For my first contribution to an article on Talking Chop, Eric snatched me up to do an interview after I got an opportunity to catch Touki Toussaint’s first game in a Braves uniform. That article, now two and a half years old, started a now long relationship with Talking Chop, and after seeing how many questions and comments I’ve received about Touki, I decided it was time to give that article an update. On June 21st, 2015, Braves fans were ecstatic to receive news that the Braves had managed to swipe then-Top 100 pitching prospect Touki Toussaint away from the Diamondbacks. Joy turned to awe as the news came through that all the Braves had to part with was Phil Gosselin, and about $10 million for Bronson Arroyo’s contract. Few players in the minor leagues could match Toussaint’s ceiling, as his freakish athleticism with a double plus curve and a fastball that could reach into the high-90’s made for a drool-worthy combination for evaluators. Command and consistency would be a key factor for Toussaint’s development, and now as we come into the 2018 season we are finally reaching the point where this trade could start to pay dividends for the big league club.
My first impressions of Touki were a bit mixed. He showed the electric fastball consistently, but his command of the pitch was poor and he didn’t feature the curveball as much as would be expected. This was a strategic move for the Braves (and the Diamondbacks) to get Toussaint focused more on developing his other pitches, his command, and his feel for pitching rather than just relying on a curveball that lower minor league hitters simply couldn’t hit. Because of these team-imposed limitations and his own lack of experience having only pitched since age 16, Toussaint has spent much of his time with the Braves struggling to make his presence in a system loaded with talented arms. His first start in the system Toussaint pitched 4 1⁄3 innings, walked five, struck out five, and hit two batters but only allowed one run. I remarked about the life of his fastball and the few curves he did throw, but remarked on the inconsistency of his changeup.
Since that July afternoon, Toussaint has been quite up and down over the past two and a half seasons. He lacked effectiveness in 2015 while pitching with Rome and ended up repeating the level, to more positive results. Early 2016 was a struggle for both Toussaint and Rome’s roster, and by the end of May he had posted a rotund 6.28 ERA and walked more batters (28) than he struck out (24) in 43 innings of work. Suddenly, though, the light clicked on for Toussaint. Over his next 11 starts Toussaint pitched 61 inning, struck out 70 batters, walked a high-yet-improved 29 batters, and had a 3.25 ERA. When the stretch run came for Rome as they tried to make it to the playoffs no pitcher on the team was more effective, and from August 7 to the end of the season Toussaint starred with a 1.59 ERA and 34K/14 BB in 28 1⁄3 innings. 2017 showed much of the same makings as Toussaint got off to a slow start, but this time the peripherals weren’t backing up the poor performance on the mound. Touki was posting career bests in strikeout rate, walk rate, ground ball rate, and pretty much any other category that’s actually important to projecting a pitcher in the lower minor leagues (i.e. not Batting average against and ERA). When the switch flipped in early June this time around, Toussaint went on a tear through the Florida State League and the Southern League and finished the year leading the system in strikeouts.
Toussaint’s prospect status compared to where it was at the time of the trade is certainly lower. He’s struggled, shown some lack of development in key areas, and during his stint in Rome there were questions about work ethic. He is no longer a Top 100 prospect by most accounts(although he is close), and more and more evaluators have jumped ship on his top-of-rotation potential. The only issue with these prospect rankings is that they don’t really matter. Toussaint is still the same prospect he was 3 years ago, just a bit older now. While some have dismissed him due to an apparent lack of progression on his pitches, it’s simply not the case and Toussaint is still one of the highest ceiling pitchers in the minor leagues. Comparing his fastball to where it was when he first came to the Braves, he hasn’t lost any velocity or movement. It’s still an electric, lively pitch only now he has more confidence with it. He throws the fastball with a sense of purpose and with a plan in place, rather than just to get strikes and get a chance to whip out the curveball. The progression for Toussaint perhaps hasn’t been as tangible as it is for some prospects, but he’s also years behind most who are pitching at this level due to his late start to his career and is still learning some of the basic pieces to a pitchers mentality.
(Update on 4/2/2018 at 9:38 AM: From the twitter of Rome Braves pitching coach Dan Meyer:
I’m gonna disagree about his questionable work ethic while in Rome. That is not true. Doesn’t get to where he is now without a great work ethic overall.— Dan Meyer (@Dmy53) April 2, 2018
All good. No one makes the changes he did mid-season, while competing, n gets to where he is now w/o a lot of work.— Dan Meyer (@Dmy53) April 2, 2018
The curveball is still fantastic. It’s the one of the best currently in the minor leagues, and you can argue if you want but I’ve yet to see a current prospect use a curveball as effectively as Toussaint does. It’s sharp, it’s shapely, and it has a very good velocity to it. Toussaint disguises his curveball well and has done better to use it earlier and counts and generally vary his timing on the pitch, making him even more effective and making the curveball a nearly unhittable pitch. The reigns have come off a bit, and his strikeout rates have followed suit and he is the best strikeout pitcher the Braves have in their system at the moment. The changeup has made the most noticeable progress, going from a pitch that was nearly unusable to one that is an effective change of pace for Toussaint. It’s not as good as his curveball or his fastball and I doubt it ever will be, but he has so drastically improved his control of the pitch and his feel for the pitch that he has turned into a pitcher that you have to expect to see three pitches from. No more waiting on him to throw you a fastball, hitters have to take the challenge of guessing what Toussaint is going to throw and fighting offspeed pitches off.
Toussaint’s control has certainly improved over the last few years, but he still walks too many batters. That’s going to continue to be his problem and if he ends up in the bullpen that is going to be why. Still, Toussaint’s command has made major steps forward as he no longer has those games or at bats in which he can’t even get the ball close to the plate. When he misses, he more often misses just off the plate and does so close enough that it would tempt a hitter to chase. These improvements go beyond just a natural developmental curve and can be pinpointed to a mechanical change made while he was at Rome. Toussaint no longer pitches from the wind up, allowing him to be more consistent with his delivery and focus more on learning the art of pitching rather than how to control his athleticism.
He’s also made a significant change in his lower body that you can observe in the videos below. His leg kick is a bit more deliberate and controlled, with his leg going straight up and down and then towards the plate rather than being the jerky mess that it was early in his career. He has been able to keep his front shoulder on a better plane towards the plate allowing his throwing arm to keep a more consistent slot, and when he is off it is usually due to his inability to find his arm slot. Toussaint’s delivery is now much more clean and repeatable, allowing his athleticism and arm talent to show through without the hindrance of fighting his own body.
The biggest question is what does this all mean for Touki? He was once the top dog in the system as pitchers go, but has since been surpassed by a number of players. He still has ace potential, I fully believe that. The stuff is there, the energy is there, and the intelligence is there. He’s matured significantly both on and off the field and doesn’t seem to lack focus on the mound like he often did when he was younger. Toussaint is also a bright personality who is popular with fans and with players, and who enjoys coming out to the field to pitch. That may not seem like an important factor, but in a season as long as baseball’s the desire and the passion to come in and work every day even when you only get to compete one out of every five is often the difference between a player who flames out and one who can excel. Still, it’s far more likely now that Toussaint will eventually end up in the bullpen. For every year he doesn’t make it to the major leagues from now on, that chance grows. 2018 is far from a make-or-break season for a player who is just 21, but a step forward this season will put Touki in serious contention for a rotation spot next season.
If I were to project Toussaint, I see him as a number three or four starter. If the changeup develops to its potential and he can harness average command, I’d say that jumps to him being a number two or high three and perhaps I’m not giving him the credit he deserves on that front. If he stops developing right now, he’s got the stuff to be at least an average closer, likely better, and that gives him a reasonably high floor for a pitcher of his age and experience. My two cents on the matter is that we’ll probably have to wait until 2019 to really see what the Braves have in Toussaint, but if you live in or around Pearl, Mississippi you might want to make an early trip to Trustmark Park, because I don’t expect him to last long there.