The Altoona Four: What Has Happened?
When the season ended last year, Altoona had what many Pirates fans considered a strong rotation full of four prospects who would all start the year for Indianapolis in 2011. It looked as if at this point in the season, we would be making decisions on where at least two pitchers would fit into our major league rotation, with the other two possibly not far behind. A not so funny thing happened on the way to that point. Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke, dubbed by some as the Altoona Four, strayed from the happy story line to where we are right now.
Before I get too far into this, let me say that I am not writing any of them off at this point. Bryan Morris is the oldest of the bunch, and he turned 24 just prior to the start of the season, so this isn’t a make or break year for any of them. The problem is that, along with most other people, I expected at least one of them in the majors by early June. If I had to bet on one I would’ve picked Rudy Owens as the one, with Bryan Morris not far behind. Justin Wilson I figured would need a full season to work on his command, especially against AAA hitters who would lay off more pitches just outside the zone and adjust better to the movement on his pitches. Jeff Locke was the last to join Altoona so he likely needed a full season at AAA in my mind. What I didn’t foresee in the months leading up to the season was where they sit right now. If you didn’t believe the old saying “You can never have enough pitching” before this year started, you should now.
I’ll start with Owens because he seemed the closest to the majors going into the season. Many people predicted a June call-up for him. Last year in Altoona he had strong command, a nice strikeout rate, got his share of groundballs and was consistent all year. He was following up a 2009 season where he broke out and dominated in low-A before holding his own in high-A ball to end the year.
This year has been quite shocking. His strikeout rate has dropped dramatically and it’s getting worse as the season goes along. His pinpoint control isn’t gone, but it is nowhere near his prior two seasons when he walked just 40 total batters. He is halfway to that number already. A startling statistic is that lefties are actually hitting him better than righties and he has struck out just 8 left-handed hitters all year. Of the four pitchers, he was said to have the least impressive arsenal, but his amazing control would get him to the majors. What is happening now though is that better hitters are making him pay when he catches too much of the zone and he hasn’t been able to put batters away when he gets in trouble.
Next up would be Justin Wilson, who made the jump to AAA which was a good sign to start his season. He was actually pitching well up until just before the month of June started. He has now had two recent starts where he couldn’t get past the 2nd inning, and he’s becoming much more hittable. Last year he had an impressive .215 BAA giving up just 109 hits in 142.2 innings. This year, even with the nice start, he is at a hit per inning, and unlike last year, batters are getting the ball in the air often and getting it over the outfield wall much more often. Wilson gave up just four home runs all of last year, but in approximately half the innings he has given up nine homers already.
When you factor in the control issue being right where it was last year, averaging a walk every other inning, that too becomes a bigger problem. Last year you could live with it with him being nearly unhittable, getting a ton of groundballs and striking out batters at a higher rate. But all of those have dropped and so has his success.
With the first two guys you would expect a bump in the road with them moving up a level, but with Bryan Morris repeating the AA level you would expect him to dominate and be out of Altoona by now, especially when many considered him to be one of the ones to make the jump to AAA when the year started. He did suffer an oblique injury early in the year and missed a month but he hasn’t exactly come back strong to the rotation looking very bad his last two starts with 11 earned runs over just eight innings and no strikeouts in his last game.
His control has been off as well walking 17 batters already in just 35 innings. Last year he had just 38 walks total in 133 innings pitched. So not only were people disappointed by him starting the year in Altoona when he was healthy, but he had another injury setback to his career after his first healthy year in 3 seasons in 2010. Now he is struggling in Altoona despite the reports throughout his career that he has the best stuff of the Altoona Four. He was moved full time to the bullpen and will stay there for the time being, which definitely moves him down the prospect ladder.
Jeff Locke seems to be a mystery to me. I have heard from others that he has great stuff, I have seen it in person this year, but he’s not dominating, despite excellent control (in the past) and an ability to put batters away with multiple pitches. His problem might just be that he isn’t aggressive enough or doesn’t pitch with confidence and conviction. Out of the four pitchers, he is the only one maintaining their strikeout rate from last year with 72 strikeouts in 71 innings, just slightly up from last year.
What is way down though is his control, just like Morris and Owens. He has actually walked five more hitters than last year despite being just short of the halfway point in innings pitched from 2010. He has had some pretty bad games with his control, something that really didn’t happen last year, 6 of his last 10 starts have had 3 or more walks allowed. He does not get the results he should with the arsenal and abilities he possesses which is why he looks great at times and then looks just like an other AA type pitcher at other times.
As you can see, most of the problems with Owens, Morris and Locke stem from control issues with the three of them being much worse than last year when it was a strong point of the group. If you lump Wilson, Morris and Owens into one group, you see a medium to large drop in the strikeout rates and all four of them recently have had some very poor outings. If someone told you last September after Altoona won their Eastern League championship that…
…In mid-June 2011 not only would none of their four best starters be in the majors…
…That two of them would still be Altoona…
…That all four of them would be struggling to maintain top prospect status…
…you would’ve probably told them they were crazy. Months ago Pirates fans were trying to figure out where to fit all these upcoming pitchers. Now we are just hoping for a couple of them to pan out and turn things around. It’s not too late for that to happen but it just proves what I said before, and many have said prior to me: you can NEVER have enough pitching.