Written By: Zack Silverman
Follow Him on Twitter: @ZackMatt4
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW
It was a gorgeous, 73 degree day at Globe Life Field on Sunday, something that wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary in Arlington, Texas, even in February. However, it stood in stark contrast to the previous week, when temperatures plummeted near zero in the very same parking lot and millions of Texans were left in the dark. I spent the week huddled in my dark apartment with ice creeping through the window frames, alternating between eating canned tuna and braving the snowy, hour-long drive through line at the Whataburger, which served as a metaphorical soup kitchen for a desperate Metroplex. By Friday, when the State Farm College Baseball Showdown was set to start, temperatures had finally peaked just above freezing, but the tournament was delayed by a day as the Lone Star State continued to grapple with busted pipes, unsafe drinking water, and continued power outages.
On the way into the ballpark on Sunday, there was an extra light-heartedness in the air, as thawed-out fans made their way past the last melting piles of snow and laughed. “I thought it was supposed to be colder today, but it’s beautiful out,” a man decked out in Red Raider red exclaimed. We were on our way to see Texas Tech match up with Ole Miss in a top ten matchup – well, technically every game that weekend was a top ten matchup. Once the TCU Horned Frogs downed the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the morning tilt, the Rebels and Red Raiders took the field.
The Rebel ace could have easily started Friday, but I was lucky enough to catch him on a Sunday. Gunnar Hoglund has long been a household name for scouts, ever since he was the 36th overall pick by the Pirates out of Fivay High School in the Tampa suburbs in 2018. At the time, he showed good command of a low to mid 90’s fastball that had touched 96, but his secondary pitches needed refinement and the Pirates couldn’t meet his asking price. The big righty headed north to Oxford, Mississippi, where he held his own as a freshman in the SEC: 5.29 ERA, 53/14 K/BB in 68 IP. He came out much stronger in 2020, posting a 1.16 ERA and a 37/4 K/BB over 23.1 innings.
Coming into the season, scouts had a lot of questions for Hoglund to answer. After flashing a fastball up to 96 in high school, he regularly pitched in the upper 80’s and scraped 91-92 at his fastest for the Rebels. That 90-ish fastball came with impeccable command, arguably the best in the class, a product of a simple, clean, very easy delivery. It was clear Hoglund could throw harder if he wanted to. He had set a loopy curveball from his high school days off to the side in favor of a tighter slider, while his changeup remained his third pitch. So, we all knew he had both the arm strength and command, but would we ever see it at the same time?
Gunnar answered that in the first inning on Sunday. Right out of the gate, he sat 94-95 in the first inning and touched 96 multiple times. The slider looked sharper, too, coming in at 85-87, a few ticks higher than it had been in the past. Dru Baker, Cal Conley, and Dylan Neuse went down in order in the first, and off we went. He didn’t hold that velocity all game, instead ticking down to the 92-94 range for the bulk of his start before coming out 90-92 in his sixth and final inning, but even at the end he was throwing as hard as he ever had in Rebel blue.
While his command wasn’t pinpoint, Hoglund used his riding fastball to induce plenty of whiffs up in the zone, while his tight slider missed a number of bats in its own right. There were blemishes, such as a two run home run from Nate Rombach and an opposite field bomb from Dylan Neuse, both off fastballs, and he did walk three. However, two of the three walks were full count battles that took hard battles (Neuse) and tough takes (Kurt Wilson) to get there. In all, I was not concerned with Hoglund’s strike throwing despite his own high standards.
The final stat line wasn’t the shiniest: 5.1 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 3 BB, 11 K.
But I choose to look at those eleven strikeouts (of twenty two batters faced), a factor of his newfound stuff. Outside of those few isolated incidents of hard contact from Rombach and Neuse, two extremely talented hitters in their own right, the majority of the Texas Tech lineup was overwhelmed by the stuff and struggled to touch him. Hoglund showed the same effortless delivery he’s always had, and as he gets more comfortable throwing in this higher velocity band, I think his command will remain plus. He was also flipping in that slider much more often than he has in the past, something else he’ll need to get comfortable with as opposed to pitching mostly off the fastball. Going forward, he’ll need to show that command, and he’ll also need to work in a changeup more often if he wants to go in the first round. But Sunday was a big step towards that.
Toeing the rubber against Hoglund was Texas Tech’s Micah Dallas, himself one of the top prospects in the Big 12. However, the North Texas native was not as sharp pitching forty miles from his hometown of Aubrey. Homeschooled in high school, he was unfazed by the Lonely Lubbock Lights (big props if you can tell me which West Texan sings that song) and was strong as a freshman (4.03 ERA, 84/28 K/BB). Then, like Hoglund, he was lights out as a sophomore in 2020 (0.57 ERA, 23/1 K/BB in 15.2 IP).
Dallas sat 90-91 for most of his outing, throwing up a few more 89’s later in the start. He leaned heavily on his low 80’s curveball, a pitch which flashes plus at its best. His delivery is not nearly as smooth as Hoglund’s, but he throws with conviction and pounds the zone nonetheless. From the start, it was clear that he did not have his best stuff, which is extremely dangerous against a lineup like Ole Miss, but he worked through it and held the Rebels off the board for the first two innings. However, they gradually began to figure him out, putting together more and more hard contact and broke through in the third. He never made it out of that inning, finishing with five runs (two earned) on three hits, two walks, and two strikeouts in 2.2 innings.
The Rebels’ five run third didn’t come out of nowhere. Jacob Gonzalez blasted a ball into the right field seats in the first inning, but it landed just to the right of the foul pole and he struck out later in the at bat. Ben Van Cleve roped a hot shot to third in the second inning, only to see it snared by Cal Conley. Trey LaFleur scorched one right at left fielder Max Marusak in the third. A few batters later, Gonzalez finally got him with a home run to the left of the foul pole, while Hayden Dunhurst and Hayden Leatherwood joined the party with singles of their own.
Micah Dallas has some work to do to prove he can start. The 89-91 velocity won’t quite be enough, and he already throws with some effort and lacks projection in his 6’2″ frame. But the building blocks are there. The curveball is an above average pitch that looks plus at its best, and it just flattened out as he leaned on it more and more heavily on Sunday. The Rebel hitters were able to sit back and wait for it. It also didn’t help that he fell behind in the count at times. The stuff played great out of the bullpen last year, and if he is forced into that role in pro ball, he could thrive with his competitiveness and ability to throw his stuff with convicion.
Once Leatherwood’s single knocked Dallas from the game, Texas Tech brought in true freshman Brendan Girton for his collegiate debut. Hailing from the tiny town of Gage in northwestern Oklahoma, Girton was a notable draft prospect at nearby Shattuck High School but headed across the South Plains to campus in Lubbock. Immediately, the 6’1″, 230 pound righty put his power arm on display. In 3.1 innings, he would strike out four batters while allowing two hits and one walk, and none crossed the plate.
Girton ended the third inning on a pair of fastballs at 94, then touched 96 a few times in the fourth before dipping to more 92-93 in the fifth. He must have known the sixth would be his final inning, because he ratcheted it back up to 96 a few times to close it out. He also flashed a low 80’s slider, but really struggled to get it down. Out of the dozen or so that he threw, no more than a couple were located below the belt. Still, the fastball was effective enough to keep Rebel hitters off the slider, and overall he was the most effective Red Raider pitcher of the day. Going forward, Girton will have to work on locating that slider better, and he has a reliever outlook for now.
Hayden Dunhurst, Jacob Gonzalez
Hayden Dunhurst and Jacob Gonzalez may have grown up in very different places, but they’re two of the most talented recruits to make it to campus in Oxford over the last couple of seasons and they both had loud days at the dish. Dunhurst was a nationally-known name at Pearl River Central High School in the small southern Mississippi town of Carriere, then stayed in state for school. Gonzalez, meanwhile, was a talented draft prospect in his own right, coming all the way across the country from the Los Angeles suburb of Glendora. They were both in Arlington this weekend, and both showed why they are the future of Ole Miss baseball.
Dunhurst had already elevated his stock with five home runs in seventeen games as a freshman last year, placing himself near the top of the 2022 draft. He had himself a nice game, starting off by working a four pitch walk off Micah Dallas. In his next at bat, he lined a single into right field to give the Rebels a lead they wouldn’t give back, and he showed off his all-fields approach by lining a 93 MPH Brendan Girton fastball the other way in the sixth inning, though it was right at left fielder Max Marusak. He finished his night by knocking a ball straight into the dirt in front of home plate, only to be tagged out by catcher Nate Rombach before he left the batters box.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, had the louder night with the bat. In his first at bat of his second career game, he nearly took Dallas deep but hooked it just to the right of the foul pole. The ball had enough distance to get out, but it will show up as a strikeout in the box score. He righted the ship in the next at bat, blasting a hanging Dallas curveball to the correct side of the foul pole to tie the game at two apiece. And the next time up, he turned around 94 from Girton for a single to right. He finished his night with a strikeout at the hands of veteran lefty Eli Riechmann, but I came away extremely impressed with his bat. Gonzalez is just 18 years old, so keep an eye on him for the 2023 draft.
Nate Rombach, Dylan Neuse
Texas Tech had some interesting bats as well. Nate Rombach and Dylan Neuse both showed off for their hometown fans as sons of the Metroplex. Rombach attended the same Mansfield Legacy High School as Noah Syndergaard, then took Lubbock by storm by blasting six home runs in nineteen games as a freshman. In his first start of 2021, Rombach announced his presence loudly by blasting a 93 MPH Gunnar Hoglund fastball over the left center field fence, the first home run Hoglund had allowed in over 32 innings. In his next at bat, he got Hoglund again, this time squaring up an 87 MPH slider for a single to left field. Redshirt senior Austin Miller gave him a different look in his third at bat, and he ripped a mid 70’s curveball foul. Miller ended up catching him looking for the strikeout, so you won’t see it in the box score, but Rombach absolutely scorched three different pitches during the day – a fastball at 93, a hard slider, and a slow curveball. Max Cioffi got him swinging on a low 90’s fastball in the ninth, but Romach had already made his point for the day.
Dylan Neuse has been around a bit longer, as he has already been eligible for three different drafts before this one. The younger brother of Dodgers infielder and Oklahoma alum Sheldon Neuse, Dylan began his career at McLennan JC in Waco before transferring to Texas Tech. He hit .298/.408/.494 as a sophomore in 2019 then .355/.438/.487 as a junior in 2020, but went undrafted in the shortened event. Gunnar Hoglund struck out the Fort Worth native in that first-inning-heard-round-the-country mentioned earlier, but Neuse made adjustments and got his payback. He worked a really tough full count walk off the command master in the third inning, showing off his exceptional plate discipline. Then in the sixth inning, he really got Hoglund, taking 92 the other way for an opposite field home run. Anybody concerned about the power output from the 5’9″ right handed hitter likely came away less so after seeing that. Neuse did drop a fly ball near the warning track in center field, which wasn’t a great look but he might not have much experience playing in indoor stadiums. In all, he profiles as an all-around player who doesn’t stand out with any particular tool, but can beat you with strong feel for the barrel and the ability to make his tools play up.
We’ll finish off with Peyton Pallette, who started on the mound for Arkansas against Texas. I needed to get home for something and couldn’t stay the whole time, but I caught the first two innings and I’m glad I did. Benton High School outside of Little Rock has been good to Arkansas before, sending them Cliff Lee, and they might have struck gold again. Pallette got into four games as a true freshman last year, allowing three runs (one earned) over 5.2 innings in relief. He wasn’t the most likely candidate to start a top ten matchup on a loaded pitching staff that includes Patrick Wicklander, Connor Noland, Zebulon Vermillion, and even freshman stuff Nick Griffin, so I was slightly disappointed to I didn’t get to see a bigger name.
It took precisely one pitch, a 95 mile per hour fastball, to realize I was in for a treat. Before I could blink, Pallette had set down Austin Todd, Eric Kennedy, and Mike Antico in order, and this wasn’t just any trio; the three had 373 games and 342 hits combined under their belts, making for one of the most experienced, disciplined, and consistent top three’s of any lineup in the country. They didn’t look like it Sunday. Pallette never threw a fastball under 95 as he blew pitch after pitch by them, snapping off a sharp breaking ball as well that nobody could touch.
It only took Texas starter Tristan Stevens ten pitches to work through the bottom of the first inning, so I barely had a chance to even process what I just saw before he was back on the mound again. As brilliant as the first inning was, the second was better. Pallette set down Zach Zubia, Trey Faltine, and Ivan Melendez on strikes, the latter two on six straight fastballs at 95. Unreal. Unfortunately I had to leave after that sixth straight strike, but he went on to toss 4.1 shutout innings and strike out eight of the seventeen batters he faced. He wasn’t a priority follow coming into the season, but with just one start he’s rocketed himself into 2022 draft conversation with that wicked fastball/slider combination.