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Checking in on Atlanta Braves pitching prospect Touki Toussaint

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At first glance, Touki Toussaint is having a down 2017. But looking at the numbers reveals the righty still has a lot of promise.

Wayne Cavadi

Touki Toussaint is having an interesting season to say the least.

The 21-year-old right-hander sits at 2-9 with a 5.90 ERA and 1.47 WHIP through his first 15 starts. I saw Toussaint several times last season, and the numbers simply didn’t make sense. This was a young pitcher who improved tremendously from April to August in the Rome Braves’ championship season, yet the above numbers suggest he regressed.

With the Atlanta Braves moving their High-A team south from Carolina to Kissimmee, paired with almost zero coverage on MiLB TV this season, I hadn’t been able to see first hand Toussaint this season. Luckily, Friday night they were on in Bradenton, so I finally got to watch Toussaint work.

And of course, I have some thoughts.

First, how about a little background?

Toussaint was selected in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2014. He came from the Coral Springs Christian Academy in Florida, so while he was equipped with exciting stuff, the high schooler was very raw.

Toussaint showed very early that he was going to be a project. His delivery didn’t need so much work, but refining and his command was all over the place. The Dave Stewart regime — one of little patience and unwise moves — dumped Toussaint on the Braves in the middle of the 2015 season for Phil Gosselin.

Yes, THE Phil Gosselin (does the sarcasm translate well?).

The Braves have been thankful ever since.

Toussaint’s 2015 half season in Rome was more of the same. He struck out just 7.03 per nine while walking 6.10 per nine. 2016 started off the same, but then the Braves worked with him on refining his stuff.

“I give my pitching coach Dan Meyer and Chuck Hernandez — our pitching coordinator — all the credit because they were seeing stuff I couldn’t see or feel,” Toussaint told me last season after a huge June and July. “They sat me down and said, ‘I think this is going to turn you around,’ and ever since then I’ve been working on what they said and improve every outing.”

The 2016 Rome Braves rotation was the stuff dreams were made of: four first round picks anchored the champion staff. By season’s end, you couldn’t decipher the ace from the backend of the rotation. Toussaint, with a new arm slot and focus on pounding the strike zone with all of his pitches, was just as good as any in the second half.

Toussaint admittedly didn’t have his curveball early on in 2016. So while he relied heavily on his changeup, he changed his arm slot and the curve became lethal again. It’s arguably the single most exciting pitch in the low minors, freezing people in their tracks at the plate.

Here’s a clip from last season. Just watch the drop. He was 20 years old at the time. That can’t be taught overnight, Toussaint has the stuff.

So, he worked his changeup and mid-90s fastball and seemingly became a more complete pitcher.

Enter 2017. His rotation mates from 2016 — Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Patrick Weigel — began the season in Mississippi, while Toussaint and Ricardo Sanchez headed to Florida as the front-end of the new FireFrogs’ rotation.

John Sickels had Touki the eleventh best prospect in the Braves system for 2017. Here’s what he said:

Age 20, 3.88 ERA with 128/71 K/BB in 132 innings in Low-A, 105 hits; fastball in mid-90s and wicked breaking ball make him very tough when his command is working but control issues still hold him back at times, although adjustments to his delivery helped some over the summer; could be front-of-rotation starter if it all comes together, or a power reliever, but there are still a wide range of potential outcomes here. ETA: 2020.

Toussaint is still a bit wild at times. He has just one start this season without a walk. The righty has gone seven straight games with two or more walks. But his stuff is still filthy, and he throws strikes. That’s an issue because he gets into a lot of deep counts, thus throwing a lot of pitches. He has gone seven innings just once, six complete only twice in 15 starts.

But he’s also improved tremendously and seems to be a victim of some bad luck. Just take a look at his “big” numbers. His ERA is 5.90, but his FIP? 3.81, the lowest of his career. He is striking people out at the best rate since his Rookie-level half-season 2014 debut (9.87 per nine) and his walk rate is lower than last season’s improved number (4.08 per nine).

Toussaint came out of the gates and struggled a bit Friday night. He was hit early, and the Marauders manufactured a quick 2-0 lead. But as he has in the past, Toussaint adjusted. He had a 14-pitch second inning — 11 of which were strikes — striking out the first batter on three straight pitches and the last batter looking.

He cruised into the sixth inning, and although some balls were hit hard, there were little fly balls. In fact he induced seven ground balls to four fly outs on the night, a number indicative of his improved 1.30 ground-out-to-air-out rate. 48.2 percent of Toussaint’s batted balls are staying on the ground. While that may seem solid, when there are two infield errors on said ground balls, it makes things that much harder.

Toussaint’s demise came in the sixth. Despite striking out the leadoff hitter, the ball got past Brett Cumberland, something that does happen when newer catchers try to catch that curve. He quickly got the second batter to ground out, but back-to-back singles saw Toussaint’s night come to a close.

Is Toussaint the perfect pitching prospect? No, and in a system with as many exciting arms as the Braves, he has his work cut out for him. It’s easy to give up and see him relinquished to a bullpen role, limiting his short outings and letting him go to work with that curve. But the Braves see that Toussaint is a student of the game, improving each year, and when he’s on, his stuff is fun to watch.