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June 8, 2012

Raising Aces

Draft Day Deliveries, Part 1

by Doug Thorburn

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The 2012 First-Year Player Draft had a tough act to follow, as last year's draft featured a historic wealth of pitching talent, including a record-setting four hurlers being selected before any hitters went off the board. This year's draft was hitter-heavy at the top, with position players selected with the top three overall picks. Pitchers then went flying off the board in five of the next six selections. The only pitcher in the discussion at no. 1 overall was Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, but his bonus demands may have been responsible for a stock drop at the 11th hour. 

The draft content on MLB Network had scouting videos of the top players, including in-game footage, and I utilized these scouting clips for many of the evaluations that follow. I have also provided links to each player's “draft report” from mlb.com, though in some cases the footage leaves much to be desired. With so few pitches spread across such disparate situations, I have opted to forgo the Mechanics Report Cards for the draftees. Sample-size caveats aside, the development patterns of young pitchers can be erratic, so consider these evaluations to be more of a Mechanics Progress Report. We will tackle the pitchers selected among the top 10 overall picks, before venturing deeper into the first round next week.

***

Fourth pick, Orioles: Kevin Gausman, RHP, LSU (Sophomore)
6'-4”, 195 lb, 21 years old

Click here for mlb.com draft report

A draft-eligible sophomore, the LSU right-hander is actually several months older than first-round juniors Mark Appel and Kyle Zimmer. Unfortunately, there are no collegiate video clips for Gausman on mlb.com and his draft report consists of just a few poorly zoomed photographs. The only video feed at the MLB site is his high school scouting video from the 2010 draft, and while I really like what I see in the high school clip, the footage provided by MLB Network on Draft Day 2012 indicates that much has changed in his two years at LSU. The lack of footage is disappointing, because one needs to see Gausman's delivery in action to appreciate it, and I encourage anyone with Monday's draft on his DVR to fast-forward to the fourth overall pick.

Gausman is all arms and legs, with a lanky frame and long levers. He looks like a bird of prey tucking into folded wings before emerging to strike. A huge leg lift allows him to compensate for modest momentum from the windup to produce a decent stride, though he brings the front foot down before his center of mass can travel very far toward the plate. The momentum is better in the clips with runners on base, as he mostly retains the leg lift but quickens his pace, a combination that is a net positive for Gausman's delivery from the stretch.

Gausman has some issues with balance, particularly after maximum leg lift, as he collapses the back leg on his way to the plate such that the head trails behind the body. He tilts the shoulder axis and points the glove to the sky on the way into foot strike. Gausman features a whirlwind of rotational velocity after foot strike, due to tremendous torque and aggressive hip rotation as well as a ton of upper-body load.

Gausman had a lower arm slot in high school thanks to excellent postural stabilization, but the right-hander has sacrificed posture in order to achieve a higher arm slot during his time at LSU. Regular readers of Raising Aces know that I am not a fan of this strategy due to the costs of release distance and repetition, as well as the perceived overemphasis on downhill plane, though I will submit that Gausman appears to be the rare example of an over-the-top pitcher who can get the fastball down in the zone. He has the potential for an incredible delivery, with a projectable frame and a mechanical history to fuel optimism that he can make the adjustments necessary to ascend to elite levels.

***

Fifth pick, Royals: Kyle Zimmer, RHP, University of San Francisco (Junior)
6'-3”, 210 lb, 20 years old

Click here for mlb.com draft report

At the risk of generating accusations of bias, given the kid's San Diego roots and USF pedigree, I must confess that Kyle Zimmer owns my favorite delivery of the first round. His momentum is outstanding, with a purposeful thrust that is initiated toward the target, contributing to a long stride and loads of kinetic energy flowing through the system. Zimmer attacks batters with authority. The rotational velocity is off the chart - the tornado to Gausman's hurricane - and Zimmer appears to have the functional strength and underlying mechanical benchmarks to support such a delivery.

The incredible force Zimmer applies to the baseball comes thanks to a large degree of hip-shoulder separation, though not at the levels one would expect given the extreme rotational speeds, indicating that his core strength is playing an atypical role in his velocity. He relies on generous momentum in addition to hip-heavy rotation to fuel the precursors to his whip-fast arm action. The right-hander is able to maintain a stable glove position out in front of the body, allowing him to track even closer to the target with his momentum directed toward the plate through pitch release.

Zimmer's posture appears to be solid when viewed at full-speed, but a frame-by-frame breakdown reveals some head movement near release point. The spine-tilt is no worse than MLB average right now, and the functional-strength indicators open up the door for plus-plus grades in the future. He has great balance throughout the delivery, with a rare combination of stability and athleticism that takes advantage of mechanical efficiency to lengthen his release point. John Hart thought that Zimmer had “the best three-pitch mix in the draft,” and those pitches will play up further when the hitters will have so little time to determine what pitch is coming at them.

Much was made of Zimmer's poor performance in front of Royals GM Dayton Moore, which was due in part to a hamstring injury that limited his effectiveness. A busted hammy would wreak havoc on a momentum-heavy delivery such as Zimmer's, throwing timing out of whack while limiting his kinetic energy and release distance. Yet it appears that Moore was undeterred, having already signed Zimmer to a $3 million deal that came in a half-million under slot.

***

Seventh pick, Padres: Max Fried, LHP, High School (CA)
6'-4”, 170 lb, 18 years old

Click here for mlb.com draft report

Throngs of scouts flocked to North Hollywood to witness games at Harvard-Westlake High, whose  pitching rotation was anchored by southpaw Fried and fellow first-rounder Lucas Giolito. One glance at the size numbers will tell you that Fried has some room to add weight to his frame, a trait that teases the potential for future velocity jumps and underscores the projection that comes along with this prep lefty.

Fried displays a slow and steady approach during the early stages of the delivery, maintaining solid balance with modest momentum into maximum leg lift. He picks up the pace into foot strike, though the second gear is not much faster than the first. The balance goes out of whack in the time between foot strike and release point, with heavy spine-tilt to the glove side in an effort to get on top of the ball. Fried had better posture on the fastball delivery of the scouting clip at mlb.com, but exaggerated tilt on the curve, which could be a small sample-size effect or the telltale signs of the common “get on top of the curveball” technique. If the trend is persistent, then the Padres will want to address the discrepancy during Fried's development.

In what is a common thread among the top pitcher picks, Fried uses strong hip rotation and a slight scapular load to generate rapid arm speed, producing low-90's heat from the left side. If he irons out some of the wrinkles, adds some functional strength, stabilizes the delivery and finds his ideal timing, then Fried could be elite. That might sound like a long list, but he has the raw ingredients for success and plenty of time to work on these nuances of pitching. Again, this pick is all about the projection.

***

Eighth pick, Pirates: Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford (Junior)
6'-4”, 195 lb, 20 years old

Click here for mlb.com draft report

Appel was the big drop of the draft. Projected to be selected at or near the top of the board, the Stanford product slipped to the Pirates, and he was the fourth pitcher selected on the day. The scenario was reminiscent of the conditions that allowed Jered Weaver to slip to the Angels at no. 12 back in 2004, with Scott Boras blazing the path to an intimidating price tag, though Appel's Stanford numbers fall short of the video-game stats that Weaver posted at Long Beach State. This scenario is poised for drama before the July 13th signing deadline, considering the rules under the new CBA and Appel's supposed asking price.

Considered a “safe” pick, the right-hander earns solid marks across the board for his mechanics, though nothing stands out as elite. Appel makes pitching look easy with a delivery that has earned the “effortless” label, though there are some hitches in his mechanics and pitchers like Zimmer show that effort can be a positive attribute for a professional athlete. Appel has above-average momentum that he directs immediately toward the target, using a pronounced second gear to charge into battle. Perhaps his greatest asset is depth at release point, using a high leg kick with the strong momentum to create a long stride, and further extending his release with an ideal glove position that allows him to track the body closer to the target.

Appel's balance takes a hit after max leg lift with a back-side collapse that, though not as severe as that of Gausman, brings the familiar result of a head that lags behind the center of mass. The extent of the imbalance varies between clips, indicating some potential problems with mechanical consistency. Appel's posture also appears to fade between pitches, staying within range of league-average yet dodging above and below the mean. His plus torque comes from a blend of upper-body load and quick hip rotation, though his velocity is reliant on the timing of trunk rotation. There is a lot to like with Appel's delivery right now, with room for growth under the right conditions.

***

Ninth pick, Marlins: Andrew Heaney, LHP, Oklahoma State
6'-2”, 174 lb, 21 years old

Click here for mlb.com draft report

Andrew Heaney had a great week. First, he was invited to join the Draft Day festivities at MLB Network Studio 42, hanging out with a room of all-time greats, team executives, and a handful of other first-round hopefuls. He then secured a shot at life-changing financial stability when Miami chose him with the ninth overall selection in the draft, and upon signing with the Marlins, Heaney will join a franchise that is turning the corner to a new era. On Tuesday Heaney celebrated his 21st birthday, and one can imagine that there was more on his mind than pub crawls or keg stands.

Heaney is a case of mechanical extremes. The posture is awesome, with a nearly ideal spine angle in the clips from mlb.com, and his balance is strong throughout the delivery. Such excellent posture is rare for a left-hander, as southpaws are often the white mice of coaching experiments to create angles and manipulate platoon splits. His torque is solid if unspectacular, though light on the hips and heavy on the shoulders, with a strong delay of shoulder rotation that is somewhat mitigated by hips that fire late in the sequence.

On the downside, Heaney has exceptionally weak momentum, muting his kinetic energy and shortening his release distance with an abbreviated stride. He almost looks bored from first movement into foot strike, as if enacting his own interpretation of the “effortless” label. The extra time it takes to execute his motion allows greater opportunity for mechanics to fall off track, and an uptick of momentum and stride would have a positive ripple effect on his delivery once he harnessed the timing. The lefty has a lot more in the tank, and the good news is that he has already locked down the more difficult categories of balance and posture, providing a unique blend of now talent and future upside.

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:  Mark Appel,  Max Fried,  Kevin Gausman

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