LOS ANGELES — This “funky” delivery that adds zest to his fastball and challenged hitters from Little League to big college put Oregon State southpaw Cooper Hjerpe at the heart of what the The Cardinals were looking in the MLB draft and could see the majors quickly.
Advanced analytics assured the Cardinals that, unlike Hjerpe’s mechanic, there was nothing misleading about his eye-catching stats.
With the 22nd pick in Sunday’s draft, the Cardinals selected Hjerpe, who hit a school record 161 batters in 103 1/3 innings for Oregon State and earned national pitching honors for the year of several organizations. Hjerpe, pronounced “Jerpy,” went 11-2 with a 2.53 ERA in his junior season, and he fits both the Cardinals’ tried-and-true practice of drafting major college pitchers with command and the new lens to scrutinize the numbers for the peripheral locations.
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“On the eyesight test, it looks unique. On the visual test, there’s speed,” said Randy Flores, the former left-handed reliever and current Cardinals assistant general manager who is running his seventh draft. “When you couple that with the pitch metrics available, there’s a deal that gives you the belief when you get to that spot in the draft that there really is an exciting player available.
“He played for the eyes. And he executed the measurements.
Hjerpe, 21, watched the draft with his family in his hometown of Capay, Calif., not far from the capital of Sacramento. He recorded a career-high 103 1/3 innings — 30 more than any previous season — but he maintained a pitching regimen to be ready for the second half of the pro calendar. Hjerpe said he threw twice last week to keep his arm sharp. The Cardinals hope to sign him quickly and on the spot in Jupiter, Fla., so they can determine his introduction to professional baseball and how many innings he will see.
After that, they’re open to see where his performance takes him and how fast.
“He has the chance to act quickly for us,” Flores said.
“I have full confidence in myself to do it too, honestly,” Hjerpe said. “If you need me anywhere, I’m ready. This is a key element for me. I want to go out there and play whether it’s a starter or a relief. I just want the ball.
For the first time, Major League Baseball hosted the first round of its draft outdoors – mixing a few potential picks, fans and an alumnus or executive from each team under one shell at Xbox Plaza in downtown LA Live -City of Los Angeles. Former shortstop Brendan Ryan represented the Cardinals, and he brought with him a rubber bracelet he earned in 2009 during the All-Star break while attending a party thrown in the Ozarks by his teammate, the late Chris Duncan. Ryan was able to announce the Cardinals’ pick at No. 59: Brycen Mautz of the University of San Diego, another college left-hander. Sunday was his 21st birthday.
Day one of the draft began with the Cardinals hours away from making their first pick, but a tinge of the Cardinals first overall pick.
A month before his father was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame, Jackson Holliday was selected No. 1 by Baltimore. A prep shortstop who hit better than .650 last season in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and set a hits record, Jackson is the first major league son drafted for the first time since Ken Griffey Jr., in 1987. Druw Jones, son Gold Glove-winning center fielder Andruw Jones came second overall, starting the draft with back-to-back second-generation selections for the first time in history.
As they prepared for the spring scouting season, the Cardinals believed Jackson would be available to them at 22 and would be of interest to them as well, given their history with the family. It became clear early on that Jackson was going to force his way out of their reach.
“What Jackson did was intriguing to us and scouts all over baseball,” Flores said. “He played the game – I would call him, like a sand player. The way you’ve seen him play here at Busch Stadium, run around, play wiffle ball, play fly ball, play in the batting cage. With this same freedom, he played the game last summer. You add strength to it, and it’s no surprise that it’s pulled off the drawing boards.
The Cardinals had been linked to Hjerpe at 22nd by the Post-Dispatch and outlets specializing in draft coverage in part because they have a guy.
And it matches how that evolves with advanced data.
Hjerpe has also used some of this same technology to tighten up his game.
He said Sunday night that his delivery — which has a forearm lunge and movement on the fastball that’s uncomfortable for a hitter — has “been natural” all his life, and that he’s recalled “Little League people saying, ‘Man, this guy has awesome arm action. What he didn’t have was the secondary throws that played best with this fastball. Hjerpe went to Driveline – the famous pitchcraft lab – to find out what combination of terrains would work best for him. He gave up his curveball because a slider was complementing his fastball. They both came from the same spot from the batter’s perspective, then broke out in radically different ways.
The slider swept out of the batter’s reach.
The fastball stayed in the plane.
That combo has led to plenty of swings and misses, a nation-leading strikeout count, and numbers confirmed by scouting reports. During his junior season, Hjerpe struck out nearly 40% of the batters he faced and walked about 5%. Developing a switch later will help Hjerpe progress as a starter and get more speed with the spark of his fastball. His leap to the majors could happen faster if his production matches the need for a reliever.
“We think he has the stamina, the gear and the will to start,” Flores said. “And that’s a good starting point.”
The slot value for the 22nd overall pick established by the commissioner’s office is $3,180,600. That’s nearly half of the Cardinals’ $6.8 million bonus limit for this year’s draft. The Cardinals are hoping to quickly reach a deal with Hjerpe.
During his press conference, the left-hander opened with a comment before answering questions.
“That’s all I want to do is win,” Hjerpe concluded. “So let’s do it.”