A couple years back, I took a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league pitchers and their tendencies of pitching inside, specifically all the hit batters. From the lowest level of the minors to the top, they teach their pitchers to own the inside of the plate and if you happen to hit some batters in the process, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s part of the learning process. The Pirates want their pitchers to be aggressive with the hitters. Don’t try to hit the outside corner over and over with two strikes, keep the ball inside and down, getting quick out with ground balls, allowing the pitchers to be more efficient with their pitch counts and stay in games longer.
While doing the recap for the Dominican Summer League, I was able to talk to a couple players and they told me what I already knew, but it was good to hear it from them. They are taught down in the Dominican, where some pitchers are as young as 16-years-old when they start, keep the ball low, pitch inside and get quick outs.
Knowing that these pitchers come to the United States with that mindset already and all the pitchers that start their career in the U.S. are taught the same, the following stat may not come as a surprise. In the last three years, the Pirates affiliates in Bradenton, West Virginia, State College/Jamestown and the GCL Pirates, have led the league in hit batters ten times out of a possible 12 times. The only two that didn’t lead the league were the GCL Pirates this year, they finished third, and State College last year, who somehow managed to finish in the bottom half. That may have been explained by a staff full of recent college pitchers, who just entered the system.
The proof that these aren’t just some wild pitchers doing all this damage is that in those 12 combined seasons, a Pirates team has led the league in walks just once (2012 GCL) and two times they had the lowest team walk totals in the league. These pitchers are being taught to pitch inside with a purpose.
The West Virginia Power are the best example of the pitching inside method. They have led the league with 100, 113 and 103 and they are the only team in the league to crack the century mark during that time. To make those numbers more interesting, none of their pitchers led the league in hit batters during that time, making it truly a team effort.
Going up a level with Bradenton, they have led the league with 77, 93 and 89 during the last three years. Just like with West Virginia, none of their pitchers were the individual league leaders, so again these marks were definitely a team effort. You will notice that the numbers go down in each case and that is likely due to the pitchers getting better at what they are doing. The goal isn’t to hit batters, it is to keep them uncomfortable and back them off the plate.
The short season teams were embracing the system so well during Extended Spring Training this year, they ran into a problem with their schedule. In the middle of the Extended Spring Training schedule this year, the Pirates had all of their remaining games cancelled against the Toronto Blue Jays (one of three teams that the Pirates play). Pirates Prospects learned that this was because the Blue Jays refused to play the Pirates in these games due to the Pirates throwing inside too much. The young pitchers were doing their job too well.
As you go up higher in the system, you tend to get away from the homegrown players and the pitchers who were brought up on this method, which came in with the current management. Altoona this year had a lot of starts from pitchers who didn’t start in the system, but they still led the league in hit batters last year. The same would go for Indianapolis if they didn’t disprove that theory by finishing second the last two years and first in 2011. So maybe it is just Altoona pitchers bucking the trend ever so slightly.
Even a couple of the top pitchers in the system are taking to the method. Nick Kingham has hit 21 batters during the last two years, yet he has excellent control. Jameson Taillon has hit nine batters in two of his three seasons and control is a strong point to his game.
As hard as some of these pitchers in the Pirates system throw, being able to control the inside of the plate makes them that much more dangerous to the hitter. If these pitchers are able to learn that as they move up the system, being able to pitch inside effectively while keeping their pitch count low, it will help them succeed in the future. If they happen to hand out a few bruises along the way, those are just bumps in the road to success.