From the moment Detroit Tigers fans set their heart on the first selection in the 2018 amateur draft, Florida ace Brady Singer and prep fireballer Ethan Hankins have received most of the attention. Both have seen their stock take a hit in recent days, however, leaving an opening at the top of the draft. Jeff Ellis at Scout.com seems to think that prep lefty Matthew Liberatore is poised to fill that vacancy. Ellis projected the Tigers will snag Liberatore with the first pick.
Like the Tigers' last top-10 pick, Matt Manning, prospect junkies could quickly get carried away when projecting Liberatore. Standing 6'5 and weighing in at 200 pounds, he has a prototypical pitcher's build and has room for more muscle on his slender frame. Utilizing an easy and repeatable delivery, this lefty uses it to minimize reasons to suspect injury and maximize his command.
The star pitcher from Mountain Ridge High School in Arizona is far more advanced than most pitchers of his age. As a junior, Liberatore's fastball sat in the low 90s, touching 94 miles per hour once in a while. As this season has begun, scouts have seen him get to the mid-90s with much more regularity and he has been clocked at 95 mph more than once. He throws the pitch with conviction and is unafraid to use it anywhere in the zone. It has late run and sinks arm-side. That kind of movement gives hitters fits and induces whiffs. He can work up or down in the zone effectively and has above-average control. While he doesn't reach triple digits like so many other top prospects, movement and command create a weapon that could be plus if the increase in velocity is real. The pitch was on full display during the 18U World Cup game, shown below.
As a potential first overall selection, Liberatore has plenty to back up the heater. His breaking ball is a slow curve, a weapon with deep movement that multiple outlets report as having tight spin. By all accounts, it is just as good as the fastball. He can get hitters to swing and miss on the pitch, but he also fools them and drops it in for strikes with sudden bite. The pitch is currently considered above-average by MLB.com, and could quickly move into plus territory. Shaun Kernahan of Minor League Ball has seen Liberatore play on multiple occasions and came away impressed with his curve, saying this:
He also features a 12-6 curve that is just plain not fair for most high school competition, even in a division that features nationally ranked Pinnacle High and O’Connor that has Gorman and Oregon State commit Jayce Easley. What is even more impressive is Liberatore is not afraid to start an at-bat with his off-speed stuff, and will even throw his curve while behind in the count.
He throws the curve a little inside and doesn't get the strike, but it has such hilarious movement that the batter though he was about to be decapitated. Take a look.
Remarkably, the best pitch that Liberatore will throw is the one he uses least: his changeup. A mid-80s offering, it separates from the fastball by 8-10 miles per hour. Coming from the same arm slot as his heater, it has plenty of deception and fades nicely. Kernahan was also impressed by the changeup. "Because it slows into a lot of high school bat speed, he only breaks out a few a game," he noted, "but it will be a plus pitch the moment he steps onto a pro field."
The gif below features a 79 mile per hour changeup that Liberatore pitches with excellent movement and in textbook location.
There is little doubt that Liberatore is an excellent pitcher who will be taken within the first 10 picks this June. He offers an exciting package of skills that place him far ahead of most high school pitchers. While the profile he offers deviates from the normal top pitching prospect nowadays, it is easy to envision a future where Liberatore pitches near the top of a big league rotation.
More polished than your standard prep pitching product, it is possible that Liberatore skips rookie ball entirely after entering the pro ranks if his new team wants to be aggressive with his development.
h/t Taiwan Baseball Notes and 2080 Baseball for the video footage