Anticipation surrounded Dodger Stadium as the team’s number four prospect (MLB Pipeline), Gavin Stone, got set to make his MLB debut on Wednesday afternoon. Stone is one of many top pitching prospects to have debuted in recent weeks and after such an incredible 2022 campaign, many were expecting a triumphant debut.
Last year, MLB’s #48 prospect was nearly untouchable. He climbed three levels to Triple-A and finished the year with a minor league-leading 1.48 ERA (121.2 IP), striking out 33.9% of the batters he faced. Those numbers immediately jumped off the page and were obviously unrepeatable. So far at Triple-A in 2023, he’s had a much harder time, posting a 4.74 ERA (24.2 IP) with a K% of just 25.7%. His true talent level is somewhere in between those two performances, but he was clearly deemed ready by the Dodgers’ front office.
Drafted out of the University of Central Arkansas in the fifth round of the 2020 draft, the 24-year-old’s arsenal has developed immensely in his short time in the Dodgers’ organization. The 6’1″, 175 lb right-hander’s carrying tool is a changeup that grades out as a 70 on the 20-80 scale on both MLB Pipeline and Fangraphs. It’s his primary pitch and was thrown more often than any of his other pitches during his assault on the minors in 2022. He pairs that pitch with a mid-90s four-seamer and a mid-80s slider, both of which received 55 grades from MLB Pipeline.
Squaring off against the defending National League champion Phillies, Stone has his work cut out for him. A feel for his changeup will be almost as necessary as shaking off the debut jitters. It’s time to see what the hype is all about.
Per usual, the first pitch of a rookie’s career is an interesting subject. What pitch does the pitcher trust and how does he want to kick off his Major League tenure? Stone turns to his fastball, missing outside at 96 to Kyle Schwarber. Nothing special. Let’s see if he can bounce back with a pitch in the zone.
The next pitch is much closer to the zone at 94 and nets him his first Major League out. If he can live arm side like that with the fastball, it should work against both lefties and righties.
His second opponent, Trea Turner, bloops a low and in fastball into right field for the first hit against him. Turner’s speed allows him to turn it into a stand-up double. The weak contact is a good result but the outcome isn’t what you would normally expect. Weak contact is always good to produce and he should get away with more outs on balls in play like that in the future.
On Stone’s first pitch to two-time MVP Bryce Harper, we get our first glimpse of his changeup. He starts it too low and it bounces toward the plate, but the intention is satisfactory. Keeping that pitch down with the difference in velocity should make it effective.
He goes right back to the change and with this one avoiding the dirt, we get a much better look. It has a lot of vertical movement and looks like it can be a dastardly pitch if it’s set up well off his fastball.
A fastball missing away puts Stone in a 3-0 hole versus a dangerous hitter. Let’s see if he backs down with a base open or if he attacks so as to not waste an at-bat.
He does a good job of making the necessary adjustment to nail the outside edge with his heater. Pounding the arm side part of the plate with his fastball is clearly the game plan. Executing that game plan will be the key to success against this dangerous lineup.
Returning to the changeup on 3-1, Stone issues his first walk. Using an offspeed pitch in a hitter’s count tells us two things about how Stone feels about his changeup. One: it tells us that he trusts his ability to control his changeup and get it in the zone. Two: it tells us that he trusts his ability to miss bats and induce weak contact with the pitch. If it lands in the zone, MLB hitters will punish that pitch if thrown poorly in a count like this one.
Now, with two runners aboard, how will Stone deal with the adversity against the four-five-six hitters?
Facing Nick Castellanos, Stone throws a perfect changeup and gets the desired result. What should have been an inning-ending double play winds up as an error, loading the bases. That’s now two unlucky outcomes on balls in play and the frustration is sure to be mounting.
On Stone’s first pitch to Bryson Stott, he steals a strike with a high changeup. Considering where the catcher is set up, I don’t think this was intentional. Lucas Giolito has made the change upstairs a viable offering, but it has to be thrown with intention and at the right moment. Leaving that pitch up in the zone is begging to be punished. It obviously worked here, but will Stone’s feel for his changeup become a central storyline throughout his debut?
A changeup away induces a foul ball, setting up his first 0-2 count.
An attempt to play off the changeups is made and I love the plan of attack here. Use the changeup as a strike-getting pitch and then turn to the heater as the putaway pitch. If located well, it should play up as a complement to the changeup, surprising hitters with the increased velocity.
On 1-2, he gets Stott to fly out lazily to center field, but it’s a productive one for the Phillies. Turner scores the first run levied against Stone in his Major League career.
After a called strike fastball on the inner edge and a changeup that just misses low, we get to witness Stone’s slider for the first time.
Just like his first changeup, he spikes his first slider. Hard to judge the pitch in that instance, but it didn’t really have a lot of movement and he clearly didn’t have control of it.
On the 1-2 pitch to Alec Bohm, we see it again – the high changeup. I’m still unsure if this is being done purposefully, but if it is, he’s executing it perfectly. Clipping the top of the zone like that will allow it to steal called strikes and keep opposing hitters off balance.
The next pitch is a changeup that misses away and sets up a full count. The runners will be on the move and it’s imperative that Stone throws a good pitch to escape this jam before things get bad.
Bohm fouls off a low fastball to set up another decisive pitch.
He loses control of his changeup, creating an uncompetitive pitch, resulting in his second walk of the inning, and setting up another bases-loaded situation. Right now, it doesn’t really seem like the first-inning jitters are getting to him. He got unlucky on the blooper to right and should’ve gotten out of the inning before the error. However, at times, he does lose control of his changeup. This makes me doubt that he was tossing those high changeups on purpose and makes me worry that his primary pitch isn’t as reliable as we thought.
It forces a meeting on the mound with the catcher and shortstop, and hopefully, this gives the right-hander the downtime he needs to focus and get out of the inning.
Following a fastball up for strike one, Stone induces a weak grounder off the bat of Brandon Marsh to the second baseman to complete his first career inning in the big leagues. It wasn’t the smoothest of starts, but he’s hardly the one to blame for that. I’d love to see him come back out in the second with the desire to dominate and produce a quick inning.
The bottom of the lineup is due up to start the second and Stone kicks it off with a fastball in the zone for strike one against Edmundo Sosa.
On the second pitch of the at-bat, we get a much better view of his slider. It barely has any movement at all (Savant actually notes this one as having zero inches of horizontal movement), but having so much run on his heater and change likely creates the illusion that the slider has more break than it actually does. It’s clearly his third pitch and I think it will be important to get an idea of when he likes to throw it and what he wants to do with it.
He leaves the changeup a little too high again but does a good job of jamming Sosa, producing an easy ground out to the shortstop. Let’s see if he can get into a rhythm.
Against Garrett Stubbs, Stone misses away with a heater before going right back to it to get a quick second out. So far, it’s been a great bounce back from the near disaster in the opening frame.
With the lineup turning over, things will get more difficult as the hitters finally have some semblance of similarity with the starter. He starts Schwarber off with two balls – a change away and a heater in – before laying a changeup down the pipe to steal a strike.
Here we get to see what he’s looking to do with his slider. He attempts to go for the back foot variety but starts it too far inside to get a swing. I love the intent as that pitch should play nicely off the changeup low and fastball away. As his third pitch, it’s understandable that his execution of the slider wouldn’t be ideal, but so far we haven’t seen a positive outcome on three occasions.
He follows up the lackluster slider with a fantastic fastball upstairs to earn his first whiff of the night. At 93 mph, it’s not overwhelming, but Schwarber looks overmatched. That’s because of its placement and Stone’s secondary-heavy approach. The hitters are geared for the soft stuff, and therefore, are unable to catch up to a fastball that’s not necessarily blowing up the radar gun.
With the count full, Stone goes back to the trustworthy change and induces yet another weakly hit ball. The sample size is small, but his ability to avoid hard contact seems like a skill rather than luck. Only one ball so far has been hard hit, and it was the grounder off the bat of Castellanos that should’ve resulted in a double play. That’s now two innings down, but the middle of the lineup is due up for a rematch in the third.
We haven’t seen many swings and misses from Stone, and it will be essential to his success to start showcasing some as he attempts to push through the lineup a second time.
He starts the inning by getting Turner to foul off a fastball and changeup to quickly get the count to 0-2. Will we finally see the kid’s first punchout?
Stone is unable to execute a putaway pitch, leaving the changeup in the heart of the plate. He gets away with it as Turner hits a laser to the shortstop for a groundout. That’s not what you want to see on an 0-2 count. You want the pitcher to challenge the hitter while he’s in the driver’s seat. Future iterations of that pitch will get punished.
After missing inside with a heater, Stone induces his first changeup whiff on a beauty to Harper. The fastball did a good job to set it up, but this is a wonderful pitch in its own right. More of those, please!
He must’ve heard my request as he goes right back to the pitch to earn back-to-back swings and misses. Now up 1-2 against Harper, it’s time to put him away while he’s still ahead in the count.
Stone misses with his changeup, forcing him to turn to the fastball. Harper is ready for it, slapping it down the left-field line for a two-bagger. We’ve yet to see Stone finish off an at-bat and I’m starting to worry. Is it a lack of execution or is he being predictable? Time will tell.
Here we finally witness the first successful slider out of Stone’s hand. He starts it on the outside edge and it falls off abruptly, inducing a failed check swing from Castellanos. I think he may have been attempting to land this pitch for a called strike, showcasing his lack of command of the pitch, but the outcome is a plus nonetheless.
This is why you can’t leave the changeup high in the zone. Castellanos jumps all over it, roping it into left field for a second consecutive double, forcing home the first earned run on Stone’s ledger. He may have gotten away with them while the hitters were unfamiliar with him, but already, the second time through the order, they aren’t getting fooled by mistake pitches.
With Stott returning to the plate, Stone misses low with a fastball and high again with the changeup. The ensuing pitch is spotted nicely in and off the plate, jamming Stott and inducing another soft groundout. The softly hit grounder has been Stone’s go-to mode of out-getting and so far it’s working. I’m unsure if that high volume of balls in play is sustainable at this level.
Proving my point immediately, Bohm pokes a slider to center to knock in another run to make it 3-0. It also extends the inning, and it’s becoming time to wonder if Stone is experiencing fatigue after laboring through 2+ innings and approaching 50 pitches.
He kicks off his second matchup with Marsh with a changeup in the dirt and a fastball just off the inside edge (with no favors from the umpire).
Chris Taylor makes an incredible play that nearly gets Stone out of the inning, but Marsh’s speed keeps it alive. The positioning was unfortunate there, so this doesn’t reflect poorly on anyone.
After bouncing another changeup, catcher Will Smith initiates another mound visit to slow Stone down before things get out of hand. He comes back and misses low with the change again before missing high with the four-seamer to set up a 3-0 count. He climbs back into the count, laying a fastball in the zone for strike one and forcing a foul on a heater for strike two. Now at 3-2 with two outs and two runners on, we’ll have another action pitch. Sosa fouls it off, reigniting the moment for another decisive pitch.
The pitch isn’t placed poorly but it’s not necessarily a typical putaway pitch. It’s smoked to center and drives in another run. Not once have we seen Stone really finish off an at-bat. I tried to get an idea of what was going on in his head before this pitch and I didn’t see the determination in his eyes I’d hoped to see. I’m not saying he’s not determined or trying his darndest, but the fire (or dawg) wasn’t present in his demeanor. At this point he seemed almost defeated and exhausted…but he wasn’t done yet.
The pitching coach came out of the dugout for a legitimate mound visit with the hope of inspiring and relaxing the young starter who can’t seem to catch a break.
Stubbs catches everyone off guard and takes advantage of the knowledge that Stone will want to steal a strike to start the at-bat. The gorgeous bunt drives in yet another run and it’s getting dangerously close to being a sub-three-inning outing for Stone.
Clearly flustered and seeing the lineup turn over for the second time, Stone commits a pitch clock violation as he doesn’t seem to be in the right place mentally. He then misses in and off the plate with a fastball before netting a called strike on a heater away. A changeup on 2-1 induces a foul and pulls the count even.
Stone gets lucky as Schwarber hits a laser right at the first baseman, finally putting an end to the disaster inning. It took him nearly 30 pitches, but he’ll live to see another frame.
This inning will be one of the biggest tests of Stone’s mettle. Facing the lineup for the third time following a rough inning nearing the end of his line, Stone will need to bare down and display the mental fortitude that afforded him this Major League debut.
He starts Turner with back-to-back sliders that avoid the zone before forcing a foul on a fastball inside and another on a low changeup.
With the count even, Stone gets away with a changeup left in the zone. Turner flies it to left for a painless first out of the fourth.
Stone misses with a first pitch to Harper. On the second pitch, he doesn’t get the offspeed pitch low enough and Harper pulls it to right for a base hit – his third time on base against Stone. You can’t win them all.
He steals a first-pitch strike with a low fastball and then breaks off his best slider of the night. The pitch has shown improvement throughout the game and as it gains consistency, it should become an effective offering against righties and occasionally land at the back foot of left-handed hitters.
I was worried we wouldn’t see a single strikeout from Stone in his debut. He goes right back to the slider he got a whiff on and fans Castellanos on a foul tip secured by the catcher. It’s good to know he has it in him to punch out a Major Leaguer.
Facing what would likely be his final batter no matter the outcome due to a high pitch count, Stone starts Stott with a heater that’s fouled off. The next one misses away to even the count and a changeup misses to put the hitter ahead again. A two-ball heater is fouled off and sets up a two-strike count.
The changeup is left up, but Stott skies it to center to end the inning and Stone’s Major League debut.
Final Line: 4 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 1 K – 6 Whiffs, 21% CSW, 77 Pitches
To be honest, I wasn’t impressed. It’s difficult to judge a pitcher based on one start and it’s almost unjust to do so in their first attempt on the big stage with butterflies in their stomachs. However, it’s what we must do.
The fastball didn’t have the promised velocity, sitting closer to the low-90s and not touching the 98 mph suggested in his scouting reports. It led to the pitch being quite underwhelming. It missed the zone constantly and wasn’t a reliable putaway pitch. The same can be said about his signature pitch, the changeup. It looked great at times, but the veteran hitters in the Phillies’ lineup were able to spit on it the majority of the time. Additionally, it was left up and in the zone way too often, leading to a few lucky called strikes and weak balls in play as well as a few hard hits that did damage. The slider was almost an afterthought as it was rarely used and wasn’t executed well until the final frame.
It wasn’t the best of Major League debuts, but there are still silver linings to take away. From a repertoire standpoint, he had a good plan of attack. He located the fastball up in the zone or in on batters hands most of the time. That led to a few weakly hit balls and I think that’s a skill of his going forward. The changeup has wonderful movement and looks like a future whiff pitch if paired well with the heater and placed at the bottom of the zone. The slider could use some work, but it looked like an underrated pitch of his. It has many uses and is the perfect complement to two pitches with exceptional amounts of run.
Overall, I expect Stone to improve throughout the season. It’s difficult to tell how much that unlucky first inning affected him or how different he’ll look once he gets over the anxiety of being in the bigs. He wasn’t exceptionally wild, which is a good sign for a young starter. His ability to induce weak contact looks like a skill that could stick from start to start because he has a great plan of attack living on the edges and jamming hitters.
The big thing that held Stone back was his inability to put hitters away. When he got to two-strike counts, he either nibbled too much or left pitches over the plate when he could have attempted to get a chase. That will be an important skill to hone as he won’t have much success in the Majors if he’s relying exclusively on balls in play. A low strikeout total will also make him unrosterable in fantasy leagues.
My ultimate diagnosis is that Stone is a work in progress. He will need to exhibit more finesse in his future outings because his stuff isn’t overpowering. He’ll also need to work on maximizing the effectiveness of his arsenal in the hopes of finishing off batters. If Stone does remain in the Majors he’d line up to start against the Brewers next. I think it’s worth it to hold onto him to give him another shot, especially if you’ve already stashed him for a month or dropped a lot of FAAB. If he’s sent back to the minors, I’d say you’re safe to drop him and look elsewhere.
The Dodgers consistently get the most out of their players, but it may take them a year or two to find the right pitch mix and plan of attack to make Stone a legit big leaguer. He somewhat held his own here, but there are brighter days ahead.
Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)