Back in the spring, Touki Toussaint said the best he's felt as a pro came in last year's instructional league, following what had been a tumultuous 2015 season.
Based on the way he's pitching of late for Class A Rome, the Braves' No. 5 prospect may be rethinking that statement, having allowed just one earned run with 18 strikeouts and (most importantly) four walks in his last three starts (spanning 20 innings).
But to understand where Toussaint is now, you have to understand where he's come from to make his recent run look so remarkable.
The Florida native was taken by the D-backs with the 16th overall pick out of high school in the 2014 Draft as a raw right-hander with two potentially plus pitches in his fastball and curve and an average offering in his changeup. Taken when he was still only 17, Toussaint was always going to be a long-term project, and that was even more evident when he posted an 8.48 ERA at two Rookie-level circuits later that summer. He was off to a better start in 2015 with a 3.69 ERA through his first seven starts at Class A Kane County but had experienced some control issues and hadn't put up the strikeout numbers (29 in 39 innings) that typically go with stuff like his.
On June 20, the D-backs did what seemed unthinkable -- trading their previous year's first-round pick. Arizona moved Toussaint and Bronson Arroyo for utilityman Phil Gosselin. By picking up the dead weight on the final year of the injured Arroyo's contract, the Braves, who were just stepping into a major rebuild mode, essentially bought a first-round talent.
Though Toussaint struggled even more after the deal with a 5.73 ERA and 33 walks in 48 2/3 innings for Rome, the Braves insisted they weren't worried, that they knew the right-hander would take time to develop and that they were more than willing to put in that time. Toussaint tried to get back to his high-school stuff in instructs, only to see it get away from him while back in the South Atlantic League this spring. In his first three starts back with the R-Braves, he went 0-3 with 15 earned runs, nine walks and only five strikeouts over 10 2/3 innings. He may have been a lottery ticket for his new organization, but it was starting to look like his numbers might not come up.
Finally in late April, something clicked. Rome pitching coach Dan Meyer -- a first-roud pick himself back in 2002 who pitched in the Majors for the Braves, A's and Marlins -- got to work on Toussaint's mechanics, trying to salvage his killer stuff and turn it into equally promising results.
"We're just trying to keep him consistent with his arm path," he said. "The way he breaks out of the glove, we want him staying on top of the ball and throwing through the ball. He's got a live arm, and it's a young arm too. He's got some power, which means he always wants to let it loose, so we've had to rein it in a little. Sometimes, you have to teach him that less is better. He [was] a teenager and, when you're competing against 23- or 24-year-olds, you need to trust your stuff.
"We made those changes after the first three or four starts, so I have to give him all the credit. It's tough to make changes during the year and find results. He showed a lot of aptitude to pick up on everything so quickly. I don't think anyone expected him to do so well immediately after the changes because the changes weren't easy. But he's shown how strong he is, both mentally and athletically."
Since making those changes after those disastrous first three outings, Toussaint, who just turned 20 on Monday, owns a 2.75 ERA and 0.99 WHIP with 37 strikeouts and 23 walks in his last 10 starts (52 1/3 innings) -- a stretch that has seen his season ERA fall from 12.66 to 4.43. He's done a better job of keeping South Atlantic League opponents off the board since the end of the season's first month, but it's the control that has become particularly impressive lately. On June 13, he did not walk a single batter for the first time in his career in his 41st pro appearance and lasted a career-best eight innings, giving up just one run on three hits in a 4-1 win at Columbia. Since he walked five batters in just 1/3 of an inning on a rough May 26 appearance, the right-hander has averaged only 2.9 BB/9 in his last four starts -- well below his career average of 4.9.
Yes, it's time to enjoy Toussaint's excellent array of pitches again. His fastball, once talked down by D-backs GM Dave Stewart, has indeed touched 96 mph at times this season, according to Meyer, but typically sits around 92-94, in staying with the Braves' hope to keep his effort less than max. The curveball, another pitch Arizona tried to keep him away from in order to work on his other stuff, remains as good as ever and has been downright back-breaking at times as it tumbles with 12-6 action out of his hand. A video by Baseball America's J.J. Cooper of Toussaint's curve went somewhat viral during Spring Training, and recent MiLB.TV video has looked just as scintillating. (See above.) The 20-year-old knows how good the pitch is, and the Braves know he knows just how good the pitch is. Now, the focus is not on improving the pitch but working on being smart with it.
"His curveball is such a natural pitch for him," he said. "He's been able to throw it since he was young. I mean he can roll out of bed and throw it, no problem. But still, I think the changes can help his curveball command some. For me, we've needed to let him know that he shouldn't try to do too much. He'll get 0-2, 1-2 and try to do too much. Instead of trying to make it break, he throws it a little too hard. The curveball he throws at 90, 95 percent -- instead of 110 percent -- is still really good. It's all about changing the batter's eye level."
The caveat to all of this is that Toussaint's first run of real success in the Minors has come at a repeated level and over a still relatively short span of time. He has the stuff to be in the conversation for the game's top 100 prospects, but if he's going to find himself on those lists again, he'll need to show the improvements are for real and can be sustained against tougher competition higher up the chain. The Braves, ever patient in this time of rebuilding, are happy for now to see their work begin to bear fruit and truly believe that Toussaint's best days are surely still ahead of him.
"He's a great kid and always seems like he's in a good mood, but you can kind of see the confidence growing in him," Meyer said. "He's gone up against the best teams in this league and performed well. Now that he knows that, he can compete and can win. I think that's the first stepping stone for what could be a great career."