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2021 MLB Draft Sleepers: Control Artist Pitching Prospects To Watch

Scott Randall Sacramentostatecourtesy
Scott Randall (Courtesy Sacramento State)

In an April 5 piece for Baseball America, Eno Sarris explored whether or not teams should consider prioritizing high-velocity, low-control pitchers less and “command artists who could be able to add some speed and shape a breaking ball” more.

In a time where teams have shown much better ability to develop velocity than command among pitching prospects, that strategy seems sensible.

So, today we’re highlighting the best control artists in the 2021 draft class, and diving into some pitchers further down the BA 500—and in some cases off of it entirely—who are worth noting and could be potential sleepers or who are simply interesting to look into at a deeper level.

You can read more about every ranked player on the BA 500 here.

Best Command Arms Among Top 200 Prospects

16Michael McGreevyRHPUC Santa Barbara4YR70
18Gunnar HoglundRHPMississippi4YR70
13Jordan WicksLHPKansas State4YR65
189Braden OlthoffRHPTulane4YR65
15Andrew PainterRHPCalvary Christian HS, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.HS60
35Joshua HartleLHPReagan HS, Pfafftown, N.C.HS60
44Thatcher HurdRHPMira Costa HS, Manhattan Beach, Calif.HS60
65Tommy MaceRHPFlorida4YR60
102Landon MarceauxRHPLouisiana State4YR60
104Logan HendersonRHPMcLennan (Texas) JC4YR60
149Jordan MarksRHPSouth Carolina-Upstate4YR60

Above are the highest-graded command arms in the class, based on individual tool grades, which are given to each of the top 200 players in the class. There are obvious, first round marksmen that most Baseball America readers will be familiar with, like UC Santa Barbara righthander Michael McGreevy and Mississippi righthander Gunnar Hoglund—whose sterling strike throwing track record goes back to his prep days.

McGreevy ranked second among Division I pitchers in walks per nine this spring, with just 11 free passes issued in 101.2 innings, for a 0.97 rate. Who’s first? We’ll get into that a bit later.

Additionally, it is unsurprising to see the top lefthanded college pitcher in the class, Jordan Wicks, ranking favorably here. There were just three high school pitchers who received plus control grades in this year’s class, and it makes sense that all three—Andrew Painter, Joshua Hartle, Thatcher Hurd—rank among the top 50 players in the class.

But what about some of the players outside of the top 50 picks?

Olthoff is the only player in the class with a better than plus control grade who also isn’t ranked among the top 20 in the class. That’s because he sits with a fastball around 89 mph and the pitch is a running heater that rarely gets swings and misses. Olthoff was sitting in the 90-92 mph range early in the season but his velocity slid a bit towards the end of the season and he struggled over his last four starts. There’s a ton of movement on his secondary offerings, and he’s only walked 14 batters in 106.2 career innings with Tulane—a 1.2 BB/9 mark.

Mace was draft-eligible during the 2020 class and ranked in a similar top-two round range, but has an extensive track record of throwing strikes in the SEC, with a 2.5 career BB/9. This spring he posted the best strikeout-to-walk rate of his career (5.38) and has been up to 97 mph with his fastball, although he’s given up a hit per nine for his career as well and doesn’t yet have a wipeout secondary to rely on.

Marceaux has been a consistent performer in the SEC as an undersized righthander, and this spring had a career-best year with the lowest ERA of his career (2.54), most innings (102.2), best strikeout rate (10.2 K/9) and lowest walk rate (2.3 BB/9). He sits with a 90-92 mph fastball and has an average slider, with his changeup perhaps being his best offering right now.

Henderson was the NJCAA Division I Pitcher of the Year after striking out 166 batters as a true freshman. Unlike the players mentioned previously, Henderson has plus control and a fastball with high-spin characteristics that got plenty of whiffs in the zone—although his competition is admittedly lesser than Olthoff, Mace and Marceaux. Like Marceaux, he is a shorter righthander who sits in the 90-92 mph range with average secondaries.

Marks is the lowest-ranked 60-grade control pitcher among the top 200 prospects and boasts a career walk rate of 2.0 BB/9 over a four-year career with South Carolina-Upstate. While he’s been up to 97-98 mph this spring, Marks sits in the 91-93 mph range and has just fringy secondaries.

Going beyond the top 200 prospects, there are still a number of control-oriented pitchers of interest, most of whom are from the college ranks, but with a few notable preps as well.

Ricky Tiedemann (Mike Janes Four Seam Images)

Pontes Of View: May 5

Observations made from watching some of the top minor league starts from the past week.

201-500 Ranked Control-Oriented Arms

212Tanner BibeeRHPCal State Fullerton4YR
220Caedmon ParkerRHPThe Woodlands (Texas) Christian Academy HSHS
251Gordon GraceffoRHPVillanova4YR
254Scott RandallRHPSacramento State4YR
272Patrick WicklanderLHPArkansas4YR
296Robert AhlstromLHPOregon4YR
301Hunter StanleyRHPSouthern Mississippi4YR
333Chris GerardLHPVirginia Tech4YR
338Pete HansenLHPTexas4YR
370Zach PettwayRHPUCLA4YR
395Samuel StricklandLHPSamford4YR
406Rawley HectorRHPAnna (Texas) HSHS
416Zane MillsRHPWashington State4YR
479Will DionLHPMcNeese State4YR

While our prospects in the 200-plus range don’t have tool grades assigned like the top 200, each of the players in the above table stands out for advanced pitching ability or control, in some way or another.

We’ll start with Randall here, as he is the pitcher responsible for the best walk per nine rate this spring, topping McGreevy, with just nine walks issued in 87.1 innings this spring—a 0.93 BB/9 rate. Randall is intriguing beyond the standout command he’s shown over his career with Sacramento State, as his velocity has tracked in the right direction over the past few years, going from the upper 80s to the 90-92 mph range this spring and touching 96. Randall does have a good changeup, but could use a more improved breaking ball at the next level.

Let’s check into the two high school players who show up in this table, both Texas righthanders. Neither Rawley Hector nor Caedmon Parker fit the stereotypical Texan pitching mold, as is probably to be expected for players who stand out for their control. Hector might be the more famous prep, after pitching for USA Baseball’s 18U National team in 2018, but he was limited last summer thanks to a knee injury. He’ll throw a fastball in the 89-92 mph range and show two average secondary offerings. Parker is a bit more interesting thanks to a projectable, 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame that should add plenty of weight in the near future, with perhaps more velocity in the tank as well. Parker has touched 94 but sits in the upper 80s and low 90s for the most part now. Hector is committed to Texas A&M and Parker is committed to Texas Christian.

Hansen was a highly-anticipated lefthander who became eligible once the draft was pushed back to July, but he dealt with a dead arm period early in the season and threw just 11 pitches over 90 mph this spring, per Synergy. Hansen sat with a fastball around 86-87 mph, which is a tough sell at the next level, but he did post a 1.88 ERA over 91 innings and allowed just 6.5 hits per nine. It speaks to Hansen’s pitching ability that he was so successful despite well below-average fastball velocity. If he can tick that heater up a bit, Hansen would get very interesting very quickly.

Graceffo ranked 20th among Division I arms in walks per nine (1.43) this spring and mostly sits in the 87-91 mph range, though near the end of the season, Graceffo’s velo was ticking up slightly and he touched 94.

Unlike most of the pitchers we’ve discussed so far, Wicklander doesn’t have an extensive track record of filling up the strike zone. The Arkansas southpaw walked more than five batters per nine in his first two seasons, before posting a 2.8 BB/9 this spring as a starter and reliever. Wicklander got stronger and more consistent after finding out he was a Type I Diabetic and learning how to better handle his condition, and has shown above-average command of his fastball/slider combo.

Stanley has never walked more than 2.2 batters per nine innings in his career for Southern Mississippi and boasts a 6.17 strikeout-to-walk rate for his career. That control is exceptional, and what really raised some eyebrows from scouts this spring is when the 6-foot, 175-pound righthander ran his fastball up to 97 mph this spring. He sits in the 90-93 mph range, but that peak velocity suggests there might be more in the tank.

Top 20 DI Pitchers: Walks Per Nine

RankPlayerSchoolInningsWalksPer Nine
1Scott RandallSacramento State87.190.93
2Michael McGreevyUC Santa Barbara101.2110.97
3Mario LopezJackson State6271.02
4Zebby MatthewsWestern Carolina61.171.03
5Pierson OhlGrand Canyon100.1121.08
6Sean BergeronWestern Kentucky79.1101.13
7Gabe LevyDavidson70.191.15
8Austin ParsleyUNC Greensboro6081.2
9Jake NovielloFairfield67.191.2
10Braden OlthoffTulane78.2111.26
11Max McKinleyNorth Florida5781.26
12Geremy GuerreroIndiana State99.1141.27
13Andrew BraunCentral Connecticut State84121.29
14Ben WereskiRutgers76111.3
15Rob HenseyMonmouth4161.32
16Grant HartwigMiami (Ohio)73.1111.35
17Isaac CoffeyOral Roberts86.1131.36
18Trey DombroskiMonmouth52.281.37
19Mason MeyerLiberty64.2101.39
20Gordon GraceffoVillanova82131.43

There are a number of names on this table we've mentioned previously. A few nuggets on some players we haven't talked about:

  • Geremy Guerrero somehow manages to throw 85 mph fastballs by hitters from the left side and this spring posted a 2.08 ERA over 99.1 innings in the Missouri Valley Conference despite topping out at 89 mph.
  • Pierson Ohl sits in the 87-89 mph range and touches 91, but his fastball velocity is up a few ticks from what he was throwing in the 2020 season and he's the only pitcher on the table above with 100-plus innings, outside of McGreevy. Ohl goes to a 79-81 mph changeup quite a bit and the pitch has solid fading life that gives him whiffs and groundouts.
  • Zebby Matthews sits 87-89 and has been up to 92 mph this spring and primarily works with a fastball/slider combination. Matthews has a stiff and short arm action with little usage of his lower half at the moment. Perhaps by incorporating his legs more in the future he could gain a bit of velocity.
  • Rob Hensey pitches in the mid and upper 80s and touches 90 mph from the left side with a slow, sweeping slider in the upper 70s and a low-80s changeup with some fading life. He has long levers with a 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame that still has plenty of room for added strength. His arm action is a bit long now, so perhaps his stuff could jump if he shortened it up.

Below are the walks per nine leaders among Division II and III levels.

Top 10 DII Pitchers: Walks Per Nine

RankPlayerSchoolInningsWalksPer Nine
1Collin DenkMinnesota State6950.65
2Michael KrauzaMercyhurst (Pa.)5440.67
3James McNamaraAssumption (Mass.)23.120.77
4Daniel SilvaColorado Springs8380.87
5Andy McClymondsSlippery Rock (Pa.)4040.9
6Brant AlazausWalsh (Ohio)5860.93
7Jordan LeasureTampa38.140.94
8Christian CarpenterAnderson (S.C.)37.240.96
9Bryan KetchieCatawba (N.C.)8490.96
10Jonathan DraheimMary (N.D.)55.160.98

Top 10 DIII Pitchers: Walks Per Nine

RankPlayerSchoolInningsWalksPer Nine
1Kevin FlynnSUNY Poly (N.Y.)27.200
2Jordy AllardBabson (Mass.)49.220.36
3John OwenPfeiffer (N.C.)2310.39
4Domanick MichaelEarlham (Ind.)4520.4
5Will NomuraMuhlenberg (Pa.)2010.45
6Casey PickeringWisconsin-Stevens Point54.240.66
7Jackson TroianoSUNY Canton (N.Y.)25.220.7
8Jared FongWashington University (Mo.)5040.72
9Clay RickermanCalifornia Lutheran24.220.73
10Sam MathewsMarietta (Ohio)73.160.74

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