Future Four: Highly Decorated Prepsters Who Chose Collegiate Route (Vol. 5)
As we wrap up our preseason collegiate edition of the Future Four, we profile four more 2022 draft-eligible college pitchers. The common thread connecting this quartet is their place as highly decorated prep prospects that chose the collegiate route. All four are entering the draft cycle for the first time as collegiate players. Each of these four pitchers was ranked in the Baseball America top 500 draft prospects or high school class rankings during the 2019 and 2020 draft cycles.
Today we’ll catch up with these precocious pitchers and see how they’ve developed during their time in the college game. As always, we will look at what they throw, how they throw it and what results they most commonly generate.
As a refresher on the analytical terminology used within, you can consult an earlier post I wrote on analytical standouts in the minor leagues.
Additionally, all four previous editions of the Future Four are listed below in chronological order.
Derek Diamond, RHP Mississippi
A 2019 40th-round pick by the D-backs out of Ramona (Calif.) High, Diamond ranked 270th on the 2019 Baseball America draft 500. Since then, Diamond has split time between the Rebels starting rotation and the bullpen. He was named Sunday starter as a freshman in 2020, making every Sunday start prior to the cancellation of the 2020 season. In 2021, Diamond made 20 appearances for Ole Miss, with 14 coming as a starter. He was pulled from the rotation in the middle of April after a poor string of starts in conference play, but returned to the weekend rotation for the stretch run, starting six games in May and June.
Diamond works primarily with a three-pitch mix consisting of a fastball, slider and changeup. He mixed in a cutter and curveball in 2021—but very sparingly, and each accounted for a very small percentage of his total pitch usage. While we will not evaluate either pitch, the development of the cutter could be important in Diamond’s future.
With an aesthetically pleasing operation starting from a full windup, Diamond releases from a high three-quarters slot. His arm action is moderate in length and stays in sync as he drifts into a leg kick and a shorter stride. Despite the clean motions and athletic mechanisms, Diamond is slow to the plate, and his lack of deception from his arm action and slot makes it easier for batters to time.
His primary pitch is a four-seamer that sits 91-93 mph, but he flashed a velocity bump during his bullpen appearances in 2021. His velocity does fluctuate quite a bit and late in the season dropped below 90 mph late into games. Metrically, the pitch has some good traits, with an above-average induced vertical break average and average raw spin rates in the 2,200-2,300 rpm range.
Diamond gets efficient spin on his fastball, resulting in his higher average IVB, but his higher release and steeper approach angle give the pitch a fairly generic look. This is supported by the results as well, as batters did damage against the pitch, hitting .290/.411/.525 with eight home runs in 2021. It's a poor bat-missing pitch that doesn’t do much to mitigate damage, either.
Diamond’s primary secondary is a slider that sits 81-84 mph and bumps up to 85 mph at peak. It features classic tight slider spin, very little vertical break and moderate sweep. Much like Diamond’s fastball, batters saw the slider fairly well in 2021, hitting .279 with six home runs off of the pitch. It does miss bats at an average rate with a 30% whiff rate, but that’s a below-average mark for a slider. Without improved power or increased execution it’s likely to settle as a fringe-average pitch long term.
The changeup is a mid-80s pitch with hard fade and tumble. Despite good movement, the pitch has a lack of velocity separation off of the fastball. Diamond does flash a consistent feel for the changeup, and it was the best chase pitch of his arsenal. Additionally, it’s the best groundball driver in Diamond’s mix, generating groundball contact over 50% of the time. Batters in general struggled against the pitch, hitting .125 against it in 2021 with just a single extra-base hit.
Overall, it’s a fringe-average three-pitch mix with a pair of peripheral secondaries. He’ll show both a high-70s curveball and a cutter at 88-91 mph, but neither has become a true weapon in Diamond’s arsenal. He’s likely to settle in as an up-and-down starter in pro-ball, but added power or development of his cutter might change his trajectory.
Nate Savino, LHP Virginia
A first round talent entering the 2020 draft cycle, the lefthander pulled out of the draft in the fall of 2019 and enrolled early at Virginia for the 2020 season. At the time that he removed himself from the draft Savino ranked as Baseball America’s fourth-best high school draft prospect in the 2020 class. Since that time, Savino has struggled to recapture that helium. He made four appearances in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, three as a starter, and then 16 in 2021, with 10 of those appearances coming as a member of the Cavs rotation. The results and Savino’s stuff have been up and down during that time, as his 3.72 ERA across 65.1 innings is solid, but it’s the method in which he’s done it that has raised some eyebrows. After the collegiate season with Virgina, Savino was invited to join Team USA’s Collegiate National Team.
With an athletic and projectable frame, Savino starts his operation from a semi-windup, deploying an upright, tall-and-fall operation. His whippy arm slings the ball from a low three-quarters slot, adding a bit of deception at release. He’s quick to the plate and repeated his operation well across the 2021 season. The ability to add velocity is paramount to Savino’s future projection, and his current operation doesn’t help as he generates very little torque from his lower half. This arm-centric delivery leads to wild fluctuations in velocity from start to start.
Savino’s primary pitch is his four-seam fastball, sitting 87-90 mph and touching 93 mph at peak. It’s a low-spin offering averaging a sub-2,000 rpm raw spin rate. Due to this the pitch lacks hop, with a well below-average induced vertical break average. He does generate heavy arm-side run with a steep vertical approach angle, and a sub-10 o’clock tilt, characteristics more in line with a sinker. The fastball is a heavy groundball driver, highlighted by a 57% groundball rate in 2021. Taking into account all of these elements and the higher groundball rate on the pitch, it leads me to believe there’s some seam-shifted wake effects at play. While his lack of power and hop make it an ineffective bat-misser, Savino does a good job of controlling contact.
Savino’s slider is an interesting pitch that at times can blend in with his fastball. It has an unusual shape as it’s more of a high-70s slutter-type pitch with cutter-like shape, meaning Savino creates very little horizontal break and positive induced vertical break. The pitch didn’t generate much in the way of whiffs and was hit fairly hard by opposing batters. With its cutter-like shape, added power will be essential for Savino to drive improved results against the pitch.
His extremely low-spin changeup works to his advantage as he kills the ride or lift on the pitch, resulting in natural tumble, particularly as it approaches the plate. It’s not consistent, however, and seemed to be easier to track out of the hand than the movement suggested. Savino didn’t generate many whiffs against it and hardly limited contact, as batters hit .323 against the pitch in 2021.
With recent reports surfacing that Savino’s velocity took a substantial jump there’s some cause for optimism. However, the pitcher we saw for the majority of 2021 lacked power or shape across his arsenal and instead got by on generating ground balls. This is certainly a skill set that can work in pro ball, but not one fitting of a highly decorated recruit.
Max Rajcic, RHP UCLA
A celebrated prep pitcher out of powerhouse Orange Lutheran High in California, Rajcic ranked 176th on the 2020 draft 500. The righthander was not selected in the five-round 2020 draft and matriculated to UCLA. As a true freshman in 2021, Rajcic made 24 appearances out of the bullpen, eventually taking over as the team’s closer. Following the 2021 collegiate season, Rajcic joined fellow UCLA teammate Jake Saum on the roster of the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod League. Rajcic made seven starts with Orleans, producing solid results in the form of a 4.32 ERA, a 10.1 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9. Penciled into the Bruins rotation for 2022, Rajcic looks to make the jump to full-time starter.
His mechanics start from a semi-windup to a heavy rock back. A longer arm action then leads into a higher three-quarters slot, with average extension. He leaps into his moderate drop and drive as he releases the ball. It’s a higher point of release due to the upright posture of Rajcic’s mechanics. This helps to create vertical ride on his four-seam and drop on his curveball, but also allows hitters to better track the ball out of his hand.
His fastball may not be a heavy whiff driver but it features a few good traits. Sitting 91-93 mph, touching 96 mph at peak, it’s close to a 1 o'clock tilt with an efficient spin axis. This in turn produces above-average vertical break on the pitch while still generating above-average arm-side run. The raw spin rates on average sit in the 2,200-2,300 rpm range, about average for a four-seam fastball. More importantly, Rajcic generates a high rate of spin efficiency on the pitch, meaning those average spin rates are almost entirely contributing to the movement of Rajcic’s fastball. His strong shape and average velocity are somewhat undone by his higher release, as it generates a steeper fastball plane and approach angle.
The breaking ball has long been Rajcic’s signature pitch, with some analysts with professional clubs going as far as to tag it as one of the best curveballs of the last few draft cycles. It’s a slurvy offering in the 81-83 mph range with above-average vertical drop and moderate sweep. Rajcic has shown the ability to manipulate the break as well, adding and subtracting depth to hit desired targets. It’s just average from a spin standpoint, with raw spin rates in the 2,400-2,600 rpm range. His ability to command it and his feel for spin allow the pitch to play beyond the metrics. It produced moderate swing-and-miss results but excellent numbers against it. Batters hit just .128/.202/.170 against the curveball in 2021 with zero home runs and three extra-base hits on 408 pitches.
The biggest area of growth for Rajcic as a starter comes in the form of his mid-80s changeup, a pitch that’s sold with arm speed and commanded well. It’s a mid-80s offering that flashes moderate tumble and heavy arm-side run. Rajcic’s results in 2021 were excellent despite a modest 7% usage rate. The changeup truly looks to be an underutilized part of Rajcic’s arsenal, as it had the highest whiff rate, chase rate and strike rate of any of Rajcic’s three pitches, boasting both a 23% swinging-strike rate and a 60% groundball rate. With a starter role on the horizon, it’s likely Rajcic increases his changeup usage in 2022.
Rajcic has a starter’s tool set, with strike-throwing ability, three pitches with average or better projection and a competitor's mindset on the mound. As Rajcic adds power to his arsenal in the coming years he has the ability to grow into a power arm with three above-average or better offerings at peak. How he handles the additional workload in 2022 will directly impact how the righthander is viewed on draft day.
Sebastian Keane, RHP Northeastern
A native of Massachusetts, Keane was drafted by the hometown Red Sox in the 11th round of the 2019 draft. He spurned the Red Sox offer, however, honoring his commitment to local Northeastern. Ranked 140th on the 2019 500, Keane finds himself back within the draft conversation, ranking among the top 100 draft prospects for 2022. After two seasons with the Huskies, Keane spent his 2021 summer with the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod League, making seven appearances and three starts with Chatham. Keane pitched to a 3.86 ERA with a 10.7 K/9 and a 3.0 BB/9.
Keane starts his operation with a semi-windup, leading into a whippy arm action that’s moderate in length. He possesses excellent arm speed, but the arm stroke is jerky with a stab in the back. His greatest attribute is the ability to get down the mound and create an extremely low release from a lower three-quarters arm slot. His operation is often out of sync and heavily rushed, resulting in heavy spin in his follow through, at times spinning Keane nearly 180 degrees from his point of release. While faster movement often leads to velocity, Keane leaks energy all throughout his operation.
Although he has a four-pitch mix in the technical sense, Keane is almost entirely reliant on a pair of pitches, his fastball and slider. These two pitches accounted for 93% of Keane’s usage in 2021, with particular focus on his fastball, as it saw a whopping 60% usage rate throughout the spring and summer.
As for Keane’s fastball, the pitch sits in the 89-92 mph range touching 96 mph at peak. He’s slightly offset in his release with a 1 o’clock tilt and below-average induced vertical break. His raw spin rates sit in the 2,100-2,200 rpm range on average with an average vertical approach angle in the neighborhood of five degrees. While the pitch lacks substantial hop, his extremely low release of nearly 5 feet allows the pitch to play above the raw data. It’s this element of deception and ability to generate any ride from such a low slot that makes Keane unique. While the fastball is not a heavy whiff generator, Keane does do a good job of generating ground balls against the pitch. Despite a .308 batting average against the fastball in 2021, batters produced an isolated slugging of just .107. Keane has an uncanny ability to keep the ball in the park and limit hard flyball contact.
The slider is Keane’s primary secondary, sitting 80-84 mph, with raw spin rates in the 2,300-2,400 rpm range. The pitch has some cutter elements, generating a moderate amount of sweep with a positive vertical number as it hits the zone. It’s both a groundball-driving pitch and one with bat-missing ability. Keane produced a 46% groundball rate against the slider in 2021, with a 17% swinging-strike rate, both above-average markers. Batters didn’t have much success against the slider in 2021 either, hitting just .187/.229/.276 against the pitch.
Keane will mix in a slow curveball with two-plane break and heavy sweep, but it sits in the low-to-mid 70s and lacks the power of a good professional breaking ball. Against collegiate competition, the pitch has excellent results as opposing batters hit just .143 against the pitch with a 67% groundball rate. However, it was thrown under 100 times in 2021, and isn’t a consistent part of his sequencing. Additionally, his changeup was thrown sparingly, but it flashed good tumble and fade when he landed it, although the shape and execution were still very inconsistent.
Overall, Keane has some good traits and unique deceptive elements to his release. His inconsistency mechanically and control-over-command profile leave more to be desired. He does have the type of traits that a savvy front office with a strong player development team could get more from. For now, he has two average pitches with projection and two infrequently used secondaries that remain a bit of a mystery long term.