No right-handed pitcher has ever been drafted out of high school with the first overall pick. It’s a streak that has lasted for over 50 years now, but one perpetuated for a reason. Prep righties are arguably the most volatile and high-risk position group available in the MLB draft, with a high fail rate. There are still high school righthanders good enough to crack the first round — even the top five! — but with so many talented college players typically available, there has been little reason for a team to spend a top pick on a much riskier player.
Carter Stewart isn’t the best prep righthander to hit the draft in recent years. Flamethrower Hunter Greene, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, has more talent and upside. But Stewart has burst onto the scene in a year where the Detroit Tigers have the No. 1 overall pick. Detroit hasn’t shied away from taking high-risk players in the first round in the past; 2016 first rounder Matt Manning is Exhibit A.
If the Tigers were to fall in love with Stewart’s profile, it’s possible they could take him over Auburn righthander Casey Mize. It isn’t likely — Mize has been listed as the top pick on everyone’s mock drafts for the past two months — but Stewart has a large frame, an incredible curveball, and potentially enough velocity for the Tigers to dream on what he could eventually become.
School: Eau Gallie High School (FL)
Draft day age: 18
MLB Pipeline prospect rank: 2
Previously drafted: Never
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: RHP Carter Stewart
Stewart’s best pitch is his curveball, a true hammer that sits in the mid-80s. It has one of the highest spin rates of any bender in the draft, and might be the best curveball in this year’s class — yes, even as a high schooler. He can already throw it for strikes, and Baseball America already has it labeled as a true double-plus pitch.
Over the summer, Stewart was known almost exclusively for his otherworldly curveball, which was a 70-grade offering at the time and routinely registered spin rates above 3,000 revolutions per minute. Stewart’s curveball was so impressive, in fact, that TrackMan honored the righthander at the Perfect Game All-America Classic in San Diego and said his breaking ball was among the most impressive pitches the company has ever tracked, at any level.
The Tigers have utilized Trackman data to dictate their draft day decisions over the past couple years; they reportedly fell in love with 2017 second rounder Reynaldo Rivera because of readings they picked up when Rivera was playing in a college tournament at Joker Marchant Stadium (fourth rounder Gio Arriera played in that same tournament). While Detroit may not have access to Perfect Game’s Trackman data, it may still sway their decision on draft day.
Stewart isn’t just a statistical darling, though. He is already 6’6 with a large frame, one that should allow him to add weight to his 200-pound build. With that added weight could come more velocity; Stewart sat in the high 80s with his fastball during the same tournament Baseball America cited above, but is reportedly up to the low-to-mid 90s this spring. MLB Pipeline notes that Stewart has been as high as 98 miles per hour this year, “and touching 96-97 mph in just about every start.” The added velocity has many outlets projecting the heater as another potential 70-grade pitch.
There aren’t many players with one 70-grade offering in this year’s draft, let alone two. Stewart has been skyrocketing up draft boards this spring, with multiple outlets, including ESPN’s Keith Law, pegging him as the No. 2 prospect in this year’s draft class. FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel saw Stewart pitch earlier this year and came away very impressed with Stewart’s overall profile.
Stewart passes all the tests in terms of arm action, delivery, frame, and athleticism that scouts use to try to find the most projectable prep arms in terms of velocity and health. As you may guess with this high-octane stuff, the mechanics are somewhat aggressive, but there are no red flags here — and maybe not even any yellow ones. Combined with command that projects to average or a little above, the result is a truly rare package. There’s buzz now than Stewart could sneak into the top five picks and become the next elite right-hander taken with a premium selection.
I’m no scout, but Stewart’s sudden jump in velocity worries me a bit. He was sitting in the high 80s with his fastball as recently as last summer, and has only just started to hit the mid-90s on the regular. McDaniel described Stewart’s mechanics as “somewhat aggressive” above, while others have alluded to (but not fully admitted) concerns with his arm action and delivery. He looks smooth enough in the videos below and has “impressive athleticism” for his size. It doesn’t appear he’s selling out for velocity — scouts likely would have picked up on that by now — but the jump in velo could put him at risk for future injury.
As a prep righty dominating his competition, Stewart hasn’t needed to throw his changeup very much. It’s a clear No. 3 pitch behind his fastball and curve, and MLB Pipeline notes that Stewart still hasn’t figured out the right arm action for the pitch. They hedge a bit by saying Stewart “has feel for it and it should be a solid pitch in the future.” Baseball America wasn’t ready to go that far, though, saying “he hasn’t needed to use a third pitch enough to give scouts much of a feel for it.” This is a concern for most high school pitchers — hi there, Jeremy Bonderman — so it shouldn’t affect Stewart’s draft stock any.
But above all, Stewart’s age is the real reason to be skeptical of his profile. High school arms have the highest injury risk of any draft group, as well as the highest flameout rate. Even pitchers with stuff as good as Stewart’s fail at a high rate, especially as they play more baseball on the showcase circuit before MLB drafts. These concerns wouldn’t worry me so much if the Tigers were somewhere in the 5-10 range (or below) because some of the other top players in the draft will already be gone, but the Tigers can grab someone more advanced and polished before then.
Draft position: anywhere in the first round
Prep righthanders are notoriously difficult to predict, as different teams are looking for such different things on draft day. One general consensus is that prep righties tend to fall farther than the mock drafts might suggest, as a high fail rate and signability concerns lead teams to choose other less risky talents. Stewart is the No. 2 prospect on MLB Pipeline’s board, but was just projected to fall to No. 15 by none other than MLB.com’s Jim Callis. That’s probably as far as Stewart falls thanks to his huge frame and monster curveball, but nobody really knows how things will pan out on June 4. It would certainly be a shock if the Tigers took a chance on him — it’s an unprecedented move, after all — but as mentioned, if any prep righty is going to break the streak this year, Stewart is that guy.
h/t 2080 Baseball, FanGraphs, and Baseball America for the videos