Future Four: High-Slot College Righthanders To Know (Vol. 4)

Image credit: Victor Mederos (Courtesy Oklahoma State)

In this edition of Future Four, we turn our attention to another group of college righthanders, this time focusing on those who throw from a higher arm slot. 

While a higher release height is not a trait synonymous with the prototype modern fastball, plenty of high-slot righthanders have found success in the major leagues. As always, we will identify who these players are, what they throw, how they throw it, and what it tells us about their future professional prospects.

When college Opening Day arrives on Feb. 18, a total of 20 draft-eligible college pitchers will have been reviewed in Future Four. This is the fourth edition. The first, second and third editions are also available. The fifth arrives next week.

After that, I will begin to move into minor league pitchers as we preview the upcoming minor league season. 

Note: As a primer, I have written in detail and defined many of the terms used within this article. Terms include induced vertical break, vertical approach angle, horizontal break and many others. Use this post as a reference. 

Gabriel Hughes, Gonzaga

A two-way talent for the Bulldogs, Hughes has spent time as a starter, reliever and first baseman. After appearing in 14 games as a position player and six as a pitcher during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Hughes found himself penciled in as a member of the Gonzaga weekend rotation in 2021. 

He continued to play first base and hit while making 10 starts over the course of the season, pitching to a 3.23 ERA and 67 strikeouts to 30 walks over 61.1 innings. Selected to the West Coast Conference’s all-freshman team and all-conference second team, Hughes received an invite to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and participated in the summer season. 

Hughes has a large build, standing 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, with a broad-shouldered physical frame. He’ll likely need to maintain his level of fitness due to his larger build, but his workhorse frame is synonymous with big league innings eaters. 

Hughes’ motion is simple, but violent. He leverages his long levers and gets excellent extension as he drives downhill. His arm action is a little longer in the back, but he has above-average arm speed as he delivers the ball from a high three-quarters slot. He’s not a twitchy athlete, so he can have trouble repeating his operation. He tends to get out of sync, which leads to bouts of poor command. As a two-way player, but likely pitcher-only in pro ball, there’s still room for growth as Hughes moves to pitching as a sole focus. 

Hughes employs a four-pitch mix headlined by a fastball and slider combination. He went to his fastball or slider 95% of the time in 2021 with Gonzaga. He mixes in a sweepy, high-70s curveball and a firm, high-80s changeup, but both are used sparingly. His command of his pitch mix, and in particular his slider, can go feral at times, losing shape and missing locations for long stretches. 

Hughes’ four-seam fastball isn’t particularly special from a movement or velocity standpoint. He averaged just 92 mph during the 2021 spring and was up to 97. He was up a few ticks with Team USA during shorter outings, when he sat 93-94 mph and touched 96. He has just fringy command of his fastball at present, showing the ability to locate consistently to his arm side, but struggling to hit his spots glove side with the same regularity. 

When Hughes does land his fastball to his glove side it generates a majority of his whiffs on the pitch. Metrically there’s nothing particularly special. His raw spin rates average between 2,000 to 2,200 rpms with average induced vertical break and a steeper vertical approach angle. However, he is able to generate a high volume of ground balls, likely due to his ability to create downhill plane and locate low arm side. 

While adding velocity and spin are possible as Hughes matures, it’s his command and ability to challenge hitters with well-located fastballs to both sides of the plate that is his greatest hurdle. 

His secondaries are led by his mid-80s slider with acute sweep. The pitch is thrown hard and heavily to the low glove-side quadrant of the strike zone. He struggles at times to get around the pitch, and will lose shape. He’ll struggle to command it for stretches, but in many ways it’s a work in progress that Hughes may discover improved feel for as he gains experience. His curveball and changeup are rarely used, and the sample on each was far too small to draw any conclusions.

Hughes is a strong-bodied college righthander with room to grow as a pitcher, both from a stuff and execution standpoint. He should see his velocity and command improve in the coming years, but he lacks a level of raw stuff you’d like to see from a top college pitcher. 


Marcus Johnson, Duke

A California high school recruit from the 2019 class, Johnson made three appearances during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, before spending the 2021 campaign as the Blue Devils’ closer. Entering 2022, Johnson has an opportunity to move into the rotation after having one of the best seasons of any reliever in the Atlantic Coast Conference. 

Blessed with natural athleticism, above-average velocity and command, Johnson looks like a worthy candidate.

Johnson is tall and lean at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, with long levers, a high waist and a build that should add good weight with minimal maintenance concerns. He moves fluidly through his operation with good control of his limbs, particularly for a pitcher taller than 6-foot-4. His operation is simple with a semi-windup, a moderate leg lift and a short, fast arm action that delivers the ball from a high three-quarters slot. 

Johnson is a bit of a short strider and doesn’t get a great deal of extension. Improvements to the stability in his leg block and efforts to do a better job of getting downhill could reap additional benefits. 

Johnson throws a true three-pitch mix comprised of a mid-90s four-seam fastball, a low-80s slider and a mid-80s changeup. Johnson’s pitch usage is fairly well proportioned, particularly for a reliever. During the 2021 campaign and subsequent fall ball workouts, his fastball usage was below 50%, his slider usage above 30% and his changeup usage around 20%. 

He sequences differently depending on the handedness of the batter, and by studying this, we can identify why he had such success versus lefthanded batters in 2021. Against offhanded batters, Johnson deploys the entirety of his pitch mix and because of his strong command is able to work to all quadrants with his fastball while locating his slider low glove side and his changeup low arm side. This gives hitters a variety of looks as Johnson challenges them to cover the entirety of the strike zone. Against righthanded batters he’s more vanilla with his fastball and slider seeing near equal usage. 

As for Johnson’s pitch movement data, his fastball sits 92-95 mph and touches 98, with nearly 19 inches of induced vertical break. It’s from a more vertical, high release point which helps generate a higher induced vertical break, but he can also make it easier to identify out of the hand. 

This is part of the reason for Johnson’s fringy 19% whiff rate on his fastball. Still, he makes up for his lack of bat-missing prowess with a strong ability to command the fastball to all quadrants, landing it for a strike 69% of the time. The pitch boasts higher raw spin rates sitting 2,300 to 2,400 rpms on average, and the shape is efficient, so it might just be a matter of improving his stride length to lower his release height and flatten his approach, which could in turn generate better results on the pitch. 

Johnson’s slider is a low-80s mini-sweeper with little to no vertical break and seven to eight inches of horizontal movement. It’s a high-spin pitch that sits in the 2,600 to 2,800 rpm range. There’s definitely some gyro effects that cause the pitch to dive late. It’s Johnson’s best pitch—it generated a whiff rate of 45% while keeping batters from making solid contact. Hitters batted .125/.192/.177 against his slider in 2021. It should come as no surprise that Johnson commands his slider extremely well, with a strike rate of 67% last year. 

Finally, Johnson’s changeup is another average or better secondary that could develop into a plus pitch at maturation. His command of his changeup is above-average but well below that of his fastball or slider. He landed his change for a strike just 56% of the time. 

When Johnson does command the pitch, he does an excellent job of killing lift or ride on the pitch with an average IVB below eight inches—and with more than 15 inches of arm-side run. On average, there’s an 8-9 mph separation off the fastball, and he sells the pitch with arm speed. This in part explains Johnson’s higher-than-average swing rate on the changeup. This is a double-edged sword, because when he gets the pitch down in the zone to his arm side, he generates whiffs, but when the pitch either doesn’t break enough or is located too high, it tends to get hit hard. 

So to summarize, Johnson’s changeup is a good pitch with a strong foundation of characteristics, but improved execution is needed. 

Johnson is a promising prospect with a strong three-pitch mix, a prototypical pitcher’s frame and a track record of success in high-leverage roles. He has a high level of pitchability and the stuff to leverage the most out of his pitch mix. He is a good bet to start and is potentially a breakout in 2022 should he maintain his command and stuff in the rotation. 


Victor Mederos, Oklahoma State

As a freshman, Mederos made 12 weekend starts as a member of the Miami rotation. Following a rough trip of starts, Mederos was moved to the bullpen for the remainder of the 2021 spring. He made four appearances out of the Hurricanes’ pen to end the year and didn’t allow a run while striking out six batters over seven innings of work. 

Mederos headed to the Cape Cod League after the season and made seven appearances for Chatham, primarily as a starter. Prior to the Cape, Mederos entered the transfer portal, committing to Oklahoma State and leaving his native Miami for the 2022 season. 

A strong-bodied righthander, Mederos stands 6-foot-3, 225 pounds with broad shoulders and a well-proportioned build. He’s at max physical projection at present, with the build of a classic innings eater. His extremely muscular lower half helps him generate good velocity without max effort. 

Mederos’ operation is simple, repeatable and fairly low effort. He starts with a semi-windup—with a moderate leg kick—and he’s a little long through the back, with good arm speed, before delivering from a high three-quarters slot. He repeats fairly well, though he’s slower to the plate due to an accentuated start post-windup. It’s not the most athletic motion, but he stays synced and on time and finishes in a good fielding position.

Mederos uses his entire three-pitch arsenal to attack hitters. He is armed with a mid-90s fastball, a curveball that sits 78-82 mph and a mid-80s changeup. He primarily attacks righthanders with his fastball and curveball, while deploying all three against lefthanded batters. It’s a starter’s pitch mix, but his command needs more refinement before Mederos can be viewed as viable in that role long term. 

The righthander’s fastball is a prime example of how above-average IVB means very little when it’s generated from a generic and easily identifiable release. Mederos averages greater than 18 inches of induced vertical break on average, a marker well above the average of 16 inches. However, his high three-quarters arm slot and clean release means the pitch has little deception in its approach. 

So despite efficient spin and good shape, Mederos’ higher release creates a steeper plane of approach to the plate. This in turn makes it easier for batters to square up his fastball—and the numbers showed this. Over the course of the spring and summer in 2021, batters hit .265/.376/.442 versus Mederos’ fastball with a 24% line drive rate. Beyond that, batters whiffed on his fastball at a well below-average rate of 11%, the lowest whiff rate on any fastball covered in the Future Four this offseason. 

The curveball is Mederos’ most used secondary and arguably the best pitch in his arsenal. It sits 78-82 mph with heavy two-plane break, making it a true bat-missing hammer. It generates strikes at an average rate, while generating whiffs at a rate of 49%. 

The issue with the pitch is it’s often easy to spot out of his hand and is swung at far less than any of his three pitches. This limits the pitch’s effectiveness. In an effort to generate more whiffs, Mederos began locating the pitch in the upper half of the strike zone during his summer stint with Chatham. How that works long term remains to be seen. At present it’s an above-average weapon at the collegiate level that could play up with improved command and deception. 

Rounding out Mederos’ pitch mix is a mid-80s changeup with an average velocity separation of 7 mph from his fastball. The pitch features decent arm-side run with very little tumble, but features late life that makes it difficult for hitters to barrel. It’s his best groundball driver and generates whiffs at an above-average rate. The real struggle is his lack of consistent shape and command of the pitch, often leading to bouts of ineffectiveness. 

Of all Mederos’ pitches, the changeup has the most remaining projection. 

Mederos offers a true three-pitch mix with a lack of command that leads to questions around his long-term viability as a starter. Moving to Oklahoma State for this season, he will look to prove he can harness his big stuff and generate results. However, his lack of deception on his fastball limits the pitch to early-count usage to set up his slider and changeup. This lack of fastball quality is a red flag as Mederos matriculates to the professional level, where the ability to miss bats and generate weak contact off of one’s primary pitch is paramount. 

Alex McFarlane, Miami

McFarlane is an athletic and projectable righthander who was drafted by the Cardinals in the 25th round in 2019, but he chose not to sign and went to Miami instead. He made four starts during the 2020 pandemic-shortened season and was hit hard, struggling with command and home runs. 

McFarlane then began the 2021 season in the Hurricanes’ bullpen, appearing in 10 games over the first few months of the season. He was moved into the rotation late and made four starts before moving back into the bullpen for the final series of the regular season. The righthander pitched in the Cape Cod League following the season, making seven appearances for Chatham over the course of the summer. 

A lanky, but wiry-strong athlete, with long arms and a high waist, McFarlane oozes projection and upside. He works from a semi-windup that goes into a high leg kick before dropping and driving. He uses a longer arm action with good arm speed and delivers the ball from a mid three-quarters slot. He struggles to stay on time and repeat his operation consistently, which leads to strike-throwing issues. 

McFarlane deploys a three-pitch mix, but it’s heavily focused on his fastball and slider. The two-pitch tandem accounted for 92% of McFarlane’s pitch usage between the spring and summer seasons. He mixes in a firm changeup with heavy arm-side run, but it lacks command and consistency and has been thrown just a handful of times. 

McFarlane’s fastball sits 92-95 mph and occasionally reaches up to 97. It’s a high-spin offering up to 2,600 rpms, but it doesn’t translate to a great deal of vertical movement. Its defining characteristic is significant running life. The pitch breaks more than a foot to his arm side on average. 

This leads to difficulty landing the pitch to the arm side of the plate, because the hellacious break is difficult to command. This manifested in a well below-average strike rate on his fastball of 60%. Typically, you’d like to see a college starter in the high 60s, and McFarlane is well below that marker. He does not generate many whiffs on his fastball and it is better utilized as a groundball driver. 

McFarlane’s go-to secondary is a slider with tight gyro spin and bullet-like shape that dumps late as it hits the plate. He sits 83-85 mph with raw spin rates in the 2,400 to 2,600 rpms range. His slider is his best bat-missing pitch, inducing whiffs at a rate of 48%, and it is also his best commanded pitch. His slider generated strikes at a higher rate than his fastball throughout 2021. His combination of feel, velocity and stuff make it the centerpiece of his arsenal. 

McFarlane hardly threw his changeup in 2021, so we don’t have a great feel for the pitch. Due in large part to the heavy two-pitch focus and struggles with command, McFarlane projects best in the bullpen long term. Still, he’s a tremendous athlete with big raw stuff. 

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