Saturday, February 13, 2016

Road to the Show: Top End College Arms in the 2016 MLB Draft

As we near the beginning of the 2016 college baseball season, fans will be treated to the rises of some surprise players that will jump onto the national scene. Some will be freshman, the next crop of college baseball heroes and superstars. Who will be this year's J.J. Schwarz? The next Alex Lange? Others will be draft-eligible juniors who will shoot up draft boards, much like Andrew Benintendi last season. While we will eventually discover these breakout talents and cover them in future posts, today we will discuss the top two college arms in this year's draft, right-hander Alec Hansen of Oklahoma and University of Florida's A.J. Puk. This will be the second piece in Baseball MTJAG's draft coverage, the first of which covered the top two high school arms, which can be found here.

RHP Alec Hansen, University of Oklahoma
The first thing that stands out about Hansen is his size. He towers on the mound at 6'7'', and his over-the-top delivery gives his fastball a good downward plane. The overpowering fastball is his primary pitch, sitting in the 95-97 mph range and can reach triple digits, he blows the pitch by many college hitters, as evidenced by his 10.32 K/9 in 2015. The fastball is a true plus pitch, with scouts putting a 70, or even a 75 grade on it, and with that arm angle it is a very difficult pitch to catch up to. Scouts also like his slider, thrown at 85-87 with a nice tight break, as well as a 75-80 mph curveball that has good downward movement. As shown in his start against Texas this season (video below), even if those two breaking pitches are graded as plus, he doesn't throw them very often and prefers to live on his hard, four-seam fastball. The reliance on his big fastball has worked in college, but if he does not sharpen them up, pro hitters will eventually find a way to hit that pitch, especially with his below average command/control. While his fastball has gotten him high strikeout numbers in college, his inability to locate has held him back from being a great college pitcher and may stunt his development as a pro. His numbers have been short of stellar, as evidenced by the 3.95 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and 4.83 BB/9. One reason for his command troubles may be his mechanics, which by being so tall he doesn't repeat very well. Often times the upper body moves forward before his lower body, leading to bad posture and occasionally moments where he looks like this:
As you may have guessed, it is quite difficult to throw strikes like that. He could use a bit more work on cleaning up his delivery and focusing on the follow through and bringing his back leg off the ground, as well as finishing more straight towards the plate instead of off to the left. Another way to have more effective pitch tunneling and spike strikeout numbers would be to use the 12-6 curve more often than the slider. With his delivery, it would make more sense to have a power curve that plays off the fastball than a slider, which would be an easier read out of the hand for the batter. An up-and-down moving pitch would be harder to react to than a side-to-side from an over-the-top guy like Hansen, so that could be a change of pitch selection he'd like to make since both breaking pitches are ranked as plus by scouts anyway. With his size, stuff, control issues, and lack of a defined follow through leg kick, Hansen reminds me of Ubaldo Jimenez, who given all his issues still became a solid starter in the big leagues and even had a couple ace-like seasons. If Hansen could make the proper adjustments with his command, mechanics, and pitch selection, he could be primed for a big year with Oklahoma, and have a shot at being taken first overall this June. 
Here is a video of his start against Texas, a program known for being scrappy and disciplined, in the spring of 2015. He would go on to throw 5.1 innings, walk 5, and strike out 5 while giving up 4 runs, all earned.

LHP A.J. Puk, University of Florida
A two-way player out of high school, Puk offers a strong left arm that can run a fastball up to the high-90's with a plus slurve and solid changeup. Like Hansen, he is 6'7'', and like Hansen, he also has command wobbles. However, Puk has had more success and a better track record against advanced competition, as he has thrown for Team USA and started for two years in the SEC whereas Hansen threw just 11 innings his freshman year at Oklahoma. Puk's fastball has very good velocity and some good movement as well, sitting 93-97 and can reach 98. His curveball is more like a slurve, it doesn't have great definition or sharp break/tilt, but it has good 2-8 movement and some depth to its curve. It plays off well from his fastball, and coming from the same pitch tunnel. He also throws a changeup that has the making of a plus pitch, and he's not afraid to throw any pitch in any count. By mixing and matching all three pitches effectively, Puk has dominated college competition to a 12.0 K/9 and 1.21 WHIP. While the 3.81 ERA is a tad high, it certainly isn't terrible, and his stuff bodes well for a transition to pro ball. His mechanics are pretty clean and he seems comfortable throwing with his big frame and all body parts in sync. He gets very good drive and explosion from his hips and lower body, which contributes to his high velocity. However, sometimes he overdoes it and flies open, yanking the ball into the dirt glove-side. He had a bit of trouble with this at Florida early on, but as he was pitching for Team USA and he was exposed to higher competition and more advanced coaching, he has controlled that a bit better and was able to dominate in his start against Cuba. Once the college season is underway, we will get to see if he has sharpened his command, and if he has, the rest of the SEC better watch out. Puk reminds me of Braves prospect Sean Newcomb, another big lefty with good velo, offspeed, and clean mechanics but still has command issues. Newcomb went off the board at 15th overall back in 2014, and Puk has a better track record and experience against higher competition, so watch for Puk to come off the draft board early on Day 1.

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