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June 30, 2005

The Class of 2006

Pitchers, Pitchers and More Pitchers

by Bryan Smith

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In 2005, for the first time ever, not one pitcher was selected in the draft's top five. Ricky Romero, a left-hander from Cal State-Fullerton, was the first hurler selected, at #6 by the Blue Jays.

"Each draft is so unique that I would have expected there to have been a year somewhere along the line where the overwhelming strength was position players," Toronto Blue Jay scouting director Jon Lalonde recently told Rich Lederer. Simply put, every year is a crapshoot, and every year we see something different.

Next year is likely to be much different. Rumors are that the 2006 draft class might include the best five collegiate pitchers of all-time. The draft class offers no clear-cut top position player, opening the door to five college pitchers going in the first seven or eight picks. While this is all purely speculative--there's lots of baseball between now and next June, starting with summer circuits like the Cape Cod League and Team USA tryouts--an introductory course on the group couldn't hurt.

Andrew Miller, LHP, University of North Carolina


 ERA    H/9    K/9   BB/9   BABIP   SOO   PF
2.98   7.26   9.68   4.84    .319    84   85
(Statistical Notes: PF is the park factor that Boyd Nation has attributed the player's university using data from 2001-2004. SOO, or strength of opponent, is the average ISR (another Nation stat that measures team quality) of the opposing clubs that each player faced during his starts. Finally, note that the average BABIP is a bit higher in college, about .310 when averaging the Pac-10, Big 12 and ACC.)

Ask a major-league scout to describe his perfect pro prospect, and he would likely conjure up an image of Andrew Miller. "First of all, I'd have him be a pitcher, no wait, a southpaw," he would say. "And one that has a lot of velocity, and a second strikeout pitch. Oh, and I'd want a big body, and a projectable one at that." Voila, wish granted. Once one of the best high-school prospects in his class, Miller made it widely known before the 2002 draft that he planned to live up to his college commitment. This still did not stop the home state Tampa Bay Devil Rays from selecting him at the top of the third round and offering him near-first-round money. You can bet the D-Rays were there at the 2003 World Top Prospect Showcase, drooling with everyone else, after which Perfect Game USA wrote, "Miller's performance at the PG World Showcase ranks with the best ever at this event."

What was a goal then is still one now, as since coming to North Carolina, Miller has added just 10 pounds to the frame (6'6") that scouts said had the potential to gain 40. Other caveats from Miller's high-school days also still apply, most notably his command. After an ugly 4.85 BB/9 as a freshman, Miller posted a 4.84 BB/9 in 2005, no improvement at all. In half of Miller's 16 starts this past season, he walked four or more hitters. When he did not do so, his ERA was 2.28, compared to 3.77 in his starts with the control problems. The ugliness peaked on April 15 against Miami, when Miller walked eight hitters in just 2 1/3 miserable innings.

At the very worst, Miller profiles to be a reliever in the majors. His two-pitch arsenal--mid-'90s fastball and mid-'80s slider--would do wonders, and his problems with control and endurance (13 of his 32 earned runs allowed came in the last inning of a start) wouldn't wreak such havoc. Miller has to learn to control his fastball, gain 25 pounds and a little more velocity. If he does, he'll put the C.C. Sabathias of the world to shame.

Dallas Buck, RHP, Oregon State University


 ERA    H/9    K/9   BB/9   BABIP   SOO   PF
2.09   6.28   8.23   3.56    .245    61   92
Dallas Buck became famous very quickly this season. As Oregon State became college baseball's Cinderella story, Buck's spot at the top of the rotation was quickly noticed. In his June 7 column, Peter Gammons mentioned Buck as a possible first overall selection.

There is no question that Buck owes his newfound fame to the beginning of the season, when he was on fire. In his first eight starts, only two of which were in conference, Buck was one of college baseball's best hurlers. Through 60 2/3 innings, Buck had a 1.19 ERA and 73 strikeouts, against 19 walks and 44 hits. After that, in Pac-10 and tournament play, his numbers worsened.

Buck's ERA after his eighth start was 2.90, his K/9 was 5.93, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio declined 63% to 1.41. Dallas also hit a ridiculously high 32 batters on the season, and if his final start was any indication, many of those were on sliders that failed to break. All these are bad indicators, to be sure, but Buck has enough upside to justify the praise rained on him.

Scouts aren't often found drooling over Buck's stuff. Instead, they love his off-the-charts athleticism, due to his presence in the OSU secondary as well as on the rosters of four different sports in high school. A sinker/slider pitcher, Buck normally works from about 88-91 mph, with a "two-to-eight" slider that he uses as his out pitch. Recently, he has been compared to Derek Lowe, a comparison not apt because it overrates his sinker and underestimates his ceiling. Instead, combine Buck's arsenal, delivery and intensity, and you conjure up images of Kevin Brown.

Furthermore, Buck just does not generate ground balls the way that Lowe does. Oregon State has play-by-play data for 14 of his 19 appearances, during which time Dallas' GB/FB ratio was 1.73. In his other five contests, if every non-K out was a groundball (which is improbable), his new GB/FB would be 2.64, still short of the Dodger's career averages. As for next year, expect Dallas' BABIP to rise (and with it his ERA), but with increased consistency, stamina and endurance to help his GB/FB, strikeout and walk rates.

Ian Kennedy, RHP, University of Southern California


 ERA    H/9    K/9   BB/9   BABIP   SOO   PF
2.54   6.54  12.15   2.92    .304    49  105
It's only fitting that a Trojan would make this list, considering USC's place in baseball lore, with one of the most successful programs ever. They are also the alma mater of the man many consider to be the greatest college pitcher ever, Mark Prior. Kennedy is not in the mold of USC hurlers Prior, Barry Zito or Tom Seaver, but his numbers are probably better than all of them.

While Prior's entire package may have made him the best pro pitching prospect to ever come from the college ranks, it's a stretch to say he was the best ever while in school. Instead, Prior's college numbers should be considered the bar for a great college career, a bar last surpassed by Jered Weaver. Is Ian Kennedy next on that list? Here is a comparison of how they did in their first year at USC:


           ERA    H/9    K/9   K/BB
Prior     4.59   11.7    7.8    3.1
Kennedy   2.91    8.4   11.7    3.9
Not even close. Where it appears Prior came onto the campus fairly raw, and grew into what he became, Kennedy entered ready. In his first college start, Kennedy faced Weaver, the nation's best pitcher, and matched him zero-for-zero for five innings. Kennedy also did something that neither Prior or Weaver did, pitching on Team USA, and led the team in strikeouts following his freshman year. OK, well Prior must have closed the gap in year two, right?

           ERA    H/9    K/9   K/BB
Prior     3.56   8.3     9.9    3.3
Kennedy   2.54   6.5    12.2    4.2
Wrong. Kennedy's sophomore season was fantastic, as he led the nation in strikeouts despite facing the hardest schedule of anyone on this list. His K/BB is over 4.0, and he was simply the Pac-10's best pitcher in 2005. Prior was very good as a sophomore, but Kennedy was simply better.

Still, Kennedy has things to prove that Prior did not. Scouts look at his six-foot frame in disgust, despite the success of smaller right-handers such as Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson. Kennedy's body is stockier than those two elites, but his stuff matches up with theirs. Kennedy spots a low-90s fastball and very good curve.

Ian Kennedy won't boast the ceiling of past Trojan aces when he is draft-eligible next year, but teams would be foolish to think his numbers aren't indicative of future greatness.

Max Scherzer, RHP, University of Missouri


 ERA    H/9    K/9   BB/9   BABIP   SOO   PF
1.86   4.99  11.09   3.47    .245    73  113
If it's fair to say that Miller leads the group in projectability, Kennedy in polish and Buck in athleticism, than credit must be given to Max Scherzer's fastball. The lone Midwest player in the group is also the least famous, as his star wasn't very bright after high school or even his freshman season. In fact, after walking 13 in 20 innings during the 2004 season, Scherzer was merely a blip on area scouts' radars.

Then something happened, as it does with so many pitchers. For reasons we just can't ascertain, Scherzer's velocity jumped 4-6 mph between his first and second seasons. His command improved with better mechanics, and his endurance with extensive conditioning work. "He holds his velocity well late into games," coach Tim Jamieson says. "His last pitch against Nebraska in his only complete game was 97 mph."

And sometimes, a fastball is all you need to succeed. With that mid-90s heater, Scherzer became the best pitcher in the Big XII this past season. His hit and strikeout rates were excellent, and opposing hitters slugged just .211 against him. Critics will point out a lackluster schedule and low BABIP, but Scherzer showed his true colors in the aforementioned Nebraska start, when he allowed just one run on four hits against the nation's second-ranked team.

Scherzer's toughest test will be meeting the expectations that come with his newfound fame. First, he will be expected to lead the Tigers, as the young squad will be one of the Big 12 favorites following a regional berth this season. Second, he must prove the 2005 season not to be a fluke, attempting to repeat his sensational sophomore statistics. On top of all that, Scherzer will try and appease the scouts, tightening up the rest of the repertoire in the way he did with his fastball last offseason. "[Max] must be more consistent with his offspeed pitches, especially his slider," his own coach critiques.

Luckily for Scherzer, he has one pitch that essentially put him on this list, and could likely ride just that all the way to a major-league bullpen. That's a lot more than could have been said about him one year ago, that's for sure.

Daniel Bard, RHP, University of North Carolina


 ERA    H/9    K/9   BB/9   BABIP   SOO   PF
4.22   7.33   7.73   4.32    .258    92   85
If there is a consensus about the first four players on this list, there isn't with Daniel Bard. Despite playing in a pitchers' park with the easiest schedule of the five, Bard had by far the worst season of the group. Everyone blows him away in terms of ERA, and only the sinkerballer (Buck) and wild thing (Miller) are close in K/9 and BB/9, respectively.

Still, what keeps Bard on this list is his stuff and the promise from his freshman season. The stuff isn't head and shoulders above the rest on this list, but it's solid, with a very good 1-2 combination. His freshman performance was maybe the best of the five, right there with Ian Kennedy's. Bard quickly became the Tar Heels Friday night pitcher his first year in Chapel Hill, and went on to win ACC Freshman of the Year honors. His peripheral stats showed work needed to be done, but the promise was there. Bard needs to work on pitching better against good teams, as he allowed 23 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings against teams in Boyd Nation's top 40. He needs to work on control, as he walked at least three batters in 11 of his 16 starts. And like any good young pitcher, he needs to work on consistency. Bard was very prone to the big inning this year, and often allowed more runs per baserunner than is usual.

It's still possible that Bard puts it all together and has a great junior season, catapulting himself into a guaranteed top ten. It's also possible that Bard gets passed by other people (such as Keith Weiser at Miami of Ohio), and falls out of the first round. More than anyone else on this list, time will tell for Daniel Bard.

Then again, time is important to consider for all five players. There is a lot of baseball standing between them and next June, along with those inevitable increased expectations. They will have radar guns following them at every start, including summer ball. Over the next two months, listen for Bard and Miller in the Cape Cod League, and Kennedy and Scherzer with Team USA. Dallas Buck decided not to pitch in the summer, possibly figuring his stock has no room to go higher. Correct bargaining chip? Time will...you get the picture.

Hopefully these words come as a solace to fans in Tampa, Denver and Kansas City, who will be forced into another half-season of helpless baseball. Devil Rays fans will be happy to know that, while the losses continue to pile up, being last of 30 simply means a decision between re-drafting Andrew Miller, picking Dallas Buck or going the high-school route in Kyle Drabek. The Rockies will likely be abandoning their recent philosophy of spending top picks on position players, and should probably be considered the sinkerballer Buck's most likely destination. And over in Kansas City, Allard Baird and Deric Ladnier might not even have to travel out of state to scout their next bonus baby.

But the largest subplot of next year's draft, barring any significant changes at the top, will be the absence of position players early on. If Bard picks up the pace, and Drabek and Cory Rasmus continue to lead the high-school pick, a hitter might not be chosen until the eighth pick.

Bryan Smith is co-writer and proprietor of the Baseball Analysts, where he focuses on minor league and college baseball. He welcomes any feedback through e-mail.

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

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