In years past, there wouldn’t be a need to write how statistically the best draft-eligible college pitcher deserves to be the first college arm picked in the upcoming draft. Arguably one look at the accolades usually suffices in justification.
However, in 2022 we face a different scenario with a depleted top-of-the-line college pitching depth. Due to this lack of depth, opinions vary far and wide on who warrants the title of first college arm selected. Possibilities range from Blade Tidwell, Gabriel Hughes, Connor Prielipp, Carson Whisenhunt, and Cooper Hjerpe. Each pitcher in their own right embodies traits that overlap with past first-rounders, while each has their own risk ranging from health to profile concerns. Each of the five arms has their distinct profile, so a pick will likely come down to a team’s preference with what fits its organizational philosophy, as opposed to a consensus top arm.
However, I don’t think that should be the case for the 2022 Draft. This is my analytical breakdown of why Cooper Hjerpe is the clear top college arm eligible in the upcoming draft class.
Fastball: Hjerpe’s fastball generates average movement with its run and rise, nearly mirroring each other in the mid-teens. But, it is essential to contextualize the movement with where the pitch is coming from. Hjerpe works from a low release height and can generate such absurd movement numbers even from a low release. To pair with his low release height, he throws his fastball from a sub 4-4.5 vertical approach angle, resulting in a very flat delivery from release. The significance of the combination of movement, release height, and VAA is that research has 1) shown that flatter VAAs correlate to higher whiff % in fastballs and 2) rising movement is harder to generate from lower release heights as pitchers tend to work more east to west. The holy trinity combination of these fastball traits combines for a dynamic fastball in raw nature that allows it to play up even with “lower” velocity as Hjerpe tends to sit 89-92.
Slider: Hjerpe’s go-to offspeed pitch is an absolute demon averaging around 15 inches of sweep with above-average spin. Building upon his sweeping slider, Hjerpe delivers his slider from an optimal steeper VAA that leads to more whiffs in the strike zone. The delivery of his wide slider at a steep VAA and low release height creates an optimal usage zone located in the bottom third of the strike zone. Additionally, the profile of his slider differentiates well off his fastball as there is a 15+ inch difference in IVB between the two.
Changeup: Hjerpe’s changeup, which in my opinion, is massively underrated as he essentially has been able to dominate off his FB and SL combination alone. Hjerpe’s CH spin is nearly identical to his FB spin, but the main difference is the movement. Hjerpe’s changeup has minimal rise/sink and is dominant with lateral fading movement in the high teens. This shows how his CH is so effective as it has overlapping characteristics with his FB thus creating a great illusion out of his hand.
Cutter: Lastly, the newest pitch to Hjerpe’s arsenal is a cutter. This pitch has a distinct enough tweener profile that lets him use it differently than how he would typically use his slider and fastball independently of one another. Hjerpe’s cutter is a significantly harder version of his slider, averaging 85 MPH with less sweep. The cutter provides great flexibility with how Hjerpe employs his arsenal and looks like a pitch that will be used more as he ascends through pro-ball.
After understanding Hjerpe’s arsenal and pitch characteristics, we need to analyze how Hjerpe uses it and if he is optimal with target zones and usage splits. Hjerpe hurls his fastball consistently in the upper part of the strike zone, allowing its rising and other unique characteristics to eat in its desired target zone. Hjerpe is more vulnerable with his fastball in the lower middle to bottom third of the strike zone as it can be susceptible to rise into the heart of the plate. Moreso, Hjerpe can live on the edges of the plate and is fearless in pounding hitters inside. Arguably one of his best pitching traits is that he can command both sides of the plate and is versatile with his fastball command.
Hjerpe tends to go back door with his slider, letting it sweep and brush over the outer edge of the plate. As mentioned before, Hjerpe’s slider has a high amount of sweep and steeper VAA, so in theory, it should have a target zone of the lower part of the strike zone, which he does execute at a high clip.
Lastly, his changeup has a slight rise and is almost entirely an east to west pitch. Like his high sweeping slider, Hjerpe shoves his changeup towards the bottom of the strike zone and on the edges. He understands that his characteristics are optimized to generate weak contact and whiffs in this specific target zone, and he can consistently execute pitches in his target zone.
Due to the target zone optimization with Hjerpe’s pitches, he possesses high confidence in each pitch. He holds high dimensionality as a pitcher and can throw any of his pitches in any count or situation. His pitchability is highly regarded as he understands how to dissect hitters instead of hurling and hoping.
Another aspect of what drives Hjerpe’s value is his delivery. First and foremost, his delivery is funky, and we know that. I’m all for funky deliveries as long as they have clean arm action and repeatability. Guess what? Hjerpe checks both boxes.
He pitches with a steady rocking rhythm that sets a comfortable pace while pitching. Hjerpe operates from the first base side of the rubber and rotates his upper body in upon leg lift, already creating a tough, deceptive angle to pick up the baseball. Hjerpe works with a short “slingshot” like arm action with a medium tightness to his body. When extending his arm backward when loading up his slingshot, Hjerpe keeps the ball almost entirely behind his head and body, giving the hitter very little to pick up on and track. Upon gearing up for releasing the ball, Hjerpe naturally creates arm lag that hides his wrist behind his arm before pronating his wrist with a great extension down the bump. This heightens Hjerpe’s deception as his entire operation allows him to manipulate a near-hidden baseball with a slingshot finish. Hjerpe incorporates impressive hip flexibility with significant hip and shoulder separation leading to high stack that creates great energy transfer towards the plate. This bodes well for Hjerpe’s future development as it shows he is capable of athletic and flexible movements as a pitcher.
Batted Ball Profile
Another enticing part of Hjerpe is that he presents a great batted ball profile from hitters and has ideal outcomes of a high K% and higher GB%. His entire pitching operation and arsenal are tailor-made to generate whiffs and groundballs at a high clip. In his 2022 season, Hjerpe has 44% GB and 43% K rates. This is optimal for Hjerpe as it makes him less vulnerable to the long ball as he goes through pro ball and, inevitably, the big leagues.
Ceiling / Floor
Overall, with his combination of ceiling and floor, Hjerpe has arguably the best value of any college pitcher. As good as he is now, I believe there is much more to be obtained with Hjerpe. I’m all in on thinking he can get his fastball to sit more 92-94 with added strength and a big-league throwing program. Additionally, his new cutter this year provides a lot of flexibility with his arsenal in the near future. It gives him the potential of a fourth weapon to his already lethal arsenal. His cutter holds potential to be further developed and used at a higher rate giving him less reliance on his slider when facing hitters. The floor aspect of Hjerpe lies in the fact that because of his polish, he should need very little development in the minor leagues and can arguably be a bullpen weapon for a contending team in the late part of the MLB season. His arsenal has proven to get outs, and whether that’s in a SP or even a Josh Hader-lite role, you can expect that Hjerpe will be able to get outs at the big league level. How do you want to approach his development, and how much patience do you have as an organization? There is plenty of more left in the tank with his ability, and I genuinely think that passing over him for another college arm in the draft is a mistake and misunderstanding of his skills and potential as a pitcher.