Coming into the 2016 season, Thomas Szapucki had 2.1 undistinguished professional innings under his belt, having appeared in three games with the GCL Mets in late July and early August. The scouting reports had positive things to say of his pedigree, which is why the youngster from Toms River was drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and ranked the Mets’ 25th best prospect by Amazin’ Avenue, but we would need to wait until 2016 to see what exactly the southpaw brought to the mound as a professional.
Tossing 52 innings with the Kingsport Mets and the Brooklyn Cyclones, he posted a 1.38 ERA with 86 strikeouts and 20 walks. Only Grant Dayton of the Dodgers and James Hoyt of the Astros posted a higher strikeouts-per-nine rate than Szapucki’s 14.9, and both are relievers. If a stiff back hadn’t bothered him in mid-to-late August, resulting in the organization ending his season prematurely as a precautionary measure, the southpaw would also have posted the lowest ERA among all non-complex short-season pitchers in 2016. In short, Szapucki outperformed our wildest expectations.
At a period in his baseball development where many of his peers facing him at the plate have not experienced premium velocity, or even a decent breaking ball or off-speed pitch, Szapucki possessed a deadly combination. His fastball sat in the low-to-mid-90s, with excellent tailing action and sink due to his low 3/4, borderline sidearm arm slot. His curveball—a pitch that, according to TrackMan data from June 2014, had the best spin rate on a breaking ball in the entire 2015 high school draft class—had plenty of depth and late movement. His changeup, while the weakest and most unrefined of his pitching arsenal, at least had solid fade thanks to his low arm slot.
Coming into the 2016 season, we knew that the southpaw had all of the tools to be a dominant pitcher relative to his assignment, and his numbers bore that out. From an evaluation perspective, where raw numbers and results do not always necessarily matter, or are not weighed at face value, how did Thomas Szapucki improve such that he is considered one of, if not the top, pitching prospects in the Mets’ minor league system?
During his time in the Mets’ Fall Instructional League in 2015, one of the things that he worked on was altering the mechanics of his delivery, raising his arm to a higher arm slot. The altered mechanics improved his pitching ability in multiple ways. His fastball velocity improved, allowing him to more consistently sit in the mid-90s and even touch the high-90s. His arm dragged behind his body less, improving his release point and putting less stress on his shoulder and arm, lessening injury risk.
While at instructional camp, in Kingsport with pitching coach Royce Ring, in Brooklyn with pitching coach Billy Bryk, Jr., and working with organizational pitching coordinator Ron Romanick, the recent high school graduate received top-notch professional coaching for the first time in his life. “The philosophy at these levels is to establish the fastball first and foremost,” he said. “Work it in, work it out, get command of that. Once you're able to get ahead, that's when you execute breaking balls, and I thought I was able to get some good swings and misses off that. I was able to get a bunch of guys off-balance with the fastball, the changeup and the breaking ball, and once I got ahead, that was huge for that level."
After some rumblings about maturity issues, Szapucki came into 2016 a much different man. Luis Rivera, his manager in Kingsport, called him a pitcher with “good poise for his age…If he continues to work hard and stay focused,” he added, “I think he can have a bright future because his stuff plays well.” Stuart Johnson concurred, observing that the left-hander seemed to have the respect of his teammates and the coaching staff while in Brooklyn, as well.
After relying primarily on his fastball and curveball in Kingsport, Szapucki began utilizing his change-up more heavily in Brooklyn. Before his debut with the team, he worked with Ron Romanick on developing a new grip for the pitch. The new grip for the pitch proved to be successful, especially against right-handed hitters. The pitch was effective from the get-go, making a number of Staten Island Yankees hitters look foolish in his very first start in Brooklyn, and as the weeks went on, he became more comfortable with the new grip and how the ball came out of his hands.
There is still work that the 20-year-old needs to put in. Like any pitcher his age, he still needs work on pitching inside, pitching from the stretch, and working on his fielding. Specific to the Szapucki himself, he needs to learn how to command his pitches better, and refine his changeup, but he is confident, and believes that he is in a good place. “Sometimes guys get thrown into those upper levels, and they're in positions where they can't succeed and that can destroy confidence,” he said.