Three Braves Pitching Prospects, Plus Notes | Friday Intel


Image credit: Owen Murphy (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

The last year has been a difficult one for Braves pitching prospects. In addition to the struggles of top pitching prospect AJ Smith-Shawver following his MLB debut in 2023, the organization’s pitching corps has been ravaged by injury. The Braves lost J.R. Ritchie to Tommy John Surgery, while a variety of other arms have dealt with injury and ineffectiveness over the last year. 

Early in 2024, things look to be turning a corner for the Braves, as the last two drafts have refilled their cupboard with a strong cache of pitching. Owen Murphy, the Braves 2022 first-round pick, has been a revelation so far this season. Murphy has made seven starts in 2024 and has struck out 38.7% of batters while walking 7.7%. Over 41 innings this season, Murphy has allowed just seven earned runs and his peripherals support his strong performance.

Murphy’s arsenal lacks power at this point, but he mixes a trio of pitch shapes and shows the ability to sequence. Murphy’s pitchability allows him to perform above his raw stuff. That’s not to say that Murphy’s arsenal lacks stuff. While his fastball sits 90-92 mph, he generates above-average ride from a release that allows him to generate a flat plan of approach at the top of the zone. His primary secondary is a mid-80s slider with gyro slider-cutter hybrid shape. He uses a two-plane breaking curveball at 75-76 mph as his primary secondary against lefthanders. The curveball isn’t a bat misser, instead it’s a ground-ball generator that Murphy uses to induce weak contact against lefties. 

After being skipped in the rotation this week for Rome, we await follow up as to whether Murphy was skipped this week to limit his innings or for a potential injury. 

When the Braves took Spencer Schwellenbach in the second round of the 2022 draft, he was a two-way player at Nebraska who was the team’s starting shortstop and closer. Schwellenbach had Tommy John surgery following that draft and had to wait until spring of 2023 to make his professional debut. It was a  solid debut season, as Schwellebach tossed 65 innings across two levels of A-Ball with a 2.49 ERA on the season. While Schwellenbach was an experienced college talent, this was his first season as a starter since high school. The righthander entered 2024 with a full healthy offseason and a full year of professional experience under his belt. 

So far into 2024, Schwellenbach has performed, pitching to a 2.53 ERA over six starts with High-A Rome. Schwellenbach earned a promotion to Double-A Mississippi on May 15 and has yet to allow a run across two starts spanning 13 innings. In fact, over those two starts, Schwellenbach has only allowed seven total baserunners with 17 strikeouts to one walk.  

Schwellenbach mixes four pitches primarily in a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, and will flash a cutter from time to time. His primary mix is his fastball and slider, mixing in his changeup primarily against lefthanded hitters. While his slider is his primary offering against righthanders with a close to one-to-one usage with his fastball. Schwellenbach’s fastball sits 94-96 mph with fairly pedestrian shape, it lacks ride and has some slight cut. The pitch plays up due to his command and ability to tunnel it against his slider. The slider is the real jewel of Schwellenbach’s arsenal, generating whiffs at a rate of 42.9%. The pitch sits 85-87 mph with slurvy shape. His curveball sits low 80s with two-plane break but more sweep than drop, and he’ll mix in a mid-80s split-changeup. It’s a solid arsenal, and Schwellenbach is showing the ability to navigate lineups. If he continues to perform, he could be an option for the Braves later this summer. 

In a fairly highly-touted college pitching class, Drue Hackenberg managed to slide under the radar coming into the season. Hackenberg pitched well over two seasons at Virginia Tech, though his line in 2023 suffered due to Tech’s launching pad home park and the extreme run environment of the last two seasons of college baseball. Despite his lack of success during his draft spring, Hackenberg was an attractive pick due to his sophomore eligibility for the draft. Hackenberg debuted following the draft, making three appearances, including a one-inning stint for Double-A Mississippi. He broke camp with High-A Rome and has now made eight starts in 2024. 

Hackenberg mixes four pitches but primarily lives off of his sinker and curveball combination, mixing in a cutter and changeup. His sinker sits 91-93 mph with true sink, generating only three to four inches of induced vertical break on average with 14-15 inches of armside run. It’s a below-average bat-missing pitch that helps him generate ground balls at a high rate (63.6% in 2024). His curveball sits 81-82 mph and is a power two-plane breaker generating both sweep and drop. It’s Hackenberg’s best pitch and the linchpin in his arsenal. It generates whiffs at a rate of 39%, and he commands it at a plus level. In fact, Hackenberg’s strike rate on his curveball is among the leaders for that pitch type in minor league baseball. His cutter is a high-80s gyro-cutter that could be categorized as either of the pitch types. It’s a clear third offering and doesn’t generate many whiffs. Hackenberg also mixes in a changeup at 89-90, but it’s used fairly infrequently. Hackenberg is a projectable starter with the ability to generate ground balls at a high rate. 

Prospecting Is Subjective 

The further we delve into the age of analytics in sports, the less we’re able to accept that certain elements of identifying potential big leaguers is a matter of preference. Over the last week internally, we’ve engaged in a series of spirited debates around potential Top 100 additions. A particular player who will remain nameless was discussed as a potential option. Internally, the group was split on the prospect’s swing being good or bad. As we often do, I reached out to a pair of contacts. One an opposing scout who has coverage of this prospect’s team and a hitting coach with a half dozen current major leaguers in his stable of hitters he works with. The scout hated the prospect’s swing and described it as stiff, while the hitting coach loved the player’s adjustability and load. All this to say, both of these contacts are experts in their field and they clearly disagree around this player’s projection as a hitter. This is a good reminder that there are certain things within the game of baseball that remain neither objectively right or wrong. 

Waldschmidt Hitting His Way Into The First Round

My apologies for stepping on our amateur team’s toes a little with this one, but Ryan Waldschmidt is my favorite player in the draft. That doesn’t mean I necessarily believe he’s the best player in the draft (he’s not), but I think pound for pound he matches up against any player ranked outside the top 10. He’s hitting in the SEC, showing legit plate skills and game power and tests as a well above-average athlete. The rumors are swirling that Waldschmidt has cemented himself as a first-rounder, with many under the impression he might not be available in the later picks of the first. He’s a great example of just how wide open the first and second round are right now after the top of the draft. 

Do High Exit-Velocity Hitters Hit More Ground Balls?

I had an interesting conversation over the last week regarding hitters who produce high exit velocities and their tendency for ground-ball contact. While I don’t think it’s universal, of the top 10 leaders in average exit velocity in MLB, six of them have ground-ball rates of 46% or above and No. 11 on the list, Ryan McMahon, has a 52.21% ground-ball rate. Furthermore, among the top 10 leaders in ground-ball rate, seven of the 10 have average exit velocities at or above the major league average. I had a hitting coach mention this to me recently and it broke my brain a little because, overall, players who hit the ball hard also have higher rates of hard-hit fly balls. On the other side, the top 10 lowest ground-ball rates feature five hitters with average exit velocities below the major league average. If we look at the top 15 lowest ground-ball rates, the number of hitters with below-average exit velocities grows to 9 of 15 or 60% of the top 15. More work to come on this, but it’s an interesting wrinkle in evaluating high EV hitters.

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