I hesitate to say this is the dawn of a new era. Scouts have been swooning over hard-throwing arms for a long time now. But with each passing draft it seems more and more evident that the odds of a Mark Buehrle 2.0 surfacing are growing slimmer. And that's a shame. Mark Buehrle may not be a Hall-of-Famer, but he has been an extremely serviceable baseball player for 15 seasons (16 including 2015) including a no-hitter and a perfect game over that span.
SB Nation sister-site Minor League Ball ran a mock draft using people from the community, which you can read about here. In the first ten picks, three pitchers were picked: Dillon Tate, Carson Fulmer, and Tyler Jay. While this is fewer than I expect to go in the real draft, it gives us a good starting point for what people look for in the player they want their team to draft.
Also, I would like to applaud the community for largely following a chief rule of Moneyball: avoid pitchers from high school. And what do all three of the aforementioned pitchers have in common other than pitching in college? The ability to throw mid- to high-90s. In fact, Tyler Jay is currently ranked 13th by Baseball America, yet jumped to 8th in the Minor League Ball mock. I'm guessing -- and I don't think this is a huge assumption -- that Jay's ability to "hit 96" on the gun was a primary reason for him to move up a draft board.
Now, I don't fault anybody for favoring heat over repertoire or anything else in a pitcher's makeup. I am no scout, but it seems to me that it would be easier to teach a breaking ball to a hard-throwing teenager than trying to add a few miles per hour to the fastball of a pitcher with a superb curve.
In fact, the latter seems near impossible to me for a couple reasons. First, adding velocity to a delivery means changing a delivery substantially, which means impacting all of the other pitches. Second, the 'common wisdom' (and I'm openly scared to use that term because, in this case, it is largely unsubstantiated) is that most of a pitcher's repertoire builds off the ability to command the fastball. So, the odds of having a dynamite breaking ball but a below-average fastball are pretty slim. I would happily concede that I am wrong on this, but I do think this why we evaluate young pitchers with increased velocity so favorably.
So, let's take a look at all the pitchers that went in the first round and their fastball velocity based on scouting reports:
|Draft Pos.||Team||Name||FB velocity|
|4||TEX||Dillon Tate||mid- to upper-90s|
Mark Buehrle's hardest throwing season (since pitch f/x kept this data) is 2007 in which his average fastball was 86.9mph. You know when you're driving on the highway and you get passed like you aren't moving? That's what this prospect class can do to Buehrle's fastball.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't meant to rip apart Mark Buehrle; just the opposite. Buehrle has had an extremely impressive career. And maybe some would say too impressive for his repertoire, but the facts remain. He's been an All-Star five times. If drafting trends continue, I don't think we'll see anybody else like him for a long time once he retires. You can measure a fastball's speed with one definitive number, and I get that; it's extremely convenient. However, all the kids growing up unable to throw that hard (and, in doing so, saving their UCLs) probably aren't even getting the same chance at the high school level anymore, let alone the college or major-league level.
I hesitate again to say that this draft class in particular spells the extinction of players like Mark Buehrle. After all, Buehrle isn't going anywhere -- yet at least -- and this isn't even close to the first draft class to feature at least 12 antitheses of Buehrle. However, it does seem clear to me that he -- along with pitchers like Jered Weaver -- are being moved toward the 'endangered list.'
Even as metrics grow in popularity, it might not even matter if Buehrle and Weaver continue to succeed at the major league level since their peripherals suggest they're playing above their abilities. For instance, this season Buehrle has generated 0.3 fWAR for the Toronto Blue Jays, yet has a worse-than-pedestrian xFIP of 4.62. This shouldn't be alarming, Buehrle doesn't miss bats all that well and he depends on putting a lot of balls into play. His ability to control tempo and change speeds is, thus far, unquantified. It's a similar story for Weaver, who has 0.6 fWAR and a 4.40 xFIP.
I don't mean to sound alarmist, but it does seem that the Buehrles and the Weavers of the future will have to find another way into Major League Baseball. Honestly, I don't know what it is about Buehrle that seems to actually work, but if it was as simple as dictating pace of game and changing speeds every struggling pitcher would do the same. Similarly, it's hard to ignore the seeming correlation between average pitch velocity and amount of Tommy John surgeries. 18-year old prospect Brady Aiken has already had his ulnar collateral ligament repaired once, while the 35-year old veteran Buehrle never has. I wouldn't stress to make a point out of that -- it is cum hoc ergo propter hoc to do so -- but it's just a plainly easy narrative to address.
Honestly, I wish all of the pitchers in this year's draft class the best of health and success in their future professions. When I see the list above two emotions quickly come over me. First, I feel excited for the future of baseball. Which one on this list could be an absolutely transcendent talent? But then, it quickly fades. How many kids can't light up the radar gun but still deserve a shot in the majors? You can succeed without velocity, but those pitchers aren't getting the same opportunities.
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Michael Bradburn is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mwbii. You can also reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org