The College 300: Breakout Boys
On Friday, we released The College 300, our preseason ranking of the top prospects in all of college baseball. Below, Aaron Fitt, Kendall Rogers and Frankie Piliere break down five prospects who have boosted their stock the most since the end of last season.
Garrett Williams, lhp, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State lefthander Garrett Williams boosted his stock this fall as much as any pitcher in college baseball, but he’s hardly a pop-up prospect. Williams has been on the prospect scene a long time. The summer after his junior year of high school, he was already a well-known prospect who showed an 88-91 fastball, a loose, projectable delivery and body that suggested velocity gains to come, and a promising curveball at the 2012 Area Code Games. In a straw poll of a half-dozen scouting directors and crosscheckers after that star-studded event, Williams ranked No. 13 on my list of players who stood out most over the course of the week — ahead of future first-rounders J.P. Crawford, Reese McGuire, Dominic Smith and Phil Bickford.
He headed into the 2013 draft widely regarded as a top-two-rounds talent, ranking No. 66 on Baseball America’s list of the top 500 prospects for that draft. But signability caused him to drop to the 33rd round, and he headed to Oklahoma State.
But issues with his mechanics, command and control have held Williams back in college. He posted a 5.40 ERA with 50 strikeouts but 31 walks in 41.2 innings as a freshman, then saw his role decrease as a sophomore, when he had a 4.91 ERA and a 25-19 K-BB mark in 18.1 innings.
Williams flashed electric stuff last year out of the bullpen — I saw him sit at 93-94 with a wipeout power curveball at 80 mph. He’s always been able to miss bats, but he also averaged more than a walk per inning last year. He continued to show quality stuff in the Cape Cod League last summer, sitting at 90-93 with a plus curveball that ranged from 78-82 and a nascent changeup. But his delivery and command remained inconsistent.
Finally, this fall, something clicked. In 15 innings of fall ball, Williams struck out 32 while issuing just two walks. And his velocity spiked dramatically — Oklahoma State pitching coach Rob Walton said he was working in the 94-97 mph range with his fastball. The key was a mechanical adjustment that was similar to an adjustment Walton made with Michael Freeman, who blossomed into an All-American as a fifth-year senior last year.
“The very first bullpen it clicked. It clicked in five pitches,” Walton said of Williams’ mechanical tweak. “His arm was always late, late, late, so his front foot would get on the ground too early, then he crossfired. So I extended his stride, his arm was finally on time so the command came. Not only is he throwing strikes, he can maintain velocity now, where before he couldn’t. This is the first time I’ve seen the guy legitimately pound the zone. He was just lights-out this fall; they’re talking about taking him in the first five picks.”
One scouting director said the last time he saw Williams was in the Cape Cod League, where he worked in the low 90s — but the rumblings of Williams’ jump in the fall had reached him, and intrigued him. Lefties with that kind of velocity do have a way of shooting up draft boards. If Williams can show that he can maintain his improved delivery, command and velocity, he could be this year’s Tyler Jay, jumping into the top 10 overall picks.
Williams figures to work as a starter this year, beginning the year in either the weekend rotation or the midweek starter role. He’ll need to continue developing his changeup to be an effective starter at the next level, but even if winds up moving to the bullpen in pro ball, his wipeout breaking ball will be a major weapon for him in tight situations.
“I think it’s the best breaking ball in all of college baseball, a legitimate curveball at 82-83. It’s like Bert Blyleven, so hard and big and late. He’s started throwing them back door and shoe toppers,” Walton said. “Now he’s learned how to plus or minus that curveball. When he throws a little get me over, even that’s 78 mph. Once you get some fastball command, the secondary stuff kind of comes with it, and their confidence goes through the roof. He has a good changeup, it’s a little firm. He’ll start throwing it at 90-91; on certain days before, that would be his fastball. He didn’t throw a fastball all fall under 93.
“As long as he continues the process, I would expect him to be in the rotation. You want to get real excited about it, but they’ve got to do it, carry it in. I don’t think there’s anybody in the country who has better raw stuff than him.”
Zack Brown, rhp, Kentucky
The Kentucky pitching staff has a number of arms that will keep scouts intrigued throughout the spring, and while Kyle Cody may be the name most people are familiar with, it has been Brown who has grabbed scouts’ attention the past few months. It will be Brown that leads the staff on the weekends for the Wildcats, as the righty has proven durable and capable of pitching through adversity.
Brown’s athleticism, strong 6-foot-2 frame, and impressive mound makeup are all selling points, but it’s been the consistent power stuff that has had him rocketing up early follow lists. Brown works at 91-95 mph with his fastball, generating downhill plane and hopping life through the zone. He locates exceptionally well and spots his breaking ball and changeup nearly equally as well. With this sustained uptick in stuff and his visibility in high profile SEC matchups, Brown could have huge momentum in the early part of the draft with a strong spring.
Dakota Hudson, rhp, Mississippi State
The path junior righthander Dakota Hudson takes this spring will be one of the more defining moments of the season for the Mississippi State program.
The Bulldogs look like a team that will contend on the national stage. The offense is littered with toolsy guys ready to take the next step, while the pitching staff has some talented arms with the likes of Austin Sexton, Daniel Brown and Vance Tatum, among others. But, should the Bulldogs take that giant leap we all expect them to, one Dakota Hudson must be the guy that scouts saw not only last summer, but also throughout fall workouts.
We wrote about Hudson, here, during fall workouts, delicately chronicling the progress he had made during the three-to-four months after the 2015 campaign, while also getting the inside take from pitching coach Butch Thompson, who since left MSU to become the Auburn head coach. There, Thompson raved about his pure stuff. Hudson, a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder, clearly established himself as one of the nation’s premier arms to watch entering the spring. Sure, he still needs to put up the big-time numbers we all expect, but the stuff is there. Hudson was anywhere from 92-94, and even up to 96-98 during fall workouts, along with a slider that was 87-90, and up to 91-92 mph at times. Furthermore, his 78-81 mph curveball serves as a perfect complementary pitch to his other two weapons.
“You know, in the past, his delivery just kind of hurt him. There was a big inversion there, and his arm was just kind of straight up. He always had a good arm, but he was never able to really sync it up at all,” a scout said about Hudson’s first two seasons at MSU. “But, really and truly? The Cape last summer is really when he began to figure things out. You might see him touching 92 last spring, but throughout the summer at the Cape, you just saw him really started to feel lit out there, coming out throwing 94-95, and such.”
It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, Hudson makes as the season progresses and his stock potentially soars even more. Formerly of Dallas Baptist, Wes Johnson is now the Mississippi State pitching coach, and Johnson is no stranger to dealing with guys with big-time velocities, namely hard-throwing reliever Brandon Koch last season. His way of doing things differs from Thompson. How Hudson and Johnson mold together will determine at least some of his fate this spring, with getting off to a fast start vital to his long-term success.
“Butch really helped him to the point where he really turned the corner,” a scout said. “The big key, I think, for Wes and Dakota, is making sure this doesn’t become a re-learning process with all the progress he’s made.
“I think the thing I want to see from Dakota, moving forward, is just repeating command, and repeating his control,” he continued. “I don’t even have to look at his stuff. His stuff is absolutely there, and he just needs to go out there and throw quality strikes. There are times right now when his stuff is the best in the country, along with his body and arm speed. Again, I want to see him repeat it.”
So, the college baseball and scouting world awaits the Hudson show. Will he become another MSU success story, like so many others, namely Chris Stratton and Jacob Lindgren?
Stay tuned. It should be fun.
Jake Fraley, of, LSU
Scouts around the country have had a long-held fascination with junior LSU outfielder, Jake Fraley. He was a highly sought after commodity coming out of high school, where he was lauded for his projectable athleticism and lightning quick lefty bat. To his credit, he’s had an excellent first two seasons on campus, hitting over .300 both seasons and showing himself to be a force on defense. Those seasons have still kept scouts wanting more, however. There was untapped power potential yet to emerge, and in general scouts expected bigger, louder things from him at the plate.
This past fall, however, a light switch appeared to turn on for Fraley. A plus runner who has posted a 6.56 60 yard dash time, Fraley will man center field for LSU this spring and profiles well there at the next level. But what has excited scouts has been the develop of his long awaited power stroke. He’s shown a major increase in his pull side power, and if that carries over into spring, teams will be ready to pull the trigger on him as a potential first round selection.
Sean Murphy, c, Wright State
Murphy had scouts intrigued entering last summer, but his performance in the Cape Cod League in 2015 only cemented his status as one of the best handful of catchers in the 2016 class. And nothing Murphy did during the fall has diminished that. In fact, there are now many scouts contemplating the idea of Murphy vying for the title of best catcher in the country.
From a catch and throw standpoint, many now acknowledge that the Wright State standout may have no equal in that department. Capable of game pop times in the 1.7 second range and coming armed with a 70 arm on the 20-80 scale, Murphy is a weapon at the next level whether his bat progresses or not. But, the good news is that Murphy seems to be tapping more and more into his raw strength and proving he can hit for power to the middle of the field. With another strong offensive showing this spring, he’ll likely be vying for a spot in the back of the first round.