Fastball command has kind of taken on a life of its own in Pittsburgh. The Pirates stress fastball command in the minors, especially at the lower levels when players are just getting in to the system. The approach is aimed so that players get to the point where they can locate the fastball anywhere they want to put it, allowing them to set up their secondary pitches as they get to the higher levels. It’s not an approach that’s unique to baseball. Other systems take the same approach. It’s just something that’s been new to the Pirates the last few years.
The approach also gets exaggerated. The Pirates don’t have their pitchers throw 90-95% fastballs. That happened the first year, in 2008, with the State College Spikes. They’ve since phased the off-speed pitches in a bit more. The primary focus is still on the fastball, and you’re likely to see fastballs with pitch number one and two. That doesn’t mean you won’t see a prospect throwing a first pitch curveball to keep hitters honest. You just won’t see pitchers working off their curveball.
The fastball approach can really produce some misleading results. It’s almost to the point where you have to ignore the results, and focus on what the pitchers are doing. Sometimes you’ll have a pitcher getting crushed, but putting up strong K/BB ratios. The ratios suggest that their stuff isn’t that bad, but the high ERA suggests that their stuff might not be that good. Then you might have the opposite situation, with a guy having a low ERA, but also a low K/BB ratio. In that case, is the ERA a reflection on the talent, or is the low strikeout total the true story?
I am a believer that stats can tell a story, but I’ve never believed that stats tell the entire story. If I believed that, I wouldn’t spend so much time on the road, traveling to the various minor league parks to actually see the players play. I wouldn’t spend hours talking to the players, coaches, and opposing scouts about the players. The stats can tell a story, but that story might not be accurate. To get an idea what I’m talking about, here are three different pitching situations in the lower levels, and what their stats aren’t saying.
The top pitching prospect in the system coming in to the year will make his final start of the 2011 season tonight. He comes in to the start with a 4.16 ERA in 88.2 innings, along with an impressive 94:20 K/BB ratio. The question that some people have asked is, if Taillon is so good, why does he only have a 4.16 ERA? You could obviously point to the K/BB ratio as proof that he’s dominating hitters, but that doesn’t hide the fact that his overall results don’t look anything like the numbers you’d expect from a top pitching prospect like Taillon.
Taillon’s curveball is strong. It’s a major league pitch, and hitters in the South Atlantic League can’t touch it. The problem is that Taillon isn’t using it much. If Taillon pitched off his curveball more often, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have an ERA below 2.00 in the South Atlantic League. However, that would also prevent him from improving his fastball command. The fastball heavy approach gets some exaggeration. It’s not 90% fastballs, at least not for everyone. When I talked to Taillon last week, he said he used his changeup about 12% of the time this year. He throws his curveball when he gets in a favorable count. That’s standard for any pitcher in West Virginia. To get in that favorable count, he throws his fastball. The ratio is probably closer to 75/25 than 90/10 for his fastball compared to other pitches. So if Taillon is throwing 75 pitches, which was his limit the last time out, then 56 are going to be fastballs, and most of the time he’s going to be leading off with his fastball.
In the short term, that’s not going to lead to strong results in low-A. The strikeout ratio is due to the fact that, when he gets in a favorable count, he dominates hitters with his curveball. The walk ratio is due to the fact that his command is already good. However, the ERA is a combination of hitters knowing he’s throwing mostly fastballs, and Taillon struggling by leaving the ball up in the zone. He could get better results by throwing more curveballs, but what does that help? It pads his low-A numbers, but it doesn’t help his development for the long term, which is the most important thing.
Zack Von Rosenberg
Last night Von Rosenberg pitched six no-hit innings, finishing off his 2011 season on a strong note. Overall, Von Rosenberg’s numbers don’t look good. He’s got a 5.73 ERA in 125.2 innings, which is mostly due to a poor first half. Von Rosenberg was hammered for a 7.58 ERA in his first 18 outings of the year. He rebounded well in his final nine starts, with a 2.66 ERA in 47.1 innings.
There have been questions about Von Rosenberg this year. First of all, his fastball usually sits in the upper 80s, topping out at 91. He’s got a projectable frame, and has the athletic body and smooth delivery needed to make him a candidate to add velocity going forward. He’s also been leaving his fastball up in the zone, which is a deadly thing to do when you’re only throwing in the upper 80s. The combination has led to poor numbers this year, especially with the long ball, where Von Rosenberg has given up 19 homers. He’s cut down in that area, giving up two homers in the last nine starts.
So what has happened in those last nine starts? Has Von Rosenberg learned to keep the ball down? Has he added velocity? The answer is neither. I mentioned how Taillon would have better overall numbers if he worked more with his curveball. The same is true for Von Rosenberg, and the proof is in the second half numbers. He made the switch around mid-July, working more off his curveball and less off his fastball. His fastball is still in the upper 80s, and is still left up in the zone. He’s just throwing his curveball more often, and as a result, getting better results.
In the short term, the numbers look good. In the long term, Von Rosenberg is going to struggle unless he either adds velocity, works on keeping the ball down, or both.
Kingham has had a great season this year. He just finished up his season with a 2.15 ERA in 71 innings, with a 47:15 K/BB ratio. Kingham started off slow, giving up give runs in his first outing, and four runs in his fourth outing. From that point forward he was dominant, going 11 straight outings with one or fewer runs, including ten straight starts with five or more innings and one or fewer runs.
Taillon didn’t have the strong ERA, but had good strikeout numbers because of his curveball. Von Rosenberg didn’t have good numbers because of poor fastball command, and then improved his numbers because he leaned on the curveball more in the second half. Kingham had good overall numbers, especially in his final 11 outings, but didn’t have the strong strikeout numbers like Taillon.
A big reason for the low ERA was that Kingham was pitching to contact, and doing a good job of it. He has a good curveball, and a very good changeup, but he was mostly working on fastball command, even more-so than Taillon and Von Rosenberg. It got to the point where Kingham was using his curveball so little that it got rusty at the end of the year. I was in attendance when he struck out eight in his second start of the year, using mostly the curveball as his strikeout pitch. When I saw him for his final start of the year, his curve was rusty, causing him to lean more on his changeup.
He has good secondary stuff, but he doesn’t have a major league curveball like Taillon, which explains the low strikeouts. He also throws 91-93 MPH, as opposed to the 94-96 MPH that Taillon throws, which makes it a little easier for batters to make contact. However, Kingham’s fastball command has improved as the season has gone on, which only fueled his strong numbers, even though he was pitching mostly off the fastball. He’s got two good off-speed pitches, and good command of all three pitches. He’s definitely a guy to watch, and things will start looking very interesting when he is able to use all three pitches in game situations, rather than focusing mostly on the fastball.
It’s Not Just About Fastball Command
You run in to trouble when you try to make a blanket argument fit the entire system. You can’t write a player off because of a bad ERA. A strong K/BB ratio doesn’t necessarily excuse the player, just like a weak K/BB ratio doesn’t speak negatively about a player. In Taillon’s case, you’ve got a guy that could dominate the lower levels with his curveball. Instead, he’s working on his fastball command, which will only make his curveball better if he improves the command.
Von Rosenberg is a similar situation. He needs to improve his fastball command, and like Taillon, he needs to keep the ball down. He’s getting hit harder because he’s throwing 88-91, rather than 93-96. His second half numbers have been better, but only reflect a move towards his curveball. Taillon is getting hit hard now, but the effort is aimed to improve him for the long run. Von Rosenberg is still working on fastball command, but his improved numbers don’t reflect improvement, just a change in approach. He still needs to work on keeping the ball down.
Meanwhile, Kingham has good fastball command, and will only improve as he adds his curveball and changeup to the mix. That’s not to say he doesn’t have anything to work on. He does a good job keeping the ball down, and working the inside and outside of the plate. However, he’s not to the point where he can put the fastball where he wants it every time. When he reaches that point, he could be a special pitcher.
In all three cases, the stats tell a story, but the actual performances bring that story in to focus.