Pirates Notebook: The 2008 State College Spikes

2008 was not a good year for the State College Spikes. The short season team combined for a 18-56 record, a .243 winning percentage. The pitching staff put up a 5.40 ERA. The team was outscored 461 to 303, a -158 run differential.

There was no secret in 2008 that the Pittsburgh Pirates had a weak farm system coming in to the year. The number one objective for Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly was to rebuild that farm system (or maybe just build that farm system, since rebuild suggests that something was once there). When your short season A-ball team goes a New York-Penn League worst 18-56, it doesn’t leave much hope for the capabilities of the new guys rebuilding the system.

What Was the Problem?

The first thing we need to look at is where the blame lies in the failure of the 2008 Spikes. The team wasn’t entirely made up of Neal Huntington acquisitions. Of the 43 players who suited up for State College last year, only 18 were drafted by Huntington. The remaining 25 players were acquired by Dave Littlefield.

The Neal Huntington batters hit .269/.343/.382 in 1282 at-bats. This included fourth round pick Chase D’Arnaud, eighth round pick Jeremy Farrell, 11th round pick David Rubinstein, and 12th round pick Calvin Anderson. Huntington batters actually made up 11 of the 21 batters for State College. The remaining ten batters combined for a .238/.297/.323 line in 1233 at-bats.

The offense wasn’t a huge issue. State College combined for 303 runs. The remaining NYPL teams averaged 336 runs scored. While State College was below average, the numbers weren’t horrible.

The pitching staff was the big issue. Neal Huntington picks made up seven of the 22 pitchers who pitched for the Spikes. Huntington pitchers combined for 160.2 innings, with a 5.77 ERA, a 6.09 K/9, a 3.87 BB/9, and an 0.8 HR/9 ratio. The Littlefield pitchers combined for 483 innings, with a 5.27 ERA, a 6.03 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and an 0.7 HR/9.

The pitching was bad on all sides, although it should be noted that only four Huntington pitchers received more than four innings, and of those four pitchers, only one was taken before the 44th round (Brian Leach, 25th round). Leach was one of three pitchers to go more than 50 innings, and only one of three pitchers with more than 25 innings to post a sub-4.00 ERA (3.98 for Leach).

Compared to the rest of the league, it is no surprise that State College was atrocious. The remaining NYPL teams averaged 324 runs allowed. State College allowed 461 runs. No other team allowed over 390 runs, and only four other teams allowed over 350 runs, with the worst team allowing 390 runs.

In summary, the offense was just below average. Half of the offense was made up of Neal Huntington acquisitions, and the other half were Dave Littlefield acquisitions. The Huntington acquisitions were the better half easily.

The pitching staff was horrid. This was mostly made up of Dave Littlefield acquisitions. Only four Neal Huntington draft picks made a significant impact. The only guy with significant innings, and taken before the 44th round, was one of the better pitchers on the staff.

So it’s safe to say that the main reason State College was so horrible was due to the pitching staff, more specifically, the Dave Littlefield prospects.

A Look at the Pitching Problems

As surprising as this may sound, the pitching problems may not have been due to poor talent. It was documented that State College threw fastballs for about 90 percent of their pitches last year. The opponents knew this, and just sat back waiting on the fastball.

I couldn’t find the article that talked about this, as the Centre Daily Times has deleted the page, but I did find the article copied to the Pirates Message Board.

I can understand the strategy behind focusing that heavily on the fastball. Controlling the fastball is probably the most important key to success for a pitcher. If your fastball is on, it helps set up your other pitches. This Baseball America article focuses on the importance of controlling the fastball. It’s a great read, but you have to be a subscriber. This quote from the article can sum it all up best:

Using data provided by the scouting service Inside Edge, Weinstein demonstrated that against the best hitters in the world, the best weapon a pitcher has is a well-thrown, well-placed fastball. While 68 percent of fairly hit balls are turned into outs in the major leagues, 71.5 percent of fastballs hit fairly are turned into outs.

The numbers for State College in 2008 are kind of misleading. You’re at a disadvantage when the other team knows you’re just going to be throwing heat. It’s like taking batting practice, only the machine is working on location rather than piping them down the middle.

The control results were successful, as the State College pitchers combined for a 7.1 K/9 ratio, and a 2.1 K/BB ratio.

The record of a short-season A-ball team isn’t really important to the future of an organization. The important thing is developing players. The big question is: did the Pirates manage to develop their pitchers with the excessive fastball approach?

Where Are They Now?

One of the strange things about the 2008 State College team is the fact that the roster was loaded with some of the top performers in the system this year.

The offense contained D’Arnaud, Calvin Anderson, Quincy Latimore, and Matt Hague and Jordy Mercer for brief periods of time.

The pitching staff included 2009 breakout pitcher Rudy Owens, who racked up the most innings for State College in 2008, and has been one of the best Pirates pitching prospects this year numbers-wise.

It included Kyle McPherson, who started off the season in West Virginia, and is now back in State College, doing well.

Brian Leach currently has a 1.67 ERA for West Virginia, after being one of the better pitchers for State College in 2008.

Overall, the big question is, was the 90% fastball experiment a success? Let’s take a look at the early numbers to find out. The chart below lists all of the 2008 State College pitchers who recorded 35 or more innings, minus two players who have not pitched for the Pirates in 2009 (Emilis Guerrero and Allen Ponder). It includes their 2008 stats at State College, and their stats this year at State College and West Virginia. (Click the image for a larger view)


A few big things stick out here. First of all, the combined ERA of all of these pitchers was 4.83 in 2008. In 2009, the ERA of the guys in State College is 2.77, and the ERA in West Virginia is 3.78. The WHIP at each of these levels is 1.23, after a 1.44 combined WHIP at State College.

The strikeout rates are about the same, but the second year K/BB ratios at State College are looking very good in the first 48.2 innings. The West Virginia K/BB ratios also look good.

So if the overall goal was to throw a majority of fastballs in order develop solid control and command in these pitchers, the early results show that it seems to be working.

Six of the eight pitchers have posted a better 2009 ERA at West Virginia than their 2008 ERAs in State College. The three pitchers who have returned to State College have drastically improved their ERAs, along with their control ratios.

When you look at the 18-56 record, the 2008 State College Spikes looked like a disaster. When you look at the effect of what they tried to accomplish, the 2008 State College Spikes look like a huge success.

Other Stuff

-The MVP Tracker is updated through the 7/8 loss. John Grabow leads the way, slightly ahead of Freddy Sanchez. That may explain this comment from Dejan Kovacevic’s chat on the PPG today:

Deemoe: Way to pimp the chat by front-running it with the Sanchez rumor. Any chance Grabow would be thrown in to a package with Sanchez, or is he still untouchable?

Dejan Kovacevic: If only I were that clever. Got that call a little bit after noon, actually. … Grabow … Untouchable!

I really hope that Grabow is untouchable. He currently projects as a Type A free agent, which means that if they offer him arbitration after this season, they either retain him at a raise over his $2.3 M salary (which wouldn’t be a bad thing) or they get two first round picks as compensation for him signing elsewhere (which is better than any return we’d get via trade).

-Speaking of trades, a lot of rumors went around today, and I covered them in this thread.

-Luis Cruz will get the call to replace Steve Pearce, according to Scott McCauley. The 25-Man Roster page is updated with the addition of Cruz. In the same post by McCauley he writes this about Ryan Doumit:

After the game Ryan Doumit met with Bucs GM Neal Huntington and it was decided that his rehab assignment is finished. Doumit didn’t make the trip to Toledo and my best guess is he will be joining the Pirates tomorrow in Philly.

Looks like we could see Doumit back tomorrow. My guess is that Diaz goes down to make room for Doumit.

Lastings Milledge will also move to AAA tomorrow.

-The Pittsburgh Pirates Prospect Watch for 7/9 is up.

-Finally there’s the story about how Joel Hanrahan earned a win today, despite the Pirates being off. Hanrahan was the last pitcher to pitch against the Astros in the top of the 11th inning on May 5th, when the game was suspended. It was resumed today, and Washington won in the bottom of the 11th, giving Hanrahan credit for the victory. The things Pirates pitchers have to do to get a win against division rivals…

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • gorillagogo

    Great stuff Tim. I was thinking about the Spikes earlier when I saw that they'd won yesterday, pushing their record to 11-10. I was wondering if this is the first time in franchise history they'd been above .500.

    Regardless, if the "focus on fastballs" strategy turns out to be successful, why not do it every year? Or are they implementing something similar down at the rookie ball level?

  • Anonymous

    If Grabow is offered arbitration,refuses and signs with another team, the Bucs get two first round draft picks total, their usual pick as well as a compensation pick from the team signing Grabow, correct?

  • Jim Rosati

    If Grabow is signed by another team, the Pirates will get their normal pick. They will get the team who signed him's 1st round pick. And they will also get a pick in the supplemental round.

    So if Grabow is offered arbitration and doesn't sign and is signed by another team, the Bucs will have essentially 2 1st round picks and a supplemental 1st round pick.

  • Tim Williams

    Basically what Jim said. To elaborate:

    The Pirates keep all of their picks.

    The Pirates get a pick in the compensation portion of the first round.

    If Grabow would be signed by a team picking #16-30 in the first round, the Pirates would get their first round pick. If Grabow was signed by a team picking #1-15 in the first round, the Pirates would get their second round pick.

    So if the Nationals signed Grabow, we'd get the 1st pick in the 2nd round (assuming the Nats continue their pace this season). If a good team like the Angels signed Grabow, we'd get their first round pick.

    Regardless of what team signs Grabow, we'd still get the first round comp pick.