Drue Hackenberg, an Atlanta Braves pitching prospect, has had an eventful few years.
As a rookie at Virginia Tech in 2022, the righthander dominated ACC competition, posting a 10-2 record and 3.30 ERA. However, the groundball artist (>55% in college) struggled as injuries ravaged the Hokies defense, finishing with a 5.80 ERA.
Despite his problems, Atlanta chose sophomore Hackenberg in the second round last summer, going above and beyond to add him to the class.
According to certain forecasts, the Braves made a wise decision.
In their “breakout prospect” predictions for 2024, Bleacher Report singled out Hackenberg as the prospect in Atlanta’s system most likely to rise through the ranks.
Joel Reuter, author, had this to say about Hackenberg:
Reuter’s changes mostly concern the constancy of the slider’s shape and the establishment of the changeup. Hackenberg crushed his career debut, pitching 5.2 innings for Single-A Augusta (two starts) with three hits and no earned runs, striking out twelve and walking two.
However, Hackenberg’s final start of the season, at AA Mississippi in the final week of the season, was far from fruitful: only two-thirds of an inning, one run allowed on no hits and four walks, with one strikeout.
What Hackenberg needs to do to break out next season is partly determined by which affiliate he is allocated to in 2024: Last season, he used three distinct baseballs: college baseball, lower-minors baseball, and the official MLB ball used at AA and higher levels. Given that it was his third ball change of the season, it’s easy to see how that one appearance with Mississippi showed less-than-stellar command.
If he is assigned to AA and given the opportunity to adjust to that specific baseball for a long length of time, he will be able to maintain the consistency of his pitches more easily.
However, those secondary pitches should be sharpened as well. His primary breaking ball is a slider, but it may occasionally morph into a slurvy, curveball-looking pitch, causing the location to change somewhat. His ability to induce swing and miss improved over his two collegiate seasons, with his strikeout rate increasing from 8.4 K/9 in 2022 to 10.4 K/9 in 2023.
Furthermore, Hackenberg rarely uses his changeup, preferring to throw it against lefthanders. If he can get a bit more velocity separation on it from the 92-93 mph fastball (a good target is a 10 mph difference between the two) and create a bit more drop, it could elevate the entire arsenal into a true four-pitch mix that can avoid barrels and rack up groundball outs quickly.
(Notice how that changeup wasn’t a really competitive pitch? Yeah, it got the batter’s attention, but he wasn’t going to swing.)
And, for all that we talk about Atlanta favoring good athletes when drafting a pitcher, Hackenberg has the genes to qualify. His brother Adam is a catching prospect for the Chicago White Sox (2021 round 18), while his brother Brandon was a first-round pick by Major League Soccer in 2021 and his oldest sibling, Christian, was a second-round quarterback pick by the New York Jets in 2016.
With a solid season in 2024, he might swiftly establish himself as a workhorse rotation option for the Braves – he pitched more than 92 innings in 2022, and 91.2 innings last season between college and the minors.
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