Nathan Baker spent the entire 2011 season with the High-A Bradenton Marauders, where he made 25 starts (29 appearances). The left-hander posted a 3.34 ERA over a career-high 148.1 innings and cut down his walk to strikeout ratio with a 6.4 K/9 and a 3.1 BB/9.
Baker was promoted to Double-A Altoona after spring training this year and started off strong with the Curve. The lefty allowed just one run over five frames in his debut at the Double-A level, and tossed six scoreless in his second outing. But after his third start, Baker started to struggle as a starter and the organization decided to move him into the bullpen.
It’s a role that not only Baker enjoys, but has thrived in so far.
“I enjoy it,” Baker said. “I like it a lot. There’s just no more stress. I was just stressing over every start, worrying about it every five days. Now, I just don’t think on the mound anymore. I just go out there and pitch. I feel like I have a lot of support behind me and I don’t have to worry about the game as much. I can just go out there and enjoy the game like I should.”
Since becoming a reliever, Baker has made seven appearances. The 24-year-old has a 2.04 ERA in 17.2 innings in those appearances, with a 15:7 K/BB ratio. He’s drastically cut down on his walks and has increased his strikeouts, improving from a 33:36 K/BB ratio in 58 innings this year as a starter.
“He was struggling,” Curve pitching coach Jeff Johnson said of Baker switching roles. “We thought it would be a good mental thing for him so he didn’t have to worry or think about the start…It’s kind of one of those things where it’s more a mental issue. I think there’s some anxiety built up every start. I know when I started there was. You know the starts coming, you’ve got four days to think about it. It was tough for him. He didn’t throw enough strikes to get through it. He’s figured it out of the bullpen.”
In relief, Baker has been able to not stress as much between starts and enjoy playing the game as well. The fifth round pick from Pittsburgh out of University of Mississippi in 2009 has been embracing his new role. Although he’s had to switch up his routine a bit, he’s feeling more relaxed and confident on the bump.
Baker was nicked for three runs on Sunday night in Altoona — the first rough appearance since making the switch. He was called upon to start the fourth inning to replace starter Brandon Cumpton and allowed three earned runs. The Tennessee native gave up a leadoff double and a walk and a single to load the bases. A second straight hit plated a run, then a bases loaded walk scored the second. After retiring his next batter, Baker gave up a sac fly to drive in the third run of his outing. The left-hander settled down and struck out the side in the fifth to strand a pair and retired all three in the sixth after the three run first frame.
“I usually have an idea when I’ll pitch,” Baker said. “But yesterday, I had no idea I was going to warm up in the first inning so that kind of set me off a little bit. For the most part, It’s just about taking all the stress away because I put too much on myself as a starter. I always have. Now, I don’t have to worry about the score anymore, I can just come in and compete. And that’s really what it’s all about. Just coming out there and competing on the field.”
As of now, Baker will remain in the bullpen to get back on track. Johnson said he wasn’t sure if they will move him back into the rotation, but his way up to the big leagues could be as a lefty reliever.
“My personal opinion, he’s probably a bullpen guy,” Johnson said. “That’s where I think he’s going to end up.”
McPherson Healthy, Trying to Get Back on Track
Kyle McPherson is coming off a great 2011 season combined at High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona. The right-hander posted a 2.96 ERA between the two levels over 161.0 innings and was named the Pirates Minor League Pitcher-of-the-Year. McPherson finished the season ranked No. 1 in the system in strikeouts (142) and second in ERA.
McPherson was set to break spring training at Triple-A, where many believed he could make an appearance in Pittsburgh at some point in the season. But the 24-year-old endured a shoulder injury that kept him in Bradenton, Fla., until mid-June.
The right-hander was solid in his debut at Double-A, allowing one run over five innings, but has struggled over his next two allowing eight earned over 12.0 innings.
Curve pitching coach Jeff Johnson said that what has hurt McPherson has been due to not being able to escape the big inning. That’s what happened in last trip to the mound on Saturday. After tossing four hitless innings where he whiffed seven, McPherson allowed three runs on three hits in the fifth.
“He’s been really good for the most part, it’s been just a bad inning,” Johnson said. “He’s getting to about the 65 pitch mark, and then things start to get elevated…He’s healthy. He had a little bit of a lower back thing after a few starts ago. But he seems to be fine. He had great stuff on [Saturday].”
Grossman Found Swing in June
Robbie Grossman struggled in April and May hitting .195, and .230 in his first two months at the Double-A Level. But the Pirates Minor League Player-of-the-Year has hit over .300 in each of his past two months.
Grossman has reached base safely in 22 straight games starting on June 16 and is hitting for a .320 clip so far in July.
“I’m just trying to get better,” Grossman said. “I struggled in the beginning here. I’m just trying to build on what I was doing. Just trying to finish the season off on the right note.”
“I think just adjusting to the level and just trying to find my swing. It’s finally starting to get there. It’s starting to come along.”