Developing prospects is a process that takes time. Because the process takes time, it requires patience. In some cases, you have to have an imagination, looking ahead to what a player could eventually become, rather than focusing on the recent results or what that player currently looks like. However, in most cases people are impatient. They don’t want to give the proper time for a prospect to develop. And imagination is out the window. What the prospect currently looks like is what the prospect will eventually become. Unfortunately, this approach ignores the realities that surround different prospects.
Stetson Allie fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second round of the 2010 draft. He was considered a top 15 prospect, and a top 10 guy by some outlets. He had a great arm, touching triple digits right before the draft. He also had a hard slider that graded as a plus pitch. He was considered a project, as he was new to pitching, with only one year under his belt. However, there was a lot of upside. A safe projection had him becoming a star closer, but he had the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter.
People were high on Allie heading in to the 2011 season. Then the reality hit: Allie was raw. His control was bad. Everyone over-looked the fact that he had only been pitching for one year, and imagination immediately went out the window. There was no way that Allie would ever become a starter with this control, and he’d be lucky to become a closer. The idea that he could possibly improve was unheard of. Look at all of the prospects who struggled with control in the past and never fixed those control issues. Never mind that they were probably in a different situation, having pitched for years, rather than being new to the position.
Before he threw his first pitch, Allie’s lack of experience on the mound was ignored. After his raw control was seen, people started to ignore other aspects of his game. They still ignored that he was new to pitching, which explained the poor command. But they also ignored that he had a plus slider. The focus was placed so much on his fastball command that he became known as a guy with one good pitch — a fastball that could touch triple digits — only he had no command over that pitch, and wasn’t throwing it anywhere near triple digits.
There’s a desire to put an instant label on prospects. People instantly put the “closer” tag on Allie, giving up any hope that he’d improve over his initial pro results. Because of that, they ignored the improvements that were actually taking place along the way.
I saw Allie in Spring Training last year. His command was horrible. I think he threw more pitches in the batter’s box than across the plate. There’s no question why he started the season in extended Spring Training.
I saw Allie again during his pro debut. He looked better in the first inning, but command quickly escaped him. That was the case throughout the season.
The Pirates eventually moved him to the bullpen, but not because they had given up on him as a starter. They moved him to the bullpen to take some pressure off the right-hander. They wanted him focused on getting three outs. They didn’t want him to worry about spreading his stuff out over multiple innings.
By the end of the season Allie had made some big strides over where he was at during the beginning of the year. He not only could throw his fastball across the plate, but he could move it left and right when he wanted to. That was something he couldn’t do during Spring Training.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster,” Allie said of his improved fastball command. “Just build on every outing I go. Every outing my fastball command has gotten better, and with the fastball command getting better, my slider’s been more effective, and my change-up has been more effective. So can’t really ask for more.”
So far this Spring, Allie has picked up where he left off at the end of last year. He’s still got some control issues, something that was seen in yesterday’s start when he walked five in 3.1 innings. However, for the most part when he’s missing, he’s not missing by much. And he’s still improving on hitting his spots.
“I’ve been really impressed,” Pirates’ farm director Larry Broadway said of Allie’s improvements. “He’s in a very good spot personally. He’s confident. He’s done a lot of work, he’s starting to trust the work, and he’s starting to buy in to himself as a pitcher.”
A key to Allie’s improvement is the obvious experience. He entered the 2011 season with only one year of pitching under his belt. As he continues to get more experience on the mound, he will continue to improve. This isn’t a case where a guy has pitched for years and still has poor command. The reason Allie has poor command is because he hasn’t pitched for years. Another thing that has helped his improvement has been his ability to relax on the mound.
“For me it was probably just going out there and having fun,” Allie said on what led to his improved fastball command. “Just thinking too much is a big problem for me. Just going out there and being an athlete, and playing ball.”
“Once I start over-analyzing things is when I get in trouble.”
Last year Allie was good until he got in to a jam. Once he started putting runners on base, the wheels fell off the wagon. Yesterday he allowed seven base runners in three innings, but he was able to work out of a jam every time. He started the outing with a leadoff walk, and the runner immediately stole second base. Allie responded with a ground out and followed that with two strikeouts, stranding the runner at third. That’s the type of poise you didn’t see from him in 2011.
The big question surrounding Allie is whether he can become a starter. The Pirates moved him to the bullpen last year to focus on his fastball command, but the plan is to move him back in to the rotation at West Virginia this year.
“The idea is that if you’ve got a guy that can throw a hundred, it’d be nice to develop him as a starter,” Broadway said.
The plan is to start him this year, but looking long-term, does he have a possible future as a starting pitcher?
“I think he does,” Broadway said on the subject of whether he can be a starter long-term. “People push him to the bullpen because they see the command and control issues from the last year. As he starts to grow in to being a pitcher, rather than a thrower…it’s still way too early to box him in to a bullpen role.”
One thing about Allie’s fastball command is that it has come at the expense of his velocity. He can touch the upper 90s, and has hit triple digits in the past, although his control and command is non-existent at those speeds. He’s been throwing 91-95 MPH on a consistent basis, which is still very hard for opponents to hit due to the fastball movement and his downward plane. The question is often asked: will the Pirates eventually speed him up to throwing in the upper 90s again?
“Typically a guy like him, as he moves up, as he gets more experience, as he gets stretched out a little more, that velocity, if it’s meant to come back it will come up there,” Broadway said. “But we are definitely not wanting him to be a ‘thrower’, because that doesn’t do anybody any good. If you can maintain his delivery and his mentality up there, and just because of the repetition of things, the arm strength, if it takes a jump it takes a jump.”
A big key to developing Allie as a starter will be the progress of his change-up. Right now he’s a guy with two plus pitches, but no third pitch. He’s been working on the change-up, but it obviously hasn’t been as big of a priority as his command.
“Obviously it’s his third pitch right now,” Broadway said. “It’s something he’s going to work on developing this year. It’s a work in progress.”
“It’s getting better,” Allie said of the pitch. “It still definitely needs a lot of work. But can’t complain with my fastball command and my slider, so as long as I have that I think I’ll be alright.”
With his fastball/slider combination, Allie has the potential to be just as good as another guy who has a strong fastball/slider combo: Gerrit Cole. Obviously the two are worlds apart right now. Cole has been a pitcher for a long time, has a fastball that he can control in the upper 90s, and doesn’t have the command issues that come with Allie’s inexperience. But like Cole, Allie has great stuff, with a plus fastball and a plus slider. So it’s probably no surprise that when Allie is on the mound, Cole is usually found watching the 2010 2nd round pick.
“He’s got really good stuff,” Cole said of what he’s seen of Allie. “I know why they picked him so high. He’s athletic. He’s got an explosive fastball, an explosive slider.”
Allie has the stuff to be an elite starting pitcher, and he has a shot of continued improvement with his command, which only help his chances. But what about his mentality? Allie has the mentality typically found in a lights-out closer. That’s where some of the closer talk comes from, but the comparison may go deeper.
I’ve been told of a study within some front offices that tracks aggression within players. What the study has shown is that aggression is a bad thing for baseball players, as it often is hard for players to harness that aggression. Typically when a player shows the aggression Allie shows, it goes unchecked, and becomes more of a negative than a positive, especially when things start to go wrong for the player. We’ve seen some of this with Allie in the past.
The thing about those studies is that there is one exception. While it’s bad to have aggression for most positions, the studies show that the one position where that aggression is beneficial is with relievers. That unchecked aggressive attitude is exactly the mentality that is needed for a lights out closer.
So does this mean that Allie is destined to be a closer? Not quite. All it takes is for him to find a way to harness his aggression, and avoid losing his composure when things start to spin out of control. We’ve already seen some improvements in that area.
There’s the desire to put Allie in a bullpen role, mostly because no one wants to patiently wait to see if he can develop his change-up and continue to develop his command. It’s easier to focus on what Allie currently is, rather than imagining what Allie could eventually become. The problem with this approach is that people ignore the key topic: Allie is new to pitching. He’s not some seasoned veteran who has command issues and never developed a change-up. He’s a guy who has been pitching for two years. As he adds more experience, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more improvements like we’ve seen already from Allie in the past year.
Want to see those improvements? Take a look at the two videos below. The first is Allie’s first inning in a Spring Training game last year. The second video is Allie’s first inning in yesterday’s Spring Training game.