Future Four: College Lefthanders To Know In The 2022 MLB Draft Class (Vol. 1)
As the game continues to evolve on and off the field, the ways in which teams identify potential talent is changing as well. The qualities that once defined a pitching prospect have continued to morph and evolve. Attributes that were desirable like height, downhill plane, sinkers and curveballs have become less en vogue (though sinkers have made a comeback of late.). That’s not to say these traits aren’t still desirable—they are—but the spectrum of what “can” work has changed.
It’s less about one characteristic being desirable over another, and more about the unique qualities each player already possesses and how organizations believe their player development can best foster the given profile. There’s a variety of styles and shapes for successful major league pitchers. It's really about identifying which style best suits each player’s talent and physical attributes.
In previous data-driven deep dives we’ve examined prospects from the professional ranks, first analyzing some of the most interesting pitchers in the minors, and then examining some of the minors' top analytical performers on the hitting side. In the following piece, we’ll take a deeper look at a group of highly touted collegiate pitching prospects with first round aspirations for the 2022 draft.
Welcome to the Future Four, a semi-regular feature I’ll do throughout the winter leading up to the 2022 college season. We’ll focus primarily on four draft-eligible players during each edition. In our maiden voyage we’ll be focusing on the first group of draft-eligible collegiate lefthanders, discussing what they throw, how they throw it, and what outcomes they drive. We’ll encounter a wide net of types and pathways to success, hopefully gaining an understanding of who these players are as they enter the spring.
Hunter Barco, LHP Florida
A star two-way talent during the 2018 summer showcase circuit, Barco has had a fairly successful career thus far in Gainesville. A member of the Gators weekend rotation for consecutive seasons, Barco spent his summer with Team USA, foregoing an opportunity to pitch with Orleans in the Cape Cod League. Over the course of 100.2 collegiate innings spanning 20 starts, Barco has pitched to a 12-3 record, with a 3.52 ERA, a .226 opponent batting average and 120 strikeouts to 32 walks. He enters the spring as one of the top pitching prospects in the SEC and Florida’s de facto ace.
Barco is prototypically built, with a strong, well-conditioned 6-foot-4 frame with plenty of remaining projection. His low three-quarters arm slot and longer arm action add a bit of deceptive tilt to Barco’s offerings and help him get around his slider. He works primarily off his fastball and slider, working in a curveball and two variations of his offspeed in a softer, more traditional changeup and a harder splitter.
His fastball accounted for a majority of his usage (56%) in 2021, and the pitch by and large returned solid but unspectacular results. He held opponents to a .219 batting average off of the pitch, but it produced below-average swing-and-miss results overall. It’s a pitch that lacks power or bat missing shape, sitting 90-93 with mediocre raw spin and lower spin efficiency, and despite some added tilt due to his arm slot it doesn’t result in the release or movement playing up. His approach angle is fairly steep for someone with a lower arm slot, the product of his lack of extension. Evaluators and analysts I spoke with shared a common concern around Barco’s fastball quality at present. With a lack of velocity, shape, spin, or deceptive release characteristics the concern looks justified.
When it came to Barco’s secondaries, scouts and analysts were more optimistic, as Barco’s slider has shown improved quality, while his splitter has a reputation dating back to his prep showcase days. Barco shows feel for both of his breaking balls, his slider is commanded well to both sides of the plate and he showed improved strike-throwing ability with the pitch, boasting a strike rate nearly on par with his fastball. It’s a tight gyro-ball or classic bullet spin slider that has some added angle due to his arm slot, but it’s the late dive it shows at its best that makes it a promising pitch. It has little to no vertical or horizontal movement, making it a true low efficiency gyro offering. Added velocity could help it play as a bat misser, as he sat 80 mph in 2021, but ideally you’d like to see a slider with that shape thrown in the mid-80s. As it stands now, it’s Barco’s best swing-and-miss pitch with a whiff rate of 43% per Synergy baseball.
The changeup and splitter were used with far less frequency than his fastball and slider combination, but scouts all seemed fixated on the pitch as a key part of Barco’s future. The splitter sits in the mid 80s, with hard arm-side run and late tumble. Due to the nature of the pitch's movement it’s used primarily as a chase pitch. Sold with good arm speed and a release that tunnels off of his fastball, it’s a promising part of his pitch mix that could serve him well long term with increased usage. In addition to the splitter he features a true changeup in the low 80s with an average of 7-9 mph of separation off his fastball. It sees higher usage than the splitter but is less dynamic in shape and bite.
Overall, Barco looks the part of a long-term starter in terms of size, pitch mix and projection. While increased usage of his splitter is universally lauded, increased velocity on his fastball and slider mix could pay dividends for his long-term success. His pedestrian movement profile would play up, and he might find a much needed increase in whiffs. As it stands now, Barco lacks either plus stuff or pinpoint command, leaving him in the purgatory of back-end starter types.
Connor Prielipp, LHP Alabama
After a standout performance for the Crimson Tide during the pandemic shortened season, Prielipp looked like the No. 1 collegiate pitcher in the 2022 class heading into the spring of 2021. Things, however, did not go as planned. Prielipp dealt with elbow soreness and made just three appearances before ultimately having Tommy John Surgery. He’ll likely be on the shelf until 2022 instructional league for whatever respective team drafts him, and for this reason, he’s one of the greater enigmas in the 2022 class.
Prielipp has just 28 innings of collegiate work to go off of, so we’ll base our evaluation off of what he was for those 28 innings, while acknowledging the very real possibility that Prielipp will be a different pitcher when he returns. The player we saw for a total of 408 collegiate pitches worked primarily off of his fastball and slider, featuring a cutter two times in 2021, as well as a changeup just 21 times and a curveball 14 times between 2020 and 2021. His fastball and slider combination accounted for 91% of his total collegiate pitch usage, totaling 370 pitches.
A fast mover on the mound, Prielipp, almost recoils and then uncorks toward the plate with a high, elongated late hand break leading into a fast, short arm action and high three-quarters slot with a crossfire finish. This provides a tough angle on hitters based on Prielipp’s release point, which is both vertical, due to his upright position at release, and horizontal, due to his arm slot and finish. This is why when coupled with velocity, Prielipp missed bats with his fastball despite pedestrian movement traits. The lefthander generates only moderate ride due to low raw spin and mid-tier efficiency. His average velocity of 92-94 mph is above-average for a college underclassman, and some adjustments in his lower half—particularly his leg block—could lead to more velocity. The version of Preilipp’s fastball we saw as a collegiate grades as above-average, mostly due to solid velocity, a deceptive release and his ability to command the pitch when he was healthy.
As far as his secondaries, Prielipp works primarily off of his slider, accounting for 75% of his non-fastball usage during his time at Alabama. It’s a tighter gyro spin slider with above-average to plus spin rates, averaging north of 2,650 rpms. Its combination of above-average velocity and plus raw spin allows the pitch to play up beyond its lack of movement, making for a whiff-inducing cement mixer. The numbers back this label as well, as it induces whiffs at a 50% rate, swinging strikes at a 25% rate and ground balls at a 63% rate. This combination of raw stuff and results in both inducing whiffs and weak ground ball contact make it a potential plus offering at the next level.
It’s hard to get much of a feel for the rest of Prielipp’s arsenal outside of his fastball and slider combination. Evaluators feel Prielipp has the capability to use a third pitch, whether it be in the form of his mid-80s changeup, low-80s curveball, or high-80s cutter. The ability to accurately predict what type of player Prielipp develops into may require a crystal ball at this point. The early pro returns on fellow injured starter JT Ginn have been good, and both Gunnar Hoglund of Mississippi and Jaden Hill of LSU went within the top two rounds.
2021 NCAA Tournament Gainesville Regional Preview
Breaking down the Gainesville Regional, hosted by Florida.
Carson Palmquist, LHP, Miami
A shutdown closer for the Hurricanes in 2021. Palmquist ranked third in the nation in saves with 14 while striking out 75 batters over 44.2 innings. The lefty features a three-pitch mix primarily, but it’s his unusual sidearm slot and low release that allow his stuff to play up due to the deceptive angle and tilt of his pitches.
As closer, the lefthander featured heavy usage of his fastball, a low-90s offering that saw a slight uptick to 92-94 mph late in the season. It’s an unusual pitch with a heavy amount of arm-side run and little ride. On average, Palmquist generates around 16 inches of arm-side run with less than 13 inches of induced vertical break. The tilt gives it sinker qualities, but it’s not a true sinker. Due to his pitch shape, low release and above-average spin, Palmquist effectively locates his fastball with a flat vertical approach angle. The pitch generated whiffs at a rate of 35.7% (per Synergy) while producing strikes at a greater than 70% rate. The pitch was rarely barreled up, as Palmquist allowed just a single home run off of his fastball in 2021.
Working primarily off of a low-80s changeup and a high-70s slider, he’s shown variations of each pitch getting on top of his slider for a more vertical curveball, and will show a split-changeup with heavier arm-side run than his changeup.
The slider lacked power early in the spring of 2021, sitting mostly 75-77 mph, but as the season progressed Palmquist began to add velocity, averaging closer to 80 mph by season's end. While his slider has sweeper qualities, it really plays up from his sidearm slot, breaking horizontally until it hits the plate where it shows late vertical drop. Due to the combination of his arm slot, horizontal break and late vertical drop, the slider generates whiffs at a higher rate (61.1%) than any pitch in his arsenal. He’s still mastering command of the pitch, with a strike rate just above the 50% margin.
Palmquist’s changeup is a swing-and-miss pitch, with unusual movement characteristics and fringy command. He does an excellent job of killing lift and preventing ride on his changeup while generating an average amount of arm-side run, which results in late tumble and fade. Once again his unusual slot and release height add an element of deception. Perhaps most importantly the pitch tunnels well off of his fastball, sold with arm speed and a similar release. It has good velocity separation from his fastball, typically sitting 8-10 mph slower.
It’s an unusual look, with an operation that looks incredibly similar to Chris Sale’s, and Palmquist has three pitches that flash promising characteristics. There are certainly questions around his ability to start, and his durability, in large part due to his unusual mechanics. Despite this, Palmquist features some of the most unusual stuff in the 2022 class from a deceptive look that produces uncomfortable at-bats for hitters.
Carson Whisenhunt, LHP, East Carolina
A two-way reserve for the Pirates during the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, Whisenhunt broke into the East Carolina rotation in 2021 and by season’s end had earned his place as the ace of the staff. A tall, lean and athletic lefthander, Whisenhunt works from a semi-windup to drop and drive, delivering the ball from a short, fast arm action with a higher three-quarter slot upon release. He repeats his motion fairly well, but finishes with an unusual two step after each pitch, which often puts him in an awkward position when fielding. His mechanics do a good job of getting into his lower half, allowing Whisenhunt to generate above-average fastball velocity with both drive and arm speed.
Whisenhunt works off of a true three-pitch mix, with a fastball, changeup and curveball that are all essential to his arsenal and sequencing. He shows two variations of his fastball, with four-seam and two-seam looks. Each sits in the same velocity band of 92-95 mph, with slightly varied movement profiles. His four-seam is fairly efficient and this is reflected in the pitch’s induced vertical break, generating more than 19 inches of lift on average. Due to a higher release point the pitch has a fairly steep vertical approach angle, making it more identifiable to hitters when located high, downplaying some of the whiff-inducing ability his shape would portend. It serves its utility, however, setting up his downward-breaking curveball and hard-biting changeup. His two-seam is used interchangeably with his four-seamer against righthanded batters playing off of his changeup. It’s less efficient than his four-seamer, featuring less ride and heavy armside run, averaging nearly 16 inches of horizontal movement. Neither is a swing-and-miss pitch, and his command to both sides of the plate with each is fringy. On the plus side, he does feature above-average velocity with a body and mechanical operation evaluators believe could grow into more velocity as he matures.
The conversation around Whisenhunt begins with his secondary command, particularly that of his changeup, a low-to-mid 80s offspeed offering with late tumble and fade. He locates the pitch extremely well all over the zone, giving him the foundation of a plus-plus pitch in the making. He generates over 15 inches of run and sells the pitch with arm speed, tunneling off of similar release and tilt from his fastball variants. Not only does he command the pitch well, it generates whiffs and swinging strikes at a high rate, with a whiff percentage north of 60% in 2021. It's safe to say Whisenhunt simply throws his fastball to righthanded batters to set up his plus changeup. The pitch checks all the boxes associated with plus offspeed pitches, with movement, arm speed, a 10-plus mph separation average from his fastball, and most importantly command rating above-average to plus. Whisenhunt’s changeup is the best pitch discussed in today’s Future Four and the only offering in consideration for a future 70 grade.
Against lefthanders Whisenhunt works off of a low-80s 1-to-7 curveball with average raw spin rates in the 2,500-2,600 rpm range. With the combination of above-average velocity and prominent two-plane break, Whisenhunt is able to sneak the pitch through the front door to lefthanders and bury the pitch below the zone in two-strike counts. Like most curveballs the strike rates on the pitch are fairly pedestrian but he does a good job of commanding and shaping the pitch to steal strikes early in counts and generate chases when ahead.
Beyond his pitch mix and operation Whisenhunt stands out for his advanced feel for sequencing, perfectly comfortable to double up on his changeup or curveball in any count, leaving batters guessing as to what’s coming next. He’ll throw both of his secondaries to lefthanded and righthanded hitters and shows a good understanding of landing each pitch to its most effective zone. The elements of pitching that show beyond the data Whisenhunt possesses in spades, providing him a true starter’s profile at the next level.