Mick Abel Has A Chance To Buck MLB Draft History
For high school coaches, seeing a player go from good to great is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job.
Oregon high school righthander Mick Abel was a good player as a sophomore in 2018. He was a productive hitter and on the mound showed plenty of velocity, though he was hindered by his command and inconsistent secondary offerings. His sophomore season had ended by the time he tore the labrum in his left (non-pitching) shoulder diving back into first base.
But there Abel was, taking the mound for the first time as a junior for Portland’s Jesuit High, against a South Salem High team with one of the best lineups in the state.
First pitch: 97 mph. Strike one. For the next pitch, Abel turned to his newly developed slider. Strike two. One pitch later he had recorded a strikeout.
Three pitches later, he had two strikeouts.
The third batter fouled off a pitch, but he also quickly sat down. Through 10 pitches, Abel had thrown 10 strikes and recorded three strikeouts.
He ended up striking out 12 and allowing one hit in six shutout innings. Jesuit was tough to beat all spring, but that was particularly true when Abel was on the mound. He went 10-0, 1.26 and Jesuit won the Oregon 6A state title in 2019.
“It was more his command. His sophomore year, (Abel) had some walks,” Jesuit High coach Colin Griffin said. “His junior year, he threw his fastball in and out, then his slider would fall off the table.”
This spring, Abel was looking to show that he could go from being a great high school pitcher to the best prep arm in the 2020 draft class. The slider Abel added last year was voted by major league scouting departments as the best breaking pitch in this year’s high school class.
For all that the 2020 season was shaping up to be for Abel and his Jesuit teammates, it ended in a Zoom conference call because of the coronavirus pandemic. While teams in warm-weather areas were shut down midseason, the Oregon high school baseball season never started.
Unlike many of his teammates, Abel’s baseball career is just beginning. He’s committed to play next year at Oregon State, but as a likely first-round pick, there’s a good chance he won’t make it to school. The righthander is battling Refugio (Texas) High’s Jared Kelley to be the top prep pitcher in the 2020 draft.
Kelley had a better fastball last summer, but Abel has been gaining ground. His fastball touched 97 mph but generally sat at 90-94 with a little less life than Kelley’s, but Abel’s slider gave him a significantly better breaking ball.
If this were a typical draft, it would have been a fascinating spring as the two pitched in front of many of the same scouting directors and crosscheckers. Kelley was working on improving his slider and Abel may have matched Kelley on the radar gun.
Of course, nothing has been normal in 2020. Teams willing to take a prep pitcher in the first round will have to decide if they prefer Kelley’s easy upper-90s velocity or Abel’s more well-rounded repertoire.
If Abel is selected in the first round, the Portland product will be going against the grain. High school players in Oregon usually have to go to college to be taken high in the draft.
Just six Oregon high school players have ever been drafted in the first round, and only one since 1977. That one exception was Grants Pass High lefthander Matt Smith, whom the Royals drafted 16th overall in 1994.
D-backs catcher Carson Kelly, a second-round pick of the Cardinals in 2012, is the only Oregon prep player selected in the top 100 picks since the Orioles took South Medford High righthander Steve Bechler 99th overall in 1998.
Oregon has produced its fair share of impressive players in recent years. Outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Trevor Crowe and Cole Gillespie and shortstop Jed Lowrie all starred on the Oregon high school circuit but had to go to college to vault their way into the upper reaches of the draft.
In 2016, Sherwood High catcher Adley Rutschman was one of the top players in Oregon. But even he had to head to Oregon State to later become the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.
Jesuit High knocked out Sherwood High when Rutschman was a senior. Jesuit coach Colin Griffin remembered how his team steered clear of pitching to Rutschman that year because of how much they feared his bat. Abel has an advantage over Rutschman—you can’t pitch around a pitcher.
“Adley didn’t get the publicity in high school because he was not a pitcher—and no one ever pitched to him,” Griffin said. “(With Abel), everyone knows what 95-99 (mph) is."
Scouts haven’t gotten a chance to see if Abel’s fastball had gotten closer to Kelley’s after an offseason of work. After wearing down over the summer, Abel realized he needed to get stronger. A solid offseason in the weight room helped him go from 180 pounds at the end of the summer to 198 pounds today.
Abel started ramping up to throw again with his pitching instructor Kevin Gunderson, a former Oregon State and minor league pitcher who now runs Gunderson Baseball. When they threw, Abel’s low-effort throws playing catch quickly seemed firmer, to the point that Gunderson kept checking to make sure Abel was throwing at 75-percent effort. When Abel ramped it all the way up again, he touched 100 mph for the first time.
“He’s always been diligent in the weight room. He kicked it up a gear this year,” Gunderson said. “The weight room has been a game-changer. It allows him to maintain consistency in his delivery.”
The extra oomph in his fastball came from weight training, but Abel’s big addition for this year was supposed to be a newly developed curveball. As a sophomore, Abel threw both a curve and a slider. Neither was particularly impressive. For one to grow, the other had to go.
The decision proved wise. An offseason spent focusing on improving his slider paid off with a new grip and mentality.
“The slider comes out of his hand right in the same window as his fastball. There’s no hump. It doesn’t come out at a different angle. It pairs up,” Gunderson said. “They look exactly the same. (The slider) has such late downward depth to it. The hitter doesn’t know if it’s a thigh-high fastball or a shin-high slider that ends up in the dirt. It has such late action on it.”
Abel’s slider looks like his fastball coming out of his hand in part because of how he visualizes throwing it. Abel and Gunderson kept trying different grips until they found a comfortable one. It took some time to find the feel. He throws it like his fastball. He doesn’t try to spin it. He just relies on the grip to provide the action.
“I feel like I can throw it in any count now. It feels like I’m throwing a fastball . . . For me, I found the grip pretty early, but finding the consistent release point and slot to throw it from, it was a process,” Abel said. “There was a lot of video (work). Throwing it and throwing it and throwing it. It was a daily grind.”
By the time the spring season arrived, Abel had taken an inconsistent pitch and turned it into a weapon.
“He’s developed such a good feel for it,” Gunderson said. “He knows the feel he needs to throw it for a strike, he knows the feel to get a swing and a miss. He’s able to vary sharpness and location of it pretty consistently.”
With a low-90s fastball that would touch 96-97 mph early in games, that mid-80s slider and a low-80s changeup with some late fade, Abel had one of the more advanced pitch mixes for a prep pitcher on the summer circuit. He performed well at USA Baseball’s Prospect Development Pipeline and earned a spot on the 18U team.
Abel was even given the ball to start USA Baseball’s semifinal game against South Korea, with the winner advancing to the gold medal game. Abel didn’t make it out of the first inning.
“He understands this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Gunderson said. “He’ll have bad games. He’s human. He has immense talent. He’s special. He may be the best arm to ever come out of this state, but he’s still a kid. He was 17. We texted when he was over there. He texted me, ‘I have some room for improvement. This is what I need to work on after my shutdown period.’
“He also understands a bad game doesn’t mean he needs to change his delivery and his pitch repertoires just because things didn’t go his way.”
Abel’s summer didn’t end the way he or Team USA wanted. After winning gold from 2011 to 2018, the 18U team won the silver medal, and Abel’s final outing of the summer was one of the shortest of his career.
“It’s tough. USA Baseball has such an amazing reputation as a powerhouse,” Abel said. “Not being able to live up to those expectations was hard for me, but it was a very valuable experience, win or lose. Knowing it’s not just us playing baseball. Kids around the world are trying to get to our position. It made me realize a lot of that stuff.”
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A disappointing finish helped fuel a busy winter. Abel stopped pitching for a while to rest and recover, but he hit the weight room. And when he got back to throwing, he added a pitch.
“Every year, he brings a little more to the table,” Gunderson said.
With one breaking ball Abel can consistently count on, he and Gunderson worked to resurrect his curveball.
“A 12-to-6 curveball. That’s been a fun pitch to help develop,” Gunderson said. “He’s got a full arsenal.”
Abel’s curveball is not as advanced as his slider, and scouts didn’t get a chance to fully evaluate it in game action this spring. But the curveball gives Abel a chance to have four pitches in pro ball.
“He could throw two-seamers running away from a lefty and pair it with his changeup,” Gunderson said. “Or he can throw the four-seamer up paired with his slider or curveball. Or he can go fastball away and slider away. That’s pretty advanced for a high school kid.
“He’s a pitcher. He’s learning more and more every day. He has an advanced idea of pitch-tunneling. He understands what his pitches do and how they pair up. How pitches match up. That’s advanced.”
Instead of pitching for his Jesuit High team this spring, Abel finished his high school days taking online classes and going to throw bullpens. Those bullpens are sometimes caught by former Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, whom the Orioles drafted with the first overall pick in 2019.
“It’s crazy to me to catch him and reflect on it afterward. That’s a high school guy? It doesn’t seem like a high school guy,” Rutschman said. “You rarely see an arm that good. To see the kind of stuff he’s got. He’s electric. It’s a very impressive arm action. It’s smooth.”
Nothing this spring has gone according to plan, pretty much for anyone. But as Abel explained, that just means you adapt your plan to the new reality.
“I see it as this (shutdown) separates the complacent from the grinders,” Abel said. “I think if you keep working and keep your routine from the offseason and even build off it, you will see noticeable jumps.”