The Pirates have had a strategy over the last few years in the draft. Take hard to sign prep pitchers in the middle rounds of the draft, give them over-slot bonuses, and hope they develop into solid starters. With any luck, you’ll see one or two pitchers take that unseen leap from a somewhat unknown player to a potential top of the rotation starter.
The Pirates have already seen that twice. Tyler Glasnow is emerging with the potential to be a future ace. Nick Kingham is also emerging with the potential to be a top of the rotation guy. The Pirates had an advantage with those two, in that they could give them both above-slot bonuses. Glasnow received $600,000 in the fifth round in 2011. Kingham got $480,000 in the fourth round in 2010. The 2012 draft was the first draft under the CBA which prevented these types of deals. If the Pirates wanted an over-slot pitcher, they either had to draft him early when there were bigger slots, or create money for that player by going under-slot with other players.
The Pirates went with the former strategy with Jon Sandfort. They took the right-hander in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft, with the 103rd overall pick. Baseball America had Sandfort ranked 255th overall. At the time he had an 88-91 MPH fastball that had reached 94 in the past, along with a developing changeup and a good curveball. The Pirates signed him for the full slot amount of $462,900.
Today I saw Sandfort make a start in the Gulf Coast League. It was the second time I’ve seen him in the league this season, as he’s only made two appearances. Combined he has thrown seven shutout innings, giving up two hits, no walks, and striking out nine. He’s also getting a ton of ground balls, with a 3.33 GO/AO ratio. I don’t want to make a big deal out of two appearances or seven innings, so I won’t focus on the numbers here. Instead, I want to focus on what is leading to those numbers.
I’ve seen a lot of changes from Sandfort since he came in the system. A lot of those changes have even come in the last month. Some of the biggest changes have been the fastball velocity, the command, and the changeup.
I’ve seen Sandfort in three different time periods before the current GCL season. I first saw him in instructs last year. Then I saw him several times this year in Spring Training. That was followed by several more times in extended Spring Training. Here were the velocity reports from each (click the links to go to those reports):
2012 Fall Instructional League: Sitting 87-89, touching 90 once.
2013 Spring Training: Sitting around 89.
2013 Extended Spring Training: 87-90 MPH.
That last one was written on May 29th. I saw Sandfort pitch that day, and he was in that range, although the range was the same in the other EST starts.
When I saw Sandfort in his debut, he was sitting 89-92 MPH. He dipped down to 88 a few times in his third inning of work, but he also hit 92 again in the same inning. Today it was the same thing. He started 89-91 MPH, touching 92 in the first. He held the 89-91 for the next three innings of work.
Sandfort has had command problems almost every time I’ve seen him. During instructs, Spring Training, and extended Spring Training there are relaxed rules. If a pitcher is struggling during an inning, the inning will be “rolled”. No matter how many outs or what the situation is, the inning will be called over if a pitcher reaches his single inning limit. The pitcher can then go back out and continue his start the next inning. This happened a lot with Sandfort. Going back to those reports.
2012 Fall Instructional League: Gave up a three run homer to end one of his two innings early.
2013 Extended Spring Training: Was rolled in the first and third innings after getting hit around by Barrett Barnes and Harold Ramirez.
That last situation is always an interesting debate. Do you give Sandfort a break since he’s going up against good hitting prospects? Or do you count that against him because he should be getting tough prospects out? No matter what side you take, a trend was established. Sandfort was getting rolled a lot. Everyone gets an inning rolled at one point or another. I’ve seen Gerrit Cole get an inning rolled plenty of times. But Sandfort was never throwing many innings to begin with, and it seemed like he would get rolled at least once per start.
That hasn’t been the case in his two appearances this year. He’s been extremely efficient, pounding the strike zone with his fastball, and showing good downward movement. That’s a change from before, when he would leave the fastball up or flatten it out and get hit around. I talked with an NL scout today about Sandfort and mentioned how he previously has sat around 94 MPH. The scout said that Sandfort’s fastball has good enough movement that he can be effective at 90-92.
There is the chance that Sandfort adds to that velocity. He’s already seen a small spike since the end of May. But the better thing is that his command of the fastball has improved, which is leading to his great results early in the season, and a lot of quick innings.
Sandfort’s best pitch is his curveball. It’s a 12-to-6 pitch that he throws around 76-78 MPH with a lot of depth. He’s been using the pitch this year as an out pitch, leading to strikeouts and ground balls. His fastball/curveball combo is a good mix, but like any pitcher, Sandfort needs to have a changeup.
The changeup is one thing that showed improvements during extended Spring Training. He throws the pitch in the 78-81 MPH range, giving him good separation from the fastball. The best part about the pitch is that he throws it with the same arm speed as his fastball. That NL scout I spoke with today was impressed with his changeup, as well as the curveball. One of the best parts about the changeup is that Sandfort is comfortable throwing it in any count. He told me that back in May. He proved that in his first outing of the year. He threw 41 pitches in that game, and 10 of those pitches were changeups. A guy one year removed from high school throwing about 25% changeups is rare, but shows how comfortable Sandfort is with the pitch.
I’ve been impressed with Sandfort these last two starts, but I do want to note that I’m not writing about him to hype him up as a top prospect. He’s shown improvements with his velocity, command, and changeup, but those improvements have been limited to seven innings of work. Basically he’s a breakout candidate to watch. He’s not on the level yet of a Tyler Glasnow. He’s not even on the level of Tyler Glasnow in the GCL last year before Glasnow started getting a ton of attention and hype this year.
But Sandfort could eventually be there. He has had everything working for him in his first two starts. He’s had a higher velocity in the past, has already shown a small uptick this year, and if he can continue increasing that velocity and maintain the command and movement, you could see a great starting pitching prospect. He’s got a good frame, at 6′ 6″, 215 pounds. Add the potential for a mid-90s fastball, along with a great curve and a good changeup and you’ve got a guy who could be among the top pitching prospects in the system.
I do want to note that Tyler Glasnow was sitting 89-91 MPH when I saw him in Spring Training last year. He was hitting 96 MPH when John Eshleman saw him in State College at the end of the year. So I’ll be tracking Sandfort’s velocity to see if it has a similar increase.
Sandfort used to throw a two-seam fastball as well, but has been working on the four seam fastball since joining the system. The Pirates usually take the two-seam fastball away from prep pitchers at first, forcing them to focus on commanding the four seam fastball. He could eventually get the pitch back. Jameson Taillon got his two-seam fastball back when he made the jump to Double-A. Zack Dodson got his back this year in high-A, in his fourth year in the system. Usually a pitcher adds the pitch again around high-A or Double-A. Sandfort was more comfortable with that fastball, so that’s another good pitch he could add to his arsenal.
In the Prospect Guide this year I noted that Sandfort looked like a project, and that it was hard to pinpoint his ceiling with so many things to focus on. He has started to improve on some of those aspects, and is becoming less of a project. It’s still hard to put a ceiling on him, mostly because that would be unfair with only 22 innings under his belt in pro ball. He’s definitely a guy to track, as he’s got a good three pitch mix, a lot of potential, and has already shown some big improvements in a short amount of time.