Coming into the 2018 season Touki Toussaint was seen to have no more than an outside shot of joining the rotation in Atlanta this season. He had struggled far too often with his command in his career and had just 39 2⁄3 innings at Double-A, so with the depth above him it was a safe bet he wouldn’t make it yet. Then, Atlanta got off to a blistering start to the season, and as that proved to be more than just a mirage a growing number of fans started to call for Touki to make his way into Atlanta to help solve the problems in the bullpen. After the struggles of the highly-touted Kolby Allard in his first two games and another injury to Max Fried, the Braves made the decision to pull up the talented Toussaint for one of the starts in the double header against the Marlins.
There was a strong feeling among the people at Talking Chop that we were approaching the breakthrough for Toussaint after his strong finish to the 2017 season. His career to that point had been a bit up and down as he struggled with his command and limited the usage of his hammer curve in order to develop his offspeed stuff further. His swing-and-miss stuff suffered and many soured on his future potential as a starter, but his potential began to be realized in 2017 and the steps the Braves and Diamondbacks had taken paid huge dividends. The start of Toussaint’s season was pretty horrific, as although his strikeouts had jumped significantly and he had cut his walks back he struggled to strand runners and his ERA ballooned. Through 7 starts with Florida, Toussaint had a 7.86 ERA but his FIP showed a bigger picture sitting at 3.57. His numbers began to even out over the end of his stint in Florida, and through his last 12 starts he had a 3.68 ERA with 81 strikeouts to 31 walks in 71 innings pitched. A 3 game span that saw him strike out 29 batters and walk 3 in 20 innings was enough for the Braves to push him up to Double-A Mississippi with just over a month left in the season. Toussaint had his successes, with a 3.18 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 39 2⁄3 innings, but still struggled at limiting walks. That took it’s toll in a brutal Arizona Fall League campaign that had him posting a 10.38 ERA in 8 appearances.
It didn’t take long in 2018 to realize that Toussaint was a different pitcher than years past. After struggling in the opener due to torrential rains, Toussaint struck out 9 batters in 5 shutout innings in his second start and never looked back. Touki made 16 starts at Mississippi before earning a promotion due to his 2.93 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 86 innings. He led the league in strikeouts, and though the walks were still there with 36 he had shown clear improvement to his command and was pushing it closer towards the range of acceptable. 2018 is the first time in Touki’s career he has had a walk rate below 4 batter per nine, and in each year since his debut he has lower that walk rate. Toussaint made 5 starts in Gwinnett and was simply sensational, striking out 32 batters in 31 1⁄3 innings with 13 walks and a 2.01 ERA. His fantastic play earned him a spot in the Futures Game, during which he pitched an inning and struck out a batter.
Touki Toussaint hits 97 MPH and shows off the curve pic.twitter.com/02DdAGoZ64— Matt Powers (@MattPowers31) July 15, 2018
Touki’s pure stuff has always been his calling card and he has arguably the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Braves system. That, combined with his improvements in the other parts of his game, spurred Talking Chop to rank him as our second best pitching prospect in the system behind only Mike Soroka. Toussaint’s fastball has always exploded out of his hand, and he’s pushed up to 98 and 99 at times, but his most recent development has been with his movement. He’s opted for a 2 seam fastball over a 4 seamer, and he’s found the right grip with that as it has explosive arm side movement and as you can see in the video above he can run it as high as 97. Toussaint usually sits 92-95, a range he’s showed he can command the fastball although he still does have a tendency to lose control for as much as an entire inning. His walks tend to come in bundles and as he grows and matures he should be able to more easily recognize mechanical inconsistencies in game and be able to fix those problems on the fly. Toussaint isn’t afraid to challenge with a fastball in the zone and has the ability to get it by some batters and get in on the hands of right handed batters.
Toussaint is known for his curveball and for good reason. It’s the best pitch in the Braves minor league system right now, and, like his fastball, it has continued to play up as he’s learned to throw it for strikes. In the past, Touki has exclusively used the curveball as a strikeout pitch, but as his pitch sequencing has improved he can throw it for strikes and has been know to use it when behind in the count to throw a hitter off. Consistency is still a struggle and when he gets excited the ball tends to float up and lose it’s depth, but when he’s snapping them off it’s a sight to behold. While there is confidence that Touki will continue to develop and settle into a starter’s role, if he were to regress and be unable to do so the curveball would make an excellent 1-2 punch with his two-seamer in a closer’s role.
Of the three major points in Toussaint’s development (the others being his command and sequencing) the most obvious improvement has come in the usage of his changeup. When Touki was brought into the Braves system the Diamondbacks had been preventing him from throwing his curveball in an effort to improve Toussaint’s changeup, and the Braves continued to try that when they brought him into the system. It worked wonders as Toussaint has developed one of the deadlier changeups in the system and Touki himself expressed a confidence in the pitch he never had before. His changeup has gone from a show pitch to one that’s a true weapon and has turned into a third swing-and-miss offering. That’s a rare combination for a pitcher to have and it may be his most consistent pitch as he seems to less often make a mistake with it than his fastball and changeup. When he’s working all three pitches, he is the most effective pitcher in the Braves system and he’s now got the pitch that pushes him over top. Touki has the talent to be that top of the rotation starter the current team needs, though he’s obviously not as consistent as in the past.
One other notable improvement I alluded to earlier is his pitch sequencing which is a drastic development over when I saw him in his first start in the farm system. Toussaint is no longer as fastball heavy, and instead of trying to pick the outside corner with it until he gets two strikes and can go with the curveball or his changeup if the situation calls for it. His confidence to throw all three pitches for strikes in any count and to be able to get it past any hitter is obvious, and he’s been able to change speeds effectively throughout this season and the last. That’s been the key to his explosion in strikeouts as a hitter really isn’t clued into what is going to come out of Touki’s hand next. Major League hitters will eventually figure something out against him, but right now minor leaguers are just left guessing about which plus pitch is going to come out of Toussaint’s hand next and it leads to some foolish at bats.
The future for Toussaint was muddled for a long time in his career, but it’s become much more clear that he should remain in rotation for the Braves. His improvements in his consistency are obvious and continue to take steps forward with each appearance he makes, and there is no reason to believe the 22 year old won’t continue to make those strides. That said, this is a spot start for Toussaint and he’s probably not ready to take over in rotation full time. In the midst of a pennant race his youth would probably come back to bite the Braves and he would be better served to finish out a couple of extra starts in Gwinnett. He can make his run at the rotation in spring training, and I think he’ll succeed in that and never look back, but for now there doesn’t seem much reason to rush him into that role full time. Fortunately, Toussaint has a good draw in the Marlins and will have a solid chance to put a nice start up in his debut. My prediction for his final line- 6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 7 K. Where Touki would be a tremendous help to the Braves down the stretch is in the bullpen, where he is ready to be an impact arm on a major league team. In short stints Toussaint’s stuff would play up and be able to cover what problems he has left to fix, and he would be an upgrade to the current bullpen and a potential contributor to a postseason run. I expect the Braves will pursue this once the minor league season is over, as it will be a fantastic opportunity to get him major league exposure without taking much risk in a pennant chase or overusing his arm.
Toussaint is joining a growing list of exciting prospects who have been called up this season, and while he doesn’t carry quite the hype that Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Soroka did he’s still got as much chance to be an immediate contributor as they did. Touki may well prove himself to be the best pitcher in the Braves rotation in 2 years time, and working around veteran pitchers like Anibal Sanchez and Julio Teheran could prove immensely impactful in his development. His command needs to take another step forward, probably two for him to be a top of the rotation starter, but given the trends thus far in his career there is reason to be optimistic. Still, that’s not an easy task even for someone as talented as Toussaint and it’s more likely than not you’ll be disappointed if you’re expect him to be a true ace in 3 years time. Toussaint’s continued development will require a certain bit of patience through his lapses in command and on the days when his curveball just isn’t working, but the feeling is that Touki has already made the steps necessary to solidify himself as a part of the future plans in Atlanta. If things work out there is nobody that will take that spot from him. Toussaint should be a key part of the window that is opening in Atlanta and could be a star in the making.