First Pitch: The Altoona Four – Where Are They Now?
In 2010 the Altoona Curve had a group of pitchers that went on to be called “The Altoona Four” out of convenience. I say convenience because the group led Altoona to an Eastern League title in 2010, but they also led the Lynchburg Hillcats to a Carolina League title in 2009. So they could have easily been “The Lynchburg Four”, which isn’t really as catchy. Then, in 2011, only two of them moved up to Indianapolis at the start of the season. Eventually the other two pitchers made that jump. After that it would have made sense to call them “The Indianapolis Four”.
But you say “The Altoona Four” and most people know you’re talking about Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, and Justin Wilson. For most of the 2010 season the Pirates didn’t have an ace of the future. They had the pitchers in Altoona, and the hope that one of the prep pitchers from the 2009 draft would break out and become a top prospect. It wasn’t until a one week span in the middle of August that the team signed Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, and Luis Heredia. The following year they would draft and sign Gerrit Cole.
It’s hard to think back before the Pirates had pitching depth. Now you hear people say “I don’t want the Pirates taking a pitcher” if people talk about top pitching prospect Sean Manaea possibly falling to the Pirates. Early 2010 Pirates fans would kick us all in the balls if they knew. That was a time when The Altoona Four represented hope for the short-term and the long-term of the pitching staff. Now that hope lies with Cole, Taillon, Heredia, and other potential breakout guys like Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow.
So what about The Altoona Four? Where did they end up? What kind of help are they going to provide the Pirates with in the short and long term? Let’s take a look at each pitcher.
Jeff Locke - After another outstanding start today, Locke has a 2.73 ERA in 52.2 innings on the season for the Pirates. That won’t last, as his xFIP is 4.45, due to a low .224 BABIP and a high 82.5% strand rate. Neither will be sustained as the season goes on. One advantage Locke could have is that his 11.4% HR/FB rate could come down, even below the 10% league average. As a left-hander in PNC Park, Locke should see a lower amount of fly balls going for home runs, much in the same way that Paul Maholm always had a low HR/FB rate with the Pirates (7.3-7.7 range in 2009-2011, 12.8 in 2012 and 9.5 in 2013 away from Pittsburgh). Then again, it took Maholm a few years to get to those levels, so that might not happen yet for Locke. I see him ending up as a strong number four starter, and possibly an average number three guy.
Bryan Morris - It looks like Morris is finally in the majors for good. He’s not posting dominant numbers yet, but he also only has 14.2 innings this year. I’ve felt that Morris could be a closer option, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with more experience. Right now he has a 3.68 ERA in those 14.2 innings, with a 5.5 K/9 and a 4.9 BB/9 ratio.
Rudy Owens - He hasn’t reached the majors yet, but Owens has already helped the Pirates. He was one of three players the Pirates traded to the Astros last year to get Wandy Rodriguez, who has been a huge anchor for the rotation. Owens is out for most of the year with a foot injury after pitching 17 innings in Triple-A for Houston this year.
Justin Wilson - He’s been outstanding in the bullpen this year, with a 1.40 ERA in 25.2 innings, along with an 8.8 K/9 and a 4.9 BB/9 ratio. There will be some regression, since he has a 2.95 FIP and a 3.97 xFIP. One of his strengths throughout the minors was that he rarely gave up any hits. That, combined with the high strikeout numbers, countered the walks. So far Wilson is doing the same in the majors with a .110 BAA. He’s also putting up great velocities out of the bullpen.
#Pirates LHP Justin Wilson topped out at 97.4 mph last night, averaged 95.5 mph with fastball. He's enjoying a velocity spike this year
— Travis Sawchik (@Sawchik_Trib) May 18, 2013
When Wilson first moved to the bullpen in 2011 he hit 99 MPH on a few occasions. To see him back in the upper 90s again is a great thing. A lefty with an upper 90s fastball is rare. I wouldn’t be opposed to the Pirates using Wilson as a starter down the line, but this year he should provide them with a strong middle relief option. In the future he could be a dominant late inning reliever if they don’t go the starting route.
At the moment Locke has the most value for the short-term. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he will have the most value for the long-term. I’ve always liked Owens more than most, and if Wilson ever makes the jump to being a starter I think he could have more upside than anyone.
The overall results from this group have been good. In 2010 the Pirates had four outstanding starters in Altoona. That doesn’t always translate over to four starters in the majors. Right now it’s looking like the return from this group will be a mid-to-back of the rotation guy, and two dominant late inning relievers. Plus Owens represents one-third of the trade that brought in Wandy Rodriguez. Considering the high attrition rate for pitchers, those are some good results to have.
They’re not providing the Pirates with a group of pitchers who will lead the pitching staff. Morris and Wilson could eventually lead the bullpen, but there’s no top of the rotation guys. However, the Pirates have other pitchers in the system now to potentially fill those roles. Getting a starter, two relievers, and a trade chip that brings in another starter is definitely a good result, and so far has helped the Pirates get off to their strong start in 2013.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.
**Check out the new episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 4: Are the Pirates For Real? Plus a Jameson Taillon Interview.