12 Pitchers From The 2021 MLB Draft Class With Strong Professional Debuts
Last week we took a look at some of the 2021 draftee hitters who had strong professional debuts. We’re doing the same today for the pitchers.
For many pitchers in the 2021 class, their professional debuts will have to wait until next season as many arms were shut down entirely after long amateur seasons. A later draft date was also partially responsible, as players in many situations would have to ramp back up after going through a longer dead period than previous drafts.
Below are 12 pitchers who stood out for their performance in pro ball.
Mitch Bratt, LHP, Rangers
Bratt stood out for his projection out of high school thanks to a loose and easy delivery and impressive command for a prep arm. His fastball velocity was far from the best in the class, but it steadily ticked up during the spring and the Rangers signed him for $850,000 in the fifth round.
While he threw just six innings in the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League—all out of the bullpen—he struck out 13 and walked none. His 19.5 K/9 was the best among all 2021 high school arms with more than five innings thrown, narrowly edging out first-rounder Andrew Painter (18 K/9), who we’ll touch on below.
Nathan Burns, RHP, Angels
Burns struck out more than 12 batters per nine during each of his final two seasons with Oregon State, and he ran his fastball up into the mid 90s, but he also struggled to throw strikes throughout his collegiate career. Despite a career 6.0 BB/9 that was pushing eight per nine in 2021, the Angels took Burns in the 19th round of their pitching-only 2021 draft class.
Burns pitched well in his debut at three different levels. He threw 16.1 total innings and didn’t allow an earned run, while striking out 25 batters (13.8 K/9) and walking six (3.3 BB/9). That walk rate was lower than Burns managed in all but one of his seasons in college.
Ryan Cusick, RHP, Braves
The Braves went back to the Wake Forest pitching well in 2021 after taking lefthander Jared Shuster in the first round in 2020. Ryan Cusick is a different pitcher entirely from Shuster, and the big, flame-throwing righthander got off to a strong start this summer with Low-A Augusta.
He struck out 34 batters in just 16.1 innings of work, and he saved his best performance for last, striking out 10 Myrtle Beach batters in just four innings on Sept. 16. His 18.7 K/9 mark was good for the ninth-best rate among 2021 draftees with at least five innings, and of the top 10 Cusick’s innings total was highest.
Strikeouts are nothing new for Cusick, who’s always had the pure stuff to miss bats, but a 2.2 BB/9 is encouraging (and lower than any Wake Forest walk rate he managed) as amateur scouts were skeptical about his overall command and his future role.
Gordon Graceffo, RHP, Cardinals
Unlike many pitchers on this list, Graceffo spent all of his time at a level where he was younger than the average pitcher in the league. A fifth-round pick out of Villanova, Graceffo was assigned directly to Low-A Palm Beach, where he posted a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings.
Graceffo ranked as the No. 253 prospect on the 2021 BA 500, thanks mostly to his impressive strike throwing—though he started to tick up his velocity at the end of the spring as well. While amateur scouts thought he would be able to profile well as a starter, Graceffo spent most of his time in the bullpen with Palm Beach as a multi-inning reliever.
His stuff did seem to play up in the role, however, as his 12.8 K/9 was a better mark than he ever posted in a single season with Villanova. Graceffo was one of just six 2021 drafted pitchers to throw 25 innings or more in pro ball. Of that group, Graceffo’s strikeout rate topped the list.
Alek Jacob, RHP, Padres
Jacob was the West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year after posting a 2.52 ERA over 85.2 innings in his fourth year with Gonzaga last spring, with 112 strikeouts to just 18 walks. San Diego signed him in the 16th round for $75,000, taking a shot on his two-seam fastball, slider and changeup.
After throwing an inning in the Arizona Complex League, Jacob moved to Low-A Lake Elsinore where he served as a late-inning reliever. In his 19.2 innings, Jacob whiffed 29 batters and surrendered just two walks without allowing an earned run.
Jacob has a lot of funk in his delivery and tries to create issues with timing in his delivery to keep hitters off-balance, while also throwing from a lower, three-quarter arm slot.
Jimmy Kingsbury, RHP, Mariners
No 2021 draftee threw more innings than Kingsbury, who tossed 32.2 innings for Low-A Modesto and was part of the team’s combined no-hitter on Sept. 17. In that game, Kingsbury struck out 10 batters over seven scoreless frames—season highs for him in both categories during his last outing of the year.
After coming out of the bullpen in his first pro game, Kingsbury transitioned to a starting role and went on to throw four or more innings in his last five starts of the season. In total, Kingsbury posted a 2.20 ERA, while striking out 39 batters (10.7 K/9) and walking 11 (3.0 BB/9).
Kingsbury was a 17th-round selection who was unranked on the BA 500 and signed for $25,000 after a four-year career with Villanova, showing primarily a three-pitch mix last spring and sitting in the upper 80s, topping out around 93. His pro performance this summer is better than any individual season Kingsbury had with Villanova, and a 4.11 FIP suggests he might have outperformed his underlying metrics.
Regardless, it was a strong debut in the biggest sample you will find among 2021 arms.
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Gil Luna, LHP, White Sox
Luna struck out plenty of batters and walked plenty as well in his Arizona career, before taking a big step forward with his control last spring. His 4.6 BB/9 rate in 2021 was far and away a career best, as was the 1.69 ERA he posted in 21.1 innings of work.
While Luna’s pro stats this summer might be a bit inflated from some extended time in the Arizona Complex League—where he struck out more than half of the batters he saw—he still didn’t allow a run over 15.1 total innings between Arizona and Low-A East. He struck out 24 (14.1 K/9) and continued to keep his strikes in check with just six walks (3.5 BB/9).
Of the 193 2021 drafted pitchers who threw at least five innings in pro ball, Luna’s 2.8 H/9 rate was the sixth-lowest.
Chayce McDermott, RHP, Astros
McDermott ranked as the No. 164 prospect in the 2021 class thanks to a fastball that touched 98 mph and feel to spin two different breaking balls. The Astros signed him for $372,500 in the fifth round after he posted a 3.05 ERA in 82.2 innings with Ball State.
The Astros assigned McDermott to the Florida Complex League initially, but after striking out seven batters in a three-inning relief outing, he was promoted to Low-A Fayetteville, where he continued racking up strikeouts at an impressive rate and also started four of the six games he appeared in.
In total, McDermott posted a 2.95 ERA in 21.1 innings during his pro debut, with 40 strikeouts and 11 walks. His 16.9 K/9 rate was the fifth-best among 2021 draftee pitchers with at least 10 innings of work.
Griff McGarry, RHP, Phillies
McGarry posted eye-opening strikeout rates throughout his collegiate career with Virginia. What always held him back were his equally eye-opening walk rates. While he managed a 12.5 K/9 for his career, he also walked 8.8 batters per nine innings and never once posted a walk rate better than the 8.2 BB/9 mark he managed in 2018.
Loud performances down the stretch boosted his draft stock—he pitched seven shutout innings against Dallas Baptist in the Super Regional—and scouts were always excited about the loud pure stuff he showed. He’s been a similar pitcher in 24.1 innings of pro ball, as his 15.9 K/9 mark is better than any 2021 draftee with at least 20 innings. At the same time his 5.2 BB/9 stands out as the highest of the group as well.
McGarry began the summer with Low-A Clearwater, where he spent most of his time coming out of the bullpen, but was promoted to High-A Jersey Shore in September, where he started all three games. In total he posted a 2.96 ERA and while his walk rate is still not what you want for a future starter, it’s a significant step forward from what he posted in his entire collegiate career. If Philadelphia can help McGarry get the ball over the plate more consistently, it could have a sneaky fifth-round steal.
Nick Nastrini, RHP, Dodgers
Nastrini was a prominent pitching prospect out of high school and continued to grow into his projected velocity throughout college, but last spring his control deteriorated to the point where scouts started putting the dreaded “y-word” on him.
Even after walking more than 10 batters per nine innings, the Dodgers took a shot on his stuff in the fourth round, and signed him for $497,500.
The early returns were promising, as Nastrini’s walk rate dropped down to 4.5 BB/9 in 14 total innings. While not great, that rate is much more in line with his pre-2021 collegiate numbers and even more palatable when you consider the huge number of whiffs (32) he tallied. Among 2021 drafted pitchers with at least five innings this year, Nastrini’s 20.6 K/9 mark was good for third—behind Reds righthander Donovan Benoit (20.7) and Astros righthander Adrian Chaidez (21.3).
Andrew Painter, RHP, Phillies
Painter was the second-ranked prep pitcher in the 2021 class and the No. 15 overall prospect on the BA 500 and the Phillies signed him for $3.9 million with the 13th overall pick.
He logged just six innings over four starts, but he was effective in that limited time, not allowing a single run—earned or otherwise—while striking out 12 batters and walking none. There were just nine high school pitchers drafted who threw more than five innings. Painter is included in that group.
Of that group of nine only two pitchers didn’t allow a single run: Painter and Angels righthander Mason Albright.
Of that group of nine only two pitchers didn’t allow a single walk: Painter and the previously mentioned Bratt.
Dylan Spain, RHP, Braves
Spain had a bit of a unique path into pro baseball. He pitched three seasons for Division II Hawaii-Hilo where he was a full-time starter, but posted just mediocre results with a 4.24 career ERA and 5.8 K/9.
After Covid shut down the 2020 season, Spain didn’t pitch during the 2021 spring. Instead he worked out at a facility in Honolulu where he improved his velocity from the low 90s to touching 96 mph. The Braves then took a shot on him for $17,500 as a 10th-round prospect who was old for the draft class.
The 6-foot-6, 205-pound righthander earned two promotions this summer, moving from the Florida Complex League to Low-A Augusta in mid August and then moving up to High-A Rome a month later where he pitched just one inning. Altogether, Spain didn’t allow a single run in 17.2 innings out of the bullpen, and his improved stuff played well—to the tune of a 10.7 K/9 rate that tops anything he ever managed in college. Spain did always throw strikes at a high level, and that continued in pro ball as well, with just two walks issued—good for a 1.0 BB/9 rate.