Image credit: Wake Forest RHP Chase Burns (Photo courtesy of Wake Forest Athletics)
Chase Burns has shown tremendous pure stuff dating back to his high school days when he ranked as a top-50 prospect in the 2021 draft class and was already ratcheting his fastball up to 100 mph.
Three years later, he continues to dazzle with his immense pure arm talent. Before the 2024 season has even begun, Burns has lit up radar guns and made his own teammates look silly with a brutal combination of overpowering velocity and a physics-defying slider.
Even with that pure stuff, Burns has a lingering question to answer this spring that has dogged him since his prep days: are you a starter or are you a reliever?
When he pitched for Beech High in Hendersonville, Tennessee, scouts wondered about the quality of his strikes. They wondered about the length to his arm stroke and the inconsistencies with the timing of his delivery and his ability to consistently turn over his secondaries.
The existence of those questions helped lead Burns to college at Tennessee, where he began answering them. He started 14 games as a freshman for the Volunteers and posted a 2.91 ERA and more than respectable 7.5% walk rate. He maintained that walk rate in his followup 2023 season, but moved into a reliever role after a four-game stretch in April where he allowed 23 earned runs in just 17.1 innings against Missouri, Texas A&M, LSU and Florida. The reliever questions surfaced once more. Now, as part of one of the deepest and most talented pitching staffs (and teams) in the country with Wake Forest in 2024, Burns will again have an opportunity to prove that his immense arm talent fits in a starting role in professional baseball.
It’s a similar dynamic with plenty of other college pitchers in the 2024 class. There’s no shortage of pure stuff and arm talent, but there does seem to be a shortage of high-probability starter profiles and pitchers who can give scouting departments conviction in their strike-throwing ability—especially relative to an average first-round pitcher.
But what does a typical first-round college arm look like?
Given these admittedly basic college pitching stats, which pitcher would you take?
There have been 81 college pitchers selected within the first 30 picks of the draft in the bonus pool era of the draft (2012-now). Pitcher A represents the average of those selections, while Pitcher B represents the average college resume for the seven college arms currently ranked inside the top 30 in the 2024 draft class.
While the numbers almost across the board are better for the drafted pitchers, the largest gap comes in average walks per nine innings*. From 2012-2023 the highest college walk rates fell in the 4.7-4.8 range from RHP Tyler Beede and LHP Sean Newcomb in 2014 and RHP Cade Cavalli in 2020.
*I would have used walk% for all pitchers, but was not able to find batters faced data for a number of college pitchers drafted in the early 2010s and had to settle for the slightly less precise BB/9.
Three of the seven pitchers ranked top 30 in the 2024 class have walk per nine numbers that would blow those out of the water.
Below is a chart** that illustrates just how extreme the strike throwing questions are for the 2024 class relative to the top-30 arms who have come before them:
**A number of pitchers have overlapping BB/9 data and aren’t visible in the chart including: 2012 Andrew Heaney and Kevin Gausman; 2015 Jon Harris and James Kaprielian; 2017 Clarke Schmidt and Alex Faedo; 2019 Ryan Jensen and Zack Thompson; 2021 Jordan Wicks and Kumar Rocker; 2023 Rhett Lowder and Paul Skenes; 2024 Drew Beam and Josh Hartle.
One significant caveat here is that the 2024 college pitching data comes from a smaller sample. Pitchers in the 2024 class have yet to pitch in their draft spring seasons, and it seems reasonable to think many of these pitchers will turn in peak seasons after multiple years of collegiate experience and player development. A Paul Skenes 2023 season won’t be expected by any means, but Skenes did post a 3.1 BB/9 in his first two seasons before cutting that number in half with a 1.5 BB/9 in his 2023 draft year.
Given that caveat and the data as a whole, there seem to be three potential takeaways for the 2024 first round college pitching group as it stands today:
- The group will take steps forward to improve their walk rates and won’t look nearly this far out of place on draft day
- The industry has increasingly drafted pitchers with worse control profiles as Stuff+ becomes a focus with amateurs and development has shifted
- The poor control pitchers in the class don’t profile as first-round arms and won’t be selected inside the top-30 picks because of that
The first takeaway feels like the most obvious claim. It makes sense that as pitchers get older, add more strength and get more training reps with their college programs they will improve on the mound.
Skenes is a unique example given his former two-way status, so I looked at the 16 pitchers drafted in the top 30 from 2021-2023 to see how many pitchers actually did improve their walk rates in successive seasons.
Here’s the chart:
More pitchers than not had better walk rates in their draft seasons than their career marks, though it was only 10 of the 16 players—a 62.5% rate. Perhaps it’s more likely than not that each of Jac Caglianone, Josh Hartle, Chase Burns, Hagen Smith, Drew Beam, Brody Brecht and Jonathan Santucci will make strides this spring but it’s far from a guarantee that happens.
Caglianone has the same two-way element that Skenes had a year ago, though there’s no expectation that he will stop playing both ways this spring for Florida like Skenes did with LSU. It’s much easier to dream on improvements from players like Brecht and Santucci—Brecht is a former two-sport athlete who is coming off his first full offseason with a baseball focus at Iowa, while Santucci dealt with injury in 2023 and could improve simply by getting a fully healthy season in 2024.
But what if the industry is simply happier to take pitchers with control question marks in the first round? It’s possible that a first-round college pitcher in 2024 simply has a different profile than a first-round college pitcher in 2012. The game has changed significantly since then.
Below is the average walk rate for each top-30 pitching group since 2012:
There’s a very slight upward trend, but nothing that indicates the 2024 group’s average 4.6 BB/9 mark is within the bounds of what’s typical or the next step forward in how the industry is discounting control for pitchers selected in this range.
In fact, the average BB/9 mark of the last 11 years would fall squarely within one standard deviation in either direction, including the daisy cup dotting 2012 class (2.25 BB/9) in the positive direction and the 2020 class (3.57 BB/9) in the negative direction.
By 2024 standards, that 2020 class—which is complicated by the covid pandemic and just a four-week college sample that spring—is downright precise.
So, if the control of the 2024 group is outside the typical bounds of first round selections, that could simply mean that the pitchers with outlier control numbers simply won’t be first-rounders. Again, that group includes No. 4-ranked Caglianone (6.6), No. 16 Smith (5.3) and No. 25 Brecht (7.8)—with No. 28 Santucci (4.6) right on the edge.
Caglianone fits in his own bucket since he could easily wind up being a hitter only in pro ball and maintain his draft stock with no material improvements on the mound because of that. But each of the other four pitchers don’t have that luxury and could be at risk to slide out of the first round without significant steps forward with their strikes this spring.
Few organizations are going to take a pitcher they believe is a reliever in the first round. That profile normally fits in the second or third round at the earliest, and in the cases of Smith, Brecht, Santucci and Burns each pitcher has had a sizeable percentage of their college outings come in a reliever role:
- Brody Brecht — 50% of games as a reliever
- Jonathan Santucci — 48% of games as a reliever
- Chase Burns — 37% of games as a reliever
- Hagen Smith — 33% of games as a reliever
There will be more questions for each of these four pitchers this spring. Santucci has never thrown more than 41 innings in a college season and scouts will want to see him healthy and starting all spring. Smith has battled questions about his delivery and the violence within it for years and also has a TJ on his resume. Brecht has bigger control questions than any player of this group and also has a 95% two-pitch usage rate that will add to his perceived reliever risk.
For Burns, he has a similarly high two-pitch usage rate (93%) and shares delivery concerns with Smith given the length of his arm slot and the violence in his finish even though his BB/9 rates are well within the typical top-30 pitcher bounds.
Burns is perhaps the embodiment of the 2024 college pitching class as a whole: loaded with pure stuff and natural arm talent that’s easy to dream on, but burdened with reliever risk that could turn that dream into more of a nightmare. Spring performance for the top arms in the class—and how teams eventually treat these profiles on draft day—will be telling.
Fortunately for Burns and other college pitchers in the class, the ball will be in their hands and the future is entirely in their control.