Happy Draft Day, everyone!
No, the MLB’s first-year player draft doesn’t get the same amount of coverage as the NFL or NBA (or maybe even the NHL.) And despite the fact that baseball is my favorite sport of the four, I can understand why. The draft lasts an eye-popping 40 rounds over three days. It has many complex rules involving high school bonuses, money pools, draft slots, etc. And, based on the amount of players playing professional baseball, the average fan isn’t likely to hear many draftees names every again.
However, there are still reasons to pay attention to the MLB draft, specifically if you’re big into college baseball, or Mizzou sports in general. The Tigers had six seniors on this year’s roster along with 16 other draft-eligible players on the roster. Of course, not all of them will be picked. But there’s an outside chance that Mizzou will be losing close to 9 or 10 players from the team that barely missed the NCAA Tournament this past season. This isn’t the time to talk about future impacts, though.
Instead, we’re going to check on past Mizzou Tigers who were chosen in the first-year players’ draft, specifically in the past few years. I’ll run through where each player is stationed before giving you a summary of how they’re doing this year, how it relates to their professional career and what their outlook is based on their performance so far.
For reference, it’s helpful to know the order and overview of minor league levels. Starting from the bottom. If you’re already aware of these levels, feel free to skip ahead:
- Rookie Ball: Where young players can acclimate to the lifestyle of a professional ballplayer while also adjusting to a higher level of competition. Usually full of recent draft picks, international signees, and very young players.
- Class A (Short and Full Season): The first real full-season leagues that mark the step into professional baseball. This is usually where less developed prospects and high school draftees go once they prove they’re ready to advance from Rookie.
- Class A - Advanced: Another level that sits below the big boy levels of the minor leagues, but is reserved for more developed players. College seniors will often jump to these leagues out of the draft.
- Double A: This is where the major prospects, especially with a chance to make the majors, break through. Pitchers and hitters can’t rest on pure talent anymore and have to develop the skills that will get them a shot at the bigs.
- Triple A: The highest level of the minor leagues that is often reserved for swing major-league players and prospects used in depth situations. Not every player in Triple A makes it in the majors, but many have experience or are good enough to be right on the cusp of promotion.
Tanner Houck: First Round, Pick 24 (2017)
Where he’s at: Salem Red Sox (Class A: Advanced, Carolina League)
What’s he doing: Let me start off by saying I’m not ready to give up on my bold Tanner Houck take from two years ago. But... I mean, it’s not looking good right now. Max Scherzer is on an unholy tear in his early 30’s and is starting to make a Hall of Fame case. He still needs some time, but still.
Houck has a lot of time to fulfill his potential. He’s only 21 and is already pitching in Advanced A ball. But he’s clearly hit a wall in his development. Houck is currently running a 6.04 earned run average and averaging 4.2 innings per start. That’s not what you’re looking for from a first round pick with eyes on being a future ace.
So what’s the problem? Mainly, Houck’s impeccable control in college has disappeared this year. In 44.2 innings, Houck has actually walked more batters than he’s struck out - 33 to 32, respectively. The inconsistency is also likely playing into the fact that he’s getting hammered by opposing hitters: .283 opponent’s batting average (yes, that’s high), with seven home runs allowed and a nearly even groundout to air out ratio.
But there’s some context to these control issues as well. The Boston Globe reported earlier this month that the Red Sox have had Houck mix up his pitch arsenal, focusing more on a four-seam fastball to go with the mean two-seamer he used at Mizzou. Houck also apparently has made some mechanical adjustments to rework his slider. Click that link to read more. It’s quite a good story.
So am I worried about Houck? Not really. You’d always rather a pitcher be doing well than poorly. But if Houck and the Red Sox believe adjustments will make him a more successful pitcher down the road, than so be it. Houck did need to make some adjustments to set himself up for success as a starter down the road. He’s doing at 21, so he’s got plenty of time to adjust and get back on the correct path.
Ryan Howard: Fifth Round, Pick 155 (2016)
Where he’s at: Richmond Flying Squirrels (Double-A, Eastern League)
What’s he doing: If you’d have told me Ryan Howard would be the quickest riser from the past few years of Mizzou baseball draftees, I’d have thought you were either a bit optimistic or one of Howard’s family members. But he’s been on an up-up-up trajectory ever since hitting the pros. He’s already reached Double A ball at the young age of 23. He also showed up at #22 on MLB.com’s list of the Top 30 prospects in the Giants system.
Howard has made a living with his contact ability so far and is drawing a lot of comparisons to former Giant (and current Ray) infielder Matt Duffy. Duffy put up a 4.4 fWAR season in 2015, so that’s not a bad comp to be getting if you’re Howard. He had a hot start to the year, slashing .314/.363/.422 as of May 7. However, he’s come back to earth a little bit since then, now slashing .277/.330/.387. I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about with Howard, though. He’s playing above his age level in Double A, and he’s been nothing but successful so far. He was likely to hit a wall at some point, and to hit it at this age and this level, he’s already set himself ahead of the curve.
Among this group, I think Howard has the best chance at having a long career in the majors (aside from Houck). As long he adjusts to the better pitching at Double A, he’ll be able to carve out a niche as a utility infielder or - if he hits his ceiling - as a starting middle infielder.
Reggie McClain: 13th Round, Pick 387 (2016)
Where he’s at: Modesto Nuts (Class A: Advanced, California League)
What’s he doing: McClain has actually had a pretty successful minor league career in just about two full seasons of pro ball. He’s running a close to 28 percent strikeout rate and low walk rate of around 6 percent in Modesto right now. However, his ERA is also bloated above 5 and he’s been a bit home run prone so far this year.
Even at Missouri McClain didn’t have overpowering stuff, but he’s clearly keeping it under control in the minors. If he stays on this track he should get a promotion to Double or Triple A by next year. And at 25, he’s closing in on the average MLB rookie age. A promotion soon would greatly benefit his chances of reaching the majors.
Breckin Williams: Fourth Round, Pick 106 (2015)
Where he’s at: Kane County Cougars (Class A, Midwest League)
What’s he doing: I had to do more work on Williams than anyone else, just because his career has been so strange thus far. The former Mizzou closer missed all of 2016 with an injury that seemingly went unreported and I only found out about because I advance searched his Twitter account. I have no idea what it was that kept him out, but he’s back. And so far, things haven’t been going too well.
Minor league numbers are harder to track down, so based on what I could find, Williams appears to still have punch out ability - his strikeout rate is hovering around 36 percent, which is absurd. However, his walk rate is also high at around 15 percent, and he’s carrying a 5.70 ERA.
Without the benefit of predictive metrics it’s hard to say how well Williams has actually done this year. But based on his available numbers, I’d say he’s probably battling some shaky command that’s allowing him to fool a lot of hitters, but also give up a lot of hard contact. He’s only at Class A and he’s 24, so he's got a ways to go. That’s not to say he won’t make it to the show at some point, but he’s got a long road ahead.
Brett Graves: Third Round, Pick 101 (2013)
Where he’s at: Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Double-A, Southern League)
What’s he doing: Graves started the year bound for the Miami Marlins major league roster after they took him from Oakland in the Rule 5 draft. Those rules dictate Graves must stay on Miami’s major league roster or he’ll go back to Oakland. However, Graves suffered an oblique strain in spring training and was placed on the 60-day disabled list.
Graves is in the middle of his rehab assignment, and has made four starts in the minors. He’s been somewhat shaky so far, giving up 10 earned runs in 14 innings. He’s been pretty wild as well, hitting three batters and walking four more. But his last start on June 1 went well. He pitched three innings with no runs and three strikeouts to just one walk.
No matter what he does in the minors, he’ll have a shot to show he’s big league material once he heals up, assuming the Marlins keep him around. At 25 years old, he’s nearing the age (around 26) when most prospects get their big break. So we’re due to find out shortly how the former Tiger ace’s MLB career will play out.