The strength of the prep class is the depth of arms, a group that has been bolstered with the reclassification of one of the top 2015 arms. Righthander Jacob Bukauskas has jumped into the mix for the top few rounds of the draft and made his regular season debut on Friday, sitting 93-97 mph over five innings and touching 98.
With Bukauskas reclassifying without being seen often by scouts on the showcase circuit, he created a stir among evaluators by running his fastball into the mid-90s during two early-season scrimmages. He was primarily 89-91 this summer at Perfect Game Junior National, and his velocity jumped over the offseason.
The Stone Bridge High (Ashburn, Va.) product’s season began against archrival Madison High (Vienna, Va.) and he came out with premium velocity. All but two of his 19 fastballs in the first inning were between 95-97 mph, with the other two at 94. Bukauskas sustained his velocity well, sitting 93-97 on the day and hitting 97 mph in his final inning on his 78th pitch. He has elite arm speed and the ball jumps out of his hand. Bukauskas, who exclusively throws four-seamers, has boring action to his fastball.
His best offspeed pitch on the day was an 84-85 mph changeup that he showed good feel for, doubling up on the pitch to the lefthanded-hitting No. 3 hitter.
“It was an average pitch on Friday and has a chance to be better in the future, too,” an American League crosschecker said.
His feel for the offering improved significantly over the offseason.
“Over this winter I threw the changeup a lot and it has become probably my best pitch,” Bukauskas said. “It has a lot of down-and-in movement to righthanded hitters. I like it. It is a good pitch to lefthanded hitters. I threw it a lot last year but am going to use it a lot more this year.”
Bukauskas’ 81-85 mph slider was a below-average offering on the day. He often choked the offering and it did not show much shape, but it did sharpen towards the end of his outing, flashing average.
“The breaking ball was not good overall, but if you like him you could project solid-average.” the crosschecker said.
Evaluators said that the breaking ball had shown better in previous outings, and it was still the first game of the season. Given his hand speed, it is reasonable to believe the breaking ball has significant room to improve.
Bukauskas threw strikes on 61 percent of his pitches and walked two, against 11 strikeouts, which was nearly half (48 percent) of the hitters he faced. His delivery has effort to it with a head snap and rigidity to his front side. Working from the far first-base side of the rubber, Bukauskas also throws slightly across his body and showed a tendency to peel off his fastball early, spinning towards first base. He occasionally got under his fastball, losing plane and causing the pitch to be up and flatten.
His delivery also has some drop-and-drive tendencies that Bukauskas and his longtime pitching coach John Pinkman have worked on. The two began working together when Bukauskas was 8 years old.
“We worked more on maintaining a more direct approach to the plate as far as dropping and driving,” Pinkman said. “He has made that adjustment really well and it is something we will continue to work on. When he stays in line and better direction and holds his front side longer, he has tremendous command.”
Bukauskas, who calls his own game, located his fastball almost exclusively away from hitters, both left and righthanded swingers. He demonstrated that he could pitch effectively to either outer third of the plate, locating primarily to his glove side against a lineup that leaned to the right side.
Listed at 6-foot-1, Bukauskas has an athletic, well-proportioned build with sloped shoulders and some room to gain strength in his upper half. He has solid, well-developed legs and a strong rear end that looks built to handle innings. He has gained significant strength over the last year.
“I worked on squatting a lot this winter and I attribute most of the velocity to that,” Bukauskas said. “I was 170 pounds last year and I am about 195 now. I have put on about 25 pounds over the last year.”
His favorite player is another smaller, well-built righthander from the neighboring state of Tennessee.
“I love Sonny Gray because I am not the biggest guy in the world and I am about the same size as him,” Bukauskas said. “We have power fastballs and he has a power breaking ball, which is what I am striving for.”
With his increased velocity, Bukauskas is in the mix for the top few rounds after deciding to reclassify last summer with the intent of reaching North Carolina’s campus after three years in high school.
“As we went through, we thought ‘why stay stagnant in high school and not progress as a player?’,” Bukauskas said. “The transition from junior to senior year happened when we wanted to improve as a player and didn't want to stay in high school for another year, honestly. High school baseball you can’t get much better. You can plateau. (North Carolina) coach Forbes is one of the best pitching coaches in the country.”
Although scouts would have to do their due diligence on Bukauskas because he entered the spring as a draft-eligible player with whom they had little history, the amount of attention he received changed dramatically over the offseason.
“This is about a month and a half ago that I have a Stalker gun at my facility and it is automatic,” Pinkman said. “Jacob throws it 99. I asked a scout if he wouldn't mind getting his gun because I don't think we have seen these numbers on this gun before. He thought that was a great idea and put his gun up. It read 98. That was when the whole world changed for him.”
The 17-year-old Bukauskas was slightly old for his junior class but is now one of the youngest prospects in the 2014 class and won’t be 18 until a month after the minor league season.