It’s a question I get asked daily. Several times a day, even. When will Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon move up to Altoona?
Both starters are putting up strong numbers in Bradenton this year. Cole has a 3.18 ERA in 34 innings, with some dominant secondary numbers, including a 10.3 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9 ratio. Taillon has a 1.47 ERA in 36.2 innings, with an 8.8 K/9 and a 1.7 BB/9 ratio.
The answer to the question of when they move up isn’t fully based on their numbers. Each player will move up when they’ve finished working on what they’ve been working on at the level.
For Gerrit Cole, the focus is on fastball command. Cole isn’t seeing the same focus as incoming prep pitchers, but focusing on the fastball is important, even for the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. In the last three starts, Cole has incorporated his full arsenal in to the mix even more than he did in the first four starts. The results have been encouraging, with three runs in 17 innings, and a 16:4 K/BB ratio.
“It’s about fastball command so it’s not necessarily limiting his arsenal, it’s trying to help him develop and grow and get better,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “For him to be a successful big league pitcher, he’s going to have to command his fastball. He’s going to have to be able to command it when he needs to command it. He’s going to have to be able to command it in fastball counts –as good as his fastball is. It was more an emphasis on fastball command. Same thing we went through last year with Jameson.”
You would think that a college pitcher would have less to work on when it comes to fastball command. One of Cole’s issues is that he tends to over-power his pitches, leading to his breaking stuff flattening out, and his fastball elevating. That has led to him being more hittable than he should. However, the Pirates are also focused on getting pitchers to pitch to contact, which is something that most college pitchers avoid. College pitchers tend to try and miss bats, as an inside pitch against a metal bat can go for a hit, as opposed to a broken bat ground out in the pros.
“The emphasis with our young pitchers is commanding the fastball, rather than tricking them with secondary stuff,” Huntington said. “Unfortunately in High School and in College, it’s more about tricking then it is commanding your fastball. That’s the biggest challenge we have with young pitchers is teaching them, you command your fastball first, then you use your secondary to develop later. Double-A, Triple-A hitters aren’t going to be tricked by the breaking ball at that point in time.”
It was only a year ago that Jameson Taillon was in the same position as Cole. Taillon reached the 34 inning mark after his eighth start. In those 34 innings he had a 3.71 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, and a 1.1 BB/9. Hardly the numbers you’d expect from one of the top prep pitching prospects in recent years.
A year later and Taillon is dominating in almost every start. In his last four starts he has allowed two runs in 23 innings, with a 18:5 K/BB ratio. He’s gone five innings in each of his last six starts, and has gone six innings in each of his last three starts. He has yet to give up more than two earned runs in a start this year, and hasn’t given up any homers after giving up an 0.87 HR/9 ratio last year.
A big issue for Taillon last year was that he had the tendency to elevate his fastball. That had to do with a hop in his delivery, where he would sit too low in a drop and drive fashion, making it hard to throw on a downward plane or at the knees. He worked this Spring on reducing that drop in his delivery. So far the results have been strong, with much improved fastball command.
“He’s been able to keep his fastball down in the zone for the most part,” Huntington said. “He’s worked in and out to both left-handers and right-handers. He’s got the devastating breaking ball. His changeup continues to improve and continues to get better. He’s been aggressive. He’s been able to get some early count outs — which is the one of the two primary reasons to why you have pitch counts. To develop marathon runners instead of trying to take a sprint or turn into a marathon runner. But secondly is teaching our young guys to get hitters out in three or less pitches. And when you do get two strikes on a guy, bury him. Don’t try to trick him. Throw your good breaking ball. Throw it for a chase strike, or elevate a fastball, bury a guy in. Jameson has done a terrific job with that as well.”
Taillon has made a big adjustment this year with his fastball command, and the fact that he’s done so in one year in the Pirates’ system speaks well for Cole’s chances to break his habit of leaving the ball up in the zone. Now that he’s showing improvements in his biggest area of weakness from the 2011 season, what else is keeping Taillon in high-A?
The other big thing Taillon has been working on has been his changeup. Coming in to the organization, Taillon had five pitches. However, the Pirates took away his slider and two-seam fastball, having him focus on three pitches. He’s got a plus fastball and a plus curveball, but his changeup needs work. That’s to be expected for a guy coming out of high school with a fastball that touches 99 MPH and a major league curveball. His changeup has improved this year, which is a good sign, as he’ll need more than just a fastball and curveball to reach his potential.
“Just continued development of the changeup. Continued refinement of his delivery and mechanics and continued success of the command of the fastball,” Huntington said on what Taillon needs to do from here to move up.
It doesn’t sound like a promotion for Taillon or Cole is imminent. However, both pitchers are putting up good numbers, and both are making solid progress in the areas they need to work on. It seems to me that this is one of those small sample size issues that you don’t usually hear about, where the team wants to give more time to make sure that the progress shown is actually legit, and not something limited to one good month of work.
Starling Marte Good to Go
Nancy Zinni reported earlier in the week that Starling Marte’s hand was bruised, and that he’d be limited to pinch running duties for a short time. Since then he’s served as a pinch runner in a few games.
“He’s fine. Just sore,” Huntington said. “It’s a bruised hand. He is progressing fine. We did bring him in to Pittsburgh just to double check and see our hand specialist here. Just to make sure, to make sure everything was good and to give him the confidence that he’s okay. He’s good to go.”
Jeff Larish is an Upgrade for Indianapolis
The Pirates acquired Jeff Larish this week from the Boston Red Sox. The move led to some speculation as to where Larish would play, and whether his addition meant a promotion was coming from Indianapolis. Larish plays first base and third base, and the Indians have Jake Fox, Matt Hague, and Jeff Clement for those roles.
For now, Larish is just seen as an upgrade for Indianapolis, who currently sit in first place in the West division of the International League.
“Left-handed bats play better than right-handed bats there,” Neal Huntington said of Victory Field. “We felt like it was an opportunity to just deepen that lineup and give our prospect pitchers a few more runs to work with. Jeff will go back and forth [between] first and third. We felt that it would be an upgrade for Indy.”