Last Tuesday, I sat amongst the scouts and media behind home plate at Scottsdale Stadium for AFL’s opening night. It was a comfortable, familiar setting. For the first time in a while I felt at ease and that I was where I should be. Maybe this was because AFL 2017 opened in the exact same location. That night Yankees LHP Justus Sheffield shut down a pretty good Mesa team. (You can still see the video here). Sheffield opened eyes and seemingly improved his stock overnight. What would this year’s night opener bring? What will be the indelible moment or memory we will reflect on at this point next year?
My feeling is the next couple of years, scouts and spectators alike will look back wistfully at how good Forrest Whitley was in his AFL stint. As much as I try to avoid hearing other people’s opinions on prospects, Whitley is a stud and lauded by many as being the top pitching prospect in the game. I wanted to see if he would live up to that hype. Spoiler alert: he did not disappoint.
The body is phenomenal and Whitley had me reconsidering “what is the ideal frame for a pitcher?” As I jotted my notes, per usual, I found myself writing prototype pitcher frame. Is it though? Conventional wisdom says a prototype body for a pitcher is something like 6’3” 220 lbs. Whitley stands at 6’7”, warranting the LOL shorthand in my notes (lots of legs). But he is athletic enough to control his long limbs. I love his frame, and it doesn’t bother me at all he’s taller than what conventional wisdom deems to be ideal.
Whitley uses his height to his advantage on the mound. In addition to being 6’7” the arm slot is high which only adds to his arsenal’s plane. Watching him, two things stood out as being impressive: his body control and the depth of his arsenal. The fastball sat 93-96, touching 97. Whitley reminded me of Mitch Keller in the sense he would amp up with two strikes, seemingly saving premium velocity for high leverage counts. The changeup was his best secondary flashing easily plus, a savage offering with well-defined depth and run away from lefties. His curveball had big 11 to 5 shape in the low 80s, and his slider was mostly vertical in the mid 80s. Whitley also employed a cutter in the 89-91 range. All five pitches have a chance to play to major league average or better. I’d like to see him more but three 60s or better is not out of the question. Jason Woodell (@jasonatthegame) and I spoke on the Scouts Have Eyes Podcast about how important it is for minor league pitchers to feel comfortable pitching without their fastball. Whitley can do this. For this reason, I believe he is about as safe as it gets when it comes to pitching prospects, and he has a good chance to hit the ground running in the bigs with immediate success.
Whenever something seems too good to be true it probably is, right? Well, with Whitley he is this good. But indulge me for a moment and allow me to pick knits. There were some things I didn’t love about him. For one, his finish is pretty tall, meaning he releases the ball fairly upright. While this creates plane for his pitches, it also limits his extension. Also, as Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBrozdow) noted, there’s some recoil at foot strike. I thought that was a great word for it. This was more pronounced when Whitley amped up for a max effort heater. Whitley’s body essentially whips around when this happens. Often times recoil can impinge on a pitcher’s command, something worth watching out for.
While Whitley allowed 2 runs in his 3 1/3 , the final line was still pretty sexy with 8/10 outs recorded via the K. I spent much of the game pondering, is he the best pitching prospect I have seen this year? The answer is yes. And I have seen some great pitchers…to name a few: Mackenzie Gore, Mitch Keller, Hunter Greene, Jon Dupantier. Whitley was best bar none. Oh and I wanted to drop this little nugget at the end. Scouts in my area said, “How is this guy not up with Houston for their playoff run?” If that is any indication, he is a near-finished product. Let us collectively get excited, and we should see him in Houston in 2019!