Over the past month or so, I’ve been able to watch a pair of starts made by the Braves’ first pick in last year’s amateur draft, right-handed starting pitcher Jason Hursh. The first outing I saw by Hursh was in Chattanooga against the Lookouts on May 24 (4.2 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 0 BB, 2 K) and later against the Tennessee Smokies on June 11 (5 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, BB, 2 K). After watching Hursh a couple of times, I was able to develop a view of what his future role in the Majors could be, and what to expect from him going forward.
Last June, Jason Hursh was drafted out of Oklahoma State University with the 31st overall pick. Hursh was used primarily as a reliever in college during his freshman season, but after missing the 2012 campaign after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Hursh became a full-time starter in 2013. The Braves saw his prototypical starter’s frame and his hard, sinking fastball and popped him early in the draft (much earlier than most draft pundits had predicted that Hursh would go) with the hopes of developing a quality Major League starter. The Braves immediately placed him in a starting role after he made his professional debut, and he has taken a relatively expedited path up to double-A Mississippi, beginning with the Southern League club this April.
Physically, Hursh completely looks the part of a starting pitcher. His tall frame and thick, strong legs could be used as an illustration of what a starter should look like if a "how to be a starting pitcher" manual were to exist. He looks every bit of his listed 6’3", 200 pound frame, even though "official" heights listed on rosters tend to be somewhat inflated. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that Hursh’s actual weight is probably closer to 215 or 220 pounds. While he isn’t a chiseled Greek god of a man, Hursh looks to be relatively muscular (especially in his lower body, which is clearly strong and defined), and without much excess baggage. Hursh’s sturdy, well-proportioned frame is totally filled out, and any additional weight would fall into the aforementioned excess baggage category. If you’re looking for a starter who could add more weight and is still projectable with the potential to add a couple of miles per hour on his fastball, Hursh isn’t it. Physically, what you see is what you’re going to get going forward. However, this isn’t a bad thing, as Hursh has the requisite frame and build to handle a starter’s workload and maintain velocity deep into outings. Plainly stated, I have no concerns whatsoever regarding his physical build as it pertains to the Braves’ desire for Hursh to be a starting pitcher.
Despite fulfilling the traditional expectations of a starting pitcher physically, Hursh’s delivery, in my view, leaves a bit to be desired. His mechanics are not particularly efficient, and his release point is at a somewhat atypically low arm slot a shade below three-quarters. When going from the windup, Hursh takes a rock step back and pauses momentarily with his left foot behind the rubber, stopping the chain of physical momentum that most pitchers go through without pauses. It appears to me that he pauses in order to gain balance as he completes the remaining portions of his delivery, but I’m not a fan of how inefficient the pause is and how it disrupts the flow and momentum in his delivery.
After pausing, Hursh then resumes his delivery and drives toward the plate with reduced momentum, which, again, appears to be a side effect of the aforementioned pause. His mechanics do feature a pronounced arm circle before the release of the ball, which leads me to believe that he could have issues with bad platoon splits against left-handed hitters, as they especially can pick up and time pitchers better with this sort of arm circle in a pitcher’s mechanics.
Hursh then releases the ball from an arm slot that’s a touch below three-quarters, which is lower than the slot that most starters work from. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it somewhat resembles Cleveland Indians sinkerballer Justin Masterson’s (although Masterson's arm slot is a shade lower), and he’s had quite a bit of Major League success. But I don’t particularly like this arm slot, as it somewhat inhibits Hursh’s potential downhill plane and it also leads him to occasionally not get on top of pitches, especially breaking balls. To be frank, Hursh’s delivery leaves me a bit wary, as I don’t believe it to be particularly efficient, and the arm slot seems give him problems at times.
From the stretch, Hursh’s delivery is quite simple and orthodox, with a simple leg lift and drive toward the plate. His times to home from the stretch were quite average, clocking in mostly in the 1.25 second range on fastballs and generally around 1.35 seconds on off-speed pitches and breaking balls. He shouldn’t have any problems with controlling the running game based on his times to the plate.
With regards to Hursh’s pitch offerings, he relies heavily on a heavy sinking fastball with good velocity, complementing the pitch with a pair of inconsistent secondary offerings in the form of a slurvy breaking ball and a changeup. His sinker, which consistently sits in the 92-94 mph range (I saw him touch 96 with the pitch early in the Chattanooga outing), is his bread and butter pitch and his ticket to the majors. In total, combined between the two starts which I saw Hursh make, he threw approximately 80-85% sinkers. His M.O. with the pitch is not to overwhelm hitters with extreme velocity and generate swings and misses, but rather to generate ground balls and weak contact as a result of the pitch’s arm-side run and sink. To be successful with this pitch, Hursh must consistently work down in the strike zone and not allow the pitch to edge too far up in hitters’ wheelhouses. This goes hand-in-hand with getting good downhill plane and generating the requisite movement on the pitch. If the fastball flattens out, as I’ve seen it do in spurts in the two outings that I saw, Hursh will struggle to get batters out. Overall, however, this pitch should play as a plus offering in the Majors. When it’s working, Hursh generates loads of ground balls and should be able to use its hard, boring action to create plenty of fielding opportunities for the infielders behind him.
Part of the reason that this is the case is due to his inconsistent and largely ineffective secondary offerings. His first secondary offering is a breaking ball that I’ve heard described as a curveball, a slider, and a slurve (a scout to whom I spoke actually informed me that Hursh refers to his breaking ball as a slurve, so take that for what it’s worth). I’d probably call the pitch a curveball, because true "slurves" don’t really exist in my eyes, but the movement on the pitch is somewhere between a sweeping slider and a more vertically-inclined curveball. In the outings that I’ve seen, the movement of the pitch has varied, with the more curveball-y pitches having 11-5 break and the more slider-esque pitches looking like a 10-6 pitch. The velocity of the pitch also tends to vary, with the range of the breaking ball’s velocity sitting anywhere from 74-78 mph. When Hursh gets on top of the pitch, it has better shape and looks more like a true curveball, but he struggles with consistently doing this. Again, I believe this largely can be traced to the unconventional arm slot from which Hursh works. I’m not particularly optimistic about this pitch playing as more than a show-me offering in the big leagues, as it’s an inconsistent offering that Hursh seems to have difficulty locating with effectiveness. It’s not difficult to pick up the pitch out of Hursh’s hand, as it tends to be loopy and not exactly sharp. This pitch will need refinement if it is to be a consistently viable offering in the Majors.
Hursh’s third and last pitch is a changeup that he used fairly sparingly in the outings which I saw. He barely threw the pitch during his outing in Chattanooga, but he did throw several in his Tennessee outing. The changeup provides a velocity difference of about 10-12 mph slower than his fastball, clocking in at 80-82 mph. Much like the breaking ball, Hursh’s feel for the pitch fluctuates. Unlike the breaking ball, however, I have seen him generate swings and misses with the pitch, getting hitters off balance and out in front of the offering. Hursh threw one beauty of a changeup down and away to Smokies outfielder Rubi Silva that left a particular impression on me, generating a whiff. However, once again, the pitch was inconsistent, as he had no feel for the change earlier in the same start, leaving it flat and totally missing the strike zone. Changeups are finicky pitches, and it’s often difficult for even the most experienced of starters to be consistent with the pitch. It’s rare to come across a pitcher with less than a year of professional experience, even out of college, whose changeup is consistently good, and while Hursh’s changeup does show flashes of potential, it is too often left up or thrown errantly. I do believe that the changeup is the stronger of Hursh’s two non-fastball offerings, and despite its inconsistency, can be an average big league pitch, or perhaps even a tick better. He’ll desperately need to be able to utilize this pitch to keep hitters off balance and generate some swings and misses, because I don’t think the curveball is going to be a viable option in most scenarios for him, frankly.
When it comes to Hursh’s future Major League role, I could see him occupying a spot in the back end of a rotation with some improvements in the consistency of his off-speed pitches. While his fastball will play in the Majors, starters cannot survive with only one consistently workable offering, and he’ll have to be able to keep hitters honest with the slow stuff as a starter in order to succeed. As well as the Braves have done as an organization in developing pitching, I’d feel a lot better about the prospects of this happening were Hursh a more inexperienced pitcher with more readily apparent potential. It isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, however, which is why I’m not totally ready to write him off as a future reliever just yet.
Having said that, I think Hursh’s most realistic future role in the big leagues is as a ground-ball generating reliever, where inconsistent off-speed stuff can be more effectively hidden. Hursh could carve out a role as a medium to high-leverage reliever who would give right-handed hitters especially fits. I think the bullpen role is more likely for Hursh, as his manager will better be able to play the match-ups game with him, slotting him in mostly against right-handed hitters and in ground ball situations. The Braves took a gamble on Hursh in the hopes that he’d be able to develop into a MLB starter, and you don’t want picks in the top-35 range ending up in the bullpen, optimally. However, at this point in time, the most realistic scenario that I see for Hursh is occupying a spot in a Major League bullpen in the not-so-distant future. He could be ready to contribute at some point next season, as there isn’t much development left and he’s close to a finished product.
OFP: 4th/5th starter (55)
Realistic Role: Middle/back-end reliever