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Player Game Report: Chevez Clarke, 3/20/10

Last Saturday, I took in a game between The Walker School and Marietta High School, with The Walker being the host. I went to the game purely to see Chevez Clarke, and I was not disappointed. Clarke features excellent athleticism and a good idea of how to use it, and I came into the game expecting to see something special. Scouts were a little down on him entering the spring, as his effort was seen as subpar, and he really lacked pitch identification at the plate. However, I knew beforehand that he was showing a renewed enthusiasm on the field, coupled with better pitch identification, resulting in a better overall product. That was the Chevy Clarke I saw on Saturday.

Let me preface this by saying that Clarke was facing competition clearly below his level. The Walker School has a solid history as a successful small-school baseball program, but they’ve typically done it with players that are well-coached rather than extremely skilled. Notable recent alumni, though, include 2009 third round draftee David Hale, who came out of Princeton, and possible early round 2010 prospect Matt Price at Virginia Tech. They don’t have a Hale or Price on this year’s team, but you could tell they were a smart team, though one that didn’t match up with Clarke’s pure talent level.

Knowing that little fact, I came into the game wary of what I might see. Clarke could have easily dominated the game, but I wasn’t sure what that would tell me. There weren’t even any other scouts there, as this wasn’t a matchup that scouts expected to yield any new information. However, since I hadn’t seen Clarke before, I felt the trip was worth it. As soon as I got to the field, I could tell which player Clarke was, even without jerseys or numbers, as Marietta warms up in t-shirts before putting their jerseys on right before the game. He just stood out, both for his body and for his swagger. He just had that extra little something that catches the attention of those watching. When you see him up close, you can see why scouts dream on him. He stands roughly at six feet tall, and his frame is just simply described as wiry. He has wiry strength on a lithe frame, and he’s the type of kid that projects to add strength while keeping his athleticism. He simply needs to fill out in his upper half. His legs are strong, and he has a mature lower half in general. Once his upper half matures and fills out, he could be dangerous.

I left plenty of time to see Clarke in action in warm-ups before the game, hoping to get a glimpse at what is described as an above-average to plus arm. I was a little disappointed when I didn’t see that arm really let loose. He would get to a ball quickly, and then simply throw it at what looked like 80 percent to the base during infield. Even then, though, his arm looked like an average weapon with obvious room for more, since he wasn’t even getting behind his throws. I didn’t get to see him unload a throw during the game, either, but I’m pretty sure that the reports about his arm are true.

In game action, the Marietta team has Clarke hitting leadoff. I can see the advantages of that, but I have to wonder if they might want him to drive in some runs every once in awhile. He never got to hit with anyone on base other than a time when he was intentionally walked and had a single runner on first, so if I were coaching for Marietta, he’d be more useful in the middle of the lineup. However, I’m not the coach, so I got to see how Clarke would look as a leadoff hitter, which is his eventual destination anyway in the pros. In his first at-bat, he took some pitches, but he fell behind quickly as a result. When he did decide to swing, he was fooled badly by a well below-average curveball, jumping out on his lead foot and swinging through the pitch for strike two. The pitcher, realizing Clarke’s problems reading that pitch tried to sneak one past him again, but Clarke simply rolled over the pitch instead, grounding it fairly weakly to the second baseman. He was thrown out with plenty of time to spare, and he reached first in 4.51 seconds, having slowed down in the last ten feet.

Now is the time to tell you about a player I really enjoyed watching on Marietta, which was sophomore shortstop Dansby Swanson. One of only three sophomores on the Marietta roster (a second being his middle infield partner), Swanson immediately stood out during infield. I figured he was like most lanky, young shortstops in that his hitting was well behind his solid fielding and average arm, but I was wrong. Marietta had him hitting third in the lineup, over a number of experienced upperclassmen. He hit from the right side in his first at-bat, from the left side in his second at-bat against the same pitcher, and then went back to the right side for the remainder of his plate appearances. His first at-bat was a bit of a revelation, even though it only lasted a single pitch. I expected a kid that would try to muscle the ball up, but instead, Dansby simply blasted a fastball right back through the box with solid-average bat speed, getting a single to center field. He never showed much more than fringe-average speed, but he looks like he could be an excellent follow for the 2012 class. It’s a nice surprise when you go to a game for one prospect, but come out feeling good about another, and Dansby made the trip enjoyable.

Clarke didn’t come up again until the third inning, mainly due to Marietta hacking at a pitcher with high-70s velocity. Unfortunately, Clarke did the same thing. After fouling off a few pitches to get behind in the count again, he got something out over the plate, and he flashed plus bat speed on a screaming line drive to right-center field for a single. He reached first base in 4.56 seconds on the turn, showing good speed once again. Once Clarke was at first, though, I was treated to how raw of a baserunner he is. Against a pitcher with an average pickoff move, he was nearly picked off with an average lead at first on two separate occasions, back-to-back. When the batter following him hit a solid groundball for a perfect double play ball, I did like what I saw in Clarke’s effort to break up the double play, though he was unsuccessful. He did go in hard, though, and I liked that he didn’t let up simply to save his own body.

In the fourth inning, I got to see Clarke’s defense in action. The Walker was threatening to open the game up, leading 2-0 with the bases loaded and only one out. A hitter stepped in, and when ahead in the count, he ripped a medium-height line drive that looked like a sure bases-clearing double off the bat. The parents in the stands immediately stood up cheering, thinking the same thing. However, Clarke got an excellent jump on the ball, and he showed plus closing speed into the left-center field gap. About ten feet short of the wall in deep left-center, while at full speed, he laid out in mid-air, getting the ball in the very tip of his glove, holding on as he tumbled over, the effect of such a high-effort move. You could tell The Walker players were coached well, as a runner still scored by tagging up, but the catch was simply demoralizing. The stands grew silent, and then started buzzing as parents started asking each other if what they saw was true. I, myself, just stared with my jaw dropped open, then I looked over at his posse (as I like to call his family and family friends who support him at games), who just smiled back. It was a Major League center fielder’s catch, and that erased all doubts about him being able to play center field.

Clarke came up in the top half of the next inning, ready to show off his hitting skills once again. The Walker had a second pitcher in, this one throwing in the low-80s with consistently better stuff than the first pitcher. It still wasn’t even a fair fight, but it was closer. After watching the pitcher against his teammates, Clarke stepped in knowing he wanted a first pitch fastball in. He got it and ripped another single, this between the first and second basemen. He simply has some of the quickest wrists out there, and I have great confidence that he’ll be able to turn on even the best fastballs in the pros. His issues with breaking balls are different, but he can sure hit fastballs. He made it up the line in 5.01 seconds, having no sort of hurry. His baserunning was once again raw on this trip on the bases, which saddened me. With a runner ahead of him at second, the hitter behind Clarke hit a solid flyball to left-center field, which landed just beyond the reach of the left fielder. The runner at second was conservative, and rightly so, since he could have been thrown out at second if he ventured too far and it was caught. Clarke, however, was also much too conservative, and he was only about 20 feet from the first base bag when the ball landed and rolled to the wall, and he only ended up at third after a very athletic effort, getting to third in 10.27 seconds from the time the ball landed. When at third, he became even more conservative, getting one of the smaller leads I’ve seen from such an elite player with plus speed. On a groundball to the shortstop, who was playing back with one out and a two run lead, he didn’t even try to score, having taken a tiny secondary lead in a situation where the run was being granted. He ended up being stranded at third in the inning, with his team down 3-1 with only a couple of innings to go, forcing me to shake my head in frustration. He’s going to need some significant work on the basepaths in order to unleash his athleticism, and I wonder if he’ll ever be aggressive enough to make a difference there.

In the next inning, Clarke once again showed something with his defense, though it wasn’t all positive. On a tailing flyball on a windy day from the bat of a right-handed hitter with no one on base, Clarke’s first instinct was to take a couple of steps in. He quickly realized that was the wrong decision. He circled back immediately, and the ball landed ten feet behind him after he started running at a dead sprint a second earlier. He reached the ball quickly and hurtled the ball back into the infield, but it was too late to catch the runner at second. I thought it could have simply been the wind, so I just wrote down a question mark about his reads, since it wasn’t a definitive play. However, against the very next batter, I was thoroughly convinced that his outfield reads would be right up there with his baserunning and pitch recognition in terms of what pro coaches will need to work on. On a ball tailing the other way, to his right, he got another late jump, though he made sure not to take a step forward this time. Instead, he froze, but then caught up to the ball in the alley at a dead sprint. Instead of simply catching the ball at his waist on the run, though, he did what I considered showboating, though I can’t be positive of the motives behind it. He slowed up and then laid out in similar style to his earlier catch, though the move was quite obvious. I wouldn’t have cared too much if that dive didn’t give the runner at second time to retreat ten feet, tag up, and make it to third with time to spare. His dive cost his team a base, and that could have been worse if The Walker didn’t strand him.

The Walker brought in a left-handed pitcher to try and preserve a 3-1 lead heading into the 6th inning. I was very excited about the possibility of seeing Clarke hit right-handed. However, before Clarke even came up, his teammates walked and doubled, making it runners at second and third with two outs. The Walker coach proceeded to intentionally walk Clarke, which is done without a pitch at the high school level, and Marietta stranded all three runners in the inning, leaving me very disappointed.

That was the last I got to see of Clarke doing anything in the game, but I’m not done with my story. Remember Dansby Swanson, the promising young Marietta shortstop? Well, he wasn’t ready to go out quite yet. Leading off the 7th inning for Marietta, down 3-1 entering the frame, Swanson proceeded to swat an impressive home run to dead center field, with the ball landing approximately 360-370 feet away. This wasn’t some wind-aided home run. This was legit. Marietta did manage to scratch across another run, tying it going into the bottom of the inning, but after loading up the bases with two outs, Swanson proceeded to bobble a potential inning-ending groundball, and all were safe, with The Walker scoring the winning run for a 4-3 victory. That miscue aside, I’m going to enjoy coming back to see Dansby more times over the next two years.

My overall impression of Clarke was positive, despite my numerous words about his weaknesses. One of the best scouts to ever run a scouting department, Paul Snyder, formerly of the Braves, used to say that he wanted to know what a player could do, not what he couldn’t do. I’ll tell you what Clarke can do. He can hit fastballs as good as anybody in this class, and he’ll be able to handle Major League fastballs. He can make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat. He can foul tough balls off, even if he’s fooled by them. His hand-eye coordination is obviously plus, and he could be a .300+ hitter as a Major Leaguer if he learns to lay off the breaking stuff. He can run. He can play plus center field defense. He will give you effort, even when the team you’re playing against is beneath him in terms of talent. That’s what Chevez Clarke can do. He will be a solid addition to a team looking for a franchise center fielder, and even though it may take him a number of years to make it through a minor league system, he’ll be one of the most well-rounded center fielders in those development years in all of the minors. He still looks like a late first-round to early second-round player, and now the only question to me is how much his Georgia Tech commitment is worth.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | Player Game Report | 2 Comments

Player Game Report: Ralston Cash, 3/19/10

On Friday, I got the chance to check out Ralston Cash, a senior right-handed pitcher from Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour from downtown Atlanta. I knew a good amount about Cash before I even headed down there, and in the interest of knowing that before I even give you the report, here’s the Draft Notebook writeup I had for him ahead of time:

“Ralston Cash is a tall, projectable righty from Cornelia, Georgia, a small town about 75 miles northeast of Atlanta. While he doesn’t feature the plus current stuff that some of the top pitching prospects in this year’s prep class offer, his projectability is up there with almost everyone not named A.J. Cole. Currently, Cash offers three quality pitches that could turn into plus offerings with time and maturity. His fastball is a solid 88-91 mph pitch with average life most of the time, but at the lower end of that range, he can put some serious sink into it. With his downhill plane, he could turn into a power groundball pitcher, every team’s dream. His breaking ball is a curveball that can loosen up and get slurvy sometimes, but at its best it can be a sharp above-average pitch in the 75-78 mph range. He throws a better changeup than most pitchers his age, and it could be another above-average offering. It’s usually in the 81-84 mph range when it’s at its best. Add in the fact that Cash is athletic and features excellent mechanics, and you have yourself a bit of a sleeper. He could go in the 3rd-5th round, but a team could absolutely get a steal there, as Cash has middle of the rotation potential.”

I found most of what I had been told to be pretty close to the truth, though I found a little less refinement than I hoped for when I saw Cash in game action. Cash’s opponent on Friday was Commerce High School, making this a matchup of two very small schools, meaning the competition wasn’t as intense as you’d like to see when catching a game. Cash was the only prospect on the field, but he’s played with a solid prospect before. His catcher last year was Brett Armour, who is now a draft prospect at Young Harris College, a junior college in North Georgia, as a freshman, hitting .304/.385/.506 in 79 at-bats as a starter. Needless to say, Cash would have been helped out by having a little better backstop on this day, as it’s hard to almost any prep catcher to catch the kind of stuff that Cash brings.

I arrived to the field early enough to catch Cash’s bullpen session before the game, and I really got to see his frame up close. He was a bit thicker than I was told before, and I’m wondering if he’s put on some strength over the offseason. He’s listed at 6-4/200, though he looked closer to 210 or 215 pounds to me, though he’s built very solidly. He looks like a ballplayer when you see him, and I’m encouraged to see that the weight is pretty well-distributed. He has very thick legs and a very solid core, and I now envision as a sturdy number four starter. The bullpen session itself was nothing special, as the catcher was having enough trouble catching his stuff, but I did pick up on a little bit of a concerning motion with his changeup. His bullpen before the game was almost completely curves and changeups, and the changeup arm action was considerably slower and more noticeable than either his curve or fastball. He hid it a little bit better in the game, but he only threw the change early on, and it was ineffective, so I didn’t get a better view. However, I knew what to look for in the game after catching the bullpen, which is why I encourage fans to arrive early for games if they’re seeing a draft prospect, as it’s sometimes the closest you’ll ever get to them in order to check out the body type and other such telling signals that are harder to pick up on when you’re busy scouting multiple things in game action at the same time.

On to the game, I really got to know something about how Cash operates. As a quick side note, almost all coaches call pitches for catchers at the high school level, and any criticisms I have for pitch selection aren’t criticisms for Cash, and even for the coaches at Lakeview. I simply want to point out that sometimes draft prospects are victims of a less refined approach to their craft than is the norm for either college players or those with pro instruction, so the lines of pitchers are sometimes bigger than you’d like to see. Such was the case on Friday. Cash came out in the first throwing harder than he had been in the bullpen and even in warm-ups for the inning. His first pitches were 90-91 mph fastballs with average life, and his control of that pitch was consistently solid throughout the game. Notice I said control and not command. We’ll get to the command part later. He set up the first batter with two fastballs, then rung him up looking with a solid 79 mph curve that was more of a slurve than a true curve. Cash’s delivery is a true three-quarter bordering a low three-quarter, so it’s going to be harder for him to really develop a consistent curveball. I’d probably change his grip to make it a true slider, which is easier to command anyway, but he’s obviously put a lot of work into his curve. It had above-average shape for much of the game, and I can see where a number of scouts saw the potential for an above-average pitch, but his command of it wasn’t great for most of the game. He had to take off some break to throw strikes with it, making it flatter and more like a slider, but his bigger benders were slower with more up-and-down break. He couldn’t throw strikes with that variant, but it shows potential if he can find the release point. The second batter popped up Cash’s first changeup of the afternoon, an 84 mph pitch that had pretty much no life on it, and the second baseman caught it for the second out.  After breaking off a better 77 mph curve to the third batter, he retired him with a ground out, ending the first after just three batters. It was pretty impressive, but not overwhelming, so I wanted to see more.

One of the things I love about watching small schools play is that someone like Cash is not only the star pitcher, but the star hitter, as well. He hit third in Lakeview’s lineup, and he was just noticeably bigger than anyone on the field. After a weak swing on a below-average curveball from Commerce’s pitcher, I realized the reason why Cash is only seen as a pitching prospect. His pitch recognition skills were consistently below-average, and he has no balance at the plate. He grounded out in his first at-bat, lunging at a low-80s fastball. He was clocked at 4.75 seconds to first, though he pulled up for the last ten feet after the first baseman caught the ball. That’s a well below-average time, but he did pull up, and I didn’t see him try to leg out anything else on the afternoon.

Cash came out in the second inning throwing at the range I had been told in the fall, 88-91, and he sat there for most of the afternoon. He threw a couple more 79 mph curveballs that looked more like sliders than curves, and some scouts started wondering if he had actually switched to a slider because of the shape. He threw a pair of changeups on the inning, and he really struggled to finish off one hitter in particular. After the hitter fouled off a few pitches with two strikes, Cash made a mistake, which started with the pitch call. He delivered an 82 mph changeup right over the heart of the plate to a left-handed hitter, and the pitch simply looked like a straight fastball, as it lacked both depth and break. The hitter batted it down the left field line, and because of a poor attempt at diving for the ball by the left fielder, the hitter ended up at third with a triple that should have been a single. Cash did recover from that miscue with a solid effort against the next hitter, striking him out with a 79 mph curve, but the ball bounced away from his catcher for a wild pitch with all runners safe, including the hitter. The next hitter, a righty, proceeded to pop the ball out to right-center field, but because of the tail on the ball and the wind, the center fielder completely misread it for a double that scored one runner, advancing the runner that reached on the wild pitch to reach third. After squeezing in an out, the hitter following hit an average fly ball to center for a sacrifice fly on a 90 mph fastball, making it two runs that shouldn’t have been scored than had come across. Cash finished off the inning with a swinging strikeout on a fastball, but the damage was done. He allowed two runs that were officially earned, but that wouldn’t have scored with better defense behind him, which came to be a theme on the afternoon.

Cash’s third inning was also a victim of some questionable defense. He came out with a solid strikeout looking on a curveball to start the inning, and then allowed a pair of singles, both of which were legitimate hits. One was absolutely scorched to right field by a left-handed hitter, and I wonder how Cash will handle lefties at the next level. However, the next hitter reached on a normal ground ball that the third baseman tried to backhand instead of get around on, leading to another run, making it a 3-1 game, with Lakeview behind. I clocked Cash’s time to the plate consistently through all these jams, and he was normally in the 1.50 range with runners on second, though he had a solid slide step that was in the 1.34-1.36 second range consistently. He’s not going to hold runners very well with his current delivery, as it takes him awhile to get going forward, but it wasn’t awful. After allowing another weakly-hit single that was pretty much slapped past the infield, I got to see how Cash dealt with a big jam. The bases were loaded with only a single out, and I wanted to see how he would react to bad defense and frustrating situations. What I ended up seeing was pretty encouraging. The first hitter up got behind quickly against the fastball, and he ended up actually twisting his ankle when he was way ahead of Cash’s best curve on the afternoon, getting a strikeout and an injury, though he stayed in the game after limping back to the dugout. The following hitter faced the same fate, striking out swinging on another curve, though the ball bounced away from the catcher again, though he recovered enough to throw the runner out at first to end the inning.

Starting in the fourth inning, I started seeing a different Ralston Cash. He fed off a big inning from his offense and the way he ended the previous inning. Pitching with a 4-3 lead, he started pitching confidently, not afraid to shake off his catcher to throw more fastballs, which were obviously overpowering a fairly weak Commerce offense. He was throwing 87-89 in the inning, getting a pair of swinging strikeouts when he elevated 88 mph fastballs on back-to-back hitters. The last hitter hit a weak fly ball to right field on an 87 mph fastball to end a quick 1-2-3 inning, and I was utterly impressed with the new pitcher I saw on the mound. He was simply different from the pitcher of the first three innings. That confidence only lasted for a pair of innings, but I saw some real potential in the pitcher I saw in the fourth and fifth innings.

In the fifth inning, I was one of the few evaluators left at the field, as most of the scouts had departed from the Georgia-Auburn game in Athens. Cash started to tire a little bit, but still bumped up his velocity when he needed it. He was 85-86 mph to a weak hitter in the back of the lineup, but also threw 88-90 against better hitters around that hitter, showing me that he knows what he’s doing and has a good idea who he’s facing. He threw a pair of 77 mph curveballs, one of which went for yet another strikeout, his 9th on the afternoon. I got the chance to see him get off the mound to field a swinging bunt, as well, and I was impressed with his poise. He got to the ball pretty quickly, showing above-average reaction time, and when he picked up the ball cleanly, he didn’t rush his throw or throw it too hard for the situation. He calmly delivered a solid throw right on the money for an easy out in a situation where some prep pitchers would have thrown it down the right field line. The last hitter hit a weak ground ball to third base to end the inning with another 1-2-3 frame for Cash. Like I said in the previous paragraph, this was simply a different pitcher from the early innings.

Cash’s final inning, the sixth, was an unfortunate thing to watch. He was throwing mainly 87-89 in the frame, touching 90, but his stuff was a little less sharp than it had been. He started relying heavily on his curveball, and it was actually much softer than it had been in previous innings, sitting more in the 73-77 mph range than the earlier 77-79 range I witnessed. The difference was noticeable to the naked eye. The results were not too great, though. After allowing a soft single to short left field, a hitter fisted a ball down the left field line for an RBI double, cutting Lakeview’s lead to 7-4. After getting a flyout to center field on an 89 mph fastball, things started to fall apart, though it wasn’t Cash’s fault. The next hitter surprised Cash and company with a running bunt, and Cash’s reaction time wasn’t as impressive this time, but he once again showed solid instincts with his fielding. Instead of trying to do too much, he understood that the play was over and held onto the ball, allowing a bunt single instead of a three base error. He promptly struck out the next batter looking with a 75 mph curve for the second out with runners on the corners, but then his defense departed him. He started pitching off his curveball almost exclusively, and he made his first real mistake of the night on defense. On a normal ground ball, he made a bad throw, allowing the runners to move around, and one scoring to make it 7-5. The next batter hit an easy ground ball to the shortstop that should have ended the inning, but on his easy toss to the second baseman, the second baseman completely dropped it, allowing another run to score, making in 7-6. Cash faced the last hitter of the inning as if pitching without a defense behind him, obviously going for the strikeout. He got in on a 78 mph curve in the dirt, ending his outing with 11 strikeouts in 6 innings. The final line was 6 runs allowed on 8 (generous) hits, with his defense committing 3 errors, 1 by him, and he also didn’t walk a batter.

Cash moved to shortstop in the final inning as Lakeview tried to close it out, and I got to watch one of the more interesting plays I’ve ever seen. Cash lacks the mobility to play shortstop at any level in the future, as he has the body of a third baseman more than a shortstop. However, he was solid in the opportunity he had. With runners on second and third and no outs, Cash went to his backhand to field a sharply-hit ground ball, and the runners froze. He looked back the runner at third, and then delivered an absolute strike to the first baseman right on target, and the runners took off on the throw. The first baseman got the out at first, and then delivered a solid throw to the catcher, who tagged out the runner coming out for the second out. The runner at second had only taken off when he saw the runner ahead of him getting close to home, and the catcher delivered a solid throw to the third baseman, who put down an easy tag well ahead of the runner for what should have been the third out. However, the umpire, who was consistently off, called that runner safe, which obviously ticked off the home team and their crowd. Lakeview did close out the game, but I thought I was going to be in the middle of a riot.

My overall impression of Cash was quite positive. He displayed the solid natural stuff that I expected, though his command wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. He consistently left pitches up in the zone, though the Commerce hitters lacked the strength and bat speed to catch up to the ball. His curveball needs some work, and like I said above, I’d change him to a slider based on his arm speed and angle. The pitch even looked like a slider at times, so I wouldn’t see a tough transition. There’s a good bit of upside here, and I came away still seeing him as a solid 3rd-5th round prospect. He had a bad defense behind him, and every scout that evaluates him will have to completely ignore his final line and actual results on batted balls, but the approach is there for a pro pitcher. He’ll need to learn to adjust to having a competent defense behind him, and he’s going to be a flyball pitcher in the long run, but I’m glad I got to see Cash throw a pretty solid outing.

March 21, 2010 Posted by | Player Game Report | Leave a comment

Player Game Report: Andrew Smith, 3/9/10

Instead of a true game report, I’ll focus in on Andrew Smith, a right-handed pitcher from Roswell High School, making this a player game report.

Smith is a 6’3’’ righty with solid-average stuff that entered the game for Roswell in the fourth inning. His catcher, Zane Evans, a Georgia Tech signee, started the game off with fringy stuff and lack of command. Evans sat 85-87 with his fastball, along with a 70-72 curve and 78 changeup, all below-average in command and in pitch grading. Evans noticeably slowed his arm for the changeup, and I’d say he’s easily just a catching prospect.

After three innings that lasted over an hour and a half, Smith was a breath of fresh air, moving the game along at a better pace. Whereas there were only three scouts there at the beginning of the game, by the fourth inning there were closer to 15, most having come directly from an outing by Woodstock High School pitcher Kent Immanuel, a North Carolina signee like Smith. We all took up our positions behind home plate, ready to take in what Smith had to offer on the evening.

Smith came in with the reputation for being a strike-thrower with above-average command of three pitches, including a solid-average fastball, above-average curveball and promising changeup. Right out of the gate, watching him on the mound, he didn’t strike me as very projectable. While listed at 6’3’’, he looked more like 6’1’’ or 6’2’’, and he’s pretty solid now. I’m not saying he doesn’t have the capability of improving, just that he’s not going to add 5 mph to his fastball over the next few years.

His first fastballs came out of the gate in the 86-88 range, and he ended up sitting there for most of his four inning outing. He was commanding it well to the corners, as well as elevating it when he had the hitter on his heels, changing the eye level of the pitch well. I was supremely impressed with his ability to get weak contact, and he had a fair amount of late life to the pitch, featuring good arm side run and sink. It’s not a sinking fastball by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s lively in that 86-88 mph range, a good sign that he knows what he’s doing when he’s pitching, even without his best stuff. He’s been clocked as high as 93 before, but he didn’t get close to that in this outing, yet he still mowed through the order quickly.

On to his offspeed pitches, let me first tell you that I was not the only one having trouble distinguishing his curveball from his changeup at times. That’s how much movement he gets on his change. There was multiple times where we ended up asking each other which pitch that was, as the velocity readings were right in the middle between his normal curveball range and changeup range, and there always ended up being disagreement between the scouts about which pitch it was. He mixed the pitches liberally, and he’d throw any pitch in any count. His curve was usually in the 73-76 mph range, with the changeup closer to 77-79. However, in the 75-77 mph range, the difference between the pitches is so small that it’s hard to read, even for scouts, much less inexperienced high school hitters.

His curve showed excellent late break and it was a solid 11/5 pitch that I graded as a future above-average offering (55 on the 20-80 scale). It could be rated as high as 60 for someone who believes in his command, which is excellent. He did a great job of busting the curveball in on right-handed hitters, who then bailed out to watch it drop in for a strike. One confused hitter just shook his head after he had backpedaled out of the box during the pitch, thinking he was about to get hit in the face. Smith showed a solid ability to throw it for strikes, as well as bury it in the dirt in pitcher’s counts.

The changeup is greatly improved from last summer, where most scouts saw it as a fringy third offering with only a little potential, mainly because he’d change his arm action and delivery enough that experienced hitters could tell it was coming. However, last night it was a solid offering that I rated as a potential above-average offering, giving it a 55 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale. His first changeup was a 79 mph pitch that didn’t have much life on it, and it was popped up and dropped for an error, resulting in an unearned run. However, later pitches showed incredible life once he got the feel for it. He would get ahead of a hitter with his fastball, and then show a steady diet of the curve and change, aiming the curve higher for its break, and then throwing his change toward the knees, and it would drop off the table right in front of the plate. Its tumble was one of the better changeups I’ve seen so far this season, even equal to Deck McGuire. He’d get solid depth and excellent fade when he threw it in the 77 mph range, about ten miles an hour slower than his fastball on the day. Some scouts openly questioned whether he had secretly developed a splitter over the offseason, but scouts more familiar with him said it was simply a straight change that he had improved.

In terms of mechanics, this is the area that Smith needs to work on. He’s rather smooth through the motion until he starts to release the ball. At that point, especially on his fastball, he noticeably decelerates his arm, hindering his ability to follow through, also hindering his ability to push through his fastball, which hurt his velocity. Scouts were a little puzzled about his velocity on the night, as he wasn’t holding anything back in terms of his release, as he has a little effort to his motion, but he was still only registering in the 86-88 mph range, touching 89 once. He also has some recoil on the end of his motion, and all of this combines to form a little question mark about his mechanics. He’ll definitely need a little cleanup at the pro level.

All in all, though, Andrew Smith did very well on the night, considering that his defense had a lot of trouble on pop-ups and flyballs due to the windy conditions. He had two pop-ups dropped when he was on the mound, one getting that unearned run on the board. However, he worked quickly and pitched to contact with his fastball early in the count, resulting in a short outing, allowing only the one unearned run over four innings. I expect his velocity will creep back towards normal as the weather heats up, and I might try to get back to see him later in the season. I’d say that Smith is a solid third or fourth round prospect after seeing him in person, possibly into the second round to a team that values command highly, such as the Twins. Hopefully Smith can increase his velocity back to his normal range, while keeping his command and movement.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Player Game Report | Leave a comment

Player Player Game Report: Kevin Jordan, OF, Northside HS (GA)

Having already planned to head to South Georgia on Saturday, I planned a side route to Columbus, Georgia to be able to catch a possible first-day draft prospect in Northside High School outfielder Kevin Jordan. Jordan is a tall, lanky center field prospect with plus tools in the power, speed, and fielding departments, and he holds a baseball scholarship to Wake Forest. A late-bloomer in terms of national prominence, Jordan came onto the bigger stage with strong performances in the Area Code games in August, followed by a good showing at the World Wood Bat World Championship in Jupiter, Florida in October. I currently rate him as a 2nd-4th round prospect, and his upside is immense. I recorded notes on most players in the matchup between Northside and Northgate High School, but this will simply be a writeup on Jordan, the only high-level draft prospect on the field on Saturday. Here’s a look at what I saw.

Jordan was the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter for Northside, and he was easily the best player on the field, both in terms of current production and tools. He didn’t have a great day when I saw him on Saturday, but the tools are definitely in there. To begin, his raw size makes him stand out. He’s listed at 6’1’’, and that’s about right, though he may be closer to 6’2’’. He has lean, wiry strength that’s already solid, and he definitely has the look of someone that will fill out with solid muscle as he matures. There’s tons of potential in his body, though relying on physical projection is only one step in the grading process.

Let’s start with Jordan’s skills at the plate. He hits with a fairly simple load, and he gets set early enough to be prepared. I only say that part because that’s sometimes a problem with more inexperienced prep hitters, and Jordan’s high-level experience with baseball is pretty lacking. However, Jordan has some good fundamentals at the plate. He shouldn’t have to adjust much with a wooden bat in terms of hitting mechanics. The only glaring thing I see is how much he moves his front elbow down when he gets into his load, and that messes with his timing a little. He pulls that elbow out a little early on offspeed stuff, and while he keeps most of the rest of his body in line, that elbow moves the bat enough to make it essentially without pop if he makes contact. It’s kind of a scramble to put the ball in play rather than waiting on the pitch and driving it. That’s all correctable with pro coaching, though, and the mechanics themselves are strong. He even has a little Junior Griffey in him in terms of the load when he gets a pitch to drive. His bat speed is above-average when he’s not fooled by his somewhat weak pitch recognition, and he projects to hit for a solid average, and I gave him a future 55 grade on his hit tool, though with only four at-bats to judge. His raw power gets a future grade of 55 or 60 depending on how you see him filling out.

I didn’t get a very good opportunity to clock his speed. I was running the stopwatch continuously, but he either hit a weaker fly ball, a grounder that got into the outfield or he got lazy at the end of a routine grounder. I didn’t get a single sub-5 second time for him down the line, a clear indication that he wasn’t running close to full speed, since he’s been clocked at 4.1 seconds down the line as late as October, which is true plus speed from the left-handed batter’s box, and he’s been given anywhere from 60 to 70 grades for his raw speed by scouts. The fastest I saw him run was from center field back to the dugout after a third out was recorded by his team.

In the field, I got a chance to see Jordan’s arm in pre-game outfield/infield practice. That’s what I love about the college and prep level. They still take infield. In general, the arm didn’t impress me. He also got a chance to try and throw out a player at the plate in the first inning on a single, when the runner was trying to score from second. Not only did he not charge the ball with any sort of urgency, he then came up with a horrible throw that was cut by the first baseman in the middle of the diamond, and the runner scored easily. I gave the arm a 40 grade, which is easily below-average, and I’m hoping he was simply stiff in the high-40s windy weather, because it was simply bad. He throws right-handed, and his throwing mechanics aren’t noticeably bad, but there’s no life on his throws.

Looking simply at his fielding and range in center, I only had minimal looks. He glided for one ball in left-center late in the game, and he got under the ball easily enough to call off the nearby left fielder and make the catch. I have to note that the field was 331 feet to each foul pole, but only 352 feet to dead center, so Jordan was understandably playing a very shallow center field for any sizeable pro park, so judging his range at that field is fairly skewed. With his speed and the instincts I saw him show on that fly ball, I don’t see any reason why he can’t be an above-average center fielder if he keeps that speed after filling out. If he loses that extra bit of speed, then he could be shifted to left field and be a plus fielder there. I don’t think his arm plays in right field at all, so he would absolutely have to shift to left if he outgrew center field.

Having looked at his five tools, let me give you a quick wrap-up on the little things I saw about Jordan. In short, he’s a low-energy player, and I mean that in a bad way. Besides the lackluster effort on the single to center field where his throw came in pretty badly, he pretty much dogged it in every other aspect of his game. He didn’t back up throws, didn’t run out hits, and he looked like he absolutely didn’t care about the game of baseball. Even knowing about his good tools, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he looked completely bored out of his mind. Like I said above, the most effort I saw him put out was running back to the dugout. At the plate, he seemed timid, and he didn’t even get fired up by a pair of horrible calls by the home plate umpire, including calling a strike on a ball that bounced between home plate and the catcher’s glove. He simply stepped out of the box, stepped back in and proceeded to continue his at-bat. If he had shown any sort of effort in any other part of the game, I would have said it was mature of him to not let the umpire get to him, but I wanted to see some sort of life from him. I didn’t even see him smile. It looked like someone was forcing him to play.

Here are two more things that bothered me the most. Let’s start with the thing that bothered me most. Jordan had reached base on an error by an infielder, proceeded to steal second with another runner on 3rd without a throw, and then made it to third on another grounder. He didn’t take much of a lead at third, and he almost looked afraid of being picked off, a surprise for such a high-level athlete. While he was at third, the four-hole hitter for Northside hit a soft, looping liner to short right field. Jordan did the right thing by heading back towards third to tag up in case the right fielder caught it, but the ball fell in front of the fielder for an easy single. Jordan, seeing the ball drop, started heading home for what should have been an easy run. However, he did what I can best describe as jogging, though jogging is probably faster than he got down the line. The right fielder had time to get the ball to the first baseman on the inner grass of the infield, who relayed it home at the same time Jordan arrived there. Jordan didn’t bother to slide, instead just putting his foot right next to where the catcher was trying to block the plate, while at the same time shielding his face from the ball possibly hitting there with his hand and tilting his batting helmet that way. He scored on what was essentially a tie at home plate, and he was extremely lucky not to be thrown out or completely miss home plate with his foot. If I was coaching, he would been riding that bench for the rest of the game after that, but he stayed in, which I thought was strange after later seeing the same coach benching a kid for not getting to second on a borderline routine double down the third base line, even though the kid stumbled out of the box. The coach even publicly chewed him out in his face on his way back to the dugout. Talk about mixed messages.

The other thing that bothered me most about Jordan was his approach at the plate, specifically in his third at-bat in the fourth inning. Northgate decided to pull their starter just as Jordan was coming up to the plate. The reliever showed some interesting secondary stuff, and I expected Jordan to do what any responsible leadoff hitter should do. He should have had an extended at-bat that allowed him and his teammates to see what sort of live pitching that pitcher had to offer. Instead, he lunged at the second pitch of the at-bat for a weakly-hit ground ball for an out, the groundout where he dogged it down the line to a 5+ second clock time. It was too immature for a hitter of his draft caliber, and the effort out of the box didn’t help.

All in all, it was easy to see why scouts are attracted to Jordan and his tools. There were about half a dozen area scouts in attendance, most of which had been at the Georgia-Stetson matchup the night before. They were all there to see Jordan, and none even used a radar gun or moved from their spots up the left field line, with four staying put beyond the third base dugout for the entire game until Jordan’s last at-bat, when they promptly left. All had stopwatches in their hands and only paid attention when Jordan was involved with the action. I generally liked what I saw from Jordan in terms of the physical tools, but he’ll have to prove to me that he can actually show some effort before I think of him as a first-day prospect. For now, I peg him personally as a fourth-round or later guy, and his makeup was a big negative. Not knowing him personally, I’m not sure if his overall makeup is a minus, but his live game makeup was a big drawback for me.

Here are a couple other notes on some other players:

-Northgate’s best player is Conner Kendrick, who played center field for them in Saturday’s contest. He’s mainly a prospect as a pitcher, and he brings high-80s heat from the left side on the mound. He has a Georgia Tech commitment for next year, and he’s probably a late-teens to mid-twenties pick on talent, though I completely expect him to land at Tech for the 2011 season. During Northgate’s outfield throws during warm-ups, as soon as he let go of the ball, the area scout standing next to me said, “Wooo…Conner Kendrick!!” He hadn’t even noticed anyone else on the field, but Kendrick’s plus arm in center certainly got his attention.
-I love the education you can get from parents in the stands at high school games. Having forgotten that Columbus had a very successful Little League World Series team a few years ago, I was reminded of that with a particular player on Northside. Brady Hamilton, a junior on Northside, was the kid that had to get his head stitched up after jumping on a bed, then went out and played in the Series. He’s now a pretty big kid with what looks like good strength potential, but he has a huge head tug that happens early in the pitch sequence, and then follows that with a foot squarely in the bucket. In other words, he can’t even see clearly what’s coming his way. However, that’s a great example of the stories you pick up at games like this.
-I’m planning on catching Jordan and company again later in the season, and next weekend I’ll be back in Atlanta to catch the series between Georgia Tech and Rutgers. I’m looking forward to seeing Rutgers hitter Jaren Matthews faced off against Deck McGuire on Friday, and unless it’s too cold, I’ll once again be Tweeting throughout.

February 28, 2010 Posted by | Player Game Report | 3 Comments

   

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