If you would have told me during the first week of the 2013 season that Brandon Cumpton would have played an important depth role with the Pittsburgh Pirates, I would have thought:
1. The Pirates were going to have a disaster of a year.
2. You were crazy.
Cumpton had a horrible start to the 2013 season. He gave up eight earned runs in 9.2 innings of work in his first two starts in Altoona, and all of this despite returning to the level after a successful 2012 season. The Pirates promoted Cumpton to Triple-A after those two starts, but the promotion was mostly out of need. Phil Irwin had just been promoted to the majors, and Kyle McPherson went down with an injury for Indianapolis, which provided a need for additional starters in Triple-A. Cumpton had two more rough starts, giving up seven earned runs in 11.1 innings.
After that, something clicked and he started to cruise. By the end of the year, Cumpton was pitching in the majors, putting up a 2.05 ERA in 30.2 innings, including five key starts throughout the year at the major league level.
“I was trying to overthrow a little bit, and do things I don’t normally do,” Cumpton said on his slow start to the year. “I was trying to overthrow and strike out guys, and that’s not usually my game.”
Cumpton throws a low 90s four seam fastball, which gets a lot of sink and generates a lot of ground balls. He added a slider last year, switching from a curveball he had prior to the 2013 season. Cumpton has plans to bring the curveball back as a “show-me” pitch, although the slider will still be his go-to breaking pitch.
“I’m not a guy who throws hard, so I need every little advantage I can have,” Cumpton said. “If it somehow clicks with me, and I have a really good curveball, then that’s just something else to add to my repertoire to help me out.”
Needless to say, trying to be a hard thrower who strikes out guys is getting away from what has brought Cumpton success. He’s a pitch to contact guy who does get some strikeouts, but mostly has success due to pounding the strike zone with great command, and generating easy ground balls. For a lot of young players, there might be the temptation to make these types of changes upon arrival to the majors. Cumpton received important advice from closer Jason Grilli once he arrived, which allowed him to avoid this temptation.
“Just stick to your game,” Grilli told Cumpton. “You got called up for a reason. Whatever you do, do it here. If you don’t strike out a lot of guys, don’t try to strike out guys here. Pitch to contact, get ahead.”
That’s exactly what Cumpton did. He threw his fastball 66% of the time, which was the second highest percentage of all starters on the team, behind only Charlie Morton. He threw 49% of his pitches in the strike zone, which was higher than the 44.7% league average. He got a first pitch strike 62.1% of the time, which was slightly higher than the 60.3% league average. He generated more swings, and much more contact than the league averages. And he got a ton of ground balls, with a 54.3% ground ball rate.
If you’re telling me at the start of this year that Brandon Cumpton could play an important depth role with the Pirates, I’d believe you. I don’t think Cumpton is as good as his 2.05 ERA last year, but I do think he’s got the talent to be a legit back of the rotation starter in the majors. He will be the number six or seven starter on the depth chart, working out of Indianapolis to start the year. If the Pirates run into rotation troubles again, Cumpton will be a great guy they can turn to.