Last Friday night, I was scrolling through Twitter trying to escape the miserable play of the Phillies (though they won that night), and ran across a tweet from Mitch Rupert, who covers the Phillies short season A-ball affiliate in Williamsport, about the UNC-Duke game. J.B. Bukauskas was on the mound for UNC, so I flipped on my Apple TV and started watching. His command was shaky for the first couple of innings, but from the fourth to the seventh, Duke could not touch him. He went 7 innings allowing 2 runs, 4 hits, 4 BBs while striking out 8. He threw 112 pitches, 80 of them fastballs. He didn’t have great feel for his slider that night throwing just 22 of them.
J.B. Bukauskas is the college arm of the 2017 draft that experts have been talking about since he started every game he pitched during his freshman year at UNC. There may be more Youtube videos on J.B. than any other 2017 draft prospect. Typically the players that get that much hype early on, also end up getting the most critique, but the concerns around him have not hurt his draft stock, as he is still considered a top 10 lock. Some scouts fear his command issues, but it his size that has created the most conversation. Short right-handers are rarely taken in the top 10 of the draft.
Personally, I think that is a dumb narrative. If a kid throws in the mid to upper 90s and has a nasty secondary offering, the only concern one should have is about his command issues. But being a little smaller should not be an issue; height is only a great concern when someone is 6’7″ or taller, where there is a lot more length flying around and mechanics to tighten up.
The Phillies are no stranger to grooming shorter pitchers, which is why Bukauskas could be a good fit. As my colleague Matt points out, the Phillies very best arms in the system all lack a little in the height department.
It is fitting that MLB Pipeline’s Jonathon Mayo’s latest mock draft, has the Phillies picking Buskauskas with their 1st round pick at #8. He is definitely worth considering, but in the end his command and mechanical issues may push me in a different direction. If the Phillies take that gamble they must feel confident that J.B. can remain a starter, just like he has been for his entire three-year career at UNC (40 G, all starts).
J.B. Bukauskas, RHP, University of North Carolina
6’0″, 201 lb
Previously Drafted: Arizona Diamondbacks, 2014 20th rd
Rankings (as of 5/22/17): MLB.com #7, Baseball America #6, ESPN #5
Drives really well off of strong lower half; gives extra boost to velocity. Mid 80s slider is best pitch; great tilt, lot of spin creating late sharp bite. Fastball sits comfortably at 92-97 mph gets some good sink. Change-up has good slight late break on it, potential plus pitch.
Elbows are above and behind the shoulders during stride, “the inverted W” arm action; potential risk of future elbow injury. Glove kind of stops his momentum, makes his arm whip to do most of the work on the follow through instead of his entire body. Can lose command of his pitches. Lands a bit upright, pulls a little too far to 1B on his fastball at times. Can rely on slider a bit too much. Lacks consistent fastball command. Change-up not used enough.
What the Numbers Say
2015 (Freshman):, 14 G (all starts), 72.2 IP, 5-3, 4.09 ERA, 67 K, 31 BB, 1.31 WHIP, 64 H, 4 HR allowed, .240 opp AVG, 8 WP, 3 HBP, 8.3 K/9, 3.84 BB/9
2016 (Sophomore): 13 G (all starts), 78.1 IP, 7-2, 3.10 ERA, 111 K, 29 BB, 1.24 WHIP, 68 H, 6 HR allowed, .234 opp AVG, 6 WP, 7 HBP, 12.75 K/9, 3.33 BB/9
2017 (Junior): 13 G (all starts), 82 IP, 8-0, 1.87 ERA, 106 K, 31 BB, 1.01 WHIP, 52 H, 6 HR allowed, .181 opp AVG, 12 WP, 6 HBP, 11.63 K/9, 3.4 BB/9
J.B. is without question a big league pitcher with his plus-plus slider and plus fastball. And while the elbow could be a concern in the future, it his fastball control and the use of his change-up that are more likely to keep him from being a starter. He is going to have to make some mechanical adjustments on his follow through in order to get more consistency controlling and commanding his fastball. If he can do that and get a bit more out of his change-up on a daily basis, he can be a mid-rotation starter with a ceiling of a fringe #2. If not, J.B. is at minimum a future big league closer.