On January 18th I arrived in Greensboro, NC with my sights set and calendar circled for 2/16/18. I was overcome with a bizarre hodgepodge of emotions. Excitement. Relief. Apprehension. After over a year of meticulous planning and big moves on the chess board that is my life, I had finally made it. Setting foot on North Carolina soil was symbolic. It meant opening a new chapter in my life. Years of confused depression and futile, wheel-spinning effort in an unfulfilling, meaningless career had come to an end. It took me 30 years, but I had finally found clairvoyance for what may be the most important question: what do you want to do with your life?
Back to the matter at hand! February 16th was in my sights because it is college baseball’s opening day. Upon arrival here in NC, I started following team-run Twitter accounts for UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, Wake Forest, Duke and UNC Wilmington. I was planning to use my first few weeks to explore the area but learned some teams have preseason scrimmages that are open to the public. Needless to say, I leapt at the opportunity to see some of the best college talent in the nation.
Saturday afternoon I caught UNC’s intrasquad scrimmage. Campus was abuzz with activity as I walked over to Bryson Field. I arrived 45 minutes before the scheduled start time, which was not early enough. There was already a contingent of scouts behind home plate occupying seats with the best views. I found an open seat amongst them and got to work. Pregame the team was working on fielding drills. A coach hit balls to the outfielders who fired them back into the catcher. (Good opportunity for OF arm evals) The 2018 roster was unavailable online so I did my best with the 2017 roster. #11 and #40 had the best arms. Their throws carried on a line with very little arc. Eventually I got their names. #11 is Cody Roberts and #40 is Angel Zarate.
Once the scrimmage started, my attention shifted to the mound. Austin Bergner, a draft-eligible sophomore and possible 2018 first round pick, was the starting pitcher. Bergner has the prototypical pitcher body, listed at 6’4″ 199 lbs. He sat 88-92 and touched 94 with a plus changeup and a curve that flashed average. The low 80s changeup was his best pitch on this day. Its depth was moderate, but I was very impressed with Bergner’s feel for the pitch. He was able to command it to both sides of the plate and use it in any count. Bergner’s curve was sharp at times and at other times it became too slurvy and hung up. His command for this pitch waivered. Mechanically, his delivery looks easy. His balance and posture enable him to repeat consistently. You can read more about balance and posture as defined by Doug Thorburn (Twitter:@doug_thorburn) in these Baseball Prospectus articles – Pitcher Mechanics 1 Pitcher Mechanics 2. Specifically, I am looking at Bergner’s head relative to his center of mass, which is very stable and easy throughout the delivery. Overall, it’s not difficult to see why scouts love this guy. I think his frame can handle a starter’s workload at the highest level, and it’s not hard to envision an arsenal with three average or better pitches.
Tyler Baum’s encore to Austin Bergner did not disappoint. Baum, listed at 6’1″ 171 lbs, was less physically imposing than Bergner, but his stuff was equally impressive. His fastball rested low 90s, touching 93, and Baum was able to maintain velo from the stretch. His high 70s curve snapped with impressive 10-4 break. It was his best pitch. The second time through the order a potentially plus change emerged. Baum only threw two or three of them, but their late movement and depth stood out to me. I am unsure why the pitch was not used more often but speculate it’s due to his lack of confidence in it. Again referencing Doug’s pitching mechanics articles, momentum and torque are the attributes that stand out for Baum. He drifts backs toward second as he approaches maximum leg lift to maintain momentum and propel himself home. With regards to torque, I see quality hip to shoulder separation, which aids his rotational velocity. Also draft-eligible in 2018, the team that drafts Baum will likely be aiming to use him as a starter, but if all else fails his stuff in short bursts should be extremely effective in the pen.
Friday evening I attended NC State’s scrimmage. Juxtaposed to UNC, the atmosphere was pretty quiet and laid back. There were no scouts in attendance (unless you count me – HA!), and there were a handful of family members and classmates in the stands. I was able to arrive early enough to catch BP, which was great.
One observation from BP was Brad Debo’s swing yielded pretty consistent, easy loft. My first impression is he’s a player who will be able to generate power without selling out for it. The bat path combined with his physique should allow for this. Defensively, he moved well for his size (6’1″ 210 lb). He displayed surprising agility and good feet. Debo made a few blocks of varying difficulty in the dirt. I do not put much credence in college statistics but noticed he made zero errors the entire 2017 season according to gopack.com. Definitely a good sign. Debo made two throws in this scrimmage. The first was on a Terrell Tatum stolen base, which was thrown into CF. It’s worth noting, however, the ball passed second base in 1.75 seconds, which would be a 70 grade pop time. The second throw was a 2.01 pop on a line to gun the runner out. Unfortunately, I missed this one with my camera. I thought his framing was good overall, and his movements behind the plate were fluid. There were a couple of instances when he stabbed at the ball with his glove instead of shifting his whole body in front of it. I want to see more of Debo at the plate, but my first impression was good. I think he has a well-rounded skill set and will contribute value on both sides of the ball.
(2/6/18 Edit – After talking to a few people, I think my description of Debo’s defense reads too positive. I still believe he has potential to be an average defensive catcher, and the bat would need to carry his profile.)
The Wolfpack have a couple of freshman who I think will make contributions to their roster in Nick Swiney and Terrell Tatum. The former, a 6’3″ 170 lb left-handed pitcher, touched 90 and sat 86-88. His frame should inspire hope he can add more velocity to his fastball going forward. It looks capable of supporting more weight. His breaking ball, a curveball in the mid 70s, displayed sharp two-plane movement. Swiney’s confidence in the pitch was evident as he wasn’t afraid to use it early in counts. He could also locate it in the zone for a called strike or below the zone deliberately as a chase pitch. It’s his best offering. Mechanically, his momentum and torque are assets and his arm is very quick. The open face shots from the video show some head whack at foot strike, which can often result in command issues. It’s something to keep an eye on.
The latter, a 6′ 160 lb outfielder, showed an interesting collection of tools. I first took notice of his BP in which he was the owner of more raw power than I would have anticipated based on his size. I am dying to get a run time on Tatum who may have 80 grade speed. There is a video floating around online that asserts a 3.75 home to first time, which would be an easy 80. His approach at the plate is very methodical. I am unsure if it’s patient or passive at this juncture. It’s worth noting he laid off a few borderline, two-strike balls in this scrimmage, suggesting he has a good idea of the zone. If I remember correctly, he only swung twice on this day so it’s hard to make any sweeping conclusions on his swing. Defensively, expect him to cover a lot of ground. He made one throw that was not too great either in terms of arm strength or accuracy, although it’s perhaps unfair to make this judgement on a single throw. In summation, there are some interesting tools here and getting more looks of Tatum is on my to-do list.
All and all, I was just happy to have live baseball as an option this early in the year. Day 1 and 2 were a lot of fun. I plan on catching as many practices as possible between now and 2/16. There are two more weekends. Assuming it will be an option every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that would mean six more practices, weather and team-availability permitting. Fingers crossed.