The Auburn Tigers are no stranger to pumping out supreme baseball talent on the mound over the past few years and they’ve got another one headed our way in 2021.
Indeed, Auburn has something pretty special going on in terms of developing talent on the bump. In 2017, RHP Keegan Thompson went in the 3rd round. 2018 saw Casey Mize go first overall. This past year, the Cleveland Indians got their feet wet, snagging Tanner Burns in the first round.
But besides being next-in-line in what’s become a starting pitcher factory, what sets righty Richard Fitts apart from other arms this cycle is he’s certainly one of the hardest throwers in the class, and just scratching the surface of his potential.
At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Fitts has an athletic build. He’s a good athlete on the mound, having come up as a middle infielder all through high school. His stature is that of a guy who one would expect to add more weight in the coming years. Fitts has a thicker neck with burly, rounded shoulders. He’s got a high waist and a thick core.
Fitts has a good tempo about him on the mound and he repeats his operation really well. It’s definitely a quick arm and he does a fantastic job working straight down the mound and finishing strong and tall on his plant leg.
Speaking to Fitts’ athleticism, he definitely fits the mold of guys with big extension down the mound, and that’s something the Mariners have targeted early in the draft. Last year, Fitts averaged 6-feet-9-inches of ride down the bump. In terms of extension-to-height ratio, it’s impressive reach. That extension will help lower his release height and bump the perceived velocity of his fastball.
One of the more fascinating angles to Fitts’ development is he hasn’t always been a starter. His freshman year, only five of his 21 appearances for the Tigers came by way of starting. In 2020, only one of his six appearances was a start. Fitts has been primarily deployed as an explosive, high-leverage reliever throughout his college career.
In 13 innings in 2020, Fitts pitched to a 2.77 ERA with 16 strikeouts and five walks. Those are really good, albeit not world-beating numbers.
But he may be an entirely different pitcher after this past fall.
According to reports from folks who saw Fitts pitch and train, he not only grabbed hold of the open weekend rotation spot for 2021, he may be one of the most improved players in the entire country.
It may be no coincidence Fitts has seen such a meteoric rise. In January 2020, former Auburn Tiger and MLB-great Tim Hudson was named Volunteer Assistant and Pitching Coach for the program. Don’t let the title fool you, the volunteer assistant for any collegiate baseball program is actually a highly sought role. The pitching coach portion of the job speaks for itself. In some ways, Hudson is second-in-command behind Head Coach Butch Thompson.
Tools (Future Value)
As of 2020, the fastball was without a doubt Fitts’ bread and butter. His heater was 90-93 last season, topping out at 95. At times the heater was un-hittable. When Fitts was commanding the pitch at the top of the zone, he routinely got whiffs from the opposition.
With that being said, where he struggled was in commanding the pitch and generating consistent shape. At its best, Fitts’ fastball would be 93-94 at the top of the zone with close to 18 inches of induced vertical break. That’s ‘plus’ riding action. When he got in trouble, the fastball was straight and catching too many barrels, generally at the belt. Whether inside or out, the pitch wouldn’t ride so much as it would marginally leak arm side, finding too much of the plate center-cut.
Fitts changed to a more traditional 4-seam grip this summer and the results have been excellent. Shape is more consistent, spin rates are up close to 2500rpm, and velo is now more comfortably 93-95, touching 97.
Multiple reports have his fastball command taking major leaps at the top of the zone this summer, including during Auburn’s ‘World Series’ end-of-fall scrimmage series.
Fitts’ mechanics have really improved as he’s gotten stronger and put more innings under his belt. I’d reckon he’ll touch 97 a few times in 2021, though it wouldn’t surprise me if he reached even a notch higher than that considering his muscular build and ability to add good weight.
For now, it projects a plus pitch at the next level, especially considering the leaps taken in commanding the pitch to all four quadrants.
Fitts has a pretty average, 50-grade breaking ball but that figures to change as he continues to develop the pitch at the next level.
His inherent ability to generate 2400rpm on a fastball leads me to believe he can exceed that figure on his breaking ball. Strangely, Fitts’ slider averaged just a shade over 2100rpm in 2020. Spin rates on his breaking this fall have reportedly improved as well. They’ll probably have to if he’s to go early in the first round as some are forecasting.
Fitts also had a tendency to change his arm-slot a bit when delivering the slider in 2020, and even more-so in 2019 as a freshman. With so many mechanical improvements this fall, I’d expect that to have cleaned up as well.
Fitts is still harnessing his breaking ball, so the pitch’s movement profile from 2020 should probably be taken with a grain of salt. It was a low 80s offering that generated pretty average depth and sweep last season. That said, when he ripped through and spotted one, it certainly showed promise.
I’d expect the breaking ball to gradually improve once inside an organization’s player development program. The biggest concern at this stage would have to lay in the pitch’s spin rates. There’s plenty of reason to believe Fitts can spin a baseball, but it would help his draft stock tremendously if he came out a few hundred ticks higher in 2021.
Last season, Fitts struggled to consistently throw his changeup at the bottom of the zone. He messed around with different changeup grips and seemingly couldn’t get comfortable with one. This summer, according to D1Baseball.com, Fitts entertained the idea of going the Mize route and adding a split-finger. That did not take either. He finally settled in on a circle-change grip that worked for him and the pitch has really shown promise this fall.
It’s a stiff, firm off-speed pitch generally 86-89mph. There’s some fading action to it, though Fitts is still working to kill more lift on the pitch. (Last season, his changeup vertical plane differed from his fastball by just 2-3 inches). The ability to create more movement on either plane is going to be important for Fitts, though, again, reports out of Auburn have been solid. Thompson said the pitch is an “above-average changeup at the SEC level” which probably loosely translates to an average pitch in pro ball.
I think there’s plenty of reason to believe this pitch is going to end up higher than average with some development. Fitts is seemingly just discovering who he is as a pitcher and what his arm is capable of. His newfound grip will be something to watch in 2021 as he works to show he’s a true 3-pitch guy.
There’s a lot to like from Fitts as a pro prospect. The body is really, really good. The arm speed and athleticism on the mound certainly help project more potential coming. The velo is trending in the right direction and he’s really starting to harness a plan for what his secondary offerings are doing.
There are still the concerns of his intrinsic ability to supinate and spin a breaking ball, as well as the ability to kill lift on an off-speed pitch, but that should come with time. Fitts comes from a conference, and more specifically a school with fantastic tutelage and tradition in terms of sending premier arms to the next level. If Fitts commands the baseball in 2021 and his stuff takes a step forward like many are anticipating it has, he’s certainly in-play for the Mariners at pick no. 12.