Looking around the Astros organization, it is prevalent that the Astros are a system that racks up strikeouts by the truck-full. Across all levels, the Astros are at or near the top of every K/9 statistic. Last year, every Astros affiliate led their league in K/9. It’s no secret; they love the strikeout. The higher the spin rate, the better the breaking ball, the more attention the Astros pay. Should they be enamored with any pitcher this draft because of the strikeout potential, look no further than Ethan Small.
Ethan Small is a 6’3”, 215 lbs redshirt Junior LHP from Mississippi State. As a freshman in 2016, Small pitches exclusively out of the bullpen. In 15 appearances, Small was rocked, allowing 15 ERs and 10 BB over just 10 innings, skyrocketing his ERA to 13.06. He still managed to rack up 20 strikeouts in those 10 innings, but would undergo Tommy John Surgery at the end of the year.
After recovering from Tommy John and being cleared to pitch in 2018, Small was moved full-time to the starting rotation for his redshirt-sophomore season. It was there Small found his stride. He would finish the season 5-4 with a 3.20 ERA. In 18 starts totaling 101 innings, he collected 120 strikeouts, putting him at 10.84 K/9. He walked 33 batters, finishing with 2.93 BB/9 and a respectable 1.24 WHIP.
Now in his redshirt Junior season, Small has exploded on the scene as the Bulldogs’ Friday night starter. This season Small has been one of the best pitchers in college baseball, pitching to the tune of a 9-1 record with a 1.84 ERA in 83 innings. He has struck out an astonishing 139 batters, currently sitting at 15.07 K/9 on the year. He has improved on his walks, totaling 2.39 BB/9, and over the course of his 14 starts, Small has allowed only 4.88 Hits/9, keeping him at a ridiculous 0.81 WHIP. Small has had two instances this season in which he has struck out 10+ hitters in 6 innings, including 15 in 6 innings against Alabama.
Usually pitchers come back from Tommy John Surgery throwing harder than they did before surgery due to the rigorous rehab they go through to recover. Such is not the case with Small. As a freshman, Small reached 96 mph with his fastball but since his surgery has focused more of his efforts on commanding and controlling the zone instead of sheer velocity. For this reason, Small sits 88-92 mph. His changeup and curveball will sit comfortably in the mid-to-high 70s. His changeup is his go-to pitch, and though he doesn’t tend to use his curveball often, it is still a pitch that generates a lot of swings and misses.
Small uses a high-three quarter arm slot and makes his living in the art of deception. Small loves to mess with the hitter’s timing via pauses and tweaks in his delivery. By doing so, he amplifies his game and makes up for his lack of velocity with his deceptive style.
Projected Round: 2nd-3rd Round
The Astros have the last pick of the 1st Round, #32 overall. They will not pick again until #68 overall, likely way after Small comes off the board. As a helium player, Small has risen up Draft boards with a fantastic junior season. How high could he rise? If the Astros value the stuff he has, the advanced approach he uses on the mound, as well as his fierce competitive nature, is it out of the realm of possibility to think the Astros could take him with their first pick should they think he wouldn’t make it to the very backend of the 2nd Round? It’s possible, albeit unlikely.
Regardless, the Astros will be hard strapped to find a guy that will check all the boxes with the last first round pick. With Tommy John already having been performed, the risk is there, but with the right coaching in pro ball the possibility is there to tap back into the velocity he displayed before surgery.
MLB Comparison: Rich Hill
Both Small and Hill are tall lefties that won’t light up radar guns, but will effectively beat you in different aspects of the game. Both possess slow curveballs that will test the patience of hitters, and both will do a good job of mixing in different deliveries to throw off opposing teams. No one has ever mistaken Rich Hill as the ace of the staff, but has been a very reliable option the last few years as a solid middle-to-backend option in the rotation. That could very well describe Small’s ceiling, but his ability to command the zone and strike hitters out gives him a high floor coming out of the draft.
**Photo Credit: Getty Images**