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2019 MLB Draft Prep: Pitching basics and TCU

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Nick Lodolo is a pitcher to watch from the TCU program that produced Jake Arrieta.

Nick Lodolo
TCU Baseball

When college pitching is the topic, reasonable expectations become an important topic rather early on. Sometimes, trying to be helpful, fans are interested in adding “an ace”. However, “an ace” is rarely available for very long. Usually, what is available are “plenty of pitchers from coast to coast”. None are guaranteed to be an ace.

Realistically, three dimensions are in play. None are what I would consider “linear”. For instance, at some point, running through the video-gathering process, you might see a particularly jaw-dropping breaking ball from a college pitcher. You nod, “If that’s what he’ll bring every day, I’m interested.”

He won’t bring that every day. Particularly if he’s going to slip to the 27th choice in the first round. As inconsistent as you might consider some MLB starters, they are usually far more consistent than college arms. Consistency is developed through the minor league system. At each level, it needs to be honed, as the hitters keep getting better.

I noted three dimensions are in play. One is obviously velocity. Stating what should be obvious, pitchers don’t traditionally throw their fastball at the same velocity each time. Often, with a reduction in velocity comes an uptick in movement. Which is why velocity is normally more useful as a range. The default velocity for a non-elite staring pitcher at a good baseball school is 88-92.

The second dimension is the repertoire. College starting pitchers often have three different pitches, with the third best offering getting served up far less often. Since a major league starter essentially needs three pitches to serve as a rotation option, a decent portion of the minor league voyage is seeing if the pitcher has three pitches that will get MLB hitters out. If it’s only two, he likely becomes a reliever. In college, the options aren’t necessarily “all available” every day. (“My curve was a cement mixer. I quit using it tonight.”) Hence, it’s more of a dimension than a given.

The third dimension is also regularly in flux for many college arms. That dimension is a split between movement and command. If that “highlights video” slider is a swing-and-miss offering at best, but is only that good three times a game, it needs work. As you track a college pitcher, on your side or the other, try not to be too swayed by any one particular outing. The term “body of work” plays with college pitching.

Before I take a quick look at a college side today, I feel now is a fair time to explain my hopes for this seasonal experiment. I’m attempting to get conversant in pretty much any school across the board. I even have a sheet of paper for San Jacinto Junior College, and will eventually have one for Chipola College in Marianna, Florida. After all, the Cubs drafted and signed outfielder Edmond Americaan from that’s cool in June.

It is important is for you to know what level of awareness I expect from you if you select a side. My hope is to make this more fun and educational than drudgery. It can be either, and tasks that aren’t fun reach the back burner rather quickly. As they should.

If you’re selecting a side, I would hope you would be willing to do two things. The long-end goal is to do about half an hour of “homework” per week. (That can be five minutes per day, or done all at one time.) Currently, not much would be specific on your plate. However, teams have incoming recruiting classes. I’m largely ignoring those in my previews, as they aren’t draft-ready, yet.

Other things you can do now, in well under the half-hour per week time frame, is check to see if their schedule is posted yet. In some cases, that hasn’t happened, yet. My unofficial is that half the teams have listed their schedule already. Once the schedule is posted, you can do cursory research on who the opposition in the opener brings to the table.

Many teams had players performing in Summer Ball. Whether in The Cape Cod, Cal Ripken, Northwoods, or some other League, the players often get wood bat experience against college veterans. Knowing who played where gives you a read on who might be a starter in the fall.

Lastly, teams often have a degree of Fall Ball practice. Quite a few teams play a game or two against another school. Sometimes, they end up as 12-15 inning games against a local side. It’s usually about tuning up, not crushing anyone’s souls for the season. The top pitchers might toss a couple frames, then turn the ball over to someone else. The entire roster might play. Yeah, winning would be nice, but those have the priority of a Cactus League game.

The more major commitment is a bit of a “challenge goal”, if you’re familiar with fundraising. You being aware of a school’s team ought to be useful for you. Regardless how closely you plan to track the squad, knowing their Head Coach and Pitching Coach might be a decent first step. And, potentially, a last step for some, sadly.

The challenge goal is to watch or listen to the first three innings of a game your teams plays this February or March. I’m not going to demand a full three hours. That would be expecting too much. If you catch the starting pitcher going through the line-up once for each side, that qualifies. By doing simply that, you’re taking the time to learn something about college baseball. Which is what the experiment is about.

Be forewarned. On occasion, college game start times get moved, because of weather. Therefore, if you have a 1 PM game you’re tracking, that might not eventually be the starting time. Sometimes, games are moved to an earlier or later in the day because of weather. (Try that in the National League very often.)

When you scope out your game, research both sides. While you want your team to win, likely, know the better players on the other team. By doing that, you get a better idea if your hurler is having a good game, or merely dusting through inadequate opposition. As usual, ask if you have questions.

***

As I’m talking top-end starters, a good thumbnail today is Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Or, as you might consider it, Jake Arrieta’s school. Arrieta was drafted in the fifth round in 2007 (Yeah, really). The Cubs chose Brandon Guyer two selections before Arrieta. Guyer wasn’t a bad pick in that spot. However, if you were a TCU fan at the time, you might have wondered what the delay was. Which is a large bit of the point of this exercise. Knowledge.

Nick Lodolo is the primary draw here in 2019. He is sitting in or around the top ten in current (and presumably, way too soon) mocks. A 6-5 lefty out of LaVerne, California, Lodolo chose the Horned Frogs over the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school. He fanned 93 in 77 sophomore season innings.

TCU slumped to 10-13 in the Big 12 Conference in 2018. They were 33-23 overall, and saw five players drafted. Only four regulars hit over .232. Nobody had more than nine homers. Two of the four that hit over .300 are gone, as is Luken Baker, who hit the nine in a shortened season.

Josh Watson and Coby Boulware will be worth tracking on offense, and Watson is draft-eligible. On the pitching side, Russell Smith and Jake Eissler figure to give Lodolo and the offense quite a bit of help.

Jim Schlossnagle figures to have a very competitive team, even on the nights Lodolo isn’t pitching. However, if you’re choosing TCU this season, you might want to prioritize Lodolo’s starts. They open their season on February 15th, along with everyone else. The Horned Frogs will venture to Scottsdale, where they will oppose Cal State Fullerton. Their games appear to be audio-streamed, if nothing else.

So, you want an ace? Tell me your thoughts after watching Lodolo pitch.