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2019 Draft Stock Watch: Why High-Octane High School Velocity Is Scary

Image credit: Daniel Espino (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

If Daniel Espino were draft-eligible a few years ago, the righthander would be ranked a lot higher than where he is right now.

After slotting in at No. 22 in the most recent update of BA’s 2019 draft rankings, it’s worth asking the question: Why is the pitcher with the best pure stuff in the class not the highest-ranking pitcher? Or even the highest-ranking prep pitcher for that matter?

Those are good questions to ask, whether you’re a fan of the draft getting ready for June 3 or whether you’re a scouting director trying to line up a draft board to make the best selections possible for your organization.

The simplest answer is that there are few success stories when you look at how the hardest-throwing prep pitchers have fared in recent drafts. Of the nine pitchers who qualify as the “hardest-throwing high schooler” or have an argument for that title in the last seven draft classes, all but one have dealt with significant injuries or other issues that have stunted or completely halted their development. And only one—White Sox righthander Lucas Giolito—has impacted the major leagues in any capacity.

“Even though it keeps not working, we’re obsessed with 18-year-old kids throwing 96-99 (mph),” said one American League crosschecker in a 2018 Baseball America story that examined the success rate of high school righthanders.

“It’s safe, right? The kid is probably huge, he’s throwing 100 (mph), he shows up on the field. It’s going to be very difficult for anybody to be like, ‘This is a ridiculous pick.’ Some 6-foot-5 dude throws one bullet at 100 and everyone in player development is happy. But we have the data. We have the history. We know that shouldn’t be the reaction.”

We’ll obviously have to wait a few years before we know with much certainty how the 2018 and 2017 draft classes look, but Kumar Rocker was passed over until the 38th round and made it to campus at Vanderbilt, while Ethan Hankins has yet to throw more than three innings in pro ball after dealing with injuries during his senior season in high school. Those two both have arguments for the hardest-thrower in the 2018 class, while Hunter Greene, the No. 1 ranked prospect in the 2017 class and easily the hardest thrower, will miss the 2019 season after having Tommy John surgery.

In 2016, Riley Pint was the top high school pitcher in the BA 500 rankings and the No. 2 overall prospect in the class—behind only college lefthander A.J. Puk—thanks to a fastball that regularly hit triple digits. Now in his fourth year of pro ball, Pint has struggled every season because of both injuries and control issues, and he has yet to reach high Class A. This year, Pint has thrown strikes on only 32 percent of his pitches.

In 2015, the hardest-throwing prep pitchers were righthanders Mike Nikorak (No. 16) and Ashe Russell (No. 17), who were also the first and second-ranked high school pitching prospects on the BA 500. Caveat: The 2015 draft was nearly devoid of high school pitching talent.

Nikorak had Tommy John surgery in 2016, which set his development back. He has thrown just 62 professional innings and has yet to reach high Class A. He’s struggled so far this spring in 6.2 relief innings, allowing 11 walks and 10 hits. Meanwhile, Russell’s mechanics broke down soon after he became a professional, and he struggled to throw strikes so much that he walked away from the game for two seasons. He’s attempting a comeback this year.

In 2014, righthander Tyler Kolek was the hardest-throwing pitcher in the draft, and he ranked as the No. 2 prospect on the BA 500 list behind prep lefthander Brady Aiken.

While Kolek sat in the upper 90s and regularly touched 102 mph, he missed the 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery and has been ineffective when healthy. Like others mentioned here, he has yet to reach high Class A ball and has a career minor league ERA of 5.34 with 5.8 walks per nine innings and 6.8 strikeouts per nine. Kolek has yet to pitch in an official game this season.

The 2013 draft class didn’t feature a flamethrower to the extent that the previous classes did, but Hunter Harvey touched 97 mph as a senior at Bandys High in Catawba, N.C., and was selected with the 22nd overall pick after ranking as the No. 33 prospect in the class.

While Harvey was the seventh-ranked high school pitcher that year, his professional career has been slowed due to a multitude of injuries. He’s dealt with some sort of injury in five of his first six years—including Tommy John surgery in 2016—though his numbers have been better than other pitchers discussed when he’s on the mound. Through 194 minor league innings—including 17.2 Double-A innings this season—Harvey has a 3.33 ERA, 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.0 walks per nine.

In 2012, Lucas Giolito was the top-ranked prep pitcher in the class and ranked No. 9 overall after spraining his ulnar collateral ligament in March of his senior season. He sat in the mid-90s and would routinely get up to 99 mph. Many scouts at the time thought he had a chance to be one of the best high school righthanders in draft history. Giolito struggled throughout his minor league career with control issues and inconsistency, and his velocity has settled in well below the range he sat in high school.

Giolito made his major league debut in 2016 and has made 43 starts for the White Sox. He has been largely ineffective, however, with a 5.35 ERA and 4.2. walks per nine innings.

So, back to Espino.

He has—easily—the best pure stuff in the 2019 draft class. He has a fastball that gets into the upper 90s and brushes triple-digits with good life and a pair of breaking balls that could both be plus offerings to complement his 80-grade heater. He has elite lower-half mechanics, which allows him to throw without significant effort while still lighting up a radar gun.

But he throws with an unconventional, long arm action, and he is shorter than typical frontline major league starters. He has some traits that are in common with many of the pitchers mentioned above, but perhaps most importantly, he’s the hardest-throwing pitcher in the class.

However, being the hardest thrower in a draft class has not correlated with success in recent years. In most of these situations, pitchers are throwing as hard as they ever will as high school seniors, with their velocity backing up as they acclimate to a pro schedule that allows for fewer days rest between outings.

Espino is still a Day 1 talent, and there’s no reason that he couldn’t be an outlier to the recent trend. But the fact that it’s a trend at all could make Espino’s life more difficult when it comes to his draft stock, especially compared with where his draft status might be if he were playing high school baseball in 2012 or earlier.

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