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Brewers on top pick: Small 'consummate pitcher'

Milwaukee adds another college lefty in Kelly on Day 1 of Draft
June 4, 2019

MILWAUKEE – Mississippi State left-hander Ethan Small sounds like a man who will fit right in with the data-driven Brewers. "I've got the analytics down,” said Small, the Brewers’ top pick in MLB’s three-day Draft. “I know everything going on. I know the numbers. I'm all into that stuff." The

MILWAUKEE – Mississippi State left-hander Ethan Small sounds like a man who will fit right in with the data-driven Brewers.

"I've got the analytics down,” said Small, the Brewers’ top pick in MLB’s three-day Draft. “I know everything going on. I know the numbers. I'm all into that stuff."

The numbers, Small said, help explain how a pitcher with an average fastball led the powerful SEC in strikeouts. It’s a matter of extension. He’s seen the data about his release point being a foot or so closer to home plate than most other pitchers, the result of having the long arms of an even taller pitcher.

“My arms could fit on a 6-foot-6 dude,” he said. “I have insanely long arms and really big hands.”

That was a big part of the story of Day 1 for the Brewers, who selected a pair of pitchers who are tall, left-handed and able to strike out hitters in bunches. But the similarities stop there.

Small was the pick at No. 28 overall in the first round and Wabash Valley College’s Antoine Kelly was tabbed at No. 65 in the second round. Small is 6-foot-3, but he tops out in the low 90s, working with impeccable control and multiple tempos and arm slots. Kelly is 6-foot-6 and flirts with triple digits on the radar gun. He led the nation’s junior college pitchers in strikeouts.

One is polished and poised to move quickly. The other is raw and will require some development. Each would add a dose of left-handed to a Milwaukee farm system short of that brand of pitcher.

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“They both have really good stuff and they’re both left-handed,” scouting director Tod Johnson said. “But those are the only two things that the two lefties we took tonight have in common.”

The Brewers’ night began with Small, who on Saturday continued an eye-popping season with 10 strikeouts in six innings of a win in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. On Sunday, his Bulldogs beat Miami to advance to the Super Regional round. On Monday, the Brewers made Small a first-round pick.

That’s quite a start to the week. And quite a rise for a pitcher who wasn’t drafted out of high school, underwent Tommy John surgery following his freshman season at Mississippi State, and didn’t go until the 26th round as a Draft-eligible player in 2018 before a surge this year.

“He’s a consummate pitcher,” Johnson said. “He throws a ton of strikes, gets a ton of swings and misses. He’s not necessarily the hardest throwing guy, but he does have velocity in there when he needs it. He’s just been really successful in what is definitely the toughest conference in the country, especially for pitchers. ... He's pretty advanced as well, so we're hoping to have him move quickly through the system.”

Small, 22, was the Southeastern Conference's 2019 Pitcher of the Year and he is 9-2 with a 1.88 ERA and 160 strikeouts, and counting, this season. He has recorded double-digit strikeouts in 11 starts of his 16 starts.

It marks the first time the Brewers have spent their first overall selection on a pitcher since left-hander Kodi Medeiros in 2014. Milwaukee already has a Mississippi State Bulldog in its starting rotation in Brandon Woodruff, a fifth-round pick in 2014, and another in the Minor League system in left-hander Daniel Brown, a fifth-rounder in ‘16.

Small was a hard-throwing reliever as a freshman in 2016, but he sustained an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and cost him the entire ’17 season. He returned as a starter with a bit less zip on the fastball but a better aptitude for pitching.

“Last year’s season was [about] learning how to start and learning how to get hitters out, and it was my first year off of Tommy John and the [velocity] wasn’t as high as it is now,” Small said. “I kind of had to learn how to be a little crafty. This year, I think you’re seeing the velo ticking back up, the offspeed [pitches are] better, and I’m able to blow it by guys. It’s a combination of messing with timing and the deception. The biggest thing is learning how to be a pitcher.”

Small was ranked 56th on MLB Pipeline’s list of the Top 200 Draft Prospects. This year, the Brewers have a pool of $5,148,200 to spend in the first 10 rounds, including $2,493,900 allotted for their first selection. They will have to wait to sign Small until Mississippi State’s season concludes.

It’s the second time in three Drafts under Johnson that the Brewers bet on a player after extensive examination of his elbow. In 2017, the team drafted Keston Hiura despite concerns the infielder might need Tommy John surgery. Hiura avoided surgery and rose all the way to the Major Leagues this season.

Likewise, Brewers director of medical operations Roger Caplinger did extensive work to ensure Small’s health.

Kelly, 19, was a 13th round pick of the Padres in 2018 and he opted for junior college in Illinois over an above slot bonus in an effort to improve his Draft position. Mission accomplished, after Kelly led national junior college pitchers with 19.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

“Above average velocity and a solid slider,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have to work to develop him. He’s got a huge number of raw ingredients, though. It’s a great frame, a really good arm, and he has a solid slider already. We also have seen him throw some changeups. … We’re pretty excited, because it’s probably some of the, if not the best left-handed pure stuff in the Draft.”

If he can master that third pitch, Kelly could stick as a starter. Otherwise, he has the makings of a power reliever.

The Draft continues on Tuesday with Rounds 3-10. The preview show begins at 11:30 a.m. CT, with exclusive coverage beginning at noon CT. Go to for complete coverage, including every pick on Draft Tracker, coverage and analysis from MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, the complete order of selection and more. And follow @MLBDraft and @MLBDraftTracker on Twitter.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.