Bobby Witt Stars At Under Armour All-America Game
CHICAGO—With 40 of the best high school players in the country all gathered on one of the most iconic major league fields in baseball the Under Armour All-America Game is built for big moments. Fans and scouts had to wait nine innings for that moment to come, but it eventually did.
In the top of the ninth inning at the end of a drizzly night on Wrigley Field, the No. 1 high school player in the 2019 draft class stepped to the plate, hitless. Bobby Witt Jr. walked in his first plate appearance, his second plate appearance and was hit by a pitch during his third trip to the plate. In his fourth at-bat, he got under a 76 mph curveball and flew out to deep left-center field. He didn’t get much to hit in his first several at-bats, and when he did, he wasn’t on time.
“I think I was just a little late in my few at-bats,” the Colleyville (Texas) High shortstop said after his American club beat the National team, 8-2. “Just needed to get the foot down and react curveball if you see it up, see the spin and just let it eat—whatever it is.”
During his last trip to the plate, Ramona (Calif.) High righthander Derek Diamond challenged Witt to fight off his entire arsenal of offerings.
“My man Derek was throwing some nasty stuff,” Witt said, “and I was trying to just foul it off.”
But when a 76 mph curveball came out of Diamond’s hand—Witt finally let it eat. He saw the pitch early out of the Stanford commit’s right hand, got his foot down with plenty of time to spare, and launched a mammoth home run to left field that came a few feet shy of leaving rain-soaked Wrigley for good.
“That’s a competitive at-bat,” said Baseball Factory Executive Vice President Steve Bernhardt. “Derek is a quality pitcher. He’s a great young man and I thought he showed a lot of poise on the mound through a tougher inning. But for Bobby to foul off a changeup, a breaking ball, I think two fastballs, everything. And then get a breaking ball that he could handle and do what he did with it was amazing.
“It was a moment. There’s no doubt.”
After reaching base four out of five trips to the plate with a home run, two walks and a hit by pitch, Witt was announced the Under Armour MVP.
“It was truly a blessing, I didn’t think I would get that,” Witt said. “Really there should be an award for every one of these kids out here playing this game. It’s awesome, and they go balls out all the time and just have fun. If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be this excited to play because they are back there for me, rooting for me—it was fun.”
While Witt’s home run was the biggest moment of the game, it wasn’t the only one. Hagerty High (Oviedo, Fla.) outfielder Riley Greene hit his own home run during the bottom of the first inning, taking advantage of a hanging Brennan Malone slider and depositing the pitch deep into the right field stands to give the National team an early 2-0 lead, with Georgia shortstop C.J. Abrams also scoring on the play after starting the inning with a leadoff double.
“Oh my gosh, this was amazing,” Greene said after the game. “Hitting that home run in the first inning, I was shaking after it I was so excited.”
A Florida commit, Greene entered the 2019 draft cycle as one of the class’s best hitters for average and power and showed why this week with several impressive batting practices and his in-game power surge.
“it just seems there are some guys who can just hit,” Bernhardt said. “And it looks easy for (Greene). And the way the ball travels off the bat without looking like it’s a lot of effort—the home run tonight was a perfect example, I can’t believe how far that ball went up off the scoreboard.
“Earlier I talked about how much I like to watch Brennan Malone pitch because it seems effortless. I feel the same way watching Riley Greene hit.”
Abrams, the No. 2 player in the 2019 high school class, showed off his tools in the showcase (powered by Baseball Factory) as well, posting multiple 70-grade home-to-first times out of the lefthanded batter’s box, barreling a 95 mph fastball to the opposite field and also flashing the leather at shortstop.
The Alabama commit finished the game 2-for-4 with his leadoff double, a pair of groundouts and an infield single on what looked like a routine 4-3 groundout to second base that he beat out with a 4.10-second home-to-first time on Baseball America’s stopwatch.
“C.J. is so talented,” Bernhardt said. “To get their lineup started with that opposite field double. And he makes it look easy too, it’s pretty simple, it’s a nice clean stroke. He got to show his speed a little bit, beating that ball out his last at-bat. I know he’s got outstanding straight line speed, but he seems to play the game even faster with the things he does.
“And we gave him a couple innings in center field too, because I know some scouts have seen him there or talked about seeing him there and he tracked the ball down pretty easily towards the warning track. I think tonight was a nice chance for him to show a lot of what he can do with his legs and with the bat.”
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While the pitching at this point in the draft process for the 2019 class doesn’t look to be as strong as a very deep 2018 prep pitching class, there were also a few arms who impressed Friday night.
While the aforementioned Malone (committed to North Carolina) gave up a double and home run to Abrams and Greene, he showed an impressive fastball that ranged from 93-97 mph and touched 98. The pitch had significant arm side running action and heavy sinking life, even at the upper levels of his velocity range. He generated four swings and misses with the pitch in his one inning of work, with a groundout and one strikeout.
Georgia righthander Daniel Espino put up the biggest numbers on the radar gun, getting his fastball up to 99 mph, with the pitch ranging from 95-99 mph in his one-inning look. Espino threw from a lower three-quarter arm slot but got some cutting life on his fastball, and also showed two distinct breaking balls with a 76 mph curveball and an 81 mph slider that had more horizontal life—both looked like solid pitches, but were thrown only briefly in Espino’s 1-2-3 inning.
“(The pitchers) were all amazing, honestly, but Espino getting up to 99—that’s some gas,” Witt said after the game. “He said he was going to let some loose and that was impressive.”
Southport High (Indianapolis) lefthander Avery Short was the lone pitcher of the game to extend beyond one inning, throwing the eighth and the ninth frames for the American club. While his pure stuff isn’t at the level of Malone, Espino and several other pitchers in the game, his control and poise from the left side was praised by multiple Under Armour participants.
“He’s a lefty first of all which makes him good,” said the lefthanded hitting Greene. “I think he throws like 90-91. His ball moves, his curveball is good and he can place the ball really well.”
Short was more in the upper 80s and touching 90 in this outing, with a mid-70s curveball that ranged from a 12-to-6 true top-to-bottom breaking ball to a 1-to-7 pitch with slightly more horizontal tilt.
Bernhardt added that Short and Delbarton High (Morristown, N.J.) righthy Jack Leiter—who showed one of the best curveballs of the evening, a mid-70s, 12-to-6 downer with impressive depth—showed starter profiles with their ability to locate multiple pitches.
“I think at the end, throwing those last two innings, we kind of have seen from Avery throughout the summer that he can really compete,” Bernhardt said. “He’s probably got some of the most advanced command of the group.
“I think a similar guy is Jack Lieter, who just seems to throw well all the time. He’s poised; a runner on didn’t really seem to bother him. He still threw well; multiple pitches for strikes.”
It’s easy to try and immediately use the Under Armour All-America Game as a barometer for the relative strength of the 2019 prep draft class. After all, 13 players from last year’s game went on to be first round draft picks in the 2018 draft. While it’s still very much early in the draft process—11 months is a long time—Bernhardt believes the game helped elevate the stock of the class.
“I think it’s interesting, almost every class it seems like they have ups and downs,” Bernhardt said. “Early on the buzz is everyone loves them, like two classes out this group is great and that’s when they just see bits and pieces of a couple guys and then they see the whole class and, ‘Well it’s not as good as the last couple years,’ and then it kind of trends back up.
“I think some guys tonight kind of helped the overall feel of this class now because I think some guys showed that it’s kind of trending back up. Some guys played well and flashed some tools, the ability to use them in-game. Some guys threw well on the mound, a couple breaking balls that maybe we haven’t seen as out pitches earlier in the summer and maybe emerged a little tonight.
“Overall I really like the class. As far as these 40 players—off the field, being around them at the hotel, working with the Boys & Girls Club, they were great. They really were.”