What’s the old adage? Pitching wins championships? It’s also one of the hardest talents to gauge in the minor leagues.
For every Clayton Kershaw that follows the path expected of him, there are a handful of pitching prospects who don’t. Mark Appel, Lucas Giolito and countless others have struggled to become the pitcher that they should be.
That said, there’s also a diamond in the rough hiding somewhere. They are the Jacob deGrom’s of the baseball world, if you will. Here’s a look at three pitching prospects who broke out in 2017.
Luiz Gohara, LHP, Atlanta Braves
It wasn’t that Gohara wasn’t already a prospect heading into 2016, landing himself in the Braves top 20 preseason rankings. But there were a lot of question marks surrounding Gohara that he answered and parlayed into his big league debut.
Gohara was signed by the Seattle Mariners at the age of 16. He came to the Braves last winter in the Mallex Smith deal. Gohara had some concerns surrounding his work ethic, but reports of an electric fastball and devastating slider as well.
The big lefty convinced the Braves organization that any doubts were false. Coming off a big 2016 with the Mariners (7-2, 1.81 and an 81 to 23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69.2 innings), Gohara advanced three levels of the minors. Starting in the Florida State League and ending in Gwinnett, Gohara combined to go 7-4. He posted an impressive 2.62 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. The southpaw continued to post big strikeout numbers (147 in 123.2 innings), despite getting a bit more wild as he climbed the ladder.
He is big, listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, but looking much bigger in person (you can read a full scouting profile here). Now that he uses his frame to his advantage, he hits the upper-90s with his fastball, and he mixes in a nice off-speed pitch to keep batters at bay. He slider may be his best offering, as he can both wipe it across the plate or make the bottom fall out, depending on the hitter.
His big-league debut wasn’t so hot. That said, at 21, he wasn’t expected to even sniff SunTrust Park this season. A predominantly ground ball pitcher who doesn’t often get hit hard, Gohara should have every chance to claim a spot in the 2018 rotation.
Jack Flaherty, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
It shouldn’t be surprising that the Cardinals have a breakout minor-league pitcher. That’s what the Cardinals do. Most thought it was going to be Luke Weaver, however.
Weaver has delivered as expected at the big-league level. But Flaherty was the surprise, joining him in September. Like Gohara, Flaherty had an impressive 2016 and was already a prospect. Most, however, felt a full year of seasoning in Double-A would suit Flaherty best.
Instead, he has made it all the way to the big leagues behind two impressive showings in Double- and Triple-A.
Flaherty was one of those pitchers who looked like he would succeed as early as high school, but took some time to develop. Thanks to incredible command and strike-throwing ability, he was able to wait until his velocity arrived. He now harnesses a low-90s fastball, but thanks to a changeup widely regarded as his best pitch, the fastball is deceptive, playing faster to the hitter. An improved slider and workable curve give Flaherty a four-pitch arsenal that he lands for strikes.
The 21-year-old, former first-rounder has arrived ahead of expectations. The Cardinals have one of the more exciting young rotation possibilities, already with Carlos Martinez and Weaver, and the hopeful eventual return of Alex Reyes. The early arrival of Flaherty just made things more exciting in St. Louis.
Tyler Mahle, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Heading into 2017, Mahle had some career-defining moments. He tossed a no-hitter in 2016, and started to gain some buzz. Promoted to Double-A at the age of 21 to end 2016, Mahle struggled, and with the bevy of young arms in the Reds system, he remained under the radar a bit.
That all changed in 2017.
Mahle began the year in Double-A again and absolutely dominated the circuit. He posted a 1.59 ERA and 0.87 WHIP, behind a career-high 9.21 strikeout-per-nine. An 88-pitch perfect game was one of the highlights of the minor-league season.
The 22-year-old righty is more of a finesse pitcher than power pitcher, but he added some velocity to his fastball this season. Once a low-90s offering, he gets it to the upper-90s, including touching 99 with the final pitch of that perfect game. He commands his four pitches (fastball, curve, slider and change) with relative ease. While his pitches are modest, his command is amongst the best, walking a stingy 1.87 per nine in the minors.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mahle’s command has been elusive in his first three big-league starts. He’s walked eight in his first 15 innings. A balanced ground ball and fly ball rate has helped strand most of the runners. Continually improving his game, Mahle’s ceiling has suddenly risen to a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, looking like a back-end arm at the very worst.
While you may have heard of these three prospects entering 2017, they have now become household names. Not one was expected to reach the big leagues, yet all three are now competing for a 2018 Opening Day rotation spot.
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