Tim has recently unveiled the cover for the upcoming 2012 Prospects Guide Book and the motif is 4 side-by-side pictures of Stetson Allie, Luis Heredia, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. Each of them is on an Ace playing card of a different suit, implying that the Pirates have 4 potential aces in the system.
Whether each of those players reaches the majors and succeeds as a starter is another topic entirely. The point is that the Pirates have 4 players in their system whose ceilings are that of a #1 pitcher. It is the rarest of commodities — a true ace.
I went through the season logs on Baseball Reference for the Pirates from 2000-2011 to see who has made the most starts for the Pirates over that time period, but I narrowed the criteria to ONLY players drafted and brought through the Pirates’ system. Here’s the top 5 pitchers, their strikeouts/9 innings, and their fastball velocities using Pitch F/X data from Fangraphs:
1. Paul Maholm, 185 starts, 5.5 K/9, 87-89 mph fastball
2. Zach Duke, 159 starts, 4.7 K/9, 87-89 mph fastball
3. Ian Snell, 110 starts, 7.5 K/9, 92-93 mph fastball
4. Kris Benson, 95 starts, 6.4 K/9, 91-93 mph fastball
5. Jimmy Anderson, 85 starts, 3.8 K/9, 86-88 mph fastball
That’s a rather disheartening list that shows the Pirates have not cultivated a top-level pitcher, let alone an ace, from their system in a very long time. Of those 5 pitchers above, only Benson was of the caliber and hype potential of any of The Four Aces (especially Cole, his most analagous comparison). Ian Snell is the only one to have a strikeout at 7.5 K/9 or above, which would not be typical of a #1 pitcher who is expected to be right around (if not above) 9.0 K/9 IP.
There’s an old saying that goes “In order to make bricks you need clay”, which means that to produce something positive you first need the right raw materials. There’s more to a great pitcher than just a blazing fastball, as an ace will have 3 to 4 plus pitches in his arsenal. However, it is much harder to be an ace WITHOUT a great fastball. Of course there are exceptions to every rule — Cliff Lee is the current one right now — but the fastball sets everything up from that point. It’s the pitch thrown the majority of the time by a pitcher and the one they go to when the need to make a pitch in a crucial situation. The truly great rack up their strikeouts with their fastball simply being faster than hitters can react, especially if their command allows them to place it where he wants it to go.
That’s why Gerrit Cole’s most recent Arizona Fall League start was encouraging for me. His fastball reached or exceeded 100 mph at least 7 times. His plus changeup (the equalizer that a pitcher needs to combat opposite-handers) sat 88-89 mph. Think about that one for a second. His CHANGEUP was equal in speed to 3 of those 5 pitchers’ fastballs shown above.
Jameson Taillon was sitting 94-96 with his fastball this year as a 19 year old. Heredia was 92-94 as a 16 year old. Allie, who has thrown high 90′s in his high school career, toned it down to 93-95 this year as a 20 year old starter.
Will all four of these pitchers become starters for the major-league team and thrive as #1 starters? Most likely not. The sobering fact of attrition for pitchers is that if 1 of these 4 is a true ace we should be thrilled. If another one is a mid-rotation starter that would be great. If a 3rd is a high-leverage reliever, that would be a windfall.
But it is encouraging to visualize a day when the Pirates put someone on the mound that will give hitters pause before digging their spikes in and to not be able to sit solely on the fastball.