College seniors are often not top draft targets. Most good college players are folded into the professional ranks after their junior year, and the ones that are left don’t often do much. There are certain exceptions, such as Detroit Tigers top prospect Kyle Funkhouser, who was drafted out of Louisville in the fourth round of the 2016 draft after declining to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a late first round pick in the 2015 draft.
In a class that is defined by college pitching, it should be no surprise that one of the standout seniors separating himself from the pack is a pitcher: left-hander Jared Poché from Louisiana State University. He turned down a selection by the San Diego Padres in the 14th round of the 2016 draft, opting to return to LSU for one more year of college ball. It is looking like that was the correct choice, as he has raised his stock somewhat.
This tweet from LSU ace Alex Lange, one of the top arms in this year’s class, summed up the beginning of Poché’s season quite nicely.
Jared. Freaking. Pochè.— Alex Lange (@Lange_17) February 26, 2017
Despite not being the best pitcher available, Poché was rewarded with the Opening Day start for the LSU Tigers, and did not disappoint. He surprised with an outstanding seven inning no-hitter that allowed his team to notch their 2,500th program victory. It was only the sixth individual no-hitter in the school’s history. He quickly made that number seven, carrying his hitless streak to his second start, when he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning.
Unfortunately, his season hasn’t been as incredible as those two starts would indicate. On the whole, he has posted a 5.97 K/9 through 95.0 IP. That figure is down from a mark of 7.68 K/9 last season. Also on the rise is his HR/9, from 0.49 his sophomore season to 0.71 his junior season to 0.95 this season. That being said, he has lowered his ERA, WHIP, and BB/9 since last season, and his K/BB is the lowest it’s ever been in his college career.
What has fueled his performances? First and foremost, his off-speed pitches. Both his curveball and changeup were rated as being solidly above average by MLB.com in 2016 prior to the draft, and the report mentioned that both had the chance to become plus offerings. The curve is the standout of the two, with good 11-5 drop very capable of buckling the knees of any opposing hitter.
The changeup is also a weapon that Poché is able to use for outs, especially against righties. With a natural sinking motion, it can be a useful tool for groundouts and the occasional whiff or two.
This section is pretty skinny. Part of what appeals to scouts about Poché is his high floor; there are few cracks in his game. His ceiling isn’t all that high — he’s maybe a fourth starter at best — but he is a good bet to reach that, with a floor of a lefty relief specialist who makes good use of his curve and change.
The LSU product is essentially the foil of the standard Tigers draftee. The most striking difference is the poor grades Poché draws from scouts for his fastball. While most of Detroit’s high picks tout an above average to plus heater, his is average at best. It sits 89-91 miles per hour on most nights, topping out at 93 mph. There is very little chance of it getting any better. He is out of projection physically, and the velocity on it has risen very little since his arrival at LSU. It is cited as having run and sink, though, which is important. If a fastball of mediocre velocity is thrown flat, it will get knocked around.
The only other concern is his command. While he has been fairly judicious with the number of free passes he issues for the most part, MLB.com 2016 scouting reports noted Poché’s ability to spot his offerings was tottering.
He looks to have righted that ship, however. For one thing, a loose cannon would not have been able to comply such an impressive run as his season opener. He also identified his own improvement in an interview earlier this year.
Preparation is big here. Putting in the work during the week takes care of itself on game day. Ultimately it's been my fastball command. That's been the difference for me, being able to throw any pitch in any count, and having the confidence and conviction to execute the pitch.
Right now, it’s hard not to be high on Poché. However, for him to snag a top spot in the draft, he’ll have to continue pitching well. That means he needs to make intelligent use of his two offspeed pitches and continuing to squeeze the most value out of his fastball that he can. He’ll also need to keep his command rock-solid. If he manage to do all of these things, then reaching his ceiling of a fourth starter is a near-certainty (relatively speaking, of course). The sudden drop in strikeouts is a little concerning, but he does have the tools to be successful.