There were only four pitchers chosen among the top 14 picks in last week's first-year player draft, but the arms picked up steam as the first round continued through the top half of the league standings last season. Let's continue our journey by analyzing the next handful of pitcher selections from the draft's first round.
No. 16, New York Yankees – James Kaprielian, RHP, UCLA
Kaprielian exemplifies the “rock-n-roll” strategy with his upper half, which involves a heavy lean toward second base during his stride (“rock back”) that fires toward the plate (“roll forward”) in close proximity to the trigger of trunk rotation. This imbalance in the Z-plane doesn't do Kaprielian any favors at release point, where inconsistency is masked by an up-down pitch trajectory that comes with the territory when the spine-roll strategy is paired with glove-side spine-tilt into release point. The right-hander has the deceiving follow-through and high arm slot to earn praise in some corners, yet the raised elbows and scapular load to draw ire from others.
Despite the visual impression that he just rears back to huck baseballs, Kaprielian receives merely average grades in the power categories of his delivery. His hips and shoulders fire too closely together to achieve much separation, and though his momentum receives points for fluid acceleration, the inefficient methods of torque overshadow the high notes of momentum. His glove-side gets soft, particularly when the front shoulder opens up with a premature trigger, and calming his volatile release point will be at the top of Kaprielian's developmental to do list.
No. 17, Cleveland Indians – Brady Aiken, LHP, IMG Academy
Last year's number-one overall selection was taken with a 16th-pick discount by the Indians, his situation muddled by an abnormal UCL and Tommy John surgery back in March. Given the lack of update on his condition, the question becomes whether Aiken can achieve his previous level of success. I broke down his delivery at this time last season, and here's the article and the video that I used last year:
“Aiken has a classic rock n' roll delivery, a trait that combines with his left-handedness and big bender to likely earn Andy Pettitte comps among scouting circles. 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. Combined 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. On the down side, the lean-back interferes with his balance, with a ripple effect of spine-tilt after foot strike which culminates in subpar posture at release point.
The southpaw has a very modest pace to the plate . His initial move is solid, leading 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, thus increasing the sensitivity of his pitch command and raising the question of how well his control numbers will translate to the pros.”
No. 18, San Francisco Giants – Phil Bickford, RHP, College of Southern Nevada
Bickford hunches over a bit during the beginning of the stride portion of his delivery, but he generally keeps his head stationed above his center-of-mass throughout the motion, finishing with excellent posture. The ferocity with which he uncoils might give the impression of violence, but Bickford appears to have athletic control during the most intense phases of his delivery. The wide setup might appear to be funky, but the right-hander channels that approach into an incredibly stable motion, maintaining balance in all three place with little-to-no side-to-side with his head, and near-perfect posture.
His momentum is fluid through lift and stride, and Bickford augments hip-shoulder separation with a delayed trigger after foot strike, but these power elements are somewhat modest and much of the kinetic responsibility is placed on the throwing arm. Bickford appears to be very strong and looks to have the biological makeup to lead a powerful charge of momentum down the mound. He frequently achieves full extension with his throwing arm at release point and carries the baselines for excellent repetition, with stability so high that he clears the rare A grade.
Power: B –
Stability: A –
No. 21, Kansas City Royals – Ashe Russell, RHP, Cathedral HS (Indiana)
In the pre-draft coverage on MLB Network, John Smoltz was gushing about Ashe Russell and I have to share Smoltz's enthusiasm. I had the opportunity to watch Russell live at the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego over the winter, and I walked away very impressed. There is still some volatility to smooth out in his delivery, but Russell's motion is generally advanced beyond his years, from the big upper-body twist that enhances his hip-shoulder separation to the extra charge of momentum in his delivery. Put those elements together and you have B-grade power that flashes a B+ at peak, along with the upside to dream on his lithe frame putting on some weight.
Russell stays reasonably stable during the motion, and though his head can fall off-track during the highest-intensity phases of the delivery, his ability to recoup balance during follow-through is a positive indicator for future development. There's a marked lean-back to his delivery as well as the tendency for Russell to lose his lateral balance from time to time. He'll exhibit some glove-side spine-tilt on many of his pitches, but he finishes each pitch with his energy going towards the target as opposed to off to the side. The stability is a B- now but could develop into a B or better in the future, and the power already flashes B+ aptitude.
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My sense is that the drop-n-drive delivery that was taught at the high school and college level for a generation is on the wane, possibly being replaced by the old fashioned rock-n-roll strategy, ironically enough. Is that right?
On a completely separate note, have you ever evaluated the deliveries of Steve Blass, Rick Ankiel, Daniel Bard or any of the other once promising pitchers who completely lost their sh*t at the highest level? I would be interested to see if they had any common tendencies that might have contributed to their struggles.
I hasten to put a blanket over any class of pitchers given the disparities with instruction across the country. Drop-n-drive is still prevalent and the rock-n-roll strategy is not pervasive enough yet to consider it a trend. In fact, it's not uncommon to see a pitcher who has both - one who collapses the back-side as part of a drop-n-drive and also ends up leaning back toward 2B with a rock-n-roll approach.
Great call on the "guys who lost it." It's definitely something that I will consider for a future piece.
Other productive pitchers do it, but I've heard some stay away from these pitchers, seeing it as a ref flag for injury.