Of the pitchers expected to be selected in the first round of this year’s draft, Virginia lefthander Nate Kirby is one of the safer bets to remain a starter as a professional. But despite a clean profile, his limited upside restrains my enthusiasm as we head down the home stretch of the college baseball schedule.
Now that a recent lat strain will likely end his season (barring an unexpected run to the College World Series), this is as good of a time as any for taking stock of his future. I saw Kirby for his first start of the season on Feb. 13 at East Carolina, which drew about 30 talent evaluators despite a game-time temperature that hovered around the freezing point. Scouts were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt in such an unfavorable pitching climate, but he didn’t need it that day, tossing seven shutout innings with a low-90s fastball that touched 94 and a changeup that flashed plus. Since then, he has performed consistently in terms of stuff, but his command has come and gone from start to start, and sometimes from inning to inning.
As a decorated recruit out of high school (who intentionally made himself ineligible for the 2012 draft by not participating in MLB’s required medical and drug programs), Kirby has been on scouts’ radars for years, and since his season is probably over, there’s nothing more he can do to raise his profile. He currently ranks No. 16 in Kiley’s most recent 2015 MLB Draft rankings, which was only 6,124 words and didn’t even include the zodiac-based future makeup grades that everyone was really hoping for.
Kiley’s background with Kirby:
I first saw Kirby last spring in Miami and he was excellent as a solid draft follow, sitting 90-94 mph with a slightly above average slider and changeup and some size and feel from the left side. His velo was down a tick from other outings last spring, including his dominating end to the year and his command came and went, but a lot of elements were there. When I saw him a few weeks ago, it was more of the same, but that becomes disappointing in the harsh light of a draft year when I saw him, once again, just okay after he was excellent early in the season. Kirby sat 91-94 mph in the first with a 55 or 60 slider at 84-86 mph and was locating well.
By the time he integrated his changeup (which was a 55 pitch at times) the second time through the lineup, his command had backed up a bit, his slider was more 50 to 55 at 82-83 mph, it seemed to be bleeding into a softer curveball at 79-81 mph and his velocity slipped to 88-92 mph. This middle and late innings version of Kirby was solid average stuff with fringy command, which is more what he was like in the weeks before he got hurt. There’s some funk to his delivery, but his arm is easy for hitters to follow, so when the stuff is closer to average, bottom of the order college hitters can make hard contact. When he has three above average to plus pitches and average command, he’s a top 5-10 pick, but this version, likely the last scouts see before draft day, is a mid-to-late first rounder when you include the injury uncertainty.
Note: The first game in the video is from Kirby’s 4/10 start at Georgia Tech that I scouted, the second game is the ECU game early this season that Jesse scouted and the third game is a 2014 start at Miami that I scouted. –Kiley
Kirby carries a solid pitcher’s frame that looks denser than his listed height and weight of 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. With a low waist and shoulders that are more sloped than squared, he doesn’t have the athletic, tapered-off build that’s conducive for lean-muscle gain, but there’s still room for adding natural strength. He has fair agility and athleticism with enough looseness to reshape pitching actions as necessary.
Kirby’s fastball typically settles in at 90-92 mph and can reach as high as 95 with solid plane, arm-side run and minimal sink, although he struggles with the pitch’s command at times, which is due to a repeatability issue that I attempt to explain later. His best offspeed pitch is his changeup, which he successfully commanded to both sides of the plate at 84-86 mph in my only look. As a sophomore, the quality of the pitch lagged behind his slider, but that’s no longer the case. Kirby throws it with nearly the same arm speed as his fastball, generating solid tumble and late fade to induce plenty of weak contact and empty swings. It’s his primary weapon against righthanded hitters, but his ability to spot the pitch to his glove side makes it effective against lefthanded hitters as well. Given the frigid conditions at ECU, the feel he showed for the pitch was downright impressive and wheedled a future plus grade out of me.
His biggest weakness is an inability to consistently spin his slider and curveball. Although the slider has flashed above-average in the past, it didn’t bite for him on a regular basis against the Pirates, coming in at 81-84 mph with solid vertical depth but typically lacking the late action it will need to miss the bats of professional hitters. He has similar difficulty with his curveball that ranges between 79-81 mph, as it often takes loopy flights to the plate as a result of not staying on top of it. In my look, he used it more sparingly than the slider and made it clear that it was the pitch he was least comfortable throwing.
Kirby’s a quick worker with a minimal-effort, simple delivery that allows him to maintain velocity deep into later innings. He begins his motion by bending two or three inches at the knees, a timing mechanism that’s a trademark of the Virginia pitching program. He then lowers his glove from his chest to his belt, loading his arm with a slightly bent elbow before arriving at his mid-three-quarters release point. He finishes with stability in his glove-side plant foot, getting good leverage and extension via his long stride toward the plate. There’s some light recoil when he throws his fastball, which is the result of using just a bit more effort than he does for his offspeed pitches.
The aforementioned spotty fastball command can be traced to a mechanical flaw that inhibits repeatability. When he throws his fastball, he strides forcefully – and perhaps too far – down the mound (as compared to when he throws his secondary pitches). In turn, his plant leg stiffens up and “pops” on landing, causing more variance in his release point than a softer landing would allow.
With a solid four-pitch mix, relatively sound delivery and an advanced understanding of the pitching process, Kirby offers as clean of a starter’s profile as you will find in this year’s draft class and – despite the lat strain – seems like a safe bet for the back half of the first round. The lack of premium velocity and a true wipeout pitch cap his upside, but his present stuff and overall polish elevate his floor and should help him move quickly through the low minors. Improving command will be his first action step as a pro, and once that happens, he’ll have a chance to cement himself in the back end of a major league rotation.
Fastball: 50/55, Slider: 40/50+, Curveball: 40/50, Changeup: 50/60, Command: 40/50, FV: 55
One final programming note:
- Virginia’s Josh Sborz – a 6-foot-3, 225-pound righthander who had spent most of his sophomore year in the rotation before transitioning to the closer’s role this season – shut the door in the ninth inning of Kirby’s Feb. 13 start with a 91-93 mph fastball that touched 94 and an 84-86 mph slider that showed above-average potential. He has been a steadying force at the back of the Wahoos’ bullpen all season, tossing 32 innings and allowing just 16 hits with 11 walks, 30 strikeouts for 12 saves and a 2.25 ERA so far. A hopeful team may still believe that his stuff and Ubaldo Jimenez-like delivery will play in a professional rotation, but even for teams who believe he’s a reliever long-term, his talent and track record of performance belong in the 3rd-5th rounds.