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2011 MLB Draft: The Change-Up and Draft Strategy

With the big league success of Big Game James and the steady successes of Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson in the minors, I've been thinking a lot about the change-up. Arguably the most undervalued pitch thrown, the change-up doesn't need the loose-arm or great hand speed that scouts use to project future talent. You don't need a knock-out curve or a high 90s fastball to get guys to swing and miss with a good change. 

When looking at these 3 guys a few similarities stick out:

  • Athleticism: All 3 guys are good athletes, and repeat their delivery well. They end their delivery in an athletic position that allows them to field their positions well.
  • Size: Shields is the biggest of the three, but none are overwhelming size-wise. Both Cobb and Hellickson were generally considered under-sized. 
  • Velocitty: None have elite velocity. They sit in the low nineties, and that's where they see their success. All three are relative "soft-tossers" for righties.
  • Polish/Command/Control: All three avoid walks and get strikeouts through mixing pitches, hitting their spots, and changing speeds. They can have success "pitching backward," and their success is generally considered to exceed expectations.
The last point is where I think we should stop and concentrate for a second. So much of the draft and prospecting in general deals with seeing physical strengths (for pitchers- arm speed, velocity, big size, etc.) and projecting refinements that will allow these strengths to play through. Success seems to take a back seat to projection. This makes sense because different players age differently. Some players are raw, and some are finished developing; some successes are luck, and some are due to seasoning. This is why scouting the individual is so important. 

All teams do this, though. All teams try to balance amateur performance with what the scouts see. The problem, in my opinion, is that some skills are undervalued. To me it seems, teams are more likely to eschew the different. The pitcher that's a good athlete with out premium velocity or a hammer curve gets panned for not having big upside teams crave.  These are the change-up artists. They may have a feel for it presently, or they may just have the profile. In targeting these undervalued assets, I think the Rays could score a future rotation member. 

So who fits the profile?

We'll look for guys with an advanced feel for pitching. Good make-up. Good athleticism. Size can be a negative. Top end velocity can be a negative. Showing a feel for a change is a definite plus. This, I think, is the profile of the future change-up artist. Consistently undervalued. Consistently exceeding expectations.

The first guy is the most intriguing pitching prospect in the draft this year in my eyes. Sean Gilmartin is a junior at FSU. Everything about him screams "RAYS!" From the Mike Minor comps (Rays selected Minor out of high school but couldn't get him signed) to the talk of his great make-up and polish, he seems like the archetype for this group of pitchers. The left-hander has had great success all three years at FSU as their Friday starter pitching off his advanced change-up. Scouts laud his ability to change speeds and spot his pitches to outperform his somewhat underwhelming "stuff."

John Stilson is seemingly the right-handed version of Gilmartin. Also a college starter out of TAMU, Stilson is also a good athlete with great make-up and an advanced change. His delivery is the big question, and he may go higher than the Rays' first pick. If he falls, he could be a good snag though I hesitate nabbing a lower upside starter with the first pick.

Noe Ramirez is a guy I like as he should be an easy sign and fits the mold. He'd likely be available in to day 2 for the Rays second batch of picks, but may be worth taking in the first sandwich round to balance a tough sign or two. He lives off his change-up, and it has allowed him a lot of success at Cal State-Fullerton despite a fairly pedestrian fastball. His combination of make-up and polish could allow him to continue that success as a middle or backend of the rotation guy.

The high school players that fit this mold are innumerable. Most high school arms seriously lack polish or a change-up, but there are plenty that meet the other qualifications. Some guys (like Henry Owens) have shown rare polish from a high schooler but maybe miss some of the other aspects of the group (Owens for instance is big without much athleticism). A lot of the top HS arms, though, sort of fit; so we'll just take a look at three guys who are just outside BA's top 100 who I think might be decent steals in this mold.

Dillon Peters is a smallish lefty out of Indiana. With a strong Texas commitment in his pocket, he may be a tough sign. His stuff (especially from the left hand side) is good, and he has an advanced for a change-up. His make-up and polish also get good reviews.

Kevin Matthews is an eerily similar prospect. Smallish and left-handed with good stuff and feel, Matthews has a strong UVA commitment. He has a bit more effort in his delivery than Peters that could make him a future reliever, but his plus athleticism allows some to think he can overcome it. He or Peters could be great gets lower down if a team thinks they can sign them.

Peters and Matthews right-handed foil is Kyle Smith, a smallish righty from South Florida. He's got the make-up, athleticism, and stuff to project him as a future change-up artist. His clean arm action should allow him to develop a good change.

This theory of the change-up in the draft is a pretty big departure from my typical draft strategy. A card-carrying "tools whore," I generally favor eschewing polish or amateur success for big, athletic players that scream upside. The logic comes from the fact that future starters that are more likely to make a rotation are undervalued. You need five starters, and not all of them will be aces. If you can fill 2 or 3 spots with guys that were undervalued in the draft, isn't that a great strategy?

This could be completely offbase, though.