The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is a hotbed for athletic talent. It always has been, and it foreseeably always will be. Football gets the headlines, but the talent on the baseball diamond is also as good as it gets in a lot of ways.
Mississippi State righty Eric Cerantola is one of the best arms in a stacked SEC in 2021 and should get plenty of headlines as the July draft approaches.
The Mariners, and Major League Baseball for that matter, are no stranger to SEC arms in the first round.
In 2020, the SEC saw four of it’s pitchers drafted in the first round. Georgia’s Emerson Hancock, Tennessee’s Garrett Crochet, South Carolina’s Carmen Mlodzinski, and Auburn’s Tanner Burns. Hancock, of course, ended up in Seattle as the sixth pick in the draft.
Frankly, 2020 was simply the continuation of a pattern.
Of the 125 college pitchers selected in the first round in the last decade, 35 of them have come out of the SEC. That’s 28 percent. Now, given there’s the ‘Power 5’ conferences, as well as a bevy of mid-major schools pumping out exciting arms, that 28 percent figure should speak volumes to the sheer amount of talent coming out of the SEC.
The Mariners are quite comfortable going the SEC arm route in the first few rounds of just about any draft. The aforementioned Hancock was their top pick in 2020, but going back a few years, you can find plenty more example.
Isaiah Campbell out of Arkansas was their 2nd round pick in 2019. Also in 2019 came Tim Elliot, their 4th round selection out of Georgia. In 2018, Seattle selected Michael Plassmeyer out of Missouri in the 4th round. 2016 saw the Mariners select Thomas Burrows out of Alabama with their 4th round pick. We won’t go too far down the rabbit hole here, but you get the gist.
Cerantola (6-5, 222 pounds) is a tall, imposing right-handed pitcher with an arresting way about him to go with his trademark fiery red hair. He’s got a bit of a mean streak on the mound -- a sublime competitor with the intensity and grit to match what’s under his hat. A native of Oakville, Canada, Cerantola seems to bring that northern hockey self-assertion with him to the bump.
He’s got a track record of success in the SEC with 31.2 innings pitched and eight starts. Certantola tallied 44 strikeouts in his first two years on campus, though he has issued 22 free passes, a bit of a concerning figure. That said, he’s found a way to work himself out of trouble on most occasions, posting a 3.69 ERA over his collegiate career.
Physically, Cerantola has long legs, wide shoulders and a really strong core. He’s added 25 pounds of muscle since arriving to Starkville. You’d never guess it by his size, but Cerantola is a really, really good athlete as is evidenced by him being selected in the eighth round of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft in 2016. This is no small feat as the OHL is a huge pipeline into the NHL.
Mechanically, Cerantola works from a reasonably slow, deliberate wind-up. He repeats his operation fairly well, though his arm slot has had a tendency to waver from time to time. Working from the left side of the rubber, Cerantola has on occasion become a little too dependent on his arm talent and could serve to engage his lower half and core a bit more as he works down the bump. His front shoulder stays closed an awfully long time, forcing his shoulders and hips to separate pretty aggressively as he gets through the baseball, the arm occasionally lagging behind. The arm-slot is a rather high three-quarter action, generally getting a release height around 6-feet-4-inches. He gets pretty average extension down the mound -- around 6-feet-3-inches.
In total, it’s a pretty generic release profile and certainly a far cry from the outlandish profiles of guys like Mason Black and Ryan Cusick written before him.
That said, and I cannot stress this enough, vanilla release profiles are more common than not in the big leagues and there’s certainly not one way to build a good big league pitcher.
Black and Cusick possess low release heights with riding life at the top of the zone and pretty flat (this is a good thing) vertical approach angles. It allows the intersection of the bat and ball to meet within a smaller timing gap and the chances of a ball and bat meeting at perfectly inverse angles is almost impossible.
Wilcox is the exact opposite, and that’s a good thing.
Let’s talk about it.
Tools (Future Value)
Cerantola averaged roughly 93.5 miles per hour on the fastball over the course of 2019 and 2020 at Mississippi State. He hasn’t seen a velo bump over those two seasons, but he has touched 97 in both his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
I’m personally of the opinion some mechanical changes could significantly bump his gas, including speeding up his delivery a little bit and focusing on keeping his weight back in the leg lift stage. Cerantola gets a ton of rotational velocity and arm speed, so the inefficiencies in his delivery could really result in less energy leakage.
On to the pitch itself. There’s a ton of similarities between Certantola and 2020 Georgia Bulldog Cole Wilcox. Now a San Diego Padre, Wilcox received extensive first round grades pre-draft, but slipped due to sign-ability concerns. Like Wilcox, Cerantola gets immense run and sink on his fastball. Also like Wilcox, Cerantola struggles to throw the fastball for strikes. Wilcox issued 40 walks over 81 college innings.
As mentioned in the Cusick/Black scouting reports, one way to go about pitching is a low release with ride up in the zone. The inverse that works against opposing hitters is a high release with lots of sink. That’s Cerantola in a nutshell.
The 9.8 inches of horizontal movement (arm-side run) Cerantola gets exceeds that of Wilcox’s 7.2 inches of run. Wilcox induces 7.9 inches of vertical movement on the baseball (lift). Cerantola beats that figure as well, producing just 7.3 inches of ride. That’s a pretty darn effective sinker.
The biggest key for Cerantola, if this isn’t obvious already, is going to be throwing the pitch for strikes. He’s going to create a lot of ground balls and break a lot of bats. It’s an above average fastball, maybe even plus by definition of stuff, but if the pitch can’t consistently and confidently find the strike zone at the next level, it’s average, maybe even fringy.
Cerantola has an absolute hammer, and spins the ball better than pretty much every arm presently projected in the first round. His breaking ball spins into the zone at over 2700 RPMs on average. 60-grade stuff. Kid can rip it.
Cerantola has always been able to spin it. He’s had a banger curve since arriving on campus. It’s a definitive out-pitch. It’s such a weapon, Cerantola threw it 38 percent of the time this season. Pretty wild for a true 12-6 bender.
On that note, the pitch shape actually improved quite a bit in 2020, losing 3 inches of cut. It really shapes up as a genuine 12-6 breaking ball and those don’t grow on trees.
He also throws the pitch with conviction, maxing out at 84 miles per hour in 2020. It’s a firm, tight breaking ball that gets a ton of swing-and-misses. I’ll be honest, if you tried to convince me if was/is going to be a 70-grade double-plus breaking ball a la Lance McCullers, I’d believe you.
The pitch that doesn’t get nearly enough headlines is Cerantola’s changeup. The pitch data surrounding this off-speed offering is insane. He doesn’t throw it much, and hasn’t quite proven he can consistently throw it for strikes, but when he rips one off, it’s pretty wicked.
Cerantola generates, on average, 10 inches of arm-side fade on his changeup and 2.3 inches of vertical movement. Both of those figures best Duke’s Bryce Jarvis who many considered to have had the best changeup in the 2020 class. He ended up being selected in the first round by the Diamondbacks.
Now, nobody is saying Cerantola’s changeup is better than Jarvis’. It still lacks the consistency to reach that mark, but the potential is without a doubt right in front of him. I’m rather bullish on it, and think it could end up being the best changeup in the class if I’m being quite honest.
Trackman only recorded 17 changeups from Cerantola in 2020. Those pitches averaged 83.7 miles per hour -- 10 miles per hour of separation from the fastball. This quietly might be one of the more unheralded pitches in the class.
With Cerantola it comes down to throwing strikes and logging innings. He’s only started 8 games in his collegiate career -- four his freshman year and four his sophomore year. 2021 is going to be a huge opportunity for Cerantola to stake his claim as one of the best college arms in the class. It wouldn’t shock me to see him be the third pitcher off the board come next July. The stuff is certainly there. Now it’s just a matter of deploying it consistently.