When it came to pure bat missing ability, there were few young pitchers as successful as the Astros’ Miguel Ullola in 2022. Making his full season debut at Low-A Fayetteville, the 6’1” righty racked up 120 strikeouts in just 72 total innings, good for an eye-popping 38.3% K rate- a figure that topped the leaderboard for Carolina League pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched by over five percent. Even when the competition was able to make contact against him, it was infrequently meaningful, with just 39 hits and 3 home runs on his season ledger.
Ullola’s bread and butter is a power fastball. I’ve written at length about how and why the Astros frequently take an interest in shorter, powerful righties, and he is next up in that long line. Already up to the upper 90s at 6’1”, 185 lbs., the raw quality of the fastball is probably already close to its ceiling, but that isn’t a problem as it is already a special pitch. In addition to the impressive velocity, Ullola’s heater also sports palpable riding action, causing hitters to swing under it frequently. He tries to live in the upper third with it, and when he’s landing it there consistently, minor league hitters are no match for it.
It’s a narrow arsenal at present, as the fastball is really only backed up by a power slider at present, but that offering also shows significant promise. While his command of the breaker is behind that of his fastball- and the fastball command still has a ways to go- its combination of mid-80s velocity and sharp, two plane break give it the potential to induce plenty of swings and misses as well, and when he is able to locate it that is already happening.
A few swings and misses from #Astros prospect Miguel Ullola the other night. pic.twitter.com/MaWaUjlL0I— Josh Norris (@jnorris427) August 19, 2022
The Astros typically give their young arms every opportunity to start as they work their way up the ladder outside of more extreme cases, and I wouldn’t expect to see Ullola shift to shorter stints any time soon despite the wobbly command. Working in his favor is a later signing age, which means he won’t be Rule 5 eligible for another two full seasons, so there’s no reason to rush him into a new role any time soon. On his best nights in 2022, we saw him turn lineups over multiple times while piling up whiffs and soft contact (including a healthy number of infield flies), so the proof of concept for Ullola as a starter is there, but there are obvious hurdles (location and breadth of arsenal) to clear before that’s a realistic possibility at higher levels.
I’d expect the Astros’ plan for him to lean heavily on improving the command in the short term before moving to possibly working on adding a third pitch, as if the location doesn’t get better, he’ll move to a bullpen role where two pitches will be more than enough. How realistic is a command jump? I’d argue fairly. Mechanically, I generally like what I see from Ullola- he’s a good on mound athlete, the arm action is pretty quiet for such a powerful guy, and there’s minimal head movement in his delivery. Things can get out of sync for him at times, but that is generally something that can improve naturally with more repetitions.
This is a high upside arm, and some scouting outlets have already responded to the high points in his 2022 performance by ranking him quite aggressively. There’s still plenty of room for him to ascend further if the finer points of his game are sharpened, but the reliever risk obviously can’t be discounted. I’d expect the Astros to push him to High-A Asheville to start next season, and he has the potential to end up the staff headliner even though he’ll continue to pitch alongside older hurlers in the system.