When the Pittsburgh Pirates were shopping Freddy Sanchez in 2009, the expectations were low on a return. The second baseman was making $6.1 M, which was a reasonable salary for his production. However, his $8 M option in 2010 was too high, essentially making him a two-month rental to any team that traded for him.
Sanchez went down with an injury right before he was traded, missing three games against the San Francisco Giants, who traded for him after the series. Again, not the highest value for the second baseman.
Then a surprise came. The Pirates not only got a return for Sanchez, but they got a guy who was a top prospect. Tim Alderson was dealt from the Giants to the Pirates straight up for Sanchez. Alderson entered the 2009 season as the 45th best prospect in baseball, and the number two pitching prospect in San Francisco’s system, behind Madison Bumgarner. He was called a potential front-line starter, with a curveball that rated as the best in the Giants’ system, and an 88-92 MPH fastball. It looked like the Pirates had gotten a steal for two months of Freddy Sanchez, who was injured at the time of the trade.
Alderson came to the Pirates and immediately struggled. He put up a 4.66 ERA in 38.2 innings with Altoona in the final month of the season. At the time of the trade there were reports that Alderson was sitting in the mid-to-upper 80s with his fastball, and that his curve wasn’t as sharp. That was evident immediately after arriving in the organization, as Alderson wasn’t close to the low-90s with his fastball, and his curve wasn’t as sharp.
The right-hander returned to Altoona for the 2010 season, but again struggled. He put up a 5.62 ERA in 89.2 innings. The Pirates sent him down to Bradenton, where he was worse, with a 6.98 ERA in 38.2 innings. His velocity sat in the mid-80s at times, and his curveball wasn’t as sharp as it used to be.
Alderson was a starter his entire career leading up to the 2011 season. The Pirates sent him back to Altoona, but this time put him in the bullpen. In the first half of the season it looked like he was bouncing back to his old form. His fastball was sitting in the upper-80s, and more importantly, his curveball looked sharp again. He was dominant out of the bullpen in the first half of the season. But the success was short-lived. He struggled in the second half, and his velocity dropped back to the mid-80s.
Heading in to the 2012 season, a guy who looked like one of the top prospects in baseball was suddenly looking like a guy who had no shot at a major league career. But in the early stages of Spring Training, Alderson looks like he could be a candidate for a comeback.
Falling From Top Prospect Status
The Pirates were able to acquire Alderson from the Giants because the top prospect had already started declining in value. His fastball was sitting in the mid-to-upper 80s, and his curveball wasn’t as sharp. The team looked at video of his high school starts, and video of his recent starts, and noticed that something was lost on the back side of his delivery. The Pirates determined that the natural weight gain for Alderson from high school to where he was in 2009 prevented him from throwing with his old velocity.
When a player first enters the system, the Pirates have a “no-touch” policy, where they don’t make any adjustments for the first 3-4 months. After watching Alderson for the remainder of the 2009 season, the team approached him with some changes on his delivery during the fall instructional leagues. The initial results in Altoona the following season weren’t good.
Alderson struggled in his return to the AA level. To make it easier on him, and to give him a better environment to work on his mechanics, the team demoted him to high-A Bradenton where things only got worse.
The Pirates have had success with mechanical adjustments in the past few years. The most recent success story came last year with Chris Leroux. Leroux took a similar approach to Alderson. He struggled in AAA, was moved down a level to work on his new arm slot, picked the adjustment up well, then dominated AAA in his return, eventually moving to the majors.
Mechanical adjustments don’t always work, especially when the player isn’t comfortable with the adjustment. Alderson never really embraced the changes.
“They saw some stuff in me that they didn’t like,” Alderson said. “But trying to force a pitcher to do something that’s not comfortable, it turns real mechanical and it just looks weird.”
The Up and Downs of the 2011 Season
Alderson returned to the AA level for the third time in 2011. This time he was moved to the bullpen. The right-hander embraced the move, and had success early in the season. His fastball was consistently in the upper-80s. His curveball had returned. He was putting up strong numbers.
Was Alderson back on track? When would he move to the rotation again? When would the Pirates move him to AAA? These were the questions asked during his hot streak. The same questions were racing through Alderson’s head, and may have led to his second half collapse.
“I think towards the end of the year I was trying to control things I couldn’t control, and thinking about everything but baseball,” Alderson said about his second half struggles. “‘When am I getting moved up? When am I getting in the rotation?’ Stuff that was out of my control, and I think I just kind of lost focus on being a pitcher and throwing every two or three days. I think I just started to play General Manager, and it wasn’t working too well. This year I’m just going to focus on throwing, no matter what role I’m in, and be consistent all year.”
The Issue of Long Toss
One of the big debates surrounding Alderson was the issue of long toss. It’s been said that the Pirates don’t allow long toss, and restrict their pitchers to throwing from 120 feet. That’s not exactly true.
The Pirates have never been against long toss. Plenty of players in the system go beyond 120 feet, including top prospects Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole.
Over the off-season, Alderson got back on a long toss program that he used in high school. He would throw from 300-350 feet every day, trying to build arm strength and arm speed. The right-hander decided he wanted to bring the program in to camp.
“I just decided, I’ve been through the loop four or five years now,” Alderson said. “I had to take my career in to my own hands and wanted to do what was comfortable. And thankfully Mitch [Scott Mitchell], our pitching coordinator, has been really supportive, and every pitching coach is supportive. They want to do what’s going to help me. I decided this off-season to stick with it, and not just do it when I was home, bring it in to camp.”
Mitchell watched Alderson on the first day, throwing from the center field wall all the way to the left field foul line. After practice, the two sat down and talked about the program. There are some downsides to long toss. It can mess with a pitcher’s delivery, causing them to elevate the ball up in the zone. It can lead to injuries, with pitchers throwing at maximum effort to send the ball over a long distance. Mitchell agreed that if Alderson was maintaining his delivery, wasn’t throwing at maximum effort, and was long tossing properly, the program would be allowed.
“We have our guidelines of 120 feet,” Mitchell explained. “We can go past 120 feet once a pitcher’s proven health, and that he’s maintaining proper mechanics throughout. He’s hit all of those checkpoints, and says he feels good, so we’ll continue to do it.”
“I think this long toss program just frees me up, and I can just air it out from as far as I want,” Alderson said. “And then the goal is to take that final farthest throw in to the mound, and just not hold anything back, and just be athletic and throw the ball wherever you throw it, and the rest will take care of itself.”
A Lost Velocity Returns
In Alderson’s first Spring Training game last week he threw two innings. His jerky delivery and his height has always given him deception, making his pitches appear faster than they are. When I was watching him in his first inning I wasn’t watching the radar guns. When I noticed his pitches looking like they had some heat on them, my first reaction was that I had seen all of this before.
I’ve been fooled by Alderson’s delivery in the past, thinking for example that an 85 MPH fastball was at least 89. This time I was surprised when I looked at the gun and saw “91″. Pitch after pitch, Alderson was in the 89-91 MPH range. And the pitches looked good. They were down in the zone, they were hitting their spots, and Alderson was getting outs. His fastball was setting up his curveball, which was getting a lot of ground balls.
“He’s been throwing well. He looks comfortable,” Mitchell said of his early progress in Spring Training.
Alderson returned for the second inning and was even more impressive, sitting 91-92. In a system that has plenty of pitchers throwing in the upper 90s, and where most guys are 92-94 MPH, sitting at 89-92 MPH isn’t normally impressive. Again, Alderson’s delivery provides some deception, which makes him impressive at that speed.
Can Alderson Make a Comeback?
The San Francisco Giants drafted Alderson in the first round of the 2007 draft, taking him 22nd overall. He came out of the high school ranks, and was almost immediately put in the spotlight. Because of that spotlight, it seems like Alderson has been around for a long time, and it’s easy to forget that he’s only 23 years old. Can the 23 year old make a comeback?
The Pirates currently have Alderson preparing to be a starter. They’re stretching him out in camp, although a roster spot isn’t exactly guaranteed. He would have a tough time cracking the AAA rotation, with the rotation in Altoona seems more likely.
The right-hander has been working on his curveball in camp. The pitch looks better than it has the past few years, although it’s not completely back to old form. Alderson has the tendency to try and place the pitch. He’s been working on throwing the pitch harder so that it doesn’t get loopy.
The key will be the fastball, since that can set up the curve. I saw Alderson sitting in the upper-80s during Spring Training last year. I saw him in the upper-80s during the early parts of the Altoona season. Then I saw him drop to the mid-80s by the end of the year. So the fact that he’s throwing 89-92 MPH in Spring Training doesn’t mean he will be doing so the entire season.
Aside from the long toss program, Alderson and Mitchell have been focusing on the mental side of the game. The focus has been to keep Alderson’s view on the next pitch, the next at-bat, and the next game, rather than dwelling on a bad pitch, a bad at-bat, or a bad start.
“Mentally and physically I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and how to deal with failure,” Alderson said. “Now I’m able to bounce back quicker than really try to hang my head on it and drag it in to other appearances.”
Alderson hasn’t yet made a comeback, but he’s certainly got all of the tools needed to go down that path. He’s on a throwing program that he’s comfortable with, and one that helped lead him to his initial success out of high school. He’s throwing his fastball in the 89-92 MPH range in camp, an area he hasn’t consistently been in since he was a top prospect prior to the 2009 season. His curveball is improved from where it was in 2009 and 2010, and he’s still working on adding consistency to the pitch.
Heading in to the season, it looked like it would be a surprise if Alderson ever reached the majors. After seeing his early success in camp, and seeing the changes he made over the off-season, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he rebounds in 2012. Whether he could reach the majors remains to be seen, but the fact that he now has a shot is a big improvement over where his career stood at the end of the 2010 season.