It’s been stated many times that when the Pirates bring a young pitcher in to the system, especially in the Gulf Coast League and at State College in the New York-Penn League, the most important lesson stressed is fastball command. It sounds so simple and obvious. Every pitcher must pitch off their fastball and you would think that reinforcing the location of it would be a first step for every organization. Most likely it is, but the Pirates have placed extra emphasis on it, to the point that pitchers in the GCL and at State College may throw upwards of 85 to 90% fastballs in a game.
This can lead to some bloated results in hit totals for pitchers, which in turn may lead to bloated ERA’s. An additional side effect of this philosophy is a depressed strikeout rate, as many pitchers rely on their offspeed stuff for the bulk of their strikeouts. However, what is does lead to are low walk rates and it builds a reliance and confidence in the usage of the fastball in a variety of counts.
To take a half-step back, let’s define what is “command” and what is “control”. Control is the general ability to throw strikes. Command is the ability to throw strikes exactly where you want the ball to go within the strike zone. Command enables you to spot your fastball in all four quadrants of the strike zone and to know that you can put it where it needs to be in any count.
The draft class of 2009 featured a number of high school pitchers that cut their teeth at the “State College Fastball Academy” in 2010. There were also some 2010 draft class college pitchers at State College, as well. Now in 2011 these pitchers form the backbone of the West Virginia Power pitching staff. Here are the walks per 9 inning rates for the starters in the Power rotation:
Tyler Waldron (1.29 BB/9), Jameson Taillon (1.64 BB/9), Zack Von Rosenberg (2.11 BB/9), Colton Cain (2.63 BB/9), Zack Dodson (3.10 BB/9), and Brandon Cumpton (3.33 BB/9). The general rule of thumb is that a pitcher needs to keep their walks per 9 inning to 3.5 or less, so everyone is doing quite well. Some other prospects that are considered relievers this year in the piggybacking situation have great rates, too. Trent Stevenson (0.59 BB/9), Brooks Pounders (1.13 BB/9), and Zach Fuesser (3.26 BB/9) are all minimizing the free passes.
As a whole, the 2011 West Virginia staff has issued only 57 walks in 249.3 innings. Numerically, they lead the South Atlantic League with only those 57, with Hagerstown in second with 84. Their BB/9 rate, since due to multiple rainouts they have pitched less innings than nearly every other SAL team, also leads the league at 2.06 BB/9 with Hagerstown at 2.80 BB/9.
However, with the Power pitchers around the zone so often it has led to the side effect of giving up a higher number of hits than other teams. The Power are one of 6 teams in the 14 team league to give up more than one hit per inning. The Power have allowed 268 hits in 249.3 innings, giving them an overall WHIP of 1.30, which has them in a 4-way tie for 1st place in the South Atlantic League. As a contrast, Hagerstown is also part of that 4-way tie in WHIP and they have allowed 267 hits in 270 innings.
Obviously we are still early in the 2011 season, so let’s take a look at last year’s version of the West Virginia Power pitching staff to see how the Fastball Academy graduates did. In 2010, the Power were 2nd in the South Atlantic League for walks issued with 346 BB in 1211.6 innings (2.57 BB/9). However, the same correlation occured in terms of hits allowed. The Power gave up 1249 hits in 1211.6 innings to create a WHIP of 1.32, good for only 7th in the 14 team league.
Although the reins are loosened a little bit in High A with the Bradenton Marauders, the core lessons of fastball command are still enforced to the young pitchers. In 2011, the Marauders rotation is comprised of 2009 college-drafted pitchers in Nate Baker, Phillip Irwin, and Jeff Inman, a 2008 high school draftee in Quinton Miller, a 2009 trade acquistion in Brett Lorin, and sleeper prospect Kyle McPherson who has had a slow journey as a 2007 draftee. Here’s their BB/9 rates:
Jeff Inman (1.38 BB/9), Brett Lorin (2.46 BB/9), Quinton Miller (2.59 BB/9), Nate Baker (2.90 BB/9), and Phillip Irwin (4.09 BB/9). Only Irwin is above the 3.50 BB/9 threshold. I held out Kyle McPherson, because he’s a space alien apparently. He has walked only 1 batter in 42.6 innings for a 0.21 BB/9 rate. For 2011, Bradenton as a staff has issued the lowest number of walks (83) in the 12 team Florida State League, with Lakeland next in line at 87. However, Bradenton’s BB/9 rate of 2.69 BB/9 trails Lakeland slightly, due to Lakeland pitching more innings so far. The same concept shown with the Power holds true with the Marauders, as well, as it relates to giving up hits from being around the zone. Bradenton has allowed 297 hits in 277.6 innings, which places them in 6th for WHIP (1.37) in the Florida State League. Keep in mind that the majority of the 2011 Bradenton Marauders pitchers were part of the 2010 West Virginia Power staff, so this makes a degree of sense.
There is nothing more maddening than watching a pitcher issue free passes, so I am in favor of the fastball command program, even if it means that our lower level pitchers are more prone to giving up hits. Once the command is second nature, then more nuances can be added in to enable the pitcher to be finer with his pitches and work the batters more. But you must walk before you run and the Pirates are instilling those ideas early and often into their young talented pitchers.