SARASOTA, FL- Usually Friday nights are reserved for college games. Scouts flock to four-year schools on Fridays because that’s when most of their aces are throwing.
Yesterday, Friday the 20th of March, was a big exception in southwest Florida. There were 40-50 scouts at both high school games I attended. The intrigue was that in each game, one played in Sarasota and the other in Port Charlotte, we had a premium high school position hitter going against a premium high school pitcher.
I enjoyed the opportunity to watch four completely different prospects in one evening. First in Sarasota, I was able to watch hometown Cardinal Mooney righthanded pitcher Michael Heller go against switch-hitting third baseman Bobby Borchering and his Bishop Verot teammates. Then at 7:30 PM, I headed 37 miles south to Port Charlotte High School to watch their lefty David Holmberg pitch against Lakewood Ranch HS and their Miami-bound catcher Mike Ohlman. The toughest task for a scout is to evaluate hitters, especially high school hitters, largely because you don’t see them against pro-level pitching. So when a Borchering or an Ohlman are facing a premium arm like Heller or Holmberg, scouts flock because they get to see both sides challenged to a level they rarely witness during the spring.
Heller, Borchering, and Holmberg are all committed to Florida.
I’d seen Heller just a little bit at the East Coast Professional Baseball Showcase (Lakeland, FL) last August and again at our WWBA Tournament in October (Jupiter, FL). He was high on our radar already. Then reports came in early this spring that he was throwing very well prior to his knee injury sustained sliding head-first into home.
I was very curious to see Heller but also wondering how much of his stuff he’d have pitching with a torn posterior cruciate ligament that had already kept him out of action for a couple weeks.
It turned out he was throwing plenty hard. Heller threw a lot of 92-94 MPH the first inning, topping out at 95. For his six innings of work, he was mostly in the 90-94 MPH area throwing and ended up with an 8-2 win over Bishop Verot.
By eyeballing, I estimated Heller to be 6-2, 200. He has a sturdy, wiry build, and a medium frame with squarish shoulders. There’s just a hint of thickness in his upper thighs, but otherwise he’s lean and should stay that way with reasonable conditioning. His weight at age 24 will likely be in the 210-220 range.
Heller showed a very good delivery from the get-go in terms of balance and use of his middle and lower parts of his body. He generated good torque with a high kick and hip rotation, delivering online to home plate. The one noticeable hiccup is that Heller is a head-jerker. Though the rest of the delivery looks smooth, he does snap his head at varying degrees at the end of his delivery.
Scouts see this as effort and many (but not all) believe it’s a sign of shoulder strain. It is also believed to be detrimental to command as the violence disrupts a pitcher’s ability to repeat his slot.
Strangely enough, Heller showed good command of his fastball low in the zone, registering several strikeouts of Bishop Verot hitters at the knees. He did struggle some high, but it hardly showed against a high school team who (aside from Borchering) couldn’t catch up to 93 MPH heat up in their eyes, anyway. His fastball was mostly straight when it was thrown up, but had a downward plane when he threw it low in the zone that made it a little harder for hitters to square up.
Heller featured a slider (80-84 MPH), curveball (73-77 MPH), and change-up (80 MPH) as well. I didn’t grade out any of those pitches as major league average in the present. Heller struggled with the slider early, getting very little bite on it, so he switched to the curve. After a few early hangers, he started to get a sharper break. I don’t project it to be plus, but I can see it becoming a useful, average major league pitch down the road. Heller has the right arm-action for a curveball and when young pitchers focus on a particular breaking ball, it usually hastens its development.
His change right now is a show-me pitch which he doesn’t have enough feel of to fool high-level pro hitters (AAA, MLB). It will take time to develop.
Heller showed some ability to handle the bat as well, going 2-4 with a double, but his upside is clearly higher on the mound.
From what I’m hearing, Heller can go early. The very first round would surprise me, the second round is quite possible.
Borchering took three lefthanded at-bats against Heller and scouts were on their toes for all three. On the first pitch he saw, Borchering turned hard on a 95 MPH high fastball and ripped it into the right-centerfield gap for a double. In his next at-bat, he grounded out to first on a low and inside fastball. On nearly the same pitch in his third at-bat, Borchering hit a high-hopper over the first baseman’s head with enough force that it turned into a double.
The sculpted, slope-shouldered 6-3, 210 Borchering proved again that he can turn on any high strike fastball out over the plate. But he did show some holes inside; though he made contact (and even got a double), Borchering was unable to adjust his hands and drive the ball. It’s something he may develop as he gets older. In the past, I’ve noted that he can struggle against good breaking balls on his hands as well.
Defensively, Borchering made three plays on grounders going to his left that were mostly routine. He did show very good footwork and his trademark plus arm-strength. Though he’s long-limbed and I project him upwards of 240 lbs by maturity, I think Borchering will make at least an average defensive third baseman. His hands will be adequate and he’ll gradually shorten the release on his throws.
With present-day average MLB bat-speed and raw power that both project to plus (from both sides of the plate), Borchering has the upside of a middle-order big league hitter and solid defensive third baseman. I can see him going towards the end of the first round and in the sandwich at the latest. He is one of the nation’s best prep hitting prospects with a plus-plus body.
Also of note from the Mooney-Verot game is Mooney junior righty Ryan Heuler who came in to close for Heller. Heuler, who has signed with the University of North Carolina, struggled with his control on Friday but he showed a live arm with both a good delivery and smooth arm-action. At 6-3, 185, his body is certainly projectable and he also serves as Mooney’s first baseman. Heuler threw 87-90 MPH with heavy two-seam action on his fastball. I can grade out his future fastball movement to plus.
He struggled with control and also his curveball, which hung up in the zone but has the potential to become an average pitch because of its spin. Heuler throws over-the-top which should allow him to get more downward bite on his curve in the future.
If Heuler doesn’t come on as a high draft by June, 2010, he’s one to watch four years down the road in the ACC.
Check back later for my report on late Friday night’s action between Port Charlotte lefty David Holmberg and Lakewood Ranch catcher Mike Ohlman.