In this year’s draft, the Tampa Bay Rays did something for the first time since 2012 and just the second time since 2009: go three rounds without selecting a single pitcher. When they finally did pick an arm, their choice was right-handed reliever Brandon Koch out of Dallas Baptist. Koch, whose last name is pronounced “coach,” is likely to become the second pitcher that the Rays have ever drafted in the top five rounds going back to 1996 that never spends a single professional season as a primary starting pitcher, joining Lenny Linsky in 2011.
Part of the motivation for the Rays to draft Koch was to save money so they could sign second rounder Chris Betts, but they must have also thought that he was a safe enough bet to be a big league reliever that he was worth selecting over a pitcher with the ability to start. It isn’t as though every potential starting pitcher out of college is gone by the fourth round, so the Rays must have seen something special with Koch. As I watched him from the Renegades’ press box, it became clear why he was the guy that the Rays wanted.
When you look at Koch’s numbers, his 4.19 ERA at Short Season-A doesn’t stand out much. However, his 27-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 19.1 innings is where you start to get an inkling that Koch could be an interesting pitcher, and watching him completes the picture. Koch’s fastball ranged from 93 to 96 MPH in his outing on Sunday, and he did a nice job throwing the pitch for strikes. It isn’t a straight heater either–Koch was able to get nice movement on it down and away from hitters quite a few times. It is difficult enough to make contact with it, and when he keeps it down, it is also difficult to elevate it even if you do.
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If Koch’s fastball wasn’t enough for Short Season-A hitters to deal with, then he throws his slider. The pitch looks exactly like his fastball out of his hand before featuring devastating late break. It look like it is going to be waist-high before simply disappearing down in the zone. He threw it consistently in the mid-80’s–he wasn’t touching 90 MPH like he did at times before the draft–but with movement like that, it didn’t matter. Koch was also able to spot the slider for a strike one time, and using it as more than a chase pitch will help him do even more things with his repertoire. Koch also throws a changeup, although I didn’t see it a single time.
Koch walked at least 4.7 batters per 9 innings in each of his seasons at Dallas Baptist, and it is easy to see why. His pitches move a lot, and he doesn’t have the most consistent release point. However, the Rays have smoothed out his delivery enough that he is throwing strikes consistently, and with his stuff, that is all he needs to start zooming through the minors. Two bad outings where his command within the zone was off inflated his ERA, but Koch has what it takes to be pitching at Low-A right now and it would be surprising if he didn’t start 2016 at High-A.
Brandon Koch should be the first member of Tampa Bay Rays’ 2015 draft haul to make the major leagues by a good margin, and the Rays are expecting him to make a big impact once he gets there. If he can maintain the command he has shown in most of his Hudson Valley outings while doing a better job getting called strikes with his slider, he has the stuff to be a high-leverage reliever and just maybe a closer. The Rays have drafted and developed so many starters, but it would be satisfying for them after years of questionable results from the draft to see a player make it to the majors quickly and take little time to prove that he was worth his selection.