MLB Draft: RHP Nick Bitsko graduated early and could be Detroit’s second pick
The Detroit Tigers have a long history of drafting power pitchers in the first few rounds of the MLB Draft. This year there is an unexpected addition to the ranks of young pitchers with big fastballs. Nick Bitsko will be graduating a year early from Central Bucks East High School and bringing his 97 mph fastball to this years’ draft.
Bitsko was widely considered one of the top high school pitchers in the 2021 draft class. Now that he has reclassified, he is ranked on MLB Pipeline as the ninth-best draft-eligible player. He is grouped with fellow high school right-handed pitchers Jared Kelley (ranked 7th) and Mick Abel (8th) on their list, but possibly has a higher ceiling than either prospect. He has a smooth delivery and couples his powerful fastball with a curveball and a developing changeup.
In 2020, there are many challenges that teams are having to face due to coronavirus. First, MLB ordered a pause on all scouting, both domestic and international. Then, both colleges and high schools shut down. There are no opportunities to see Bitsko pitch again before the draft. In any other year, there would be a near-zero chance that a player of his caliber would drop into the second round to be an option for Detroit’s second pick. Being that teams will have fewer opportunities this year than any other in recent memory to make their picks count, they’ve gone into a much more conservative mindset, and it would lead to Bitsko’s stock taking a free fall on draft day.
At 6’4″ and 220lbs, the 17-year-old should have the durability to manage the workload of a starter. Bitsko throws with a 3/4 arm slot that is low effort and without any red flags for injury concerns. His fastball high 90’s fastball has a lot more movement than would be expected from a high school pitcher that can throw with that velocity.
Not only does it have a lot of riding action, but he has almost Major League ready control of the pitch. Bitsko also has a hard-biting curveball with an impressive spin rate, sitting between 2100 and 2500 RPMs. It is difficult for pitchers with a 3/4 arm slot to get true 12-6 movement on their curveballs, which is why Bitsko’s curve has more horizontal movement than the average curve. Bitsko’s arm slot is similar to Casey Mize‘s and he calls his curve a slurve, a combination between a curve and slider. The movement on Bitsko’s breaking ball is similar to Mize’s slurve. Coincidentally, Mize’s breaking ball averages the 2500 RPM that Bitsko can reach. It’s important to remember that not every breaking ball that is similar will have the same results. But the fact that we can even begin comparing Bitsko to the former first overall pick, is telling of his potential.
Why is spin rate important? Although it’s a gross oversimplification of the matter, a rule of thumb is that more spin a curveball has, the more it moves. In turn, the more it moves, the more batters are caused to hit the ball into the ground. The average spin of a Major League curveball last season was 2531 RPM. Bitsko’s curve already spins almost as much as the average Major Leaguers’.
He also throws his curve a little faster than the Major League average. Bitsko has thrown his curve at speeds between 76-83 mph. The Major League average for a curveball within his RPM range is 78.3. Using Baseballsavant’s search function, we can see that Major League hitters hit just .248 against curveballs with velocity and spin.
That’s Bitsko’s curveball today. Major League hitters hit under .250 off of similar curveballs to what a 17-year old can throw, today.
Because Bitsko’s breaking ball looks like more like a slurve, let’s look at what batters did this season against a slider with the same criteria. These results are even more encouraging for Bitsko. The major league average against a slider with Bitsko’s speed and spin is .234. He is still young and has a lot to learn about how to attack professional batters, but based on pure talent, he is a special prospect.
It wouldn’t be expected that any high school prospect would have the advanced feel for pitching that Bitsko has, let alone one that graduated a year early. But, Bitsko isn’t just any high school prospect, he is one of the most advanced pitchers in the 2020 draft. His rare combination of spin, speed, and control make him one of the few pitchers in this draft with true top of the rotation potential.
Bitsko’s changeup is his weakest pitch right now. It does have the potential to develop into a major league average pitch but right now lags behind his fastball and curveball combo. He flashed some of that potential by striking out Dylan Crews, ranked 45th among MLB Pipeline’s top draft prospects, looking with the change piece at a tournament earlier this season. His repertoire isn’t as advanced as some of the other pitchers ranked around him. But he has barely needed to use his changeup, let alone develop another pitch. If he can develop one more pitch to give batters another thing to look for, it would go a long way towards helping him reach his top of the rotation potential.
The biggest issue that Bitsko will face in July is out of his control. Because of the coronavirus putting a stop to all baseball this spring, scouts will not see Bitsko pitch again. Some teams might feel that they did not see enough to gamble the opportunity cost a first-round draft pick on him, and take him ahead of another guy they may like just as much on talent but feel more comfortable with.
The risk involved with selecting Bitsko is compounded by his age. It’s important to remember that he won’t even be 18 years old until after the draft. The instances of players being major league ready at a young age exceedingly rare; no, he will likely need quite a few years in the minors before he will be ready for the big leagues. Most younger prospects inherently have a wider range of outcomes, meaning more ways that his development could go down the tubes.
If he isn’t drafted early in the first round, the team that drafts him must be prepared to give him an over-slot bonus or risk him opting to attend college. This especially the case due to the fact that he’s a University of Virginia commit, a school which is notorious for grabbing an abundance of prep talent. The kind of financial oomph it would take to get Bitsko into pro ball may be too bitter a pill for some teams to swallow.
It’s hard to estimate when Bitsko will be drafted this July. It should be sometime in the first or early second round, but there are a lot of unknowns about this draft. He is a first-round and possibly a top-ten talent. He could drop on draft boards down to the second round due to the lack of exposure this spring.
The Detroit Tigers are already on the clock with the first overall pick this July. With the top pick and a pick in the Competitive Balance Round B, Detroit has the second-highest draft pool this year. Since 2012 when the draft bonus pool system was implemented, no first-overall pick has received their full bonus slot allotment. If Detroit is going to make a run at signing Bitsko, they will need to go over the slot value of their second-round pick. To do so, they will have to save enough money from their first-round pick and draft players that are willing to sign under slot value over the next few rounds.
As was mentioned earlier, Bitsko is committed to pitch at the University of Virginia, but Detroit should be able to offer him a signing bonus that is typically offered to someone drafted in the first 20 picks to convince him to turn pro this year. It’s a risk, but if he does reach his lofty potential, Detroit could be getting the top pitcher available in this draft.