A Dispatch from the Driveline Pro-Day

In January, the two of us (along with Managing Editor Meg Rowley) had the opportunity to attend Driveline Baseball’s Pro Day in Kent, Washington. We were itching to get out of the house and watch baseball in some form, even if it was just to see dudes in shorts throw live batting practice. But because Driveline is as much a laboratory as it is a training facility, it was unlike any player workout or showcase we’ve been to, and we want to share our experience with readers.

We realize, though, that readers may require some context for the day, as they may not have a great idea of what a “normal” scouting showcase entails. So we’re going to talk about that and then about how Driveline’s pro day was different, touching on the pros and cons of each format along the way.

Finally, we’re going to talk about some of the players we saw, but with a little twist. Dozens of scouts were in attendance for the pro day, and one of Driveline’s stated goals for the event was to make things as easy for them as possible. They circulated a ton of information to aid with player evaluation (more on that shortly), and included us on the distribution list. Kiley, who spent a lot of time during the event schmoozing with baseball folks, was handed the data and asked to provide a preference list of pitchers from the pro day based solely on these numbers. Conversely, Eric sat fidgeting in a chair behind home plate while everyone threw, and took notes by hand. He was not allowed to look at the data, and was required to compile his pref list like our forefathers did, based only on his eyeball evaluations.

A bit of background on player workouts. Most in-person scouting is done during some kind of live baseball game, be it your run-of-the-mill minor league game somewhere in middle America, or a college game on a Friday night. But there are several scenarios where scouting occurs outside of this context. A player might throw a bullpen session for scouts while attempting some kind of comeback, or pro players might participate in a backfield simulated game, where there are no stakes and coaches create artificial scenarios to simulate and instruct players on procedure during certain game situations. Sometimes sim games don’t even utilize an actual pitcher. Scouts are often at these sorts of events, too, trying to learn whatever they can about an individual player’s talent, or get injury updates or pitching probables for the week.

The most common type of workout though, is the kind of showcase one would see for high schoolers or international amateurs. International amateur showcases typically include traditional batting practice for the hitters, outfielders throwing to the various bases, infielders fielding a standard directional sequence of ground balls and throwing to first base, catchers showcasing half a dozen pop times, and everyone running the 60-yard dash. At big events, there are usually a few games after this. At workouts at an individual trainer’s academy, or for free agent hitters, there generally aren’t enough players for that.

At Driveline, some pitchers threw bullpens, but the entire session was being recorded by a TrackMan unit and a Rapsodo camera and radar monitor. In addition to measuring velocity like a handheld radar gun would, TrackMan and Rapsodo measure all sorts of other stuff that teams have found to correlate with pitching success, or that can be used as a player development tool to provide immediate feedback to the player or a coach, which means players can make adjustments in real-time.

After a few pitchers threw unopposed bullpens, the hitters training at Driveline took their version of batting practice against a high-speed pitching machine that was spitting out balls at about 88 mph, at times with cutting action. This is much different than a middle-aged man in a form-fitting baseball uniform chucking balls at hitters from behind a screen at the base of a mound. The logic behind this alteration is that hitters don’t see pitches as slow as traditional BP lobs are in games, and training in a way that replicates in-game conditions more closely will better prepare them. This makes sense, but scouts we spoke with after the event indicated they left with almost no feel for the hitters.

Driveline is limited because their facility is indoors, and while a HitTrax machine helped depict the flight path of batted balls when the hitters faced live pitching later in the day, the number of opportunities they had to really square balls up and show scouts raw power in the way scouts are used to were limited. Onlookers left Kent with more considered opinions on the size of Daniel Comstock’s butt than they did anything else about the hitters, who they also didn’t see run or field.

After hitters got loose against the pitching machine, the rest of the pitchers took turns warming up and facing live hitting, with every piece of technology in the room switched on. Usually a rowdy environment, several of the players and staff commented on the quiet in the building that day, at least before Eric Sim arrived. That’s not to say that it was boring. The event had good pace and energy despite the early silence and the stakes — a potential pro contract if you impressed the right person — were high.

Having set the scene, we’ll turn to our individual pref lists. We’d first like to acknowledge all the athletes who participated in the event, and the work they did to get there. We were made to understand that those who were chosen to throw and hit had to clear a certain talent and work bar, and we believe everyone there has the talent to play highly competitive baseball at some level, professionally or otherwise.

We’ve omitted Albertus Barber and Seth Baugh from these rankings because both players are draft eligible, rather than allowed to sign a pro contract. They’ll be on the 2019 Draft section of The Board before June. We’ve also omitted left-handed pitcher Luke Heimlich, who has been training at Driveline since high school and who, according to Driveline, threw during the event at the request of “a few teams.” Prior to the event, Driveline sent out a roster of scouts and media members expected to be in attendance, and the highest ranking individual on the list was Royals Pro Scouting Director Gene Watson, though none of us saw Watson at the facility and we’re unsure whether he was there. The Royals are the lone team to have an employee (General Manager Dayton Moore) express interest in Heimlich, who pleaded guilty to child molestation as a minor.

Eric’s Eyeball-Based Pref List
1. Tyler Matzek, LHP (28)
2. Robert Robbins, RHP (24)
3. Kevin Kelleher, RHP (25)
4. Luke Hagerty, LHP (37)
5. Lance Simpson, RHP (22)
6. Arturo Reyes, RHP (26)
7. Karsen Lindell, RHP (22)
8. Joe Beimel, LHP (42)
9. Daniel Moskos, LHP (32)

I thought Matzek threw some plus-plus sliders and had enough feel for locating his two breaking balls (I put a 50 on his curveball) that I was less worried about his fastball command. He was a scattershot 89-92 and has had issues locating his heater near the zone in the past, but he’ll be allowed to work more heavily off his breaking stuff now than he was as a prospect because that style of pitching is more widely accepted. He could help a team in a relief role.

Robbins was 92-95 and threw several plus changeups in the mid-80s. They had bat-missing action down-and-in on righties. Hitters were taking big, confident hacks throughout the day but looked most uncomfortable and tentative against Robbins, especially against his slider, which I thought was average in a vacuum.

Hagerty had been out of baseball longer than I’ve been in it and it’s amazing that he’s throwing this hard. He was up to 98 for me and threw a few plus breaking balls, but also sent some pitches into the screen. There’s risk he’s wild like he was when he was in pro ball a decade ago, but I’ll take that fastball. I thought Simpson had a solid four-pitch mix. He was up to 93, his fastball had some tail, I liked the depth of the repertoire, which I thought was mostly average, and he’s one of the younger arm who threw. Kelleher had arguably the best two-pitch mix there as he was up to 96 and had a tight slider with bat-missing, vertical depth. I was put off by how violent his delivery is and didn’t think he had feel for locating the slider in places that were enticing to a hitter. Reyes was also 91-93 with a bunch of 50s, but I thought his fastball’s angle was more hittable, and his age rounded up (he’ll be 27 in April) put him beneath Simpson.

When I saw Karsen Lindell in high school, he was throwing 86-88; now he’s 92-95. He threw some 50 breakers but they were less consistent than Reyes’ or Simpson’s. Beimel was up to 93 and lived right on the edge of the plate to his glove side for almost his entire session. His secondary stuff is fringy but there were some 50 sliders in there, which are fine if you’re locating them, and Beimel was. He is in incredible shape for 42. Moskos had similarly consistent command but he worked down, at or below the knees, with a two seamer. I put 45s on his two-seamer, cutter, and curveball.

Kiley’s Data-Driven Pref List
1. Kevin Kelleher, RHP (25)
2. Tyler Matzek, LHP (28)
3. Karsen Lindell, RHP (22)
4. Arturo Reyes, RHP (26)
5. Luke Hagerty, LHP (37)
6. Robert Robbins, RHP (24)
7. Lance Simpson, RHP (22)
8. Jackson Sigman, RHP (23)
9. Tyler Gillies, RHP (23)

For this pref list, I considered only the TrackMan data from the event, the pitchers’ ages, and their previous stat lines. I’ve disregarded anything I know about them from watching them in a scouting context, which was easy to do when it came to this event because I was at a terrible angle to grade pitches.

Kelleher’s fastball has plus velocity (95.7 average, 96.8 peak), plus-plus rise, and good plane, and he threw 18 of 22 of them for strikes, while operating up in the zone where his heater plays best. His slider averages 3070 rpms, which is about as high as that measure goes (Blue Jays righty Trent Thornton has the highest average breaking ball spin rate among prospects we’ve covered this offseason), and threw 5 of his 7 sliders for strikes. Both pitches grade out as a 60 by use of the rough metric I’ve created using TrackMan, and while it wasn’t a long look, Kelleher’s control would also be plus (I won’t try to grade command on just a couple dozen pitches). Kelleher has essentially no affiliated pro experience, and he’s 25, but there’s a lot of stuff to work with here.

Matzek graded out with a solid-average fastball, slider, curveball, and strike-throwing rate. Given his past struggles with strikes and his major league experience, he seems like a nice gamble to be an upper minors contributor at least. From this very limiting view of this limited event, he and Kelleher both seem to have big league potential.

Lindell had a plus fastball, average slider, below changeup, and threw strikes, so there’s a nice fit as a reliever at the lower levels given his age. Reyes is older but has Triple-A experience and his fastball/curveball combo is fringe-to-average, but his slider graded as plus.

Hagerty’s heater topped at 98.5 and his curveball was about average, but he’s 37, had below strike-throwing at the event, and his career initially fell apart due to the yips, so I’m not optimistic he gets a long big league look. Robbins performed well, threw strikes, and has an above average fastball, but the off-speed stuff didn’t grade out as well. Simpson flashed an average fastball/slider/changeup combo, but the control was lacking. Sigman throws from a low slot, had an average slider, and a good strike-throwing rate, so I rounded up on the fastball grade since the slot excuses the lesser velo (89.7 mph average). Gillies has an average fastball/slider combo and threw strikes with the heater.

Of the pitchers on our preference lists, Hagerty, Kelleher, Matzek, Reyes, and Robbins signed minor league deals following the event, while Simpson was invited to try out for a club. David Carpenter and Sam Selman, who also threw that day, signed MiLB deals as well.

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5 years ago

This was cool