Usually, when projecting a high school pitcher into the top five to 10 picks of the MLB draft, radar gun readings rule the day. Pitchers like Hunter Greene and Riley Pint were drafted recently highly thanks to triple-digit fastballs, and there are dozens of others who have been projected into similar spots over the years. The risk is high, but so is the reward. Want the next Clayton Kershaw? You don’t often find those guys deep in the draft.
Lefthander Matthew Liberatore is unique. He can reach the mid-90s with his fastball at times — an early-season outing in the mid-90s had scouts salivating for weeks — but doesn’t have the same electric stuff as many of the other prospects in this year’s deep class. What Liberatore does have is a four-pitch arsenal that he mixes well, even in high school. As many as three of those pitches could be plus offerings down the road, and if the fastball takes a step forward, he has ace potential.
Should the Detroit Tigers take that kind of risk at 1-1, though? They haven’t been linked to Liberatore so far, but there’s still more than a month to go until draft day. Let’s see how he currently stacks up.
School: Mountain Ridge High School (AZ)
Draft day age: 18
MLB Pipeline prospect rank: 4
Previously drafted: Never
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: LHP Matthew Liberatore
As you can probably surmise from the above table, Liberatore’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t have many weaknesses. He already sports a refined three-pitch mix, with a fastball, curveball, and changeup that could all eventually be plus pitches. The slider is new this spring, but MLB Pipeline has been impressed so far.
Liberatore’s pitchability is what separates him. That’s not to say he doesn’t have good stuff, because he has the potential to eventually develop three pitches that could garner a 60 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale...He throws a slower curveball with three-quarters tilt and good spin rate and introduced a new, and very effective, slider this spring. And his changeup gives him a third secondary pitch that could be plus when all is said and done.
While Liberatore is already quite polished for a high school arm, he still has some projection left. His breaking pitches could use some refinement (as could any draft pick), and his mechanics will also need some smoothing. More importantly, he has some physical projection remaining, which could lead to the type of profile that teams at the top of the draft normally fight over in June. Take the fans at Phillies Minor Thoughts, for example.
Liberatore is probably the most complete high school pitcher in this draft class with good size, good command of his fastball and a plus curve. The attempt to add a slider has certainly caught scout’s attention to the point. Without much of a dropoff in stuff or injury, he’s has been slowly cementing himself as a top 5 lock with over a month to go. He does have more room to grow physically and that could lead to his velocity sitting in the 92-95 range more so than low 90s.
While we’re going to discuss the other side of his fastball below, Liberatore isn’t exactly a soft-tosser. He generally sits in the low 90s, commands the ball well, and occasionally reaches back for more. Baseball America saw the best of Liberatore in an early season outing that showed off some ace-level upside.
The 6-foot-5 lefty was impressive from the first pitch to the last. His loose arm, easy three-quarter delivery and smooth mechanics drew comparisons ranging from Cole Hamels to Steve Avery. His first pitch clocked in at 92 mph. He generally sat at 92-93 and touched 95 on a few pitches early in the game. As the outing wore on into the middle innings, he settled in at 90-91 as he continued to cruise through the opposing lineup.
There’s a lot to like here, but it takes a little bit of squinting to see how it would all come together into an ace-level package.
Liberatore’s fastball isn’t a weakness, but when comparing him to players like Casey Mize and Carter Stewart as a possible 1-1 pick, it doesn’t quite measure up. FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel measured Liberatore at 93-95 miles per hour early in one viewing this spring, but he lost that velocity quickly.
His stuff has backed off to expected levels each start since that debut, and he was very solid in the first inning at NHSI: he sat 93-95 mph on the fastball with a 55 to 60 curveball, a fringe slider (a new pitch he had added in the past week), and a 55 changeup. By the third inning, Liberatore was out of sync, having some trouble with strikes and working 89-91 with a curveball that flashed 55.
McDaniel’s colleague, Eric Longenhagen, was also a bit skeptical after an early season viewing. He also noted that Liberatore doesn’t compare quite as well to other recent high draft picks, particularly lefthanders like Kolby Allard and Jason Groome.
So where does Matthew Liberatore stack among this group? Last week, he was up to 94, sitting mostly 91-92 for most of his start, with a fairly upright delivery that I think negatively impacts extension. His slowest fastball was at 88; it came from the stretch late in his start. Liberatore’s curveball flashed plus several times. It’s fair to question if a 70-72 mph curveball will be effective in the big leagues, but there’s remarkable feel for spin here and it’s likely Liberatore’s breaking ball will have more power to it at maturity.
While McDaniel notes that Liberatore finished strong in that outing, the overall body of work hasn’t been nearly as impressive as many others on the draft board. Minor League Ball was skeptical of his future potential even during the height of Liberatore’s draft stock in early March.
There is some concern about his upside, because he isn’t the type of pitcher that sits in the upper-90s (although touching it is not out of the question) and does not have a power breaking pitch, he doesn’t project like your typical, front of the rotation arm. Instead he is a rare high floor high school arm that has the potential to be a quick mover.
I put his ceiling as a number two starter and a likely outcome as a strong number three. I will also be really interested to see where he debuts, as his stuff should allow him to skip the complex leagues if the team that drafts him feels like starting him off aggressively.
That’s the rub here, really. Drafting a high floor arm with three potential plus pitches in the top 10 is a great strategy for most franchises, and perhaps even the Tigers. But with others on the board who have similar floors and a more electric arsenal (looking at you, Casey Mize), Liberatore’s profile gets graded on a harsher curve.
Draft position: top 10, but possibly falling
Liberatore’s stock peaked about a month ago, when he hit 97 miles per hour on the radar gun in an early season outing. Scout.com even projected him as the first overall pick back in early March, and many were left dreaming on what he could become as his frame matures a little more. The Tigers have not shied away from taking prep arms either, so the fit made plenty of sense if he was going to hit the mid-90s all spring.
Liberatore has been a bit inconsistent since then, though, and hasn’t shown the same blazing stuff nearly as consistently as other arms (both prep and college) have. The profile is still excellent, of course, but velocity is king on draft day. Unless Liberatore takes a big step forward over the next month, he could find himself at the back end of the top 10, if not a bit lower. FanGraphs projected him sixth overall to the Mets last week, but anywhere in the top 15 would not be a surprise (except maybe first overall to Detroit).