Feature Photo: Kolby Allard, LHP, Braves
Editor’s Note: 2080 Baseball is publishing weekly profiles of former Perfect Game All-Americans as they progress through the professional ranks. The series will be published each Wednesday and run through the 2017 Perfect Game National Showcase, to be held June 16-21 in Fort Myers, FL. We’d also like to offer our special appreciation to David Rawnsley, vice president of player personnel for Perfect Game, and Patrick Ebert, PG’s managing editor and scout, for their contributions to the PG in the Pros series. – Mark Shreve
Braves left-hander Kolby Allard has always been precocious. As a scrawny freshman, he earned a spot on the varsity squad for Southern California high school, San Clemente. Then as a sophomore, despite wielding a fastball that topped out at 85 mph, Allard put up impressive numbers for the Tritons. A growth spurt between his sophomore and junior seasons added nearly 10 mph to his fastball and made him a top MLB Draft prospect.
Drafted with the 14th overall pick by the Braves in the 2015 MLB Draft, and signing for a $3,042,000 bonus, Allard has already been fast-tracked to the Double-A Mississippi Braves, and he’s now dominating hitters five years his senior. Through his first six starts in the Southern League, Allard has posted a 1.36 ERA, with 28 strikeouts and seven walks over 33 innings pitched.
Just three years ago, Allard was victimizing high school hitters. After striking out 98 in 63 2/3 innings for San Clemente as a junior, Allard won the MVP of the 2014 Perfect Game All-American Classic. He later earned 2015 first-team Perfect Game All-American honors. According to David Rawnsley, Vice President of Player Personnel for Perfect Game, that dominating season came after Allard had his physical transformation.
“He just exploded his junior year. He was – and still isn’t – big by any means, but he went from throwing 83 mph with a 67 mph curveball at one of our events as a sophomore to throwing 93-to-95 mph with an upper-70s breaking ball and a plus changeup,” Rawnsley said. “He pitched for a long time as a finesse guy, and then his body transitioned into a power pitcher.”
After his dominating junior season and his success in the Perfect Game showcases, Allard came into his senior season as a potential top pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, but a stress fracture in his back scuttled those projections. He missed all but the first two starts of his senior season, and the injury led him to slip to the Braves, who owned the 14th pick.
Atlanta was happy to grab Allard at that slot, says longtime reporter, columnist and radio personality Bill Shanks, who has covered the Braves’ farm system for nearly 30 years.
“Even with the injury, Kolby is a guy who they thought from the moment that they drafted him that he was a potential number one, top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher,” Shanks said.
The Braves initially had Allard pitch in Rookie ball after he signed, but back problems again sidelined him after just six innings pitched. Allard had surgery on his back and began the 2016 season in extended spring training while he completed his rehabilitation. He would go on to throw 87 2/3 innings for the Rookie Danville Braves in the Appalachian League and for the Class A Rome Braves of the South Atlantic League last season, posting a 2.98 ERA and striking out 95 as an 18-year-old.
Despite the abbreviated season, the Braves didn’t hesitate to challenge Allard this year with an assignment to Double-A Mississippi, where he is part of a five-man rotation that one scout called “the best I have ever seen at that level.” According to Shanks, Allard and fellow Mississippi starter and 19-year-old, 6-foot-5, 225 pound right-handed prospect Mike Soroka (another first-round pick of the Braves in 2015 at #28 overall, who was signed to a $1,974,700 bonus) are the first Braves high school pitching prospects to go from Class A straight to Double-A – without a stop in High A – dating back at least 30 years.
“I think they wanted to challenge Allard and Soroka just to see how special they are,” Shanks said. “I think they thought, ‘well, if Kolby is going to finish the season in Double-A, what would happen if he started in Double-A and how would he be able to handle that challenge?’ I think that was part of their curiosity in sending him there.”
Through his first six starts and 33 innings pitched at the level, Allard has proven up to the challenge. In his last outing on May 5, Allard threw six innings of three-hit, shutout ball, striking out 11 batters and walking none in a in a 3-0 win over the Birmingham Barons. Rawnsley isn’t surprised to see Allard find success against more advanced hitters. He says Allard has had an advanced feel for pitching since high school.
“There’s no question he was [further along than most high school pitchers],” Rawnsley said. “As a scrawny sophomore, he threw more than 50 innings against high-level competition. He was experienced and had high-level players around him and was already a good player back when he was throwing low-to-mid 80s. He was exposed to a lot of good baseball at an early age, and it wasn’t just that he was good; he was good with different stuff than when the Braves picked him.”
Rawnsley says that Allard benefitted from gaining velocity later in his high school career.
“There’s a point early in careers where guys can throw hard and overpower people and they don’t have the pitchability. I think it is easier to learn how to throw hard after you learn how to pitch than vice versa,” Rawnsley said. “He always had that ability to pitch at a young age with crafty lefty stuff, and then all of a sudden in his junior year, it was like ‘oh, now I have power stuff.’ Missing that whole year would set back most kids, but I think his stuff is so good and his pitchability is so good that it became just a small setback.”
Currently, Allard’s fastball ranges from 92-to-95 mph and he has two above-average off-speed offerings in his curveball and changeup. A scout I spoke with gave Allard 60-grade marks on his fastball and curveball and a 50-grade mark on his changeup with a projection of 60. Throw in a plus to double-plus control grade thanks to his K:BB rate of 4:1 and 1.9 BB/9 in Double-A, and you have the makings of a future number three starter in the major leagues.
Shanks says Allard’s fastball is consistently down in the strike zone and is an effective weapon versus right-handed batters, tailing in on their hands. Shanks also notes that Allard uses deception as well as pure stuff to dominate hitters.
“He is one of the few who goes above his head with his windup and I think that gives him a little bit of deception. He really gets a good angle. Batters have a hard time picking him up,” Shanks said. “His changeup has gotten much better over the last year and his curveball is just a special pitch. There is no doubt about that. He’s a very aggressive pitcher when he’s on the mound and he’s kind of fearless out there. He’s got a mentality that pitchers have got to have if they are going to be successful in the big leagues.”
The Braves are in the midst of an organizational rebuild that has seen their farm system add a significant amount of talent over the past three years, and Dave DeFreitas and Nick Faleris wrote about in 2080 Baseball’s recent 2017 Organizational Review of the club. Rawnsley calls the Braves’ system “the best in baseball right now” and Shanks says that the pitching in the Atlanta system rivals the group the Braves had in the late 1980s that produced Tom Glavine, Kent Mercker, Derek Lilliquist, Steve Avery and added John Smoltz via trade.
“I have never seen anything like this collection of pitching prospects,” Shanks said.