Evaluating the Potential College Pitcher
By Rob Smith
When evaluating the potential college pitcher you have to consider several different factors in determining what it is you are looking for. How does the hitter react to the ball? Is he able to command the baseball? Has he showed a legitimate second or third pitch? What is his future in regards to health and injury? What is his velocity? All of these types of questions are raised when evaluating a pitching prospect for your program. When I am recruiting a pitcher I will break him down in five different areas; Mechanics, Stuff, Command, Velocity, and Intangibles. These attributes will be evaluated in differing orders. Each coach will prioritize what is most important to them as they look at the pitcher. Some coaches want velocity and size, while other focus on stuff and command. In addition, you have to consider why you are recruiting the pitcher. Is it to start, or pitch from the bullpen? Is he a guy who will eat up 50-80 innings, or is he a short reliever who will pitch 30 innings in 28 appearances? All of these factors will be weighed before deciding on that particular pitcher.
A pitchers mechanics can be an indication of a lot of different things. Many coaches will try to assess velocity potential via arm action, health, and command to name a few. If a pitcher has marginal mechanics it will raise many questions, especially in regards to future injury. Arm problems can be very difficult to predict, but poor mechanics can certainly give an early indication if a pitcher is susceptible to an issue. Poor mechanics do not necessarily mean that you won’t recruit that pitcher, but it might affect what you would offer them, or what type of role you will look for them to fill.
Each coach will have certain things that they feel they can fix, and others that they will flat out avoid. For some it might be arm action related, for others it might be an issue such as striding across your body. I personally tend to stay away from pitchers who’s lower half sinks after foot strike. These mechanics tend to lead to flat fastballs, and an inability to keep the ball down. In addition, I have found that these sinking deliveries can be quite difficult to change.
After analyzing the pitchers mechanics, I will take a look at his stuff. For me, I will take stuff over mechanics any day of the week. If a pitcher has marginal mechanics, but good stuff, I will not get caught up too much in what the delivery looks like. If there appears to be an issue with health, I will just plan on managing the work load of that pitcher, or seeing if change is possible. Good stuff is usually defined by what action his pitches take. Some examples of good stuff are Late movement on the fastball or life; sharpness on the breaking pitch; and deception on the change up to name a few. If you can find a kid with stuff, and a chance of command, you have yourself a possible prospect.
This can be tricky as velocity does not always equal success. But, it is, and always will be the most popular measure for which to work from. For most college programs, the average velocity for a right handed pitcher will settle in around 86-88 mph. Above average will push 89-90, and anything over 90 would be considered excellent. For left handed pitchers, a velocity in the 84-85 range would be considered average, with 86-87 being above average and anything 88 or better as excellent. With velocity, many coaches will try to predict it in hopes that the pitcher might make a jump later in his career. That skinny left handed pitcher with a very loose arm might only be throwing 80-81 right now, but if you can project physical maturation, to go along with good arm action, you might have something to work with. There are enough pitchers in college baseball having success that dont have great velocity. Again, this tool does not automatically equal success, but interestingly enough, it is usually the first question asked by most college recruiters.
Ultimately this will be the most important factor to determine. Does the pitcher have command of his pitches? Can he be consistent in first throwing strikes and second commanding the strike zone? Most high school pitchers who are college prospects will show control, meaning they can throw the ball over the plate, but most of them do not show command. Command to me is defined as not only throwing strikes, but working in all areas of the strike zone. Since high school hitters usually are not a threat to a college prospect, they get away with many bad pitches. It usually takes the first fall of a college career to figure out the difference between control and command. To be more specific, here are some qualities that I feel are important to command.
1. Can the pitcher consistently throw his fastball to the opposite arm side of the plate
2. Does the pitcher show the ability to throw an off speed for strikes consistently
3. Can the pitcher keep the ball down in the strike zone with frequency
These three things will tend to show up in pitchers who have command.
This can be the most difficult of the five areas to assess. With limited time and opportunities to figure out the pitchers make up, we must make some determinations based on very limited information. How a pitcher carries himself and handles adversity are two very key elements when determining if you should recruit that pitcher or not.
When evaluating, some coaches like to hide in the bushes so the pitcher does not know he is there. The idea behind this to see how the pitcher reacts when he thinks nobody is looking. I can see the validity in this, but I prefer to have the pitcher know I am there. I want to see how he handles the pressure of knowing somebody is bearing down on him. For me, this is what he will have to deal with once he gets to college and starts playing in front of some crowds with something on the line.
Putting it all together
Once you have been able to fully evaluate the pitching prospect, you must now begin to decide what you are willing to give and take in regards to the attributes we have discussed. A pitcher who has all five, usually are not pitchers most colleges will obtain. The pitcher who has solid mechanics, great stuff, excellent velocity with command and good make up are called high draft picks. The pitchers most of us will get have a few pieces of the puzzle missing.
For example, I had a closer at my previous job (Purdue University) who was a perfect example of how most pitchers are missing certain things. As a high school senior, he had above average velocity, average command, below average stuff, and marginal mechanics. As he progressed through college, his velocity bumped a little, his command got better to go along with being very competitive. His stuff improved slightly, but he still only carried 4 of the 5 things. He was ultimately drafted in the 13th round of last year’s draft. The kid who was our #1 starter last year and a 14th round pick as a senior, was recruited with really only two of the five. He possessed above average velocity, and a great work ethic.
Outside of that, he had to work in order to get better command, stuff and mechanics.
We could all go on about different types of pitchers we have recruited. The point is that when looking for that next pitching prospect, you must have an idea of what you are looking for, and what you are willing to concede. Sometimes you want the raw athletic kid with velocity, assuming you feel you can teach him better mechanics, command and stuff. In other situations, you will take the short right hander throwing 84-85 with good command and stuff because you know he will help you sooner than later. You are comparing the projectable kid with the ready made kid. Each one brings their own positives and negatives. Ultimately, you will have to decide what makes the most sense for your needs.