2023 MLB Draft Stock Watch: Will A 44-Year Draft Streak Come To An End?
Before the season started, I looked into each position group for the 2023 draft class in an attempt to preview the relative strengths and weaknesses of the class.
Below are the 20-80 grades I assigned to each demographic, in descending order:
- Middle Infield — 70
- Corner Infield — 55
- Righthanded Pitching — 55
- Outfield — 50
- Catcher — 40
- Lefthanded Pitching — 30
Two of the six demographics I viewed as below-average, with the lefthanded pitching group far and away looking like the weakest of the bunch on paper.
At the time, I noted that only one lefthanded pitcher ranked among the top 40 players in the class—Massachusetts lefthander Thomas White, who ranked No. 18 at the time and remains the top-ranked lefthander in the class today, at No. 14.
There were also just eight lefthanders ranked among the top 100 prospects in the class, which would represent the lowest mark in the bonus pool era if that number held. Well, two and a half months later that number hasn’t held … it’s gotten worse.
After our Top 400 April update, there are now only seven lefthanded pitchers ranked among the top 100 players in the class—and the composition of that player group is different as well.
On the preseason list, half of the eight lefthanders ranked among the top 100 came from the high school demographic and half came from the college demographic. There were also two players from each level ranked among the top 50—sitting in a solid position to become day one draftees.
On our current list, there are only three college lefthanders ranked among the top 100 and each high school southpaw is ranked higher than their college counterparts. None currently rank among the top 50.
Below is a list of the eight players, with each player’s respective board movement included in parentheses. College players are bolded:
- No. 14 Thomas White, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. (+4)
- No. 39 Cameron Johnson, IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla. (+55)
- No. 45 Alexander Clemmey, Bishop Hendricken HS, Warwick, R.I. (+23)
- No. 46 Adam Hachman, Timberland HS, Wentzville, Mo. (-1)
- No. 51 Paul Wilson, Lakeridge HS, Lake Oswego, Ore. (+128)
- No. 65 Hunter Owen, Vanderbilt (+113)
- No. 73 Grayson Hitt, Alabama (-24)
- No. 100 Jaden Woods, Georgia (-11)
Despite a huge surge forward from Owen the college lefty class as a whole looks no better today than it did prior to the season getting started.
Alabama lefthander Grayson Hitt and Florida State lefthander Wyatt Crowell (No. 129) began the year in a solid position to move into the first round with strong performances. However, Crowell came out of the gate with significantly less velocity and Hitt struggled to locate his pitches consistently. Both pitchers eventually suffered UCL injuries that ended their seasons.
Because of a lack of healthy and performing college lefthanders, the 2023 class is at risk of breaking a 44-year draft streak: since the 1979 draft, at least one college lefthander has been taken in every first round.
The fact that the streak exists in the first place isn’t much of a surprise. About half of all drafted players are pitchers and lefthanders, due to their southpaw advantage, are over-represented compared to their share in the general population—both in the big leagues and in the draft.
Paradoxically, because hitters see comparatively few lefthanders MLB teams want more of them. The scouting scale is traditionally lessened a bit for lefthanded velocity* because southpaws are such a hot commodity. And college lefthanders in particular are a valued commodity in the draft because, theoretically, they provide the same lefty advantage as the high schoolers, while simultaneously offering a shorter development timeline as well as less overall risk.
That could go part of the way in explaining why college lefties more often than not get drafted earlier than where the BA draft board might suggest. Signability certainly comes into play and muddies the water here, but 16 of the 27 first round college lefthanders selected in the bonus pool era were taken with earlier picks than their BA draft ranking would suggest:
|Year||Pos||Player||Team||Pick||BA Rank||Pick-Rank Diff.|
|2012||LHP||Brian Johnson||Red Sox||31||39||-8|
|2020||LHP||Garrett Crochet||White Sox||11||15||-4|
|2014||LHP||Carlos Rodon||White Sox||3||3||0|
So the fact that we don’t have a college lefthander ranked inside the first round certainly doesn’t mean a player won’t get taken there on July 9.
But who are the best candidates to either keep moving up boards or shock us all on draft night? There are precious few options, but let’s dig into a few of the players who—especially given the existence of Daniel Lynch above—could help this draft streak celebrate its 45th birthday:
Hunter Owen, LHP, Vanderbilt
Owen should be the running favorite to be the first college lefthander off the board at this point despite the fact that he entered the 2023 season with just four college starts under his belt. He’s been a full-time member of the weekend rotation this spring and through his first nine starts he has a 3.42 ERA with a career-best 27.8% strikeout rate and solid 7.7% walk rate. His best start of the season so far came on March 25 against Mississippi, when he threw a complete game shutout with 11 strikeouts and one walk.
He has the requisite size and stuff that wouldn’t make him a huge shock in the back of the first round as well. Owen stands 6-foot-6, 261 pounds (the same height/weight as Blue Jays righthander Alek Manoah at the draft in 2019) with a solid four-pitch mix. He uses a 92-93 mph fastball just over 50% of the time, and will run that pitch up to 97 at peak velocity, and mixes in a mid-80s slider, mid-70s curveball and mid-80s changeup. The slider has traditionally been his best swing-and-miss secondary, and that remains the case this spring with a 52% miss rate in a starting role.
While Owen’s stuff and pitch mix looks reasonably similar to what he was throwing in 2022, his batted ball profile is quite a bit different:
After being a groundball pitcher in 2021 and 2022 while pitching mostly out of the bullpen, Owen has exchanged a large percentage of those ground balls into fly balls this spring. That’s been a great trade for two significant reasons: 1) he’s also posting the lowest home run/fly ball rate of his career and 2) he has the best defensive outfielder in the country patrolling center field behind him in Enrique Bradfield.
Jaden Woods, LHP, Georgia
Like Owen, Woods entered the 2023 spring season with only a handful of starts under his belt. In his case, that number was five: four during his 2021 freshman season and one during the 2022 season when he struck out 32.4% of the batters he faced.
Woods hasn’t had the same clean transition to a full-time starter role. He does have a pair of 11-strikeout games under his belt (against Princeton in February and South Carolina in March), but he also has a pair of five-walk games and has walked three or more batters in five of his nine starts.
His fastball velocity hasn’t quite held up in a starting role compared to his 2022 season coming out of the bullpen: the velocity went from 92.7 mph a year ago to 90.9 mph so far this spring. Additionally, his pitch mix still looks like that of a reliever, with 91% of his pitches being either his fastball or slider, with little feel for his changeup.
While there was some hope that Woods would be able to carry over his improved control from the summer and establish himself as a bonafide starter, he’s currently sitting with a 12.4% walk rate and has never had a rate below 10% in any individual season with Georgia.
Sean Sullivan, LHP, Wake Forest
Sullivan might be the most interesting name on this entire list. Take a look at these two pitchers:
|ERA||FIP||xFIP||K%||BB%||FBv||FB Miss||FB Chase||FB Usage||FB RelZ|
Those who have followed our draft coverage closely this spring might have an idea where we’re heading with this, but scan these numbers and think about which pitcher you might prefer, if you had to pick one just based on this information.
I’ll let you in on who’s who in a bit. First, let’s look at how impressive Sullivan has been this season. Through his first eight starts and 50.1 innings, Sullivan has posted a 34.8% strikeout minus walk rate, a silly number that would be the best among all qualified Division I pitchers if it weren’t for the existence of Paul Skenes (45.2%).
Sullivan dominated in the early weeks of the season and struck out 10-plus batters in three consecutive games. His last few weeks haven’t been as dominant, with Louisville and Pittsburgh touching him up for three runs apiece. It’s also worth noting that he’s been handled fairly conservatively with Wake Forest, with just two outings of six full innings thrown.
And while the table above paints the picture of a pitcher who dominates with his fastball—no matter which one is Sullivan—it’s worth pointing out that he’s been quite good with his breaking ball and offspeed as well: with a 42% combined miss rate and a .622 OPS allowed against those pitches.
But back to our handy table above: Player A? Sean Sullivan. Player B? That would be Cardinals 2022 first-rounder Cooper Hjerpe in his draft season.
Granted, Hjerpe’s numbers come with almost double the workload that Sullivan currently has in his draft season, and Sullivan’s fastball doesn’t seem to have the same elite riding life that Hjerpe’s did a year ago, but there’s something going on there that has allowed him to absolutely dominate while throwing 45-grade velocity. The fact that Sullivan should be able to continue pitching in high-profile games with No. 2 Wake Forest, like Hjerpe did a year ago with Oregon State, should only help him keep climbing.
2023 Draft Stock Watch: 10 Risers On The May BA 500 Update
Breaking down 10 significant up-arrow prospects on the first edition of the BA 500.
Isaiah Coupet, LHP, Ohio State
On the surface, Coupet’s 2023 season has been solid but unspectacular. Through eight starts and 42.2 innings, Coupet has posted a 4.01 ERA with a 34.1% strikeout rate and 8.5% walk rate.
Outside of one disaster game against Indiana in late March, however, Coupet has dominated. Of the 19 earned runs Coupet has allowed this season, 10 of those came in one four-inning outing in which he allowed 10 hits and three home runs. If you take that single game out of his line, he’s looking at a 1.86 ERA on the season with a 1.00 WHIP—which would be good for a top-20 mark among all Division I pitchers.
Now, you can’t really just take out the worst game of the season for someone. That’s not how it works. The game happened after all and is part of the overall resume—we could as easily take away his 10-strikeout, seven-inning shutout against Minnesota on March 31 to make his numbers look worse. But the point is, he’s probably been at least a bit better than his overall line would suggest so far.
Coupet has never thrown his fastball at a high rate, and he’s throwing the pitch right around 50% of the time this season, but he has gained a few ticks of velocity and after topping out at 92 mph in 2022 he’s been up to 94 this spring and is sitting right at 90 mph on average. His secondaries are his bread and butter and he’s generated a miss rate of 54% with that entire grouping of pitches—led by an 80 mph slider with a 36% usage rate that has absolutely overpowered hitters. Opposing batters are hitting just .136/.190/.186 against the pitch.
Coupet is also on the younger end of the college class and will still be just 20 years old on draft day.
Quinn Mathews, LHP, Stanford
If we’re looking for the 2023 version of Hjerpe, maybe instead of looking at a low-slot lefty we should just look at who’s dominating the Pac-12? Enter Quinn Mathews.
Unlike Coupet, Mathews is on the older side for the class as a fourth-year senior who will be 22 on draft day. He has that going against him and was also just a 19th-round pick by the Rays a year ago. That probably isn’t the best formula for “sleeper first-rounder” but it is true that Mathews has been a consistent workhorse for the No. 8 Cardinal team.
He’s thrown at least five complete innings in all 11 of his starts this spring and is currently looking at career-best marks with a 2.70 ERA and 31.1% strikeout rate. He leads the Pac-12 with 76.2 innings and 96 strikeouts and is second in ERA and overall strikeout rate and third in K-BB%. In his last five starts, he has a ridiculous 53-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
In terms of stuff, Mathews has been pretty similar to a year ago. His average fastball velocity is up about a half tick, now sitting at 91.4 mph, and he has continued to show excellent feel for a plus changeup in the low 80s as well as a solid-average slider around 80 mph.
His performance and senior status alone this spring should have him taken sooner than the 19th round—and his decision to not sign is looking like a good one—but a back-of-the-rotation ceiling will likely cap just how high his upside is on draft day.
After digging into the lefthanders above, Owen is the only pitcher who really feels like a player who could get into the first round in a 2023 draft class that is quite strong up top with plenty of hitters and righthanded pitchers to choose from.
However, as the chart above shows us, we’ve been surprised before. Maybe we will be once again in 2023.
*Perhaps having a lower bar for velocity for lefthanded pitchers in general is why high school lefthanders haven’t suffered the same top-of-the-draft demographic risk as high school righthanders.