Most folks recognize Wake Forest University as the school that graced the basketball world with Chris Paul and Tim Duncan. It appears the Braves recognize the Atlantic Coast Conference institution as the prime spot to shop for a first-round pitcher.
When the Braves took big right-hander Ryan Cusick with the 24th overall selection of the 2021 MLB Draft on Sunday night, it marked the second straight year they used their first pick on a pitcher from Wake Forest. They took left-hander Jared Shuster -- the team's No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline -- out of Wake with last year’s 25th overall selection.
“I beat you by one,” Cusick said with a smirk after being asked what his first text to Shuster would be.
Braves scouting director Dana Brown loved the arm strength possessed by the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Cusick, whose fastball has touched 101 mph. It was just a coincidence that he took another Demon Deacon with his first pick.
“You’ve got to fish where the fish are,” Brown said. “We feel this is a pretty special talent.”
Cusick recorded 108 strikeouts as he posted a 4.24 ERA over 70 innings as a junior this year. He struck out 35.3 percent of the batters he faced and had a 10.5 percent walk rate. His command was better than it was as a sophomore, when he had a 41.8 percent strikeout rate and a 17.4 percent walk rate over just 22 1/3 innings.
Though Cusick might profile as a reliever, Brown believes the young flamethrower can find success as a starter if he continues to develop the changeup he recently added to his repertoire.
“He made some adjustments to his arm action to get in the zone a little more,” Brown said. “He's had some walks in the past. We feel like he's trending in the right direction. So we were excited to get him here. Anytime you can get a guy like this at [the 24th pick] that can touch 101, you know, it's exciting.”
Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter was highly complimentary in a congratulatory tweet Sunday night.
“His work ethic and dedication are unparalleled,” Walter said. “His ascent to the Major Leagues won’t take long.”
Longtime Braves scout Billy Best diligently lobbied for the Braves to take Cusick.
“This is a guy who could come quick [to the Majors] if he can get in the zone a little more,” Brown said. “We love the makeup. That came out pretty special.”
When discussing Cusick’s potential future, Brown said the hurler could follow the path of Aaron Sanchez, who broke into the Majors as a reliever with Toronto when current Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos was the Blue Jays’ general manager. Sanchez spent two years primarily as a reliever and then became an All-Star starter in 2016.
“I think the strength of the first round was probably college pitching this year,” Brown said. “We were very fortunate to get this type of talent in the back of the first [round].”