This Hot Pitching Prospect Slowed Down to Speed Up

This Hot Pitching Prospect Slowed Down to Speed Up

Atlanta Braves pitcher Kolby Allard practices with teammates during spring training camp in Kissimmee, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018.

SourceWillie J. Allen Jr./AP

Why you should care

The Atlanta Braves’ Kolby Allard could be the next Tom Glavine: a lefty who doesn’t overpower, but kills you with precision.

The Atlanta Braves used the 14th overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball draft on Kolby Allard mostly because he was a left-handed pitcher who could throw 95 miles per hour. It was all a disguise, a wig and fake mustache. Today, Allard has ditched the costume and revealed himself as a pitcher, not a hairy-chested behemoth trying to chuck a baseball through a brick wall.

Now with Allard at age 20 and three years removed from the draft, his fastball is sitting at a more modest 90–92 mph, below the MLB average of 94.5. His persona is upside-down from the day he was drafted, as he focuses on commanding his pitches and changing speeds, not humiliating a hitter with a heater.

Just listen when he says, “I personally think the change-up is the best pitch in baseball.” This does not necessarily endear him to baseball prognosticators, who have bumped him down from the top Braves’ pitching prospect three years ago to No. 5 this year, as he arrives one stop from the big leagues in AAA. ESPN’s Keith Law did not even have Allard on his list of the top 100 prospects in baseball this year — he’d previously been in the 20s — because of lower fastball velocity and “durability concerns.” Law told reporters that his contacts around the league “see a back-end starter or lefty reliever” in Allard, instead of an ace destined for the top of a major league rotation. Such talk discounts the change-up and the “makeup.”

The mental part of pitching is something I’ve always taken pride in. That makes me who I am today.

Kolby Allard

Makeup is the “it” factor for scouts. Makeup is poise, conviction to throw any pitch in any count, resilience. Allard was never a saucy kid in high school, even with that 95 mph fastball, which should have been a clue that he was going to evolve into someone more cerebral. Allard mostly shunned the summer showcase events for top-shelf prep pitchers, which can turn into a carnival with scouts holding up radar guns behind home plate and a buzz going through the crowd when a phenom hits 95, 96 or 97. Prospects will frequently muscle up and throw as hard as they can to wow scouts and improve their draft stock. Allard was one of those who could chuck it at 95, but knew he would “pitch” at a less scorching 90–91.

He didn’t fit in with the brash speedball carnival. Allard was the San Clemente, California, kid with long hair swept behind his ears and flowing down his neck, leaving the family’s garage with a surfboard under his arm. He credits his schoolteacher mother, Kristi, and school maintenance worker father, Kenny, for his poise.

You could see it in a spring training game this year against Toronto Blue Jays minor leaguers. Allard gives up two runs in the first inning. One of his curveballs gets the hitter off stride, but the pitch is cheap-shotted into right field for a soft hit. On another pitch, his fastball rises into the path of a vicious swing and is clubbed into the gap in left field for a double. Then he hits a batter with an inside fastball.

But Allard does not stomp around the mound, kick the dirt, look to the sky in angst or pound his glove with his left fist. He just keeps pitching and gets out of a difficult inning, retiring to the dugout to sip a cup of water with nary a sign of frustration. “I have a calm demeanor, but it definitely doesn’t take away any competitiveness,” Allard says. “My parents have always taught me to be even-keeled, same guy whether you are doing well or struggling.” Atlanta’s Hall of Fame former manager Bobby Cox was watching the scene unfold from a golf cart. “Tough kid,” Cox says. “He’s going to be all right.”

This year with the AAA Gwinnett (Georgia) Stripers, Allard has been far better than all right — earning a spot in Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star game, with a 5-4 record and 2.96 ERA. The success comes after an up-and-down couple of years as he rose through the minors. Allard hit a rough patch in the middle of last season with AA Mississippi and did not panic. He learned “just to stick to your routine every five days and not reinvent the wheel when you are struggling, which is important,” he says. “There is a development period everybody goes through. The mental part of pitching is something I’ve always taken pride in. That makes me who I am today.”

Who he’ll be tomorrow rests on the strength of that change-up. Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine made his living on it for 21 seasons. Now with the Braves’ broadcasting crew, Glavine helped Allard hone a pitch that can be the most aggravating in the game to hitters. “Glav came down for about a week and we threw a couple of bullpens together, and I told him to cut it to me straight. Be honest,” Allard says. “He’s got a lot of knowledge. He’s definitely smooth.”

Allard said his change-up is “light-years” ahead of where it was a year ago. You can see hitters lunge and get off stride as the pitch invites and then seems to stop in midair. The deception makes Allard’s fastball “play up,” to where 91 mph seems like 94. “Guys are swinging at his arm action, at his arm speed,” says Kade Scivicque, who caught Allard’s first game in Gwinnett. “His change-up and fastball have the same rotation, same angle, come out of the same spot, so they are swinging as if it is a heater, but it is 8 miles an hour difference.”

It’s a perfect fit for the Braves’ master of disguise.

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