The 2020 MLB Draft was chockfull of college arms. It’s a narrative that has been beaten to death. If you were an organization in the market for advanced, projectable, high-floor/ceiling pitching, the 2020 class tickled your fancy.
Enter the 2021 class.
Sure, at the top, Kumar Rocker, Jack Leiter and Jaden Hill are going to grab the headlines. They’ve got the stuff, the track record, and in some cases, the sheer fame to buoy their prospect status.
But after those three, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. You’ll find a lot of guys throwing 90-91 with pretty vanilla pitch data and spotty performances over their collegiate careers. Sure, there’s plenty of your status quo, conventional-darling 6-foot-4, 220 pounds hurlers, but in today’s game, size isn’t what it used to be. Big league organizations have models they draft by. Teams want to see how a pitcher extends down the mound. Teams want to see lower release points to flatten out their fastball’s vertical approach angle. Sinker-Slider guys are no longer the bread and butter. Baseball is changing.
Let me introduce you to Wake Forest righty Ryan Cusick.
A 40th round selection by the Cincinnati Reds in 2018, Cusick ranked the 115th best high school prospect by Perfect Game his senior year of high school. While overshadowed a bit nationally, Cusick was the second ranked right-handed pitcher out of Massachusetts that year, trailing only Mike Vasil, a reasonably famous arm coming out of the class. At that point, Cusick was largely 90-92 and lacked the secondary offerings to garner heavy pro interest. His operation wasn’t consistent, and his mechanics were still being developed. That has since changed...
At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, this Demon Deacon already fits the prototype thrower discussed above. He’s “built like ya like em” as they’d say. In 22.1 innings this shortened season, Cusick punched out 43 batters, but did walk 18 along the way. He pitched to a 3.22 ERA which speaks to his ability to get batters out after the free passes were issued.
Fast-forward to the Coastal Plain League wood bat circuit this summer and Cusick seems to have potentially turned a corner. In 23.2 innings pitching for High-Point Thomasville, Cusick walked just 9 batters, again punching out an inordinate 40 hitters along the way. He’d allow just 3 earned runs all summer to the tune of a 1.14 ERA.
Every year, guys pop in the run-up to their draft eligible campaign. Last year it was guys like Bryce Jarvis and Jared Shuster and Bobby Miller. This year it’s Ryan Cusick.
Cusick’s fastball is far and away his best offering and there’s definitive reason to believe it’s a double-plus 70-grade pitch right now.
In 2020, Cusick threw his heater 75 percent of the time last season and for good reason. Averaging north of 94 mph hour and touching 98 (99 in bullpens), it’s clearly a high-octane offering. Cusick has been up to 100 this season, touching 98 and 99 a huge handful of times. At 2400 rpms with good spin efficiency, the pitch gets some ride, jumping on batters with 8.5 inches of vMov. It’s also got some run to it up in the zone.
Beyond the velocity, what about Cusick’s repertoire makes him so appealing to Jerry Dipoto, Scott Hunter and the Seattle Mariners? Well, he’s a high-extension guy with an impressive release height.
Quick segue: The Mariners model for drafting pitchers are guys that can get down the mound and release their fastballs from a low release point. As mentioned above, this flattens out the vertical approach angle and allows the heater to really eat at the top of the zone. For reference, Logan Gilbert is 6-foot-6, but gets 7-and-a-half feet of extension down the mound (elite stuff), releasing his fastball just 6-feet off the ground. George Kirby and Emerson Hancock are the same way. Tall, explosive starting pitchers with good extension and impressively low release heights. Hancock gets 6-and-a-half feet of extension down the bump and releases the ball from a low 3⁄4 arm slot. Kirby as well — 7.3 feet of extension (again, incredible) and a low-ish arm slot.
It’s not just big, tall pitchers either. Later picks like Tim Elliot and Levi Stoudt are both 6-foot-1, but feature extensions of 6.8 feet down the mound. Both also have low release points. It’s an organizational philosophy. It’s the reason Ljay Newsome’s 91 mph fastball works so well at the top of the zone.
Cusick gets 7-feet of extension on his fastball. That sort of length down the mound will allow a 97 mph fastball to look like 100. You’re effectively eliminating the time and space a hitter needs to track the ball by releasing it closer to home plate.
Cusick will need to command the pitch better and stay away from heavy pitch counts moving forward, but this is probably the best fastball in the class, at least in terms of pure velo from a starter role.
Cusick banged the slider last summer, instead moving to a more vertical curveball that mirrors his fastball. It’s a heavy breaker in the 82-84 range with impressive bite.
Cusick has shown a strong ability to throw the pitch for strikes, though his command for the pitch is still developing and he’ll need to focus on throwing better quality strikes. As it stands, it’s still huge stuff, but he’ll need to refine what’s he’s got to get the most our of his arsenal.
The biggest thing will be getting Cusick to repeat his release point, allowing the pitch to tunnel his exceptional fastball. That would be a big first step. Once that’s settled in, developing shape can come next.
For now, it’s a plus offering, though there are reasons to believe it could be a big league double-plus weapon with time. The package could end up a little like what Tyler Glasnow brings to the bump each night.
Cusick has thrown just 84 changeups in his entire collegiate career. The fastball has been so good that a changeup simply wasn’t necessary in-game. That said, Max Meyer, the third overall pick in 2020, didn’t throw many changeups in college either. Jaden Hill, a potential top five pick, has barely thrown them since high school. The ability to throw the changeup is what scouts want to see.
Right now, it’s a pretty fringy pitch. It’s a firm, 87-89 mph offering that falls and cuts a bit, but Cusick hasn’t yet shown the consistent arm speed or ability to regularly throw it for strikes that would allow anything more than a fringe-average 45 grade.
The one below however, is a pretty good one at 86.
The data behind his off-speed pitch is strong. He creates less than 1600 rpms on it, pretty darn good for a changeup. And the 6 to 8 mph of separation is pretty league-average. Release point is better on the changeup than it is on the breaking ball, but it’s still not tunneling the fastball quite like you’d like to see it.
For now, it’s a 45, but given the underlying data, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see to see a league-average changeup coming from Cusick by the time he debuts.
I think a big addition to Cusick’s arsenal would be a cutter. By developing a cutter, he wouldn’t necessarily have to redesign his current breaking ball. A gyroscopic cutter would play beautifully off his fastball and would allow the breaking ball’s current shape to to offer a unique look to hitters. Those two pitches, plus the fastball, would make Cusick a sure-fire top-end first round pick to me.
The cream will float to the top and I believe Cusick represents one of the higher upside plays in the class, especially as it pertains to finding a fit for the Mariners model.