Wednesday night, the Phillies elected to make right-handed pitcher Mick Abel their first draft selection under new Head of Amateur Scouting Brian Barber. Abel does not go down as a “conventional” pick, whether it’s because he is the first Oregonian high schooler to be taken in the first round in years or if it’s because this represents a big change from the past 3 seasons in which the Phillies took a risk-averse approach and drafted a college bat in the first round. But even if his profile doesn’t match what the team was expected to take earlier in the day, the fact that Abel was thought of so highly by Major League teams is nothing new.
The 6’5” pitcher comes from Jesuit High School in Oregon. Abel dominated his league like not many did before, getting national recognition despite being from up North and not throwing a pitch from the mound during his Senior season due to the canceled season. He still showed off enough in previous seasons to commit to Oregon State and to earn the state-wise Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year award. This is thanks to a fastball that has sat 92-94, a breaking ball that is highly touted, and no notable problems with his command or third pitch.
His performance back home is notable, for sure, but sadly for Phillies fans, it doesn’t tell you much. Prospects rarely have to be complete pitchers to dominate high school, especially outside of bigger, southern states. There is a ton of projection when it comes to drafting high school pitchers, and teams are certainly taking notice. There is a reason why the Phillies have avoided taking a high school arm since 2012, and there is a reason that no team dared to take one until the Phillies pick (and only the Rays would follow up with a high school pitcher in the first round). There is solid evidence to show that, historically, teams tend to overdraft these projects. Of course, there are success stories, but considering the number of 18-year-old pitchers taken highly, too many seem to never make any sort of impact.
It is already a shot-in-the-dark to take a young and incomplete arm with your first pick. Now consider taking one with your first pick when you only have four in total. Now consider that when you did not get a chance to see that player pitch in a game his entire Senior season. The fact that the pandemic has cut short baseball season has taken a big toll on the preparation for the draft. Typically, a good chunk of the big names you are watching in March end up falling down the draft boards by June, and there are always guys flying up boards as well. Without a season though, the general consensus on where these players should be drafted is still stuck in that premature stage. It is already known that a high school pitcher in the first round is somewhat likely to bust, but how much worse is it to draft a high school pitcher before their Senior season? Even the Phillies, the team that thought highly enough of Abel to take him, will be scared that he never contributes to the big-league team.
Mick Abel in particular comes with the risk that many other unfinished products come with. One concern is his age. Other high school arms, especially 17-year-old Nick Bitsko, have more of an excuse to not be as polished as a pitcher. Abel, on the other hand, turns 19 in August, and considering the pandemic, he will only see so much action before he turns 20. Abel is only a few months older than most college guys, but the data does show that the age of a draftee is significant. When focusing on his actual play, there are concerns as well. For starters, even though his off-speed is highly thought of, it does not have an elite spin rate, so there may not be much potential for improvement there. That would mean that for Abel to be impactful in the bigs, he could not miss out on improving a changeup that he has not used much (although that is nothing new for a high school arm that dominated), improving command and controlling a lanky body, or going deep into games. His ability to repeat his delivery even in the 5th and 6th inning, as well as uphold his velocity deep into starts, will be huge for his development. There are some reports of Abel losing velocity and command deep into starts, and if that is a problem that persists, his size and deep repertoire won’t be so useful. He has added muscle since his last start, and a young guy does always have time to fix command, but that doesn’t always mean that these problems are fixed. That is the downside that comes with drafting a high school pitcher out of Oregon, you just do not know if things will work out.
Nonetheless, Abel was drafted 15th overall by the Phillies. Even though they also know the risks that come with a guy like Abel, MLB Pipeline still ranked him 11th of all draft prospects this year, Fangraphs ranked him 9th, and Keith Law had him 16th. There is certainly a shot that a high school pitcher who has not proven he can go deep into games does not make the highest level, but there are also examples of players who have. Jack Flaherty was drafted in the 1st round in 2014, Madison Bumgarner was taken out of high school, as was Clayton Kershaw. Phillies fans are familiar with the fact that Cole Hamels was a high school pitcher when they took him with their first pick in 2002. Zack Greinke was another high schooler at the time. A higher chance of making the MLB does not mean that you have a higher chance of turning the fate of a franchise around. After all, at some point in time every single successful Major League pitcher was 18 and unpolished. The Phillies have taken the safer college bat for three straight seasons now, but a team cannot win a championship ignoring the starting rotation or ignoring the need for All-Star level talent. The organization is not ignoring the fact that Abel has a lot to work on, but rather they are taking a calculated risk in order to get a possible future Ace, and Abel can certainly be that.
Some scouting reports that have been floated around for fans to familiarize themselves with Abel do not do his upside justice. Most say that he sits in the mid-to-low 90s with his fastball, but after gaining nearly 20 pounds in muscle this past Winter, he has been touching triple digits in bullpens and realistically would be sitting a higher velocity as well. Additionally, he reworked a curveball that could make a solid second breaking ball. Either of those improvements could have been enough to propel him into top 5 conversations if there was an actual season, but because there wasn’t, he flew under the radar. Potentially, the Phillies just got away with taking a guy with top 5 talent at #15 because teams just simply never had the shot to see the current version of Abel. Looking at his stuff in an optimistic light makes you wonder just how high the heights he can reach are. With a lightning-quick arm, more room to add strength, and already a fastball that can reach the upper nineties, Abel possesses a potentially elite fastball, and that is before taking into account a high spin rate that will help lead to even more whiffs. And then add in a slider that tunnels well and was voted by executives as the best breaking ball in the entire high school class, as well as a changeup and curve that are not lagging behind by all that much, and you have top-of-the-rotation type stuff.
“Abel’s more projectable than [No. 1 Jarred] Kelley at 6’5″ and 185 pounds, has a fluid delivery that yields plenty of strikes and shows flashes of three plus pitches.”
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 21, 2019
Next to the two elite pitches and two complements, Abel is very big, so his ability to eat up innings in the future as a starting pitcher should not be in question. While he has struggled with going deep in games so far, most high school arms are much more at risk of eventually moving to the bullpen in comparison to a guy like Abel. That is especially true considering his athleticism, which should allow his command to improve drastically throughout the Minor Leagues.
When the Phillies were faced with the decision to take Abel or not at #15, they had to answer the question of how much risk they could take on. It is a short draft, they do not have a 2nd round selection, and with shortened seasons, every selection is riskier than it would have been in 2019. If this is a miss, they might get nothing out of the entire draft. With a high school pitcher nearing 19 years old, there’s a long track record of similar names that have not worked out at all. But nonetheless, the upside was too much to turn down. What if this is the next Cole Hamels, and they don’t take him? You cannot avoid taking more volatile players and get superstars and a World Series-level starting rotation out of it. And Mick Abel, the newest Philadelphia Phillie, has the potential to make that risk all worth it in the end.