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Future Four: College Lefthanders To Know In The 2022 MLB Draft Class (Vol. 2)

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 focused on a quartet of college lefthanders with 2022 draft eligibility. In this week’s edition we will expand upon volume one by digging in on another set of four college lefthanders. Just as we did in the first edition we’ll be 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 their draft seasons.

For a reference point here is a link to a previous article, with definitions for frequently used terms like induced vertical break, horizontal break and vertical approach angle—all of which are used throughout this post.

Bryce Hubbart, LHP, Florida State

One of the standouts of the Cape Cod League over the summer of 2021, the Florida State lefty was almost universally considered one of the top two or three pitching prospects on the circuit by evaluators. He showed an evolving pitch mix and a natural curiosity for the data and science behind pitching, often sneaking off to the scout sections behind home where trackman units are housed on the Cape. It’s this focus on the craft that has allowed Hubbart to flourish and in some ways use his physical shortcomings to his advantage.

The projected Saturday starter for the Seminoles, Hubbart will be one part of a three-headed monster in the Florida State rotation with teammates Parker Messick and Carson Montgomery.

Listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Hubbart employs an operation that takes advantage of his height, or lack thereof, creating shape and a flat vertical approach angle. This allows his fastball to play up when located in the upper quadrants of the strike zone, leading to increased bat-missing abilities. He’s an athletic mover on the mound, with a fast arm and moderate arm stroke length. Hubbart delivers the ball from a high, three-quarter slot and drops and drives with his lower half as he creates a direct motion to the plate before spinning off. It’s a repeatable operation that stays on time and in-sync, leading to average or better command on the entirety of his pitch mix.

Over the summer Hubbart expanded his pitch arsenal, adding a sweepy slider to the mix that he deployed against lefthanded hitters to good results. His pitch mix now consists of a four-seam fastball, a curveball, a slider and a rarely used changeup.

His feel for his mix is average but his curveball feel is exceptional. He flashed two variations of the pitch in addition to his slider. It’s a big, 1-to-7 breaker with high spin rates exceeding 2,800 rpm on average. A heavy combination of both vertical and horizontal break makes the pitch difficult to barrel, and even more so for hitters to elevate balls against. His curveball is not only Hubbart’s best swing-and-miss pitch (14% swinging strike rate and 36% whiff) it is also his highest groundball driver at a rate of 60%. As mentioned previously, Hubbart shows the ability to shape and manipulate the curveball, and when asked about it directly he described two variations with different intended uses. He has a softer early-count strike stealer with more depth and less velocity, and a harder more horizontal biting version in the mid-to-upper 70s he uses as an out pitch in two-strike counts. Each variation pairs well off of his fastball creating a vertical plan of attack, changing pitch heights and eye levels of hitters.

While the curveball may be Hubbart’s best pitch, his fastball might be his most important. At 91 mph during the 2021 spring, it’s average to a tick below in terms of velocity. However, his spin efficiency and release height create two important characteristics—elite induced vertical break and a flatter vertical approach angle. His induced vertical break averaged above 19 inches of ride, a product of his efficient axis and above-average raw spin rates in the 2,300-2,400 rpm range on average. He locates heavily to the upper quadrants, and as his spin efficiency and IVB improved in 2021, his ability to induce pop-ups off of his fastball improved as well. In fact during the 2021 season, Hubbart saw a nearly 70% increase on his pop-up rate, jumping from a 15% rate in 2020 to a 26% rate in 2021. He generates an above-average amount of swings and misses with the four-seam as well, generating whiffs at a rate of 26% in 2021. While it may lack the velocity synonymous with the modern plus fastball, Hubbart’s fastball quality has it pushing into that range.

There’s limited data available on his slider, as it became a larger part of his arsenal as his summer progressed. Trackman numbers from his final start in the Cape Cod League showed traits of a hellacious sweeper, sitting 80-82 mph with raw spin rates north of 2,700 rpm and eye-popping horizontal break ranging from 16 to 19 inches of sweep with 5 to 7 inches of drop. It was a dynamic pitch against lefthanded batters, generating ugly swings off of the plate. The slider should be a larger part of his arsenal in 2022 and beyond, as it was an effective weapon against quality Cape Cod League competition.

During the spring Hubbart mixed in a changeup in the 81-84 mph range, featuring it as his primary third pitch. It’s fairly straight, lacking much tumble, but has a fair amount of arm-side run. He struggled to command it and more often than not it was an easy take for opposing hitters. When he did get it in the zone it was barreled regularly, resulting in an opposing line of .423/.516/1.000 last spring. It was thrown with less frequency during his summer stint on the Cape in favor of his curveball.

In summary, Hubbart is a savvy lefthander with a variety of traits that lend themselves to long-term starter projection. He’s competitive and fiery on the mound, comfortable attacking with a variety of breaking ball shapes that play off a high-riding fastball. He commands his fastball and curveball at an above-average or better level, and showed a degree of mastery when it came to shaping his curveball depending on its intent. Hubbart still struggles to command his changeup, and while his slider looks improved, the pitch still has limited game action. In discussing Hubbart with area scouts, certain teams were concerned with his size, but those that were interested in Hubbart were impressed by his fastball quality and feel for spin. It’s a unique profile but one that’s become more commonplace in recent years. A combination of pitchability and data-friendly pitch shape makes Hubbart a potential breakout arm in 2022, particularly if his Cape momentum carries over.

Cooper Hjerpe, LHP Oregon State

A funky sidearm lefty from the baseball powerhouse of the Pacific Northwest, Hjerpe offers one of the more unique looks in the 2022 class. The de facto ace of the Oregon State staff has the type of data that could draw the interest of several analytically-driven front offices. After coming out of the bullpen during his pandemic-shortened freshman campaign in 2020, Hjerpe made the jump to the Oregon State rotation with 16 starts in 2021. His unique release characteristics coupled with the angle he gets on his pitches make him a very uncomfortable at-bat for opposing hitters. Overall, Hjerpe was productive in 2021, but his line was marred by a pair of rough outings versus UC Irvine and Arizona State.

His unique operation starts fairly pedestrian with a semi-windup before a long arm stroke gives way to a sidearm slot, creating a deceptive sweeping angle, even as his fastball and changeup run arm side. It’s his combination of a low side arm slot and his drop and drive mechanics that allow him to deliver the ball from a sub-4-foot release height, which creates an elite vertical approach angle. His 3.9-degree approach angle would be among the flattest in the majors, and his 6 feet, 6 inches of extension would rank top 10 among MLB starters. These unique elements of Hjerpe’s operation allow a low-90s fastball to play up out of the hand. Each of his four pitches benefit from this unique release point.

His four-pitch arsenal is heavily driven by two variations of his fastball, a four-seamer with an average of 16 inches of ride and nearly 17 inches of horizontal arm-side break and an infrequently used sinker variation, with less vertical and slightly more horizontal movement. He does a good job of locating both variations and moving the fastball around the zone. He pairs that with a mid-70s curveball, a low-80s changeup and a low-80s slider he began to deploy during his second start against in-state rival Oregon.

He sat 88-91 mph on the four-seam for a good chunk of the season before seeing a slight uptick to 91-93 mph starting in an April start versus UCLA. The sweepy angle, a low slot, elite extension and a low release make his fastball extremely effective versus righthanded batters. The pitch starts outside the lefthanded batter's box, and looks like it’s headed across the plate. But as it hits the zone the pitch runs back inside, making it an effective pitch located to the back foot of hitters. Even fastballs over the heart of the plate look headed for the inner-half. It’s a difficult angle to square up as batters hit just .201/.290/.294 versus his fastball with a 47% groundball rate. While it’s not an overpowering pitch, the four-seam produced an above-average whiff rate of 26% last spring. While it’s just average from a velocity and spin perspective, his release, spin efficiency and spin direction make it a unique and effective pitch that can be used in any count.

His three secondaries were thrown sparingly as his fastball accounted for 75% of his usage. His changeup was his primary offspeed of choice, accounting for around 10% of his pitches thrown. It tunnels well off the fastball before tumbling and running hard off the plate. His ability to create a similar spin direction to his fastball with more dynamic arm-side run, late tumble and similar arm speed translate to whiffs. The results backed this up, as the changeup produced a 46% whiff rate during the spring of 2021. Much like Hjerpe’s fastball, his changeup is a groundball driver, generating ground balls at a 50% rate. The pitch’s quality, coupled with the frequency in which he’s likely to face righthanded hitters, makes the changeup a key element of his long-term projection as a starter.

His curveball was used with similar frequency to his changeup, and is his primary secondary of choice in left-on-left matchups. It accounted for around 13% of his usage versus lefthanded batters, often used in tandem with his slider late in the season. Unlike his slider and changeup it’s less split dependent in how it’s deployed, as the pitch was thrown with some regularity to righthanders. The curveball is a mid-70s sweeper with nearly 14 inches of sweep on average and around five inches of drop. Despite good movement metrics Hjerpe struggles to control the pitch, landing it for a strike less than 50% of the time. His lack of feel also resulted in hard hits when it was landed in the zone and was likely a driving factor in the increased usage of his slider in-season.

Speaking of his slider, starting with his second start versus Oregon the slider began to see increased usage in left-on-left matchups, eventually supplanting Hjerpe’s curveball as the secondary of choice versus lefthanded hitters. A low-80s pitch with tighter break than his curveball and cutter-like shape, it tunneled well off of his fastball and gave the appearance of heavy sweep due to his arm slot. He lands the pitch for strikes with greater frequency than his curveball, but needs to improve his command of the pitch as it was barreled heavily in 2021.

Overall Hjerpe is a shining example of how the unique way in which a pitcher throws a baseball can often be the driving factor in their success. His combination of a low release height, flat approach angle and plus extension create a unique element of deception that aids both his fastball and changeup. His feel and development of a go-to breaking ball will be key for Hjerpe’s future success.

Noah Dean, LHP Old Dominion  

A member of the Conference USA All-Freshman Team in 2021, Dean worked out of the Monarchs’ bullpen and moved into the closer role by season’s end. A tall, projectable lefthander from the New Jersey prep ranks, Dean added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle leading up to his Covid-shortened 2020 campaign, resulting in a substantial jump in velocity. Further improvements in his physicality and operation during the 2020 shutdown saw a more consistent uptick in stuff, reaching 97 mph and above on peak throws during his late-season appearances in 2021.

The lefthander works from a fairly easy operation, starting with a semi-windup and a long stabbing arm action with plus arm speed that gives way to a three-quarter arm slot. Dean drops and drives heavily, getting downhill and into his leg block. As Dean has added velocity, he’s notably started to move faster, which has brought some violence at release and a slight head whack. He struggled with syncing his mechanics early in the season, but began to find consistency in his operation, getting more direct to the plate as the season wore on.

The conversation around Dean has to begin with his fastball quality, and for good reason. As the 2021 campaign progressed, the lefty added velocity and spin, which resulted in improved shape and subsequent results. Sitting 92-95 mph in the second half of the season, Dean featured raw spin rates in the 2,300-2,400 rpm range. His efficient 11 o'clock tilt coupled with increased spin resulted in plus vertical ride and run. Dean generated over 19 inches of induced vertical break and over 10 inches of arm-side run on his four-seamer. Due to his combination of movement and velocity, Dean misses bats at a high rate on the pitch, generating a 46% whiff rate in 2021. He commands the fastball at an average level but struggles to land the pitch glove side with consistency, often resulting in missed opportunities to get ahead in counts to righthanded batters. Overall, it’s an above-average fastball that would sit comfortably plus with improved control and command.

The lefthander’s only secondary with a large enough sample size to analyze is his curveball. The breaking ball sat in the mid 70s early in the season, before bumping up to the high 70s in the second half of 2021 and touching 80 a few times. It’s a slurvy breaking ball with heavy two-plane movement and late dynamic drop. Its 1-to-7 break tumbles out of his hand from a slightly higher slot than his fastball, showing heavy sweep and downer break. His heavy break is a product of his high spin rate averaging in the 2,700-2,900 rpm range with more sweepy spin direction than a clean 1-to-7 breaking ball. This heavy movement also results in struggles to command the pitch and land it for strikes consistently. His strike rate sat well below 50% on the pitch in 2021, and while it’s a chase pitch by nature, increased feel could result in a rosier long-term projection grade.

Overall, Dean is a bit of a mystery. He didn’t pitch over the summer or in the fall and he’s only been a reliever up to this point. Can the lefthander make the jump into the rotation and find his stuff with consistency? That’s the big question. Overall, he has the fastball quality and high-spin breaker to make a substantial jump up draft boards and solidify himself as a starting pitching prospect with a jump in control and command of his two primary weapons. At minimum there is back-end-of-the-bullpen qualities that could continue to flourish in a high-leverage role.

Virginia Tech Courtesy Of Miami Thomas Brogdon

College Podcast: Clubhouse Conversation with Virginia Tech's John Szefc

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Parker Messick, LHP Florida State

The reigning ACC pitcher of the year, Messick will assume the role of Friday night ace once again for the pitching-rich Seminoles. The burly lefty was one of the standout underclassmen during the 2021 spring season, and his strong performance earned him inclusion on the Collegiate National Team last summer. After pitching out of the pen and making six appearances during his 2020 freshman campaign, Messick returned and spearheaded the Seminoles rotation in 2021, making 16 starts and producing strong numbers across the board. The lefthander was one of the top performers in the country, showing an ability to miss bats, command the zone and keep the ball in the park—he allowed just six home runs over the course of 2021. While Messick’s stuff might not jump off the page and his build isn’t projectable, he possesses a high level of pitchability, possibly higher than any of the other seven lefthanders we’ve analyzed within this series.

Mechanically, Messick is anything but smooth. It’s a semi-windup that leads into a long arm action with a bit of a dice roll, moving into an inverted-W motion as his throwing elbow rises above his back shoulder right before foot strike. He then delivers the ball from a lower three-quarter slot with a heavy crossfire finish. He has a heavy back leg followthrough as he spins through his operation, often leaving him in poor fielding position. Despite an operation with some warts, he manages to repeat his release point fairly well, and so far it has not hindered his ability to throw strikes.

Messick’s plan of attack is heavily focused on his four-seam and changeup combination. You might even go as far as to say that his fastball success thus far has been heavily tied to the quality of his changeup and his ability to not only land the offspeed for a strike consistently, but his ability to shape it. He has two sweepy breaking balls in a curveball and a slider, but for all intents and purposes the slider is a variant of the curveball with less depth and increased velocity.

His fastball lacks power, but has some positive analytical qualities that allow the pitch to play above it’s below-average velocity, spin and vertical break. In some ways Messick serves as a testament to the impact of a low release on his fastball approach angle. Despite an average induced vertical break below 16 inches, he generates an approach angle flatter than 4.5 degrees, putting him in elite company when it comes to vertical approach angle. While his mid-tier fastball spin efficiency works as somewhat of a deterrent, as well as his lack of spin, his average release height sits below 5 feet, 6 inches. This allows his fastball to play on a flat plane as it approaches the plate. As we’ve covered in other analytically-based articles, a flat vertical approach angle has shown a correlation to higher whiff rates, due to its ability to fool hitters when elevated in the strike zone. This is one of the reasons Messick’s four-seam produced whiffs at an average rate in 2021 despite his velocity sitting 89-91 mph in most outings. Additionally, his ability to command his fastball to all four quadrants and play off of his changeup should not be understated.

The changeup is Messick’s signature pitch, accounting for around 35% of his total usage in 2021. It’s an offering he shows supreme confidence in, routinely doubling up on the offspeed and showing a level of comfort not often seen in the amateur ranks. The lefthander is just as comfortable throwing the changeup in a 0-0 count as he is in a 3-2 count. Messick really sells the pitch with arm speed and a similar release to that of his four-seamer. It sits in the low 80s and on average has a velocity separation of 9-11 mph off of his fastball. All these elements add to the deceptive nature and effectiveness of the pitch. The most unique element of his changeup is his ability to kill lift or ride, almost to an extreme degree. The pitch averaged nearly zero induced vertical break to slightly negative induced vertical break in 2021—a characteristic few pitchers even in the major leagues possess. This means Messick creates serious drop or tumble as the pitch hits the strike zone and deviates from an early plane that aligns with his fastball approach. He pairs tumble with substantial horizontal break, as the offspeed averaged more than 15 inches of arm-side run. This combination of deception, movement and Messick’s ability to land it for a strike make it easily an above-average to plus offering that will continue to drive successful outcomes.

As previously mentioned Messick throws two different breaking balls in a high-70s curveball and a low-80s slider. Both are lower-spin offerings sitting in the 2,000-2,200 rpm range on average. However, what they lack in spin, Messick compensates for with good shape and the ability to get each pitch in the zone at an average or better rate. Both his slider and curveball offer very little in the way of depth, though his curveball has slightly more drop than his slider. Both feature more than a foot of horizontal break, giving Messick two offerings to mirror off his changeup. His slider is thrown slightly harder, with reports of an added 3-4 mph surfacing this fall. The slider generates less swing and miss than his curveball but works as a groundball-driving weapon, as the slider averaged a groundball rate north of 50% during 2021. His curveball is the better bat-missing pitch, driving whiffs at a near 40% rate, and it works in tandem with his changeup in left-on-left matchups. The added power to Messick’s slider should provide a clearer line between the two pitches as they bled together at times during the spring of 2021.

In closing, it’s Messick feel for his entire arsenal, unique release characteristics and advanced feel for pitch sequencing that allow his lower power stuff to play up. He’s likely destined for a back-end starter’s role long term, but gains on both his fastball and slider could see him push for more.

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