Stock Watch: Small School Arms Make Noise, Elite Bats Sitting Pretty
It didn't take long for Auburn righthander Casey Mize to establish himself as the top pitcher (and prospect) in the 2018 draft class last season. After Mize dominated early in the season and showed a well-rounded arsenal of plus pitches with exceptional command, it was only a matter of time before the Tigers eventually selected him with the No. 1 overall pick.
While Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman might be an even safer bet to go first overall than Mize a year ago, identifying the top college pitcher is proving quite a bit more challenging in the 2019 draft class.
Scouts have maligned this year's group of arms going back to the summer, and the preseason top-ranked college arm, Duke lefthander Graeme Stinson, has yet to work deeper than five innings into a start. Scouts at Stinson's most recent game said he was in the upper 80s with his fastball—a significant drop in velocity for Stinson, who typically gets into the mid-90s with ease.
The lack of many proven college arms at the top of the class will open the door for high-upside pitchers with big-time stuff that likewise lack significant track record.
In today's Draft Stock Watch, we take a look at two such arms who could wind up in the first round this June and take advantage of a down pitching class. Additionally, we'll note how a number of small school pitchers have started this season and also look at why the top two college hitters are in a league of their own.
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Seth Johnson, RHP, Campbell
Johnson has been scouted heavily early this season, as he’s thrown during several high-profile midweek matchups that have allowed a number of scouting directors and national crosscheckers to check on him against quality hitters. That was the case last week against North Carolina State (which just climbed into the College Top 25), when more than 40 scouts were in attendance to watch the converted shortstop.
It wasn’t Johnson’s best outing—he allowed four earned runs on four hits including a pair of home runs—but he showed off the pure stuff that could get him drafted in the first round this June despite the fact that this is his first season on the mound.
Johnson works with a remarkably clean arm action and delivery given his inexperience on the mound, working from the first-base side of the rubber with a three-quarter arm slot and landing in-line to the plate.
Against North Carolina State, Johnson was mostly in the 93-95 mph range with his fastball, though he touched 96-97 mph early in the game. His velocity dipped down a few ticks when he worked out of the stretch, but the pitch has solid running life to both sides of the plate. However, lefthanded hitters hurt the 6-foot-1 righthander on multiple occasions, as Johnson would start a pitch on the inner-half only to watch it run back over the middle of the plate and get barreled.
Both of the home runs Johnson allowed came against lefthanded hitters in first baseman Evan Edwards and right fielder Terrell Tatum, both of whom jumped on tailing fastballs.
Johnson’s best secondary offering was a sharp, 83-85 mph slider that mirrored the release point of his fastball and featured tight, late-biting action. He located the pitch well to his glove-side and away from righthanded hitters, finishing two of his four strikeouts with the offering and getting swings and misses on a majority of the sliders he threw. The pitch looked like an easy plus breaking ball that could serve as an out-pitch, though he threw it infrequently and favored a 71-74 mph curveball with three-quarter shape that had solid depth and spin but lacked the bite and late-breaking action of his slider.
Johnson also showcased an 85-87 mph changeup that he spiked in the beginning of the game, but he showed more feel as his outing progressed, with slight fading action at times.
While there’s plenty of improvement to be had here—his efficiency out of the stretch, improved fastball command and improved secondary consistency, for starters—Johnson did show off the stuff that gives him such high upside. Pairing that with his athleticism and delivery, it’s easy to project the necessary improvements for Johnson to become a future middle-of-the-rotation starter. Because of his limited track record, however, he'll need to perform well this spring to become a no-doubt first-round pick.
Jackson Rutledge, RHP, San Jacinto (Texas) JC
We mentioned that Rutledge could push himself into day one consideration after his first start of the season a month ago. Since then, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound righthander has continued to raise his draft stock. Through five starts, Rutledge has thrown 30 innings and posted a 0.60 ERA with 53 strikeouts to just 10 walks, and he now seems like a safe bet to go in the first round with a down college pitching class.
Rutledge is regularly in the mid-90s with his fastball, and the pitch likely plays up given a compact, short arm stroke out of his extra-large frame. He couples that with an easy plus slider, giving him all the stuff and size needed to wind up as one of the top arms in the country.
He previously struggled with his control at Arkansas, and that will be something that scouts continue to watch, but Rutledge has done well for himself to this point.
Drey Jameson, RHP, Ball State
A draft-eligible sophomore, Jameson has started the season strong and has started wracking up an obscene amount of strikeouts. He's fanned 29 batters through his first three starts and 15.2 innings compared to just four walks. Jameson started getting scouts excited last fall, when he got his fastball up into the mid-90s. This spring, he has been into the upper 90s with a fast arm and a hard slider that could be a plus pitch as well.
Undersized at just 6-feet and 165 pounds, there is some risk with Jameson. He walked 5.5 batters per nine innings last season as a freshman, but he’s currently among the top ten pitchers in the country in both strikeouts (No. 10) and strikeouts per nine innings (No. 7).
Ryan Jensen, RHP, Fresno State
Another undersized righthander with a big arm, Jensen got into the upper 90s last fall and coaches spoke highly of the improvements he’s made with his offspeed offerings this spring. He’s coming off of a 10-strikeout game against Nevada-Las Vegas that included three swinging strikeouts against the best player in the Mountain West Conference, UNLV shortstop Bryson Stott.
Jensen has struggled with command in previous year. He walked more than seven batters per nine innings as a reliever in 2017 and then walked 4.8 per nine as a starter in 2018. But through three starts and 17 innings this season, he has a career-best walk rate (2.65 per nine), strikeout rate (9.53 per nine), ERA (2.65) and WHIP (1.24).
Other Small School Arms To Note
Prior to the start of the season, we talked about seven small school pitchers with big 2019 draft potential. Johnson was the biggest name on the list, but here are how the other six players mentioned are doing so far this season:
Ricky DeVito, RHP, Seton Hall: DeVito has thrown just four innings this season, only pitching in Seton Hall's opener against Ohio State when he allowed just one run on three hits and three walks. DeVito has been long-tossing and could get back on the mound this weekend against Florida International, depending on a bullpen session Tuesday. His teammate, junior righthander Noah Thompson, has been solid through three starts and earned Big East pitcher of the week honors in two of the first three weeks. Thompson most recently shut out Virginia for 8.1 innings on Saturday, striking out six batters and walking just one. Thompson has pitched off of a fastball that's been in the 87-92 mph range.
Hunter Gaddis, RHP, Georgia State: Gaddis' first two starts of the season were solid, as the 6-foot-5 righthander worked games of seven innings and two runs against Richmond and Charleston Southern, but his third start was a bit of a meltdown. He lasted just 4.1 innings against Samford last Friday and was hit around to the tune of 13 hits and 10 runs (nine earned). That ballooned his season ERA from 2.57 to 6.38, though his strikeout-to-walk ratio is still impressive at 18-to-1.
Jeff Belge, LHP, St. John's: The 2019 season hasn't been kind to Belge to this point, as he's failed to throw more than three innings in either of his first two starts this year in games against UCLA and Western Carolina. The Bruins chased Belge after six hits and four earned runs, and the lefthander allowed another four earned runs against Western Carolina in his next outing. Belge has been up to 94 mph with his fastball.
Levi Stoudt, RHP, Lehigh: Stoudt has racked up a solid amount of strikeouts (11) in his 6.2 innings so far this season, but he's been too hittable as well. His WHIP is pushing 2.00 after Duke tallied three hits and a pair of walks against him on Opening Day, while Mount St. Mary's recorded five hits and a pair of walks during his next outing, which also featured a pair of hit batters. Stoudt was 91-95 mph during Opening Weekend, when he matched up against Stinson in a high-profile game, but his velocity was down to 89-93 mph during the second week. Scouts still have questions about Stoudt's breaking ball, so he'll need to improve that pitch moving forward.
Adam Lukas, RHP, Evansville: After allowing five runs in four innings against Mercer in the season opener, Lukas has taken steps forward in each of his last two outings. The 6-foot-4 righthander took the ball for 5.2 innings against Little Rock in his second game and struck out seven batters. He then had his best start of the season last Friday against Boston College, when he threw seven shutout innings with six strikeouts and one walk.
Ken Waldichuk, LHP, St. Mary's: Waldichuk was cruising along through his first two starts (12 innings, 14 strikeouts, 3 walks, two earned runs) against Washington State and Oregon before he ran into Andrew Vaughn and the California offense last Friday. Waldichuk lasted just 3.2 innings after giving up three home runs and eight earned runs, with four strikeouts and four walks.
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Top College Hitters Cementing Status
Adley Rutschman, C, Oregon State
The consensus top-ranked prospect in the country has done nothing but re-enforce why he’s the No. 1 prospect in the 2019 draft class through 11 games. Rutschman is hitting .343/.540/.800 with a team-high five home runs and has walked 15 times compared to just eight strikeouts. He’s hitting with power more frequently this season, and he is already more than halfway to his career high of nine home runs from the 2018 season. So far in 2019, Rutschman is homering once every seven at-bats, compared to once every 27 at-bats a season ago. While that pace is likely unsustainable—2018 Division I home run leader Spencer Torkelson homered once every 8.2 at-bats a year ago—it’s great to see at this point.
Defensively, just one player has managed to steal a base against Rutschman so far this season (West Virginia infielder Tyler Doanes), while he has caught three other would-be basestealers.
Andrew Vaughn, 1B, California
A year after winning the Golden Spikes Award, Vaughn has started off his junior season with a strong case to win the trophy once again. He’s among the top 10 hitters in the country in a slew of offensive categories, hitting .529/.680/1.176 with seven home runs and 15 walks to just five strikeouts.
Among all Division I hitters, Vaughn is second in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage and home runs and seventh in batting average. He’s the best hitter in the class, and with each passing week he is making it more and more likely that he’ll become the highest-drafted college first baseman since Pat Burrell (selected No. 1 by the Phillies in 1998 out of Miami).
It seems like both Rutschman and Vaughn have elevated themselves into a tier of their own in the college class, and it would be surprising for either to be on the draft board for more than a few picks come June.