The Detroit Tigers love drafting hard throwing college pitchers. Its like an obsessive habit they just can’t quit. In the fifth round of the 2016 amateur draft, the Tigers selected junior righthander Mark Ecker from Texas A&M, where he served as closer in a dynamic Aggies bullpen. The long and painful tale of failed relievers drafted by the Tigers may cause one to overlook him as another potential wasted pick. However, there is intriguing upside here that could lead to him pitching in the big leagues before long.
In his junior season at Texas A&M, he put up a scant 0.41 ERA while striking out 52 and walking just four hitters in 44 innings of work. His pro debut saw him continue this trend, as he worked as the closer for both between Short-Season Connecticut and Single-A West Michigan. In 27 innings, Ecker posted a 0.98 ERA, 31 strikeouts, and five walks, leading to a 0.76 WHIP.
Ecker features a plus fastball that sits at 93-96 miles per hour and gets up to 98 mph with good control. He also has an above-average changeup in the mid-80s with some splitter-like action to it. He throws two kinds of sliders but neither is better than average. He commands all of his pitches well, as evidenced by his consistently low walk rates. There has been talk among some scouts as to whether he would be tried out as a starter with his diverse pitch arsenal or kept in the bullpen. Scott Plies, the Tigers’ director of amateur scouting, clears this up.
“He’s got a plus-plus fastball and plus-plus change. He’s going to be a reliever, but that’s OK. There was some talk about starting him out as a starter. We got a good arm here.”
While plus-plus may be a little generous for his change — MLB.com grades it at a 55, merely above-average — the reasoning behind the pick is evident. His off-speed stuff backs up his fastball better than with most pitching prospects, especially flame-throwing relievers available in the fifth round.
Ecker’s solid command combined with a big-time fastball is something of a rarity, actually. Rob Ozga from The Baseball Draft Report compiled a list of just 11 players in the past decade fit into this model.
Finding a comparable reliever to Ecker is surprisingly difficult. I’m using arbitrary standards here — more than 8.00 K/9, less than 2.00 BB/9, average fastball velocity 93+ MPH — and the pool of qualified relievers this decade comes out to just eleven possibilities. Of that eleven, none give me the kind of stuff close enough to Ecker to convince me to throw that comp on him. Liam Hendriks, Sean Doolittle, Rafael Betancourt, Robert Osuna, Junichi Tazawa, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson...Kelvin Herrera is a little too small and probably throws too many breaking balls, but he’s a decent facsimile for Ecker’s stuff/control combination otherwise...though I’d be remiss to not at least mention Ryan Madson, my go-to fastball/changeup/control comp in these situations. Some combination of Herrera, Madson, and Melancon would be one heck of a reliever.
Yes, Rob, yes it would. And it would be a reliever that the Tigers have been searching for throughout many years in the draft.
For all of Ecker’s potential upside, the knock on him is that he is pretty much as physically developed as he’s going to get. At just 6’0 and 180 pounds, he can’t rely on the same downward plane for deception on his pitches that taller pitchers come by naturally. Ecker’s ability to get through more advanced hitters at the upper levels will come down to how well he is able to keep them from squaring up his pitches.
Ecker might be able to polish up his offerings a bit more and refine his command some, but he has largely reached his ceiling developmentally. He will need to learn the art to attacking more and more advanced hitting from his coaches [Ed.: One might call that the “art of pitching”]. It is very difficult to project how well a prospect will be able to do this over time.
Jacob’s Scouting Report:
Projected 2017 team: Lakeland Flying Tigers
Ecker has the stuff to be a potential closer in the majors if everything comes together and he can figure out how to maintain a high strikeout rate as he moves through the minors. He is advanced enough that he will probably start the year at Advanced-A Lakeland. He will move aggressively if he can continue compiling good results. I’m not sure he could make the jump to the majors this year — a lot would have to go right on his end, and wrong on the Tigers; end — but college relievers worth their salt can shoot up the minor league ladder. Even if Ecker struggles as he moves up, he has enough raw stuff to reach the cusp of the majors at some point in the near future. He offers genuinely exciting upside in a system that has long failed to produce quality relief pitching.