong growth. The righty feels his curveball well, snapping the offering off with a loose wrist that creates tight rotation and teeth. While the changeup needs some work, it flashes quality depth as it fades off the table to his arm-side. Both offerings have the potential to miss bats in a big way with continued polishing. What puts him over the top for me? His mentality. Harvey approaches his craft with a channeled focus that resonates advanced maturity. Add it all up, and the package here screams frontline potential.
The Case for Kohl Stewart (Jordan Gorosh)
Stewart also features three secondary pitches, including a slider, curve, and changeup. The slider has the best projection of the three, featuring 11-to-3 movement and sharp break in the mid-to-high 80s. It's not a pitch he throws for strikes just yet, and the Twins have taken it away from him to some extent, because it's too good for low-minors hitters. His upper-70s curveball needs a bit of work. It's not a true hammer, more of a slurvy offering, but it offers solid average projection, as spin generation isn't a problem in the least. The changeup rounds out the arsenal, and Stewart turns it over with good fade and late bite at 83 to 85 mph, but it's not a pitch he fully trusts quite yet, often struggling to throw it for strikes. With two pitches that, at the very least, project as plus, two others around major league average, and a big-time command profile, Stewart offers a no. 2 starter ceiling.
NF: Chris, you nailed Harvey's progression in short-season ball last summer as a legit jump in stuff as opposed to another flash of his potential (which we saw plenty of last spring, along with lots of inconsistency in velocity and secondary execution). You were a big proponent of pushing Harvey up the BP Top 101 this winter, and you've advocated raising him in the rankings for the BP Top 50 based on your updated looks and reports from the first half of 2014. I want you to step to the other side for a second and tell me why we should be cautious in our ranking of Harvey. What concerns do you have and what do you think will lead to his first real set of struggles?
CM: As I mentioned in my opener, I'm not typically one to be over-aggressive with young arms given the volatility at the position. There are many variables, including health that determine the success of pitching prospects, even the ones who show elite stuff. With Harvey, he still has a lot of milestones and markers to pass, especially when it comes to the rigors of the position. I don't think we ever really know whether that will work out until a pitcher stamps his passport to the major-league level, but there are still clues left throughout his progression as to whether this is an arm that's going to log 200-plus innings year after year while sustaining its stuff. And that stuff (mainly the changeup) still needs sharpening in order for Harvey to meet the lofty projections. This is an arm in the infant stages of the developmental journey, and there are likely to be some bumps along the way. Player development isn't usually linear.
NF: Jordan, reports on Stewart are solid, but the stat lines show an inability to miss bats at the rate you'd expect from the supposed top prep arm from the 2013 draft class. Do you have any insight as to why Stewart isn't putting hitters away via strikeout? Should that be taken into account when we consider his placement on the BP Top 50 relative to Harvey, who is striking out four more batters per nine (10.3 vs. 6.3), also at Low-A?
JG: I believe it would be hypocritical for the BP team to use a stat like that to determine placement on the top 50. As evaluators we try to steer people away from using statistics, especially at the lower levels of the minor leagues, where guys are often working on specific aspects of development (fastball command, pitching backward, stamina, etc). It's about the process and development at these levels, not the numbers. For that reason, I don't care what Stewart is doing right now at the Low-A level; I care what he's going to do at the major league level.
From what I understand, the Twins have prohibited him from throwing too many sliders. Seeing him pitch, I believe that's fairly evident, and there were quite a few times where he could have thrown a two-strike slider to put away a hitter but instead tried one of his other three pitches. Stewart was still able to garner swings-and-misses, but at this point, he's generating a lot of weak contact—hitters are really struggling to barrel him up.
NF: I think that's a fair point, Jordan. BP always points to the issues inherent in "scouting the stat line," particularly at the lower levels. At the same time, it’s important to look at instances where production doesn't seem to be matching the skill set.
Chris, the Orioles notoriously took away Dylan Bundy's cutter while he was working his way through the system. One current knock, if you can call it that, on Harvey is his underdeveloped changeup. Do you foresee the organization taking similar action (limiting his curveball usage) in order to force Harvey to utilize the change more often and facilitate a more rapid development of the offering? Or should they simply let him throw until he reaches a level of competition that requires him to put more developmental focus on the off-speed stuff?
CM: I don't see them going to that level of extreme with Harvey in taking away his curve completely, but they will stress the importance of throwing and developing his changeup. In fact, reports and feedback from his outings have indicated that there's been an increased focus on working the change into sequences, which speaks to the point already being impressed upon him early in his progression.
There's a tough line here given the caliber of Harvey's fastball and curve. He can likely continue to step right through lineups in the lower levels with just those two pitches. I see the infusion of his change continuing at this stage of his development, as we've already begun to observe, to prepare Harvey for when he gets to the level of competition (Double-A, in my eyes) that will require it to be regularly featured.
NF: Jordan, at the time of the 2013 draft Stewart had a vocal backing from a fair number of industry sources as the top arm in the draft class, prep or collegiate. With the understanding that 1) the Midwest League is not a fun place to be, early in the season, and that 2) Stewart's focus this year is on steady development, rather than gripping and ripping, when do you expect we'll start to see the "wow" stuff that allowed Stewart to receive such praise around one year ago? Do you think the reins will be loosened in the second half, or is it more likely he gets a longer leash next year in the Florida State League?
JG: You're right that the Midwest League is not a fun place to pitch, especially early in the season. Often, nights are cold, and the travel schedule can be brutal. Plus, for many of these prospects, Stewart (and Harvey) included, Low-A is the first time that these kids have ridden the bus and thrown every five days. That's a hard lifestyle adjustment.
In terms of "wow" stuff, it flashes right now, but I believe that's going to show up game in and game out next year in the FSL, rather than down the stretch. I'd guess that they're going to take off the kid gloves next year, let Stewart go deeper into games, and use his slider more often. The package is really more about the high floor and fastball command profile, sure. But, let's not pretend the numbers aren't excellent for a teenager in the MWL: He's allowed more than two earned runs only twice in 13 starts, and batters are hitting .220/.297/280 against him. He's very quick to the plate, usually in the 1.15-1.25 range, and has only allowed two stolen bases all season.
NF: Jordan, what do you think is the single biggest developmental hurdle likely to prevent Harvey from 1) reaching his ceiling, and/or 2) growing into a productive major leaguer? Chris, same question to you with regard to Stewart.
JG: The advent of the changeup is my biggest concern for Harvey. You see plenty of guys in the low minors with two pitches that they go to frequently, usually the fastball and a pitch they can spin, and the third pitch lags behind. When will the changeup come to fruition? The change is a feel pitch, and even though it currently flashes big league average for Harvey, I question whether he'll be able to bring that pitch with him on a consistent basis, start after start, for 200 innings in the big leagues.
CM: The sharpening of Stewart's command of his secondary arsenal is where I see the biggest developmental hurdle. He feels his fastball pretty well and is athletic, but it’s the progress in the crispness of the off-speed stuff, especially the curveball and changeup, that's going to decide whether he can miss a lot of bats. Stewart’s raw stuff is of a very high caliber. The outcome can be huge. But right now, the secondary stuff as a whole tends to flash and nothing more. If he's going to reach the level of a frontline arm, then I'd expect a good developmental jump for the aforementioned pitches, and that's a hill for Stewart to climb.
We’ll keep the conversation going in the comments section and hope you will join in with questions and critiques of your own. Which do you believe is the better prospect right now, Harvey or Stewart? Will Harvey’s changeup or Stewart’s command pose the biggest developmental issue among the two? Should these two even be in a discussion together, or has Harvey’s early development pushed him far beyond Stewart already? How much weight should be given to the opinions of evaluators who, this time last year, saw Stewart’s arm as the best in his draft class?
Check in tomorrow for our next entry in the Midseason BP Top 50 Debate Series, and of course make sure you’re here when the list drops next week!
Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @NickJFaleris