LSU right-hander Kevin Gausman, who was sixth on my most recent ranking of the top prospects for this year's draft, threw at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night against a largely overmatched Alabama team, and was clearly a different pitcher from the one I saw when he was in high school, and even different from the pitcher he was a month ago.
Gausman was 94-97 in the first few innings, and still 93-96 in the 8th, with better command than he'd had in the past; he still gets too much of the middle of the plate at times, but showed that he could attack the corners successfully at least some of the time. Gausman had been using a curveball as his primary breaking ball until his last outing, at which point he switched to a slider that is a much better weapon for him now and in pro ball. At 82-86, it has a hard mostly downward dive that should be tough for pro hitters to pick up in time to lay off it. Gausman's changeup, described earlier this spring as his best off-speed pitch, lacked its usual action, with just fair arm speed at 84-86, and he didn't have any feel for it.
Gausman's delivery starts with the highest possible leg kick -- he looks like a flamingo at its peak -- leading to a fairly long stride where he drops his pitching arm quite low behind his body, although it's not as severe as a stab and doesn't plunge enough to drag his pitching shoulder down. He stays over the rubber well, just slightly drifting forward through the balance point, but finishes strongly out over his front side. It's much cleaner and more powerful than it was in high school, where he didn't have the same body control, drifted forward off the rubber, and didn't land as squarely over his front leg. Gausman also starts his warmups with a single crow-hop throw to the plate, much as Trevor Bauer does, and last night his first such throw came in at 102 mph.
There's a fair amount of industry speculation that Gausman is Kansas City's target with the fifth overall pick, although I assume that's based on the assumption that the first four picks are, in some order, Byron Buxton, Mark Appel (who was 97-99 early last night, but threw an arm-numbing 149 pitches), Kyle Zimmer (who was rained out) and Mike Zunino. The Royals did want a college starter last year, only to have their top four choices (including Dylan Bundy, the high school pitcher who was as polished as a college guy) taken in the top four spots. This year, they should get one of those three college arms if that is indeed still their goal.
• The new CBA will make college seniors, who have less leverage than a broken fulcrum, particularly attractive to clubs looking to shift money to high school players without going over their overall draft bonus caps. Alabama outfielder Taylor Dugas should be one of the first such seniors off the board, as he's better than your typical "senior sign" (a college player who signs for $1,000 to go fill out a minor league roster) because of his long-demonstrated ability to square up good pitching, including plus velocity. At 5-foot-7 (if that), he's hard-pressed to profile as a big league regular, but I feel very strongly that he'll at least hit his way to some role on a major league bench.
• Alabama right-hander Ian Gardeck was drafted in the eighth round last year by the White Sox out of Angelina Junior College, but didn't sign, and after a brief flirtation with the University of Dayton ended up in Tuscaloosa. He was 92-95 in one inning last night with a hard low-80s slider, but doesn't command either pitch and needs some delivery cleanup if that's ever going to improve.
• Tide starter Trey Pilkington was 89-90 with a short, fringy slider in the 78-84 mph range; he's got a very short arm action that prevents hitters from picking up the ball until late, but the stuff is ordinary enough that the deception can't really help him, and that delivery won't hold up in a rotation in either healthy or command. I'd like to see what he could do as a right-on-right reliever, since the ball appears so late and once through the order he might have more success, but that probably puts him after the 10th round.
• Finally, that was my first LSU home game in the new or old stadiums, and I wish every more colleges had that kind of local support and atmosphere at home games. Outside of the SEC, few schools draw at close to this level, but LSU has remarkable facilities and the fan base to maintain it going forward. For college baseball to escape its niche status, we'll need another dozen LSUs and South Carolinas across the country.