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2019 Draft Stock Watch: George Kirby On The Rise

Image credit: George Kirby (Photo courtesy of Elon Athletics)

With the college season kicking off over the weekend, major league scouting departments can fully kick off the draft season, putting intra-squad scrimmages and in-home visits in the rearview mirror and putting pen to paper with actual games taking place. 

This is the time of year when draft boards start to shake out, as players come out of the gate strong, deal with injuries—Baylor catcher Shea Langeliers‘ broken hamate is unfortunate and notable here—or struggle to perform when it matters.

One demographic of the 2019 draft class that scouts will have to spend time sussing out is the pitching, with many of the top-ranked college arms possessing plenty of warts—whether that be starter/reliever questions, a limited track record of success, health or some combination of all three. 

Today’s Draft Stock Watch is highlighted by one Elon pitcher who might have the best combination of starter traits, pure stuff and track record of any arm in the class—and who wasted no time impressing the industry with a loud debut on Opening Weekend.

That and plenty of 2019 draft notes and video below:

George Kirby | RHP | Elon

Righthander George Kirby is perhaps the best No. 2 pitcher in the country. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound starter followed a strong performance from Friday night arm Kyle Brnovich with an impressive debut on a cold, rainy Saturday at Elon in front of 20-plus scouts. Kirby tossed 6.2 shutout innings and allowed just two singles with 10 strikeouts and no walks against Lafayette.

Kirby worked mostly in the 93-94 mph range with his fastball through the first five innings, before dipping down just a tick to 91-93 mph in the sixth and seventh. He touched as high as 96 mph and held his velocity throughout. He showed plus control during this outing, throwing first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 22 batters he faced. He only got into four three-ball counts. Kirby—who’s currently the No. 38 draft prospect in the country but sure to rise in Baseball America’s next update—showed a solid four-pitch mix which included an 79-83 mph slider, a 76-79 mph curveball and a changeup that ranged from 82-86 mph but was mostly in the upper end of that range. Kirby’s breaking balls could blend together at times, and the slider was solidly ahead of the curveball during this outing as the pitch generated five swings and misses and finished off five of his strikeouts. 

Kirby’s slider looked like an above-average or plus offering with 10-4 shape and solid horizontal movement that was particularly effective against righthanded hitters to his glove side, though he did manage to get swings and misses with the pitch against lefties over the inner half as well. He landed the slider for strikes more consistently than his curveball, which he struggled to get on top of consistently. Overall, his curveball hung up at times and lacked the bite and sharpness of his slider. He was also less successful throwing the pitch for strikes, though there were a few instances where he got on top of the ball and showed some depth with the pitch. Though it mostly looked like a 40-grade offering on this occasion, it should be better in the future if he can avoid lowering his arm slot and staying on top of the ball.

Kirby’s changeup was more consistent than his curveball, and while he did spike the pitch on occasion, it flashed plus when he threw it with fastball arm-speed and landed it in the bottom half of the strike zone. While he generated just one whiff on the pitch, he threw it for strikes five out of the seven times he threw it, and on the instances he did miss, he missed down. 

Perhaps more impressive than Kirby’s arsenal of offerings was his feel for sequencing and moving the ball around the zone. He was effective going to his arm- and glove-side with his fastball and elevated the pitch effectively as well. He was confident in all four of his offerings, enough to pitch backwards throughout the entire outing when necessary, and during one stretch from the first inning to the sixth, he retired 14 consecutive batters. 

In 2018, Kirby posted a 2.89 ERA over 90 innings with a 9.56 K/9 and 2.69 BB/9 in 15 starts. Last summer, he had success as a reliever in the Cape Cod League, posting a 1.38 ERA in 10 games and 13 innings, with 24 strikeouts and just one walk. Drafted in 2016 by the Mets in the 32nd round, Kirby has never posted a BB/9 greater than 2.69 in his collegiate career, and his impressive strike-throwing Saturday backed those numbers up. With a clean delivery and arm action, a four-pitch arsenal of solid to plus offerings and track record of success as a starter, Kirby checks off more boxes than many college arms in the 2019 class. 

He’s rising on draft boards, and if he keeps pitching like he did in his debut, could easily wind up going in the top part of the first round come June.

Elon Players to Note:

  • While Brnovich and Kirby are the big names at Elon this year, scouts hung around to see righthander Ty Adcock take the mound with one out in the ninth inning. A 6-foot, 213-pound reliever and designated hitter, Adcock first wowed with the bat, hitting a deep two-run home run to right-center field—the deepest part of the ballpark. When he took the mound, Adcock opened up with a 94 mph fastball out of the stretch, before getting up to 97 mph in a full windup. He’s a short righthander with a high-effort delivery and head whack, but he has obvious arm strength and a decent slider that he showed just once in this outing, at 81 mph. While it’s unlikely that he’s drafted at the same level as his counterparts in the rotation, the converted catcher has enough arm strength to go on Day 2 if he pitches well, and he could touch triple-digits this season.
  • Elon shortstop Cam Devanney showed solid defensive actions and hit the ball hard several times, going 1-for-4 with a single. The redshirt junior was robbed of another hit after pulling a hard line drive that almost got passed Lafayette third baseman Spencer Rouse, who made a slick diving catch in this instance and on a second, almost identical play later in the game. Listed at 6-foot-1, 195-pounds, Devanney has a strong frame that translates into some pop at the plate as well as above-average arm strength defensively. He showed solid defensive actions in pre-game infield and during the game but wasn’t challenged too much on Elon’s wet turf infield, though he made all the routine plays that came to him. Devanney made huge strides from his 2017 freshman season to 2018, improving his OPS from .700 to .844 and dramatically cutting his strikeout rate. After striking out 23.4 percent of the time in 2017, Devanney cut his strikeout rate to 12.5 percent in 2018 and has a career 14 percent walk rate. 

North Carolina vs. Xavier

The No. 5 team in the country showed off a potent offense during Opening Weekend, bolstered by left fielder Michael Busch (the No. 32 draft prospect in the country), a pair of dangerous freshmen hitters in first baseman Aaron Sabato and right fielder Caleb Roberts, as well as junior shortstop Ike Freeman (No. 184) in the middle of the lineup. 

UNC outscored Xavier, 34-9, in the three-game weekend sweep, capped off by a highly scouted outing from righthander Austin Bergner (No. 87) on Sunday morning. Boshamer Stadium will be a popular venue for Carolina area scouts on the weekends given the trio of draft-eligible starters on the team in Bergner, Friday night ace Gianluca Dalatri (No. 101) and Saturday starter Tyler Baum (No. 126).

Below are notes on two of UNC’s arms, as well as early takeaways from Busch, Freeman and junior catcher Brandon Martorano (No. 159), as well as a a breakdown of the season debut from hard-throwing Xavier two-way player Conor Grammes.

Austin Bergner | RHP | North Carolina

Bergner had a solid, if unspectacular debut for the Tar Heels on Sunday. He threw 4.1 innings and allowed five hits, three runs (two earned), walked three batters and struck out six. His fastball was mostly in the 90-92 mph range during the first two innings, though he reached back for more when trying to finish off an at-bat and touched 93-94 mph throughout the entire outing. In the third and fourth frames, Bergner ticked down at the lower end, pitching more in the 89-92 mph range.

Bergner’s fastball, which is a plus offering at times, was more of an average pitch Sunday, and the control came and went as well. In the first inning, Bergner spotted the heater effectively and got three whiffs—including finishing off two strikeouts—but started missing down and to his glove side in the second frame. At its best, the pitch had slight sinking life when spotted down in the zone, but was frequently straight and flat when catching too much of the strike zone.

Likewise, his changeup came and went throughout the outing. He threw 13 during the first four innings and was confident with the pitch against both righthanders and lefthanders, but he left the pitch up in the zone at times and saw it get hit hard multiple times in the fourth inning when he failed to bury it at the bottom of the zone. When he was able to keep the pitch down and to his arm-side, it’s at its best, flashing above-average potential with good fading life and sinking action that generates whiffs over the top. 

His curveball progressed through the outing, but was still a below-average pitch for the most part. After lacking bite and hanging in the first two innings, Bergner started snapping off the pitch more effectively in the third and fourth and buried it down in the zone more consistently. It ranged from 76-78 mph and got more horizontal shape when he threw it to his glove-side, but toward his arm side had more 12-to-6, top-to-bottom shape.

Scouts in attendance graded Bergner out with a future plus fastball, a 55-grade changeup, 40-grade curveball and future 50-grade control based on this outing. Bergner will need to improve the breaking ball moving forward to project comfortably as a starter at the next level.

Conor Grammes | RHP/OF | Xavier

A junior two-way player for Xavier, Grammes had a loud fall and impressed many scouts with his impressive arm strength on the mound, reaching as high as 99 mph. During his debut on Friday in Chapel Hill, Grammes showed off that premium arm strength, with a fastball that reached 97 mph and sat 94-96 mph across 3.2 innings with arm-side running life.

However, the pure velocity wasn’t enough to quiet UNC’s hitters, who tallied six hits, six runs (five earned) and four walks, while striking out just twice against him. Grammes is a smaller righthander—listed at 6-foot-1—who throws with noticeable effort and has an obvious stabbing motion in the back of his arm stroke. In part because of those mechanics, Grammes struggled mightily to throw strikes, showcasing well below-average control.

Grammes also threw a hard, mid-80s slider, which was inconsistent but flashed the potential of an above-average offering when he got on top of the ball. With a low, three-quarter arm slot, Grammes frequently got around the slider, and saw the pitch back up to his arm side with little noticeable bite or sharpness. On the instances he did get on top of the pitch—mostly during the fourth inning—it showed power and solid bite, helping him finish two strikeouts in the bottom of the fourth. Grammes also infrequently threw a firm, mid-80s changeup.

Friday’s outing was a definite reliever look for Grammes, with plenty of projection to be done on the consistency of his breaking ball, changeup and control. While the pure arm strength is Grammes’ biggest tool, he could have a professional future as a hitter, and his track record with Xavier is significantly better with the bat in his hands than with the ball on the mound.

In 2017 and 2018, Grammes hit .336/.378/.508 with 17 home runs and 21 doubles. Hitting for himself in the three-hole of the lineup, Grammes showed off impressive bat speed from the righthanded batter’s box and went 2-for-4 with a double and a single—hitting the ball hard during three of his plate appearances. Grammes showed good instincts on the bases as well, and stole third easily against Dalatri.

Michael Busch | OF | North Carolina

While Busch’s bat will be the big draw for scouts, and what eventually gets him drafted on Day 1 this June, his transition from first base to left field this season is the most intriguing part of his game and could boost his draft stock if teams think he could play a passable corner outfield at the next level. This weekend was the first time in Busch’s life that he’d played the outfield in a game.

“There were still a little butterflies in the first inning just because I’ve never played a game in the outfield,” he said after Friday’s win over Xavier. “But after that first inning—and I made that first catch—I kind of settled down a little bit.”

A below-average runner, Busch doesn’t cover a huge swath of ground but during the weekend made all the routine plays. He’s still acclimating to reading the bat off the ball, and that’s obvious with both his jumps off the bat and his route-running. A difficult, but playable ball dropped in front of him in shallow left field that a faster runner or a quicker first-step might have allowed him to reach, and on Sunday Busch made a sliding catch on a ball that could have been caught on the run with a more direct route to the ball.

He doesn’t project to ever be an average defender in the corner, but could develop into a fringe-average left fielder with continued improvement and more reps at the position.

“I love seeing him in the outfield,” said Freeman. “He does good, he’s gotten a lot better. He does work really hard in the outfield. Every day he’s taking extra fly balls in the outfield or ground balls. He wants to get better out there so to see him make a few plays is nice.”

At the plate, Busch made his usual loud contact and went 4-for-9 with a home run and six walks over the weekend.

Ike Freeman | SS | North Carolina

Freeman had a terrific Opening Day out of the five-spot for UNC, going 4-for-5 with a home run and a walk. The junior shortstop isn’t super toolsy, but if he continues to hit with the sort of impact he showed Friday night, he will climb up draft boards. Freeman wasn’t fazed by a single pitch on the day. He barreled a mid-90s fastball on the inner half from Grammes over the left field fence for UNC’s first home run of the season, and then got his hands inside an 87 mph slider that he drove by the third baseman for a single in his next plate appearance. His third and fourth hits of the day came against a 76 mph curveball and a mid-80s fastball, respectively.

“(I was) pretty relaxed, which is hard to say on Opening Day, but I felt nice and calm,” Freeman said after Friday’s game. “I go up kind of just hunting pitches. First at-bat I was hunting fastball and I hit his fastball good, so I knew he wanted to go soft to see if he could get me out so I sat on (the slider) and then the next guy threw me fastball and then I sat soft. Just good guessing I guess.”

Freeman said that over the offseason he focused on getting stronger and improving his flexibility, which he hoped would translate to improved speed. He’ll need to get faster to stick at shortstop at the next level, as Freeman doesn’t currently show quick lateral movement and also was too slow charging in on a semi-routine slow-roller and allowed a 4.55 runner to get an infield single. However, he does have good instincts and an internal clock, faking a throw to first after receiving a feed from second baseman Ashton McGee on a potential 4-6-3 double and throwing behind an over-aggressive runner rounding third.

“That’s one of my favorite plays,” Freeman said afterwards. “It was kind of a high chopper, like slower to Ashton (at second base), so I knew immediately we probably didn’t have the guy out at first and with bases loaded if that’s going to be the third out at first the coach will usually always send (the runner around third) so I just kind of knew it was going to work.”

UNC Players to Note:

  • Dalatri struggled in his debut, throwing just 2.1 innings and allowing three hits, three runs (one earned) and two walks, with three strikeouts. Dalatri has the most vanilla stuff of UNC’s trio of starting pitchers, but he opened up with a fastball in the 87-89 mph range that touched 90 mph and was down into the mid-80s as soon as the second inning. He missed around the edges of the strike zone with his fastball and also struggled to land a mid- to upper-70s curveball with any consistency, frequently casting the pitch out of his hand. 
  • Martorano showed off some pull-side power during Sunday’s finale, hitting a home run into the scoreboard behind left field, but he’ll need to clean up the defensive side of his game throughout the season, as scouts weren’t impressed with his receiving and blocking abilities behind the plate this weekend. The junior backstop struggled to keep balls in the dirt in front of him at times and let too many stoppable balls get to the backstop.

Top 50 College Pitchers

  • Duke LHP Graeme Stinson (BA Rank: 9) vs. Lehigh: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 6 K
  • Kentucky LHP Zack Thompson (12) vs. Austin Peay: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 9 K
  • Florida RHP Tyler Dyson (13) vs. Long Beach State: 3.1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 K
  • East Florida State JC RHP Carter Stewart (15) vs. Florida State JC—Jacksonville: 3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 6 K
  • Texas Christian LHP Nick Lodolo (16) vs. Cal State Fullerton: 5 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
  • West Virginia RHP Alek Manoah (22) vs. Kennesaw State: 6 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 13 K
  • Oregon RHP Ryne Nelson (25) vs. Texas Tech: 4.1 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 4 BB, 5 K
  • Southern Mississippi RHP/OF Matt Wallner (37) — INJURED
  • Elon RHP George Kirby (38) vs. Lafayette: 6.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 10 K
  • Connecticut LHP Mason Feole (43)— INJURED
  • Oregon RHP Kenyon Yovan (47) vs. Texas Tech: 2 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
  • Louisiana State RHP Zack Hess (48) vs. Louisiana-Monroe: 3.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K

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