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Astros target more strike zone experts on Day 2

HOUSTON — The ability to find pitchers who can miss bats proved to be a fruitful one on the second day of the MLB Draft for the Astros, who took college pitchers with six of their eight selections and continued their trend of staying up the middle of the diamond.

The Astros have selected 11 players — all from college — in the first 10 rounds of the Draft and all of them play up the middle — seven pitchers, three center fielders and a catcher. And the ability to control the strike zone was a key thread among not only the pitchers, but the position players they drafted, as well.

“Strikes are always good, to get guys that fill the zone,” Astros scouting director Kris Gross said. “I think we’ve shown a track record of being able to enhance a guy’s stuff the past few years.”

Indeed. At the Major League level, the Astros’ use of analytics has helped Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Justin Verlander take their careers to another level. Of those, only Keuchel was drafted and developed by the Astros, but the club hopes it has its next wave of promising arms.

The Astros have had more success developing Major League starters internationally — Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy are all in this year’s rotation — than they have through the Draft, with Keuchel (2009 Draft) and Lance McCullers Jr. (2012) being rare recent success stories. Top pitching prospect Hunter Brown (fifth round in 2019) is knocking on the door in Triple-A, though.

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Houston’s first three picks on the MLB Draft’s second day were pitchers — right-hander Michael Knorr of Coastal Carolina in the third round (103), left-hander Trey Dombroski of Monmouth in the fourth round (133) and right-hander Nolan DeVos of Davidson in the fifth round (163).

Knorr is 6-foot-5 and played for three years at Cal State Fullerton, posting a 7.16 ERA, before transferring to Coastal Carolina and flourishing.

“I happened to see him right out of the gate,” Gross said. “Our area scout, Andrew Johnson, saw him a bunch. He fills the zone and has two workable breaking balls. He’s a five-pitch guy that throws a ton of strikes. It was an enticing package.”

Dombroski also stands 6-foot-5 and throws strikes from the left side, while the smaller DeVos (6 feet) has a fastball that can play well with two decent breaking balls. He has a chance to be a starter, too.

Knorr (11.2 strikeouts per nine innings), Dombroski (11.4) and DeVos (12.1) were strikeout machines in college, along with eighth-round pick Tyler Guilfoil (14.1), a right-handed reliever from Kentucky, and Brett Gillis (12.3), a right-handed starter taken in the ninth round from the University of Portland.

Gross said Drew Pearson, the Astros’ area scout in Wisconsin, used to coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and helped sell Houston on right-hander A.J. Blubaugh, the seventh-round pick who has a good fastball-changeup combination and is very athletic.

“We kind of had a target on some of these strike-throwing college pitchers,” Gross said. “Michael Knorr of Coastal Carolina throws a ton of strikes, same way all the way down the board. It worked out great and we’re excited about the arms we got today, as well as the bats.”

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Gross said the Astros’ penchant for taking pitchers came about when so many college bats — the strength of the Draft — came off the board early. 

The Astros grabbed a pair of center fielders to start the Draft on Sunday, taking Tennessee center fielder Drew Gilbert in the first round (28th overall) and Oregon State center fielder Jacob Melton in the second round (No. 64), and took another center fielder in the 10th round with Zack Cole Jr. out of Ball State.

Then there’s sixth-round pick Collin Price, the 6-foot-6 catcher who will be asked to put more weight on his 205-pound frame to tap into his power. Price, who hit .315 with 18 homers and 58 RBIs at Mercer this year, walked 52 times and struck out only 34 times in 203 at-bats. Gilbert also had more walks (33) than strikeouts (32) in his junior college season, and Melton struck out only 51 times in 261 at-bats last season at Oregon State while drawing 26 walks.

The mature college players who have a great idea of the strike zone can be quick movers through the system.

“You definitely have some older college players throughout the game,” Gross said. “I think it’s just kind of the climate we’re in with that extra [COVID] year. Still, there was some quality depth in the mid-majors and we look to capitalize on that this year.”

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