In case you missed it because Deadgar Weekend made you want to crawl in a hole that’s never heard of baseball (yes), the Perfect Game All-American Classic was held last Sunday. If you’re wondering why certain high school talents become well-known names leading up to the draft, it’s partly because the vast majority of them will have played in this game, a clearinghouse of what is considered to be the top high school talent in the country who will graduate next year and become draft-eligible. In 2013, Alex Jackson and Gareth Morgan both participated and were drafted the following spring by the Mariners. The list of players who have participated in the Classic is star-studded: Buster Posey, Carlos Correa, Andrew McCutcheon, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, Jose Fernandez, Madison Bumgarner, and too many others to list. There are nine number one overall picks and four MLB MVPs among the alumni. I watched the game and picked out a few talents who I think are intriguing and might be worth putting on your radar. (It me, person still bitter the Mariners didn’t draft Jack Flaherty.)
I skipped over all the pre-game stuff to see if the same players who impressed me would be the names who were highlighted. Spoiler alert: mostly they were. It turns out when you are a huge dude like Kumar Rocker who throws 98 at 17 years old, the talent is easy to spot. Obviously, it’s hard to project teenagers, and especially pitching prospect teenagers (for every Madison Bumgarner is a Brady Aiken), but the PG track record speaks for itself. If you want to watch the game for yourself, you can stream it either at PG’s website or on YouTube—which I preferred, as it allows for a full-screen option.
The arms dominated this game, particularly the ones for the West, whose pitching staff shut out the East. Some names to know:
Kumar Rocker - As mentioned above, Rocker is biiiiig; listed as 6’4/250, he has a stocky, Thyago Vieira-esque lower half that allows him to throw 98 with seemingly no effort. His arm action is easy and clean, and he pairs the big fastball with a slider around 85. Both pitches have a lot of good movement on them—his fastball, especially, has plenty of armside run—and he also throws a heavy curve and a developing changeup. Rocker is committed to Vanderbilt along with some of the other top Georgia prospects this year (like Will Banfield and Ethan Hankins, more on them later). He’s a high-character kid, too, and is the winner of this year’s Perfect Game Jackie Robinson Award, last won by top draft pick Hunter Greene.
Matthew Liberatore - The 6’5” lefty’s fastball “only” sits at 90-93, but he pairs it with a 70-72 mph curve with a big, sharp 11-5 break that’s one of the better ones I saw. He also throws a fading changeup that he can bury at the feet of right-handed batters. More importantly, he can command all of his pitches, moving them all over the plate at will. Throwing out of a 3⁄4 slot, Liberatore flashes quick arm action and keeps batters off-balance. He may not light up the gun as much as some of his teammates, but Liberatore is one of the more polished arms in this class. He’s committed to Arizona, so even if he’s not snatched up by a team in next year’s draft, Pac-12 fans should have the opportunity to watch him work.
Ethan Hankins - Outside of Rocker, Hankins is probably the most buzzed-about arm in this class. The 6’6” righty hit 97 in the game thanks to his long-limbed, whip-like arm action, and will generally sit 94-97. Even with this big velocity though, Hankins’ motion, coming from a 3⁄4 slot, is clean and easy, and he’s able to command the pitch to both sides of the plate. He’s working on developing more spin on his high-70s curve to get even more bite on it. Hankins is a smart kid who thinks hard about his craft; check out the little Kuma-esque leg kick he throws into his delivery to disrupt a hitter’s timing:
Love the way Ethan Hankins plays with his delivery — while working 94-97. pic.twitter.com/dVPFC3xWoJ— Michael Lananna (@mlananna) August 16, 2017
Carter Stewart - In my opinion, no one had a bigger coming-out party at this game than Carter Stewart. The 6’6” righty is far from the hardest thrower, with a fastball that sits around 92, but he does have one standout skill: his incredible spin rate. Stewart’s breaking ball has been recorded at around 3400 rpm—the highest in baseball, at any level, anywhere. The drop on his curveball is flat-out filthy; a pitch that starts at a batter’s chin will drop to his knees. A competitor, Stewart takes a fiendish joy in generating such ugly swings. “They weren’t even close,” he chortled gleefully to a reporter asking about how he got batters swinging over the top of his pitches. And he should take pride in it:
Carter Stewart's curveball is ridiculous. He averages 3300 RPMs. Up to 3500. It's unhittable at 78-79 mph. pic.twitter.com/mI8sM64zGu— Michael Lananna (@mlananna) August 16, 2017
Mike Vasil - Vasil might not be one of the marquee names in a class loaded with pitching talent, but the 6’4”/205 righty impressed me with his low-effort, repeatable delivery, clean mechanics, and easy arm action. Vasil has a fastball that sits between 92-94 and shows good rise, and a 10-4 curve he can spot all over the plate, and well as a good sinking changeup.
As is the case with pitchers at this level, Vasil is a first baseman, as well, with a promising bat. But the two-way player who impressed me the most was Seth Halvorsen. Halvorsen can play both infield (SS) and outfield thanks to plus-arm strength, and has a pretty swing with gap-to-gap power. On the mound, he features a clean, repeatable delivery and shows good mound presence. He showed an ability to command all three of his pitches: a fastball that hit 95, a slider around 80, and a good, sharp curve. He’s committed to Mizzou.
Brice Turang - If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with Turang, who is maybe the most highly regarded position player in this class. Or perhaps you recognize his dad, Brian, who played all two years of his brief MLB career with the Seattle Mariners from 1992-1993. The younger Turang is a 6’1” shortstop who will most likely be able to stick at the position thanks to his silky-smooth defense there; he shows great range, solid arm strength, and good instincts. At the plate, he shows plus bat speed and a smooth swing; moreover, he flat-out refuses to strike out, and profiles as a good leadoff hitter thanks to his elite contact skills.
Nolan Gorman - Nolan Gorman does not hit like a guy named Nolan Gorman sounds like he would hit. You might recognize him, actually, as the winner of the HS Home Run Derby held during the All-Star Break, in which he defeated Noah Naylor (more on him later). This kid just mashes. He’s not just a slugger, though; Gorman’s approach at the plate is advanced. As a LHB, he knows how to keep himself closed to left-handed pitchers and fight his way through what should be a disadvantage. Just watch this footage of him practicing for the HR Derby; power isn’t even my favorite tool but this kid’s swing is a thing of beauty.
Jarred Kelenic - Kelenic is my pet of this class. He is the king of tools: he can steal bases, flashing plus speed, and he has a cannon for an arm. He can hit, with good, quick hands and a sweet left-handed swing, and held his own with a smart AB against the terrifying Kumar Rocker. His speed helps him in the outfield, too, where he made probably the best catch of the day:
He’s also a genuinely nice-seeming, humble kid from Wisconsin whose sweet, affable personality really came through in his pre-game interviews. He won the “Fearless Player” award at the PG luncheon.
The two other position players I’ll mention are both backstops: Will Banfield and Noah Naylor. Banfield is the better defensive catcher, with an advanced awareness of the position and an incredible pop time. He has good soft hands and is the regular catcher for the flame-throwing Kumar Rocker (the two are on a travel team together, along with Hankins, and if all three actually make it to Vandy that squad is going to be a nightmare), and is able to receive and frame everything from hard-thrown fastballs to big, breaking curves. This isn’t to say Naylor is a poor defensive catcher: in fact, Naylor had more of an opportunity to show out at the Classic, nailing runners attempting to steal and showing off his big arm and quick release. While he doesn’t have the elite pop time of some of the other catchers in this class, he’s still right up there, and he’s especially flexible behind the plate, able to use his bigger body to block off-target pitches and always showing good field awareness. What’s really exciting about Naylor is his big power bat; the brother of power-hitting Canadian slugger Josh Naylor, Noah has a similar, but more athletic, build. After a pretty thin catching crop in last year’s draft, it’s not hard to see teams salivating over Banfield or Naylor next spring.
One more quick mention to Blaze Alexander, a shortstop prospect who has the biggest infield arm, breaking Carlos Correa’s record with a throw clocked at 99 mph. Blaze, whose name I’m trying really hard to take seriously, has some local ties despite being a Florida product committed to South Carolina: he’s trained with Scott Vogelbach, brother of our own Daniel, and is also a Driveline kid.
There are a bunch of kids I left out just because this is already so long. It costs nothing to watch the game so I highly recommend doing so if you want a glimpse of some of the talent coming our way over the next few years. Also, watch the showcase/interview stuff, if you can. When I was seventeen I was basically an amoeba with feet and these kids are out there giving interviews and perfecting their crafts and doing charity work. They really are extraordinary young men and this class, in particular, feels like a good one.