Considered the top left-handed high school pitcher in the 2018 draft, Matthew Liberatore fell to the Tampa Bay Rays at pick #16. He just completed his first full season with Bowling Green in the Rays system. Let's take a look at the lefty.
Matthew Liberatore Background
Matthew Joseph Liberatore was born November 6, 1999 in Peoria, Arizona. He grew to be one of the best prep players in the entire country, attending Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale. In their final top 500 rankings before the 2018 MLB draft, Baseball America had Liberatore as the second-ranked prospect in the entire draft.
The Rays were able to use a large bonus pool to swing Liberatore in the middle of the first round, and he was incredibly impressive in his pro debut, making eight appearances in the Gulf Coast League and one with Princeton in the Appalachian League. Overall, he tossed 32 2/3 innings with a 1.38 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 10 BB%, and 29 K%.
He got the notice of major ranking publications in the offseason, ranked #58 overall in the Baseball America top 100 prospects list, and #55 in the MLB Pipeline list. Prospects Live had him #76 in the preseason top 100.
To manage his innings in 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays had Liberatore spend some time at extended spring before heading to Low-A Bowling Green in mid-May. He had a very solid season in the Midwest League, pitching 78 1/3 innings with a 3.10 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 9 BB%, and 23 K%.
Matthew Liberatore Scouting Report
Games viewed for this report:
My reports are video scouting reports, not done through YouTube video or social media video clips, but exhaustive study of game films available through MiLB.tv. For transparency, here are the games reviewed for this report:
6/15 vs. Lansing
6/21 vs. South Bend
6/28 vs. Great Lakes
7/11 vs. Beloit
7/24 vs. Fort Wayne
7/30 vs. Dayton
8/28 vs. Lake County
Liberatore is listed at 6'5" and 200 pounds. He's certainly all of 6'5", and the 200 pounds is probably right, though he is very long in arms and legs, making him look more lean than he truly is.
Liberatore's windup is simple and repeatable. He works two ways to open. In the first, he stands with his left foot on the middle of the rubber and the rest of his body toward the third base side of the bag, facing home as he begins. The other opening of his windup, he stands in stretch position, takes a short step backward and then reaching the same point at peak as he does in the first case after a side step and turn of his body toward the plate.
From the stretch, Liberatore has a good base delivery. He stays tall as he gives a waist-high knee lift and then comes downhill. Liberatore comes from his back hip with his arm and comes through with a 3/4 arm slot. Interestingly, with his long legs and arms, one thing I noted in his delivery is that he doesn't drive tremendously far forward off the rubber. This is much more notable from the stretch.
After delivering the ball, Liberatore does put himself in tough fielding position by falling toward the third base bag. This is something that notably reduced from the first start that I viewed to his last start of the season, so it's obviously something he's working on. By his last start, Liberatore was finishing with a left leg cross over his plant leg rather than often taking multiple steps toward the third base bag after delivering the ball.
The concern for Liberatore in his delivery is not the mechanics as much as his head. When he has any traffic at all on the bases, he seems to really struggle with simply letting his arm flow be natural to the plate, notably not having his arm drop all the way down to his back hip in his delivery when he was pressing, giving him a sort-of "punching" action.
Control (FV 50)
The deep break of his curve and his relative inexperience with his slider means that often Liberatore is more working to get the ball over rather than truly nailing his spots with those pitches, and that can get him in trouble. He also sees his fastball and change tend to get more "wild" when he's pressing with runners on base as well.
When he's more at ease, he spots to either side of the plate very well with the fastball and change, and he hits spots across the plate low in the zone, but when going up in the zone, he does struggle to hit his spot, often relying more on pitch action/velocity for success in the top part of the zone currently over location.
Fastball (FV 60)
The fastball is what pushed Liberatore forward in so many scouts' minds before his senior year of high school, and it's going to be what will determine a lot for him. Hitting mid-90s consistently in showcase season before his senior year, Liberatore has sat more in the 91-94 range, touching 95-96. The pitch gets natural glove side movement and sink, though it is notable that seemingly both occur closer to the plate as he dials up the velocity - as long as that "dialing up" is under control and not in frustration or stress.
When going up in the zone, Liberatore's arm length and 3/4 slot seem to combine to give a definite rising appearance to the ball. Climbing the ladder does seem to be where he misses most when runners are on base, however, most notably with the fastball due to overthrowing.
Liberatore's long legs would lead one to think he could generate some impressive extension, but he doesn't quite do that, and it's interesting to consider that he could maintain velocity and see his fastball play to a plus-plus level in effective velocity with just that potential tweak.
Changeup (FV 55)
With near-picture perfect arm repetition and pitch shape, the change certainly has the potential to be a plus pitch, however, Liberatore seems to have a "tell" on the pitch as he was hit often on it as if the hitter knew when a change was coming. When he would fool a hitter with a change, it was a very impressive pitch that could absolutely be plus. Admittedly, in my viewing, my biggest sign was a very slightly different arm swing on the change versus the fastball.
I was cued by another person that his issue may be more in throwing a "slow fastball" than anything. When re-watching with this view, it is true that Liberatore sits 91-94 with the fastball and seemed to get hit worst when his change ranged up to 85-86. When he could work the change more in the low-80s, it was effective. So, having a pitch without distinct movement in my viewings from his fastball could be an issue if the velocities begin to run together too much.
Curveball (FV 65)
Quite simply put, this could be the best curveball in the low minors in 2019. Liberatore gets excellent 12-6 shape on his curve. The shape and depth that he gets on the pitch would not be surprising from a tall guy, and especially from a lefty, but often you see more of a high 3/4 arm slot to generate the same depth on the pitch, which really gives Liberatore an edge when he throws the pitch, generating plenty of swing.
Liberatore gets a bit different action on his curve depending on his velocity on the curve. He gets more of a sharp, 12-6 break for one plane in the 77-79 range, while his more notable curve is his two-plane breaker that comes in 74-76.
Slider (FV 50)
His senior year of high school, Liberatore showed scouts a new slider, and he's still working on his feel for the pitch, but it has the chance to be a very quality pitch. Right now, he struggles to get consistent movement on the pitch, but when he really works it well, he can back foot a right-handed hitter with a sweeping slider that comes out looking like his fastball and then dives down toward that back foot.
While his sweeping slider is very effective for swing and miss, the best slider he showed in games I watched was a more abbreviated slider that read mid-80s on stadium guns and had a short, sharp break, looking very much like his fastball/change, but giving a sharp break just as it approached the plate. That version of his slider did get less swing-and-miss, but it generated a lot of weak swings that led to weak pop-ups and ground balls.
Tampa Bay fans may be concerned when they watch Liberatore the first time for simple PTSD reasons. They've recently had an elite lefty starting pitcher prospect who looked incredibly similar to Liberatore and was very highly regarded - rated as the top prospect in baseball over both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout at one point. Yes, Rays fans, I'm going to make you recall Matt Moore.
The crazy thing is that Moore really was never bad, per se. He struggled in his major league career thus far due to injury and his inability to keep the ball in the strike zone. Of course, he looked amazing in two starts for the Detroit Tigers this season before once again injuries ended his season, but his 2019 performance was his only major league season of any length with a walk rate under 7%, and he found himself spending most of the time around 10% with his strikeout rate around 19% in spite of great stuff.
Moore is still just 30 years old, and if he could keep the ball in the zone, his stuff is such to be a potential #2, which would make this comparison a much more palatable one for Rays fans.
Liberatore has the raw stuff, the size, and the right organization to become a frontline starter. Harnessing his control will be a big part of that path. Moore hasn't ever shown that for a full season.
The other path that could be there for Liberatore with his size and his long limbs is a potential role as a power lefty reliever for multiple innings, but the Rays will handle Liberatore with caution to ensure they give him every possible shot in the rotation first before exploring that avenue.