It has been a strong start to the season for the top of the Astros’ most recent draft class, with top bonus-getters Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford off to red-hot starts. That trend followed to the pitching side last night, with starter Michael Knorr (103rd overall pick) and piggyback partner Andrew Taylor (80th) combining for a ridiculous 20 strikeouts against just 3 walks, 4 hits and 1 run across 8 frames (4.0 each). According to Stephanie Sheehan of MiLB.com, the 21 total Ks for the staff on the night set a franchise record and were the most “in a nine-inning Carolina League since at least 2005.”
It’s not surprising to see college-season arms like Knorr and Taylor hit the ground running in Low-A ball, where plate approaches often aren’t as good as those in strong D1 conferences, but nonetheless this was a rare display of dominance, even in context. As previously mentioned, Knorr took the mound first, and appeared to overwhelm the opposing Columbia Fireflies with his combination of a hard 4 seam fastball and two distinct breaking balls. Knorr’s draft stock soared last year after his transfer to Coastal Carolina from Cal State-Fullerton, as his velocity soared from the low 90s to the mid to upper 90s, improving the quality of his stuff across the board with no tradeoff in terms of strike throwing.
The arsenal that got him drafted just outside the top 100 selections was in midseason form, as he liberally mixed in both his tight, sweepy slider and more vertical curveball between riding fastballs that Columbia hitters frequently swung under. The fastball has a combination of carry and run that allows it to play nicely off of both breaking balls, and the difference in shape between the two should mean there’s minimal need for him to add a changeup to remain in a starting role. If there’s a limiting factor, it’s the location, which is certainly not bad, but will need work if Knorr is to become a big league rotation fixture. Even in his dominant outing yesterday, there were more waste pitches than you’d typically see from a big league starter, even one with great stuff. While Knorr is already 23, I am optimistic that the command will improve with some more seasoning, as his mechanical operation is very quiet.
Taylor’s profile contrasts with Knorr in a few big ways. For one, while Knorr relies mostly on spin to round out his arsenal and doesn’t really throw a change, Taylor’s change is his go-to weapon after the fastball, and his breaking stuff is still a work in progress. His command is also likely a shade ahead of Knorr’s for the moment, despite a delivery with more moving parts. Like Knorr, Taylor was true to his scouting report Wednesday night. He made an effort to work in some of his breaking arsenal, but struggled to command it and settled into a mostly fastball/change gameplan, and Columbia’s lineup simply couldn’t handle it. Like Knorr, Taylor’s fastball has bat missing movement with big carry, and Fireflies bats swung under it early and often, usually not coming especially close to contact. The changeup also showed well, with late movement that makes it very difficult to pick up out of his hand.
It’s often difficult for Low-A or even High-A hitters to handle fastballs with significant ride like Taylor’s, so we may not really see him challenged until the upper minors, so I’d expect to see him continue to use his time at the level to try to make his breaking ball a more significant piece of his gameplan. Many of the ones he attempted on Wednesday missed wildly, but he did break off a few good ones, and the shape looked good when it landed. Both Knorr and Taylor carry mid-rotation upside and have different developmental plans in front of them to reach that goal, but they took a loud step down their respective paths in last night’s dominance.