Statistical Diamonds in the Rough

The two of us utilized sourced TrackMan data and the Synergy Sports tool to unearth a few players who stood out to us for one data-driven reason or another. Below are our notes on those players.

Eric’s Players

James Triantos, SS, Madison HS (VA)

Triantos is on tape facing just shy of 350 pitches throughout the course of the summer/fall 2020 showcase season. He puts 70 of them in play and only swings and misses six times. That’s the most extreme BIP-to-Whiff ratio I’ve encountered while perusing players on Synergy. It’s becoming more common for teams to sign high school players to over-slot deals based largely on measurable feel for contact. Nick Yorke (Boston), Thomas Saggese (Texas), Joe Naranjo (Cleveland), and Tyler Freeman (also Cleveland) are examples that come to mind immediately, and there are many others. Triantos is in this sort of player bucket. He’s a below-average athlete and his swing has a non-traditional look, but he has remarkable feel for contact and enough physicality for pro ball. He’s a North Carolina commit, too, so it’s not as though this kid is coming out of absolutely nowhere. Triantos is a bucket strider whose front side flies open during his swing, and he swings with a lot of effort. It’s not a traditional-looking swing and it appears as though Triantos is making some mechanical concessions to swing as hard as he does, but he also has fantastic vertical plate coverage and shows no signs of swing-and-miss issues despite his traditionally unsound in-the-box footwork.

Like Saggese, Triantos makes routine plays at shortstop but he isn’t a superlative athlete, and he doesn’t have all that much room left on a frame that has added a ton of strength between 2019 PG Junior National and the summer of 2020. He also had a private workout at the Rangers’ stadium. Though he is listed as a switch-hitter in some places, Triantos only hit right-handed last summer. I think he’s strictly better than Saggese and more comparable to Yorke. Yorke got $2.7 million, which I thought was excessive, but Triantos feels likely to come off the board fairly early as this type of player is more sought after now than in the past.

Rodney Boone, LHP, UC Santa Barbara

Boone managed to strike out 127 hitters in 98 innings this year while sitting just 86-88. His fastball has huge carry and a flat approach angle that helps it play at the top of the strike zone, and Boone peppers that area with it consistently. Boone also has a bat-missing secondary in his parachute changeup, an odd pitch that seems to float around the strike zone. It doesn’t always have a traditional finish down and to Boone’s arm side and sometimes it finishes high, but it always seems to make hitters uncomfortable. Boone can also land his curveball for a strike. He is very loose, athletic, and competitive, and I think he’s a candidate to add velocity after college because of how fluid and flexible his delivery is.

Kobe Kato, 2B, University of Arizona

Kato hit .360/.460/.469 in 2021, the first collegiate season in which he received a significant amount of playing time. He is sleight of frame at a wispy 6-foot-1, 170 pounds and lacks power right now, but Kato is sinewy, athletic, and swings hard for such a small player. He also has ultra-quick hands and is extremely difficult to beat with fastballs. This is a middle infielder who posted more walks than strikeouts in a big conference and swung and missed just 42 times on tape all year, per Synergy Sports. That’s a measly 4.2% swinging strike rate. Kato also has some experience at catcher, both as a freshman at U of A and in the 2020 Northwoods League. He wasn’t very good back there, but it would make for an interesting experiment if Kato can bulk up quickly after entering pro ball.

Caleb Upshaw, OF, Eastern Kentucky

Upshaw is a very physical power-hitting corner outfielder from Eastern Kentucky. He transferred to EKU from Western Oklahoma State College for the 2020 season, but 2021 was the first extended D-I action he saw. He hit .325/.401/.560. When you isolate his performance against strong, non-conference schools (Louisville, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, etc.) that line reduces to .260/.320/.435, but the sample is only 12 games. He put a ball in play at 115 mph this year, the second-hardest ball in play among the TrackMan data provided to FanGraphs. Small conference players play in front of TrackMan units less frequently than their big conference peers, so it’s possible there’s even more high-end power here that just hasn’t been captured. I like Upshaw as a late Day Two sleeper.

Justin’s Players

Nick Nastrini, RHP, UCLA

In my debut article for FanGraphs, I raved about the elite carry of Jack Leiter’s fastball and how it symbolized his talent. But what if there’s a pitcher who has him beat in that regard? Believe it or not, Nastrini edges out Leiter by around three inches, with similar velocity and an even more optimal spin axis closer to 180 degrees.

The catch with Nastrini is his track record. In his freshman year in 2019, he recorded 17 punch-outs in 10.2 innings before undergoing surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome. He struggled with command to begin 2020 before the season shut down due to the pandemic. He dominated in his first two California Collegiate League outings this year but got injured in May and failed to record an out in his final two outings.

Despite this, there’s a lot to like about Nastrini. Beside the fastball, his changeup flashes plus breaks in both directions, and while the slider and curveball lag behind, they’re still above-average offerings. Along with the four-pitch repertoire, he has a prototypical starter’s build (6-foot-3, 204 lbs.) and a clean, repeatable delivery. That last detail suggests his wavering command is more due to inconsistent release points, which teams could hope to adjust.

It goes without saying that Nastrini’s relief risk is much, much bigger than the average top-round pick (that’s why he’s on this list), but I don’t see a team like the Dodgers or Brewers passing up on 20+ inches of induced vertical break.

Dominic Hamel, RHP, Dallas Baptist University

Like Rodney Boone, Hamel stands out as someone who has produced flat angles useful for pitching up in the zone, but with better extension and velocity (sitting 92–94). On purely a pitch data basis, his fastball is one of the best in this year’s draft class.

The reason Hamel isn’t higher on draft boards may be because of his breaking pitches: a low-80s slider and a curveball thrown at the same speed. They seem acceptable, even great at first glance, but there’s a flaw: Movement-wise, the two are nearly identical. It could explain why batters are whiffing on his curveball but not so much his slider. Given the elite raw spin rates on both offerings (2800+ rpm), a team could strive to convert some of the topspin on Hamel’s slider into sidespin and thus horizontal sweep, creating a contrast between the two pitches. With this simple adjustment, he could have three legitimate pitches.

In sum, Hamel is an analytical darling that I imagine has whatever models teams use sounding alarm bells. His current ceiling is that of a No.4 starter, but it’s a brittle one; the upside is real.

Conor Grady, RHP, Florida State

At a glance, Grady is an underwhelming prospect. His fastball averages around 89–90 mph, and while his changeup and slider pass the eye test, they don’t possess the sort of otherworldly movement that would convince scouts to look over the fastball.

And yet, he gets results. If there’s one pitching metric that can be used in lieu of others, it’s swinging-strike rate. This season, Grady’s changeup and slider returned swinging-strike rates of 28.2% (73 of 259) and 23.1% (84 of 364) respectively. You can count the numbers of D-I pitchers with similar rates on their secondaries on your fingers. Nobody flukes into so many whiffs.

So how does he pull it off? Stuff-wise, his individual pitches don’t stand out, but it’s how they interact that’s crucial. For example, there’s about 17 inches of separation between Grady’s fastball and changeup in terms of vertical break, and it’s a similar story with the slider. Meanwhile, there’s about 17 inches of separation between his changeup and slider in terms of horizontal break. They also have near-identical velocities, so good luck.

Grady struggled to find the strike zone in previous years, which might have eroded his draft stock. But 2021 was his cleanest season yet, as he walked a career-low 19 batters in a career-high 73.1 innings and struck out 99. The term ‘pitchability’ can have a negative connotation, but Grady embodies it in the best of ways. (Video courtesy of Brett Nevitt):

Peyton Wilson, C/2B/OF, University of Alabama

Wilson isn’t a sleeper based on his defense — his positional versatility alone is an attractive option for teams — but rather his offense. Despite possessing sneaky pop and bat-to-ball skills, there have been concerns over whether he will hit at the major league level; a .290/.353/.460 line isn’t exactly glamorous.

There’s a reason to be enthusiastic about the bat, however. Enter batted ball spin, which, unlike the normal pitch spin rate we’re accustomed to, indicates how a ball was struck. It’s easy to see the relationship between batted ball spin rate and pertinent metrics such as exit velocity and launch angle:

The logic here is intuitive: a ball with more backspin will hang in the air for a longer time. At the same time, hard hit balls usually have lower, knuckleball-esque spin, so finding a sweet spot is important. Based on the two plots above, I defined balls in the 1,500–3,000 rpm range as ‘ideal’ ones. Of the 2,858 college hitters I had data on, Wilson produced the most of these batted balls, with 53. Quite the accomplishment! If drafted into an organization that can assist him in developing decent power, he may become a force to reckon with. Per Eric, he tracks as a late second-round pick, and it’s interesting to think he might be a steal.

Brock Wilken, 3B, Wake Forest

The Wake Forest freshman isn’t part of the 2021 draft class, but he’s a reminder that preparation for the 2022 and ’23 drafts begin as soon as this one ends. Seemingly out of nowhere, Wilken launched 17 home runs this season to set a school record for most hit by a freshman. There’s the looming question of whether he can repeat this output, but maybe we should lean optimistic. Eric mentioned that Caleb Upshaw hit the second-hardest ball in play among the TrackMan data we received. But who’s in first place? Here’s the top five from this season, and, well:

Best EVs, 2021 D-I Season
Player Max EV (mph)
Brock Wilken 120.6
Caleb Upshaw 115.3
Carson McCusker 114.8
Ben Fitzgerald 114.7
William Sullivan 114.7
SOURCE: TrackMan

On top is Wilken, and it’s not even close. Misread? Once-in-a-lifetime blip? Perhaps. If instead we looked at hitters’ 95th percentile exit velocities, his 107.6 mph mark would appear less impressive. But he did hit the ball somehow for TrackMan to say, “Yep, it exceeds 120 miles per hour,” and considering his age and fairly tough competition, it’s a feat one can’t ignore. Besides, a quick glance at his swing alone tells us what we need to know. Wilken is initially relaxed at the plate, then uses his lightning quick hands to pummel the incoming pitch. The bat speed on display here (for a grand slam, no less) is ridiculous:





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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Where is Peyton Wilson now? He’s 59 on the old list but based on the last couple of articles suggest that at the minimum some players have been moved around and it hasn’t been updated yet. Just a friendly reminder that you may be referring to things that we haven’t seen yet, and that we would love to see what the updated draft prospect list looks like before the draft.