I’ve seen a few comments about the “Fastball Academy” the last few days, most notably one focused on Luis Heredia. The comment suggested that Heredia should focus on other pitches, rather than spending almost all of his time on the fastball.
The approach the Pittsburgh Pirates have taken the last few years with the lower level pitchers has been pretty well documented. The team prefers their pitchers to learn command of the fastball. It’s to the point where the Pirates at one point had their pitchers throwing fastballs on almost every pitch. They’ve since backed off on that, and mix in a few breaking pitches to keep opposing hitters honest, but the overwhelming majority is still on the fastball.
If you think the “Fastball Academy” may be an exaggeration, then you haven’t been in the State College locker room, asking a pitcher what their focus is on that season. If you have, then any pitcher in the area would step in and field the answer with the same response.
“Fastball, fastball, fastball.”
The “Fastball Academy” tag is a simplistic approach. It assumes that the only focus is throwing the fastball until the pitcher can constantly throw it for strikes. That’s not the case. The Pirates have a process for teaching fastball command. First they want to see pitchers working on driving the ball down. The words “downward plane” may sound familiar to you. When pitches come in flat, they’re easier to see by opposing hitters. When a pitcher throws on a downward plane, it moves through two planes, making it harder for the hitter to hit. The hitter might see the ball when it first starts out around the mid-section. But by the time it arrives at the plate, the ball may be closer to the knees. Or it could start out chest high and end up closer to the belt.
The Pirates want pitchers to drive the ball down, and learn to elevate only when they’re focused on elevating a fastball. After that they focus on pitching in-and-out on either side of the plate. The focus is to be able to move the ball to the inside and outside of the plate. An example would be pushing the hitter off the plate with an inside pitch, then following that up with a pitch on the outside corner. It’s not always about throwing strikes. Sometimes the plan is to throw a ball, either to move the batter off the plate and set up the outside corner, or to possibly get the batter to chase.
When a pitcher can do all of these things, and put the fastball wherever they want, whenever they want, that pitcher becomes dangerous on the mound. Mix in some quality secondary pitches and you’ve got the makings of a legit pitching prospect.
So how has the “Fastball Academy” worked out for the Pirates? What has it produced so far? How have pitchers been affected by the primary focus on the fastball? To get an idea, let’s take a look at the 2008-2011 teams in the lower levels to see who went through the fastball academy, and where they are today.
2008 State College Spikes
The 2008 Spikes were the team that introduced us to the “fastball academy”. The team was absolutely hammered as a group, putting up a team 5.40 ERA, while throwing 90% fastballs. The team has a few players who have emerged as top prospects in the organization, and the 2008 season was the turning point.
Rudy Owens had the best results of all of the regular starters on the 2008 team. His results weren’t much to write home about though. Owens put up a 4.97 ERA in 58 innings, following a 2007 season where he had a 5.32 ERA in 22 innings. Owens had a breakout season in 2009, putting up a 2.10 ERA in 124 combined innings between low-A and high-A. He was named the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year for his season. The following year Owens made the jump to AA and again won the pitcher of the year award, with a 2.46 ERA in 150 innings. Owens struggled in 2011 in his jump to AAA, with a 5.05 ERA in 112.1 innings.
Kyle McPherson had success in the Gulf Coast League in 2007, but was rocked in three starts in State College that year. In 2008 he put up a 4.37 ERA in 55.2 innings, spending half of his time in the bullpen. The following year he returned to State College and posted a 2.99 ERA in 75.1 innings, before moving up to West Virginia and posting a 4.94 ERA in 51 innings. McPherson returned to West Virginia in 2010, where he broke out for a 3.59 ERA in 117.2 innings. In 2011 he took the next step, with a 2.96 ERA in 161 combined innings between high-A and AA, winning the pitcher of the year award.
Brian Leach and Michael Colla, both 2008 draft picks, made their debuts with State College. Leach had success, with a 3.98 ERA in 55 innings. Colla was hammered in 3.1 innings. Leach recently struggled during the 2011 season, while Colla made successful the jump to the rotation at the AA level.
2009 State College Spikes
McPherson returned to State College in 2009 and had a much better season than his 2008 campaign. The only other top prospects to play at the level were 2009 draft picks Victor Black, Phil Irwin, and Jeff Inman.
2010-2011 State College Spikes
The Pirates focused on drafting high school pitchers in 2009 and 2010, so the 2010 and 2011 State College teams were heavy in this area. In 2010 the Spikes saw Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson, and other 2009 picks go through the fastball academy. In 2011 the Spikes had Nick Kingham and Ryan Hafner as the key prep pitchers.
2008 GCL Pirates
The 2008 GCL team didn’t have many players stick around. The only players who still remain in the system are Tyler Cox and Zach Foster. Both were late round picks in the 2008 draft.
2009 GCL Pirates
The big name from the 2009 group was Ryan Beckman. Beckman was taken in the 18th round that year, but didn’t have much success in the GCL. He was hit hard for a 5.49 ERA in 39.1 innings. Beckman moved up to State College in 2010, and was hit hard once again, with a 4.68 ERA in 42.1 innings. He broke out in 2011, with a 2.79 ERA in 58 innings between low-A and high-A, spending most of the season in Bradenton as the closer.
Brooks Pounders signed early in 2009 and went straight to the GCL. He put up decent numbers, although his control was off, with a 4.2 BB/9 ratio. After spending time in State College in 2010, Pounders got that walk rate down, with a 1.9 BB/9 ratio in 2011 with the West Virginia Power.
2010-2011 GCL Pirates
The 2010 and 2011 seasons saw some of the lower round prep pitchers from the 2009 and 2010 drafts, and guys taken out of the JuCo ranks. It also featured some international players that were making the jump. The biggest name that has gone through the level during this time has been Luis Heredia in 2011. Heredia put up a 4.75 ERA in 30.1 innings, with a 5.6 BB/9 ratio.
If we’re grading the fastball academy on major league results, there haven’t been any. However, it might be too early for any results. The only player who could have reasonably had a shot at the majors was Rudy Owens, and even that would have been aggressive. The two players who are closest to the majors are Owens and Kyle McPherson. Both should start the season at the AAA level.
If we’re looking at minor league results, rather than waiting for major league results, we can already see the changes. Owens and McPherson weren’t anything special. Owens was a 28th round pick out of the JuCo ranks in 2006. McPherson was a 14th round pick out of the JuCo ranks in 2007. They’ve since combined to win all three of the organization’s pitcher of the year awards over the last three seasons.
You’ve also got guys who have had noticeable changes in their stuff, specifically their control. Ryan Beckman went from a 4.5 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9 in State College during the 2010 season, to an 8.0 K/9 and a 3.0 BB/9 ratio in Bradenton during the 2011 season. Brooks Pounders took his walk rate from a 4.2 BB/9 ratio in 2009 at the GCL level, all the way to a 1.9 BB/9 ratio in West Virginia in 2011.
Then you look at Luis Heredia. Heredia was throwing mostly fastballs, working on his command. Despite this, he had a 5.6 BB/9 ratio. Heredia is raw, which is to be expected for a 16 year old pitching in the GCL. But does anyone think it would be a good approach to give up on the focus on his fastball and let him throw other pitches? What good would the other pitches do if he’s putting up a 5.6 BB/9 ratio while throwing mostly fastballs?
Most pitchers throw off of their fastball. Very rarely do you see a pitcher throwing a breaking pitch more often than their fastball. If a pitcher can’t control his fastball, then it won’t matter how many other pitches he can throw. The Pirates aren’t taking an unconventional approach here. This is something that other teams focus on. It’s just something that we didn’t hear much about in Pittsburgh prior to 2008.
If the fastball academy has taught us anything, it’s that there shouldn’t be any concern about learning other pitches. Rudy Owens went through the academy in 2008. In 2009 he switched from a slider to a curveball, and did a good job picking up the pitch. In 2010 he focused on adding a two-seam fastball. Other pitchers have taken the same approach, adding one secondary pitch a year, or changing from an old pitch to a new pitch. But again, it’s all pointless if the pitcher has no command of the primary pitch: the fastball.