There have been just three Air Force draftees since 2007, with the most recent coming last year when senior right-hander Ben Yokley was signed by the Cardinals as a 29th-round selection. Now the program is entering unchartered territory thanks to two pitchers in junior left-hander Jake DeVries and junior right-hander Griffin Jax, each of whom will command more scouting attention this spring than any Air Force player of the last decade.
I first wrote about DeVries in October after he flashed some intriguing pitching tools in the Cape Cod League last summer. As I mentioned then, Air Force players have obligations that supersede baseball and make it more complicated for teams to sign them out of the draft. This is particularly the case for players who aren’t seniors, as noted by Brent Briggeman in a piece recently for The Gazette of Colorado Springs. DeVries and Jax, explains Briggeman, basically have three options: they can (a) sign a pro contract and remain at Air Force to graduate while playing baseball on available leave time until the academy grants them a release from active duty, (b) resign from the academy and face two years of active duty as an enlisted airman, or (c) come back for their senior year like Yokley did, sign the contract, and then balance pro ball with combat training.
Briggeman notes that neither DeVries nor Jax has asked out of their commitments, though their performance this spring might change the situation. I’m told that academy leadership doesn’t have a thorough understanding of how the draft process works and may be uncomfortable setting a precedent in letting players out of those commitments. This is obviously a fluid situation, but the takeaway for now is that teams will have to clear administrative hurdles to sign either pitcher away from their senior seasons at the academy.
I got an up-close look at both DeVries and Jax this past weekend when Air Force and Navy squared off in a three-game series known as the Freedom Classic in Kinston, N.C. The video of DeVries is from the first inning of his start on Saturday, and the video of Jax (further down) is from the third inning of his start on Friday.
DeVries has most of the baseline attributes you want to see in starting pitcher prospect. He’s big, throws with little effort, has plus velocity and can spin a breaking ball. The biggest question mark surrounds his ability to throw strikes. Let’s talk about the pros first.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he looks like he’s added at least 10 pounds of muscle since his most recent measurement. It’s a durable, physical build that should hold up against volume, and it’s the type of body that could reach the ideal workhorse weight range of 220-230 pounds. In the first 45 seconds of the video you see a clean, compact arm action that leads to a high three-quarters release point. It’s altogether an easy motion with a little bit of stiffness, though there’s enough rotational athleticism to repeat mechanics. He has powerful hips that remain flexible, which is, in part, thanks to a thorough pre-game stretching regimen that took both him and Jax more than 30 minutes to complete.
Against Navy on Saturday, DeVries worked between 88-92 mph and bumped 93 a couple of times. That’s down from last season, when he sat mostly 90-93 and registered 96 a couple of times late in the spring. Aside from this weekend’s chilly weather that could have depressed his velocity, he’s also rebuilding muscular endurance after not having thrown regularly in the offseason. Occasional sinking life and arm-side run induced a few empty swings within the strike zone, though the movement comes and goes. When he keeps the heater down, it arrives on a downhill plane and creates a tough angle for right-handed hitters, which may prevent scouts from turning him in as a reliever.
The stuff this weekend was pretty much how it was described by the scout with whom I spoke in October. His primary offspeed pitch is a 74-78 mph curveball that flashes 55, of which there’s a good example at the 1:37 mark in the video. But there’s a long way to go before it plays to that potential, as it often missed the zone and started looping after 30 pitches. He broke out an 82-83 mph changeup after a couple times through the order, when, in the third inning, he threw two in a row to his arm side that dove with modesty and caught a right-handed batter looking for a strikeout. He offers the pitch from a release point that’s slightly lower than his fastball slot, but fixing that could make it play to average.
Going forward, DeVries will have to prove that he can throw enough strikes, which has been a problem for him ever since he arrived at the academy. As a sophomore last year, he issued 54 walks in 84.2 innings, but with that came 80 punchouts. That same effective wildness has been on display in his first two starts of the year, which have amounted to the following line: 9 IP, 5 H, 5 ER, 8 BB, 8 SO. Behind these command struggles are two main culprits, depicted here in this freeze frame:
The first problem is arm drag. His arm is usually not in sync with his lower half, as his glove-side leg plants well before the arm begins approaching a high-cocked position. Since his hips are closed as he’s striding down the mound, the torque he generates by opening them causes his arm to whip forward, frequently leading to arm-side misses. The second problem is that he disrupts his line of sight by raising his glove-side arm high enough to the point where he must look over it to see the catcher, if he can see him at all. He’s basically forcing himself to retrain his eyes to the target in the middle of his delivery.
DeVries has some basic pre-requisites of a back-end starter, but poor control and the long developmental timeline he’ll need cause the strengths to play down, making reliever the most likely outcome. On talent alone he belongs in the top five rounds, though the aforementioned signability concerns will push him off teams’ radars until the later rounds, or perhaps entirely. There’s something there, but it’s a project that will require a lot of elbow grease to convert into a major league asset.
Fastball: 45/55 Curveball: 35/50 Changeup: 35/45 Command: 30/40
Jax is an athletic right-hander who likewise didn’t have his best velocity against the Midshipmen last weekend, but showed some projectable attributes and feel to pitch. His fastball ranged between 86-92 and topped out at 93, though it can reach into the mid-90s. He has average command that occasionally forsakes him within the strike zone and leads to elevated fastballs, which can be a problem since the pitch doesn’t have much life. He also mixes in a 78-82 curveball with 11-to-5 break that flashes above average, as well as a rudimentary low-80s changeup.
Listed at 6-foot-2, 195, he has a lithe, physically projectable frame that has room for 15 pounds of muscle. It’s a free and fluid motion with a circular arm path that includes some length in his takeaway. There’s also a power element to his delivery thanks to the leverage he gets with a back-leg collapse, though that same feature diminishes his fastball plane. The motion is summarily easy and repeatable, which helped him maintain low-90s velocity through the seventh inning.
Jax has enough command and the kind of delivery that can play in a rotation, but the lack of fastball movement and angle make it very hittable if he misses his spot, and the changeup has a long way to go. It’s basically two pitches that you hope play up in relief with added strength and velocity. He’s a top-five-rounds talent like DeVries, offering a lower ceiling but fewer developmental challenges, which arguably makes him the better prospect.
Other follows from this series:
- Navy left-hander Luke Gillingham opposed Jax Friday night and turned in a masterful performance, striking out 13 Falcons in seven innings. He never got above 86 mph and only scrapes the high-80s on warmer days, but he wins by changing eye levels with plus fastball command. He also mixes in a sweepy hook in the low-70s as well as a decent changeup to keep hitters off balance. Normally you don’t consider a guy who can’t break 90 as a draft follow, but he’s a strikeout machine, whiffing 111 batters and walking 14 in 83.1 innings last year. In two starts this year, he’s tallied 21 strikeouts and just one walk in 13 frames. Even though you can’t project his stuff beyond average, his aptitude for pitching is so exceptional that, if he can add a couple of ticks through the right training program, then you have something. Gillingham is more than a cheap senior sign.
- Senior Navy outfielder Sean Trent, like Gillingham, is putting together an impressive track record of performance after slashing .407/.446/.524 as a sophomore last year, which earned him the distinction of 2015 Patriot League Player of the Year. He’s got a decent hand path that produces frequent contact and gap power, good tracking ability – particularly on low pitches – and enough bat speed that he wouldn’t have a problem advancing through the low minors. The hang-up is that he’s limited to a corner-outfield spot, where you’re asking him to do more than he’s capable of with the bat.