One of the most difficult jobs in all of baseball is scouting the next generation of major league talent. Sure, there are a few no-doubters in the group — Bryce Harper was touted as the LeBron James of baseball seemingly since grade school — but most of it seems like a combination of acute observation and random guesswork. Not only do scouts need to see which players have the raw skills that can be molded into consistent weapons on a baseball diamond, they need to do so through a lens that accounts for puberty and physical projection. What will a 17-year-old look like when he’s 20? 22? 25?
This is the challenge scouts face with Jack O’Loughlin, an Australian teenager the Detroit Tigers signed a couple years ago. A promising lefthander with the frame scouts dream on, O’Loughlin has already held his own (or better) against some of the top competition on his continent. He is the latest in Detroit’s modest pipeline of Australian talent, joining Warwick Saupold and fellow prospects Zac Shepherd and Ulrich Bojarski in the Tigers farm system. After two years of just playing Australian ball, O’Loughlin will report to spring training for the first time later this month.
The Tigers signed O’Loughlin a couple years ago as a 16-year-old. He has yet to come to America for pro ball, instead staying in Australia while he finishes school. He has pitched in various leagues and tournaments down under, including the Australian Baseball League. He impressed in the ABL last season, allowing a 3.02 ERA in 41 2⁄3 innings while striking out over three batters for every walk. Sure, there weren’t many strikeouts (just 22), but for a 16-year-old playing against grown men? Not bad.
O’Loughlin has struggled in his second year of ABL play, though. He had allowed 18 runs on 26 hits in his first 23 innings this winter, a 7.04 ERA and 1.74 WHIP. His strikeout total jumped to over a batter per inning, but he also more than doubled his walk rate.
Luckily, things seem to have gotten better. O’Loughlin recently transitioned to a U18 tournament and has been dominating the competition. He tossed six scoreless innings with six strikeouts last week, and fanned 11 in just 6 1⁄3 innings back in early January.
Though O’Loughlin is incredibly young for a prospect, he looks the part on the mound. He stands 6’4” and already weighs around 200 pounds — an ideal build for a starting pitcher. It’s the kind of build that lead many to project him as a mid-rotation starter, one that could handle 180 to 200 innings at peak. He still has some projection left in his frame as well, which could lead to some added velocity as he gets stronger and smooths out his mechanics.
Speaking of those mechanics, they’re actually quite smooth for someone as young as him. O’Loughlin works from a three-quarters arm slot, using a smooth delivery that (ideally) reduces strain on his arm and allows for plus command potential. It also allows for a solid fastball that should get better as he ages. O’Loughlin just barely scrapes 90-91 miles per hour now, but scouts believe he’ll add a bit of velocity and comfortably sit in the low 90s when he’s older.
His curveball might already be his best pitch, though. Scouts have praised it for its tight spin and O’Loughlin’s ability to move it around the plate against opposing hitters. He can certainly refine it, of course — more on that later — but it has enough spin and break to become a plus pitch at peak. It may also improve his floor some — if he can’t develop a third pitch or if the fastball stays a little fringy, a good curveball could help him carve out a decent career in a relief role.
If we’re grading O’Loughlin based on what he’s capable of right now, everything is a weakness. He is incredibly raw and still growing, both physically and as a baseball player. All of his pitches are inconsistent, and the fastball needs to add velocity for him to even approach reaching his lofty ceiling. He will certainly benefit from the full-time professional instruction he will start receiving this year, but some things (especially the velocity) just have to click on their own.
As for things he can (somewhat) control, O’Loughlin’s secondary pitches will need the most polish. Jay identified O’Loughlin’s curveball as a work-in-progress last year, saying “he will need to develop better control and command of the offering” going forward. While he already has advanced feel for the pitch, turning it into a more consistent weapon will be one of his priorities for the upcoming seasons. It will be an important pitch for him to develop to ward off right-handed hitters; being able to spot that near the hitter’s back foot can even help mask a subpar changeup at times.
Speaking of changeups, scouts aren’t too confident in O’Loughlin’s ability to develop a good one. TigsTown’s Mark Anderson graded it as a below average offering even at peak, and it rarely goes mentioned when others describe O’Loughlin’s arsenal. Even team sources shy away from mentioning the changeup right now. Luckily, he has plenty of time to prove us wrong.
Projected team: Gulf Coast League Tigers
O’Loughlin will make his stateside debut in 2017, almost assuredly for one of Detroit’s two Gulf Coast League teams. Here he will face other top international projects making their U.S. debuts, along with some high school and college draftees. It’s a very diverse crowd, and one that can be difficult to navigate for an inexperienced pitcher like O’Loughlin. His experience facing older hitters in the ABL should help him adjust, but we can expect some bumps and bruises along the road. Don’t get caught up in his numbers. If he stays healthy and adds velocity, consider 2018 a success for the young Aussie.