Like past seasons, the Atlanta Braves have been strongly tied to college pitching. With the dearth of healthy arms in this class Cooper Hjerpe has had a chance to separate himself as one of the few who have kept a clean bill of health. If you have read a share of the mock drafts that have gone out over the past three months, you’ve no doubt seen Hjerpe projected to the Braves more than one time. There is good reason for this, too. Not only is Hjerpe a natural fit given the Braves past draft strategy, but he seems to be a player that the team genuinely likes and that they feel can provide real value in the first round. With three picks in the top 60, the selection of Hjerpe would signal a strategy more intent on spreading out that bonus pool across those picks and picking up similar talent to Hjerpe in later rounds.
Don't think Oregon State LHP Cooper Hjerpe is getting the respect he deserves in draft circles. Kid throws 65% strikes, has an above average CH with a 46% whiff rate, funk in a low 3/4 slot w/growing low-90s/t97 FB. If breaking ball turns up in 2022, he's a pot. Top 100 guy imo. pic.twitter.com/dDyBgPMdbT— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) August 23, 2021
If you haven’t watched Hjerpe play the profile may not immediately jump out as a left handed pitcher who throws in the low 90’s with a fairly standard arsenal of off speed stuff. Truly, even if you have watched Hjerpe this is a player somewhat vaulted by a weak crop of healthy pitchers that typically would be more likely to fit in the second round of a normal draft. However, it only takes one pitch to understand this is not a typical arm. With a sidewinding arm slot Hjerpe has a unique approach to home plate which gives him an immediate deception bonus that helps all of that play up. His low release combined with above average spin on his fastball gives him a very vertical attack angle that has allowed his fastball to play plus or even better at times.
Velocity is important, but Hjerpe has shown that it’s not everything. His slider and changeup meet mixed opinions; most believe that both pitches are at least average, but scouts vary on which pitch they like better and how well they think it will ultimately project. His slider in the upper-70’s isn’t a wipeout pitch on its own, but with that unique delivery it also plays up and flashes above average though with some inconsistency. His changeup also flashes solid average to above average, and should both of these pitches play to their potential it would give him a deep arsenal and a unique approach to pitching. His command is well above average and his overall polish makes him a high probability back end starter who can move quickly and perhaps provide a bit of upside if that deception plays at the professional level.
Cooper Hjerpe has 17(!!) strikeouts through eight shutout innings, tying the Oregon State school record.— T.J. Mathewson (@tjmathewson) April 2, 2022
One of the best pitching performances in the country so far this year
The Braves have a number of players that seemingly project to the back end of a rotation, and it’s worth questioning if getting just another one of those players is a smart strategy. Ultimately, given the volatility of pitching it’s important to stack as many talents as a team can acquire and in the likelihood that the higher ceiling prep guys come off of the board he would possibly represent the best talent available. The Braves can bolster their rotation or the talent pool from which they have to trade for reinforcements by getting guys with quick trajectories to the major league level like Hjerpe. In addition, Hjerpe is a better prospect than players like Jared Shuster and Ryan Cusick that have been taken in past drafts and would likely immediately slot in the top 5 to 7 players in the system. It's not an overwhelmingly exciting pick, but it’s a solid one that affords them flexibility to take chances on even more talent in later rounds of the draft.
The question around Hjerpe ultimately is whether that deception will play at the professional level. Relying on a unicorn is a risky business, and if that fastball simply doesn’t have the velocity to survive against professional hitters he could end up falling well short of projections. Should a prep arm like Dylan Lesko or Brock Porter, or a bat like Cole Young or Jett Williams fall to the Braves at 20, they may be better served to take the riskier, but much-higher-upside high school option and spend a little more money in the process. With the acquisition of that 35th overall pick, that option presents itself now, and Hjerpe at 20 may ultimately not be the top talent available. It’s a safe pick, one that avoids the health questions of a player like Connor Prielipp and in a system that lacks impact talent, seeking that out high in drafts could be a more viable strategy.
Ultimately, Hjerpe is a player that one has to feel comfortable with at 20. He provides likely major league value and won’t break the bank, but it remains to be seen exactly how his stuff will play at the next level. He’s been a consistently elite performer at Oregon State, and many who believe that past success portends future success would have to love the work he’s already done in his career.