When he isn’t pitching for the Phillies’ Class A team in Clearwater, Fla., Mick Abel is usually charting pitches. Or volunteering to be the bat boy. Or hanging with teammates. Anything to blend in.
“I was talking to one of the players and he was like, ‘I played PlayStation with Mick three or four times in his hotel room before I realized he was a first-round draft pick,’ " Clearwater pitching coach Tyler Anderson said by phone the other day. “Because he doesn’t act that way. You would never know talking to him that he’s a first-rounder or he has all this money or anything. You would have no idea.”
Not until Abel takes the mound. Then he can’t help but attract attention.
A relevant disclaimer: It has been only six starts. Abel also won’t turn 20 until the middle of August. He’s multiple years away from the big leagues. And players drafted out of high school — even 15th overall picks — often struggle in their first full year in pro ball as they adapt to the grind of a longer season than any they experienced as amateurs. The challenge figures to be even greater after not playing last year because of the pandemic.
But Abel, drafted by the Phillies a year ago this week, already reminds one longtime scout from a National League team of “young Roy Halladay,” a comparison born out of more than a 1.42 ERA and 18 strikeouts in his last four starts for Clearwater or a 3.57 ERA overall. There are the 6-foot-5 frame, the upper-90s fastball, the three offspeed pitches, and the “killer mentality,” as Abel calls it, on the mound.
Upon taking over in December as the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski referred to Abel as “impressive as could be” before even getting a firsthand look at him. In spring training, Bryce Harper name-checked the teenage right-hander as one prospect who should be off-limits in future trade talks.
No pressure, kid.
“Coming in, I didn’t really feel any pressure,” Abel said by phone. “Expectations never really get to me in general. I just try to go at things each day with the same mentality. I don’t see different expectations or special treatment. I just try to be me and not really try to stand out like that.”
But there’s no camouflaging the significance of Abel’s development to a Phillies farm system that is lacking in elite-level prospects, has had one honest-to-goodness starting-pitching triumph in the last 10 years (Aaron Nola), and lately can’t seem to unlock Spencer Howard’s tantalizing talent.
Whether or not he chooses to see it, Abel has been among the organization’s most important players since even before he made his minor-league debut, which didn’t happen until much later than he could have imagined on draft night.
A waiting game
Abel was at home in Oregon with family and a few friends last June 10 when the Phillies drafted him. That night, he got a FaceTime call from an unfamiliar number. It was Harper, welcoming him to the organization.
How’s that for an unforgettable orientation?
Two weeks later, Abel topped it. He traveled with his family to Citizens Bank Park to sign for $4.075 million, the fourth-largest sum doled out by the Phillies to a first-round pick.
But then what? With the minor-league season shut down by the pandemic, Abel had nowhere to play. He returned to Oregon to work with his personal pitching coach, former Atlanta Braves farmhand Kevin Gunderson, and began throwing with a dozen or so minor leaguers from the Portland area.
“It was really weird,” said Abel, whose senior season at Jesuit High was called off, too. “It was in-season, but it was like the offseason.”
The Phillies arranged for coaches to stay in touch with minor leaguers through weekly Zoom calls. That was how Travis Hergert, then the Phillies’ assistant minor-league pitching coordinator, got to know Abel.
“I was really impressed with his awareness of his routine, his body, things that he was working on, and the detail behind that,” said Hergert, elevated in March to interim pitching coordinator. “We’re in this day and age where we know everything about how the body moves and degrees of separation and metrics on pitches. He was very aware of what that entailed and how it helped his performance.”
Indeed, Abel speaks the pitching vernacular of the analytics age. In discussing a recent change in the grip for his change-up, Abel said it gives him “more horizontal break on the X/Y scatter plot.” It’s the language spoken by Hergert and other devotees of Driveline Baseball, the data-driven development program that is gaining influence within many organizations.
But Hergert learned something else about Abel when they met in person last October.
With health and safety protocols in place, the Phillies brought roughly 60 minor leaguers to Clearwater for instructional league. Abel called it his “first taste of professional baseball,” and he demonstrated a seriousness of purpose that Hergert, a former college coach, said he rarely sees from teenage players. Whereas most high school draftees are just beginning to see baseball as a career, Abel sought as much information as possible about nutrition, weight training, and other off-the-field paths to self-improvement.
“He was there to make his presence felt, I think, but it wasn’t anything that rubbed anybody the wrong way,” Hergert said. “There was a businesslike approach to everything he did. He came in and just absolutely attacked it and got after it and was really open-minded to things.”
Anderson, hired by the Phillies in the offseason after three years as a coach in the Los Angeles Angels system, made a similar observation about Abel’s 19-going-on-39 maturity.
“I heard a lot about him, and everybody told me that the makeup was off the charts,” Anderson said. “But he’s maybe the greatest kid I’ve been around. He’s unreal.”
And then Anderson saw Abel pitch.
The whole package
In high school, Abel threw mostly fastballs and a spinning slider. He dabbled with a curveball and change-up, but when you throw in the upper-90s, you’re doing high school hitters a favor by using offspeed pitches.
“I always had a change-up, but I never really had to use it,” Abel said. “Trying to master that pitch now. A well-executed change-up is one of the best pitches in baseball.”
Anderson and Hergert agree that the slider is still Abel’s best offspeed pitch. But the Phillies are challenging him to use his curveball and change-up more often.
To wit: Three starts ago, in a three-inning outing against Dunedin, Abel purposely threw only one slider, according to Anderson. He gave up one hit and recorded four strikeouts — one with each pitch (fastball, slider, change-up, curveball).
“He didn’t use his best pitch and still had his best outing of the year,” Anderson said. “That was really cool to see.”
The Phillies are being conservative with their minor-league pitchers and especially Abel after a year without games. He hasn’t thrown more than 62 pitches or completed four innings, but each start has been better than the one before it. Last week, he gave up two hits and recorded a season-high six strikeouts in 3 ⅔ innings at Daytona.
Abel’s focus now is taking what Hergert described as “four pitches that essentially go in different directions” and learning to sequence them effectively. That might mean sacrificing dominance with his fastball and slider for giving up a few more runs because he’s working on throwing other pitches in different counts.
“It’s the lower levels, so he could probably go 98-99 all day long and throw the slider and have a ton of success,” Hergert said. “But it’s about keying in on, how can we develop this pitch so it can play up and you can move up in these levels and continue to have success? And he’s willing to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to force myself to use my curveball more and not use my slider as much, or I’m going to throw the change-up a couple more times to righties rather than lefties.’
“That’s what development is. The line may not always look great, but if we’re getting better and we’re developing those pitches, in the long run those lines are going to continue to get better and better at other levels. Ultimately, we want him doing it in Citizens Bank Park in a Phillie uniform.”
Nay, the Phillies need Abel to get here. After so many years and so few top prospects panning out, it’s practically an organizational imperative that he stands out from the crowd.