As one of the best nights of his young life drew to a close Wednesday, the top high school pitcher in the country made time for a final Zoom call during which he got asked to give a scouting report about himself.
Mick Abel kept it simple. He mentioned his two fastballs— a four-seamer that he dials up to the mid-90s and a two-seamer with sinking action — in addition to his curveball and a slider that he labeled “my best off-speed pitch right now.”
Most major-league talent evaluators probably would agree. Then again, they haven’t seen Abel pitch in a game since last summer.
It turns out, there might be even more to the Phillies’ first-round draft pick than meets the scouts’ eyes.
If not for the coronavirus, which forced the cancellation of high school baseball seasons from coast to coast, Abel would have unveiled a changeup that the coach of his Portland, Ore., school thinks might become one of the 18-year-old right-hander’s signature pitches once he begins his professional career.
“I’ve seen him throw that changeup in our intrasquads,” Jesuit High coach Colin Griffin said by phone Thursday. “The terms I keep using in some of the reports is that I truly believe the first three times through a batting order we could’ve just played fastball-changeup catch. That’s how good it looked.”
So, why would Abel omit a pitch with that much promise from his stated repertoire? In part, Griffin said, it’s because he has not yet broken out the changeup for public consumption.
As a freshman, Abel leaned on a power fastball and focused on developing his slider, a pitch that he throws from the same arm slot as his heater. Before last season, he incorporated the sinker that runs in on the hands of right-handed batters, prompting scouts to evoke comparisons to veteran big-league starter Rick Porcello.
With that pitch mix, Abel overwhelmed the competition in Oregon. He went 10-0 with a 1.26 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 72⅓ innings last year, and Jesuit High won the state championship. If his goal was merely to continue dominating high school hitters, he didn’t need a changeup.
But Abel is aiming much higher.
“I’m not dissing anyone in the Oregon high school level, but when you’ve got kids who are number six, seven, eight, nine in any team’s batting order, if we throw a changeup, all we’re doing is helping them out because we’re speeding up their bat,” Griffin said. "To prep for Mick, teams would just fire up their Jugs BP3 machine, set it up at 95, and kids just tried to wind up and hit a fastball. I was excited to see kids have that same effort on Mick, and then we’d just throw changeups.
"He's got two fastballs, same slot, going two different directions, and then you've got a changeup with a 10-mph difference that just bites. I know that was something that he was truly trying to fine-tune to really help himself out."
Griffin's heart still aches when he recalls the team meeting that he called on the second Friday in March. He gathered his players on the field, looked 11 seniors in the eye, and broke the news that the season would be postponed.
Deep down, though, everyone knew it wouldn’t resume. Jesuit wouldn’t get its chance to become the first school in Oregon to win a state baseball championship in back-to-back years since 1969-70.
“It was hard hearing the words out of his mouth — ‘I’m so sorry, seniors, but we’re not going to be able to have a baseball season this year,’” Abel recalled. “It definitely [stunk] at first, not being able to go out and prove myself and what I’m worth. That was pretty hard.”
To Abel, though, it only meant that he’d have to work harder to avoid sliding on teams’ draft boards. He threw at least three times per week under the supervision of Keith Gunderson, a retired relief pitcher who reached the triple-A level in the Atlanta Braves organization. Abel has worked with Gunderson for five years and regards him “like a brother.”
With Gunderson’s help, Abel posted video of his throwing sessions on the online portal that Major League Baseball made available to all teams. It enabled scouts who hadn’t seen him up close to get a better look.
Sure enough, Abel was drafted 15th overall, higher than any high school player from Oregon since the Braves took outfielder Dale Murphy with the No. 5 pick in 1974. The only Oregon high school pitcher to go earlier than 15th overall: Wayne Twitchell, No. 3 to the Houston Astros in 1966.
"I didn't see him, unfortunately, but he looked good on video," said one scout from a team that picked after the Phillies but had Abel high on its board. "Really projectable from a physical standpoint. Smooth, easy delivery. Advanced in terms of strikes and command. Velo up to 97, plus slider, and a feel for a changeup. Top-of-the-rotation upside."
Griffin checked in on Abel’s sessions with Gunderson. He also fielded calls from scouts, in between teaching online classes and tutoring his own children.
It was the least he could do, though, for the best player he's ever coached.