First Pitch: The Typical Development Path For Pirates Pitching Prospects

Earlier today I wrote about how Clay Holmes looks to be following the Nick Kingham path. Holmes didn’t have the best numbers on the season in 2013 in West Virginia, and had some bad control numbers. But if you look closer, he improved in the second half, cutting down on the walks and posting strong results in his final two months. That’s a similar story to Kingham, who started slow in West Virginia, quietly dominated down the stretch, then went on to post great numbers in Bradenton and Altoona in 2013.

If we’re only focusing on the numbers not matching up with the talent, then there are a lot of pitchers in the Pirates’ system we could talk about beyond Kingham and Holmes. A big reason for this is the focus that the Pirates take with pitchers at each level. Every individual pitcher is different, but for the most part, the Pirates have a very specific process when developing pitchers.

1. Focus on Fastball Command – This doesn’t mean just pounding the strike zone. It means being able to throw the four seam fastball down in the zone, then being able to move it to the inside and outside of the plate.

2. Establish one breaking ball – A lot of players will come in to the system with multiple breaking pitches. In the case of high school pitchers, the Pirates have the player focusing on developing one pitch, rather than splitting time developing two pitches. The players might eventually get the second breaking pitch back, but only for another look and a compliment to the main pitches.

3. Add a changeup – Some players enter the system with a good changeup. Some have never had the need for the pitch. Some have a changeup, but struggle with the pitch. The Pirates stress the changeup almost as much as they stress fastball command. The quality of a young player’s changeup usually determines whether he goes to the GCL or Jamestown in his first pro season, or determines when he makes the jump to West Virginia.

4. Add a two-seam fastball – If a guy has a two-seam fastball coming in to pro ball, the Pirates take that away, having the player focus on his four seam command. Usually the Pirates give the two-seam back in High-A or Double-A, or add that as a new pitch for someone who has never thrown it. Most pitchers who get the two-seam in High-A use it as a situational pitch, then lean on it more often in Double-A. Some players are sinkerball pitchers, and they will get the two-seamer earlier than High-A. However, most of these cases are guys out of college who already threw the two-seam fastball, and will be going right to full season ball in their first full year.

From there, the players work on refining their pitches. The goal is to have someone who can command the four seam fastball, throw a changeup in any count, and to left-handers or right-handers, throw at least one quality breaking pitch, and have a second breaking pitch and/or a two-seam fastball to give hitters another look. The focus of this goal is for success in the major leagues, and pitchers don’t usually reach most of these goals until the upper levels.

Prior to that, pitchers are usually working on something specific. They’re not working on their full arsenal, or focusing on numbers. They’re slowly building their arsenal so that they can have success in the majors. Some players do have success while they’re working on the specifics in the lower levels. I’ve never figured out what determines which pitchers have success and which don’t. I’ve seen some pitchers have success who don’t profile as prospects, while actual prospects struggle. The important thing is to focus on upside, and imagine what a pitcher can be when everything does come together. And of course, watching how their progression at each stage is going in the mean time. It’s an approach that relies more on scouting and potential in the lower levels, and results in the upper levels when things finally come together.

Links and Notes

**Over the last week, the site and the Prospect Guide has gotten mentions on the Pirates broadcast at least twice, based on what you guys have told me. Between that, and my note that we were running low on Prospect Guides, there have been a rush of orders. It seems you guys like to procrastinate as much as I do. Fortunately, the publisher offered a sale to authors last week, which allowed me to purchase more books at a discount. That means I’ve got two more cases coming in on Saturday. You can order your books on the products page of the site.

**I’d also like to thank everyone who has purchased the book so far. It’s one thing to hear that the Pirates broadcasters use the book as a guide for minor league information. It’s another thing to know that so many people have found the book useful, or at least found it to be interesting enough to buy (hopefully it is useful). I really appreciate the support, and as usual, the book sales will allow me to make the site even better.

**I’ve picked the winning logo from the contest we’ve been running over the last week. The logo will be announced tomorrow morning, and will go live on the site at that time. I’m excited to release it, as I think it looks awesome.

**Pirates Agree to Terms With All of Their Pre-Arbitration Players

**Pirates Trying to Work Some Familiar Magic on Daniel Schlereth

**Clay Holmes Following the Nick Kingham Path

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • emjayinTN

    Cohesiveness, Accountability, Consistency. Those 2007/2008 terms were used to describe how the Pirates would attack the job of returning to respectability. When we think about the changes made and the bold moves over the past 6 or 7 years we have to look at names such as Neal Huntington, Kyle Stark, and Greg Smith. NH and Starks came from high level developmental jobs with Cleveland, and Greg Smith came after a very good career in development within the Detroit Tiger organization. Smith was the last to get onboard in early 2008 and contributed greatly to that draft which produced Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson, and Robbie Grossman who was the key in the trade to get Wandy Rodriguez. And, when we talk about pitchers specifically, our best off-season move was the one we made to keep Jim Benedict in the Pirate org instead of letting Philly steal him away. It is hard to think of Benedict without thinking about some of the guys he has changed/developed recently such as Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Mark Melancon, Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole, and Jameson Taillon.

    • leowalter

      +++1 emjay. Couldn’t agree with you more.

  • piratemike

    Tim, nice to see You and the Prospect Guide being talked about on baseball broadcasts.
    The Pirates broadcast has mentioned You and the Guide on at least two occasions and another broadcast crew ( not the Pirates ) also mentioned You and the Guide.
    Well deserved recognition of your work.

  • Andrew

    I was unaware the Pirates focus so heavily on the change up,
    maybe my reading comprehension such or my memory is going. I know the Rays
    focus heavily upon it and a better change up could help combat some of the platoon
    splits the Pirates current starters have.

  • piraddict

    Why is the knuckleball not taught at all? I know it is a rare pitch in MLB, and the feel for it must be difficult to master. But adding that to the mix of a guy who throws 95 MPH would broaden the spread of velocities that a hitter has to be prepared to cover (knuckleballs float at 55 to 60 mph if I remember correctly) and would really mess with their minds, making the top end 4 seam FB seem that much faster.

    • smurph

      I think you answered your own question there, addict. If you are trying to master a change of pace pitch, the straight change is much easier to master. That is why you see the knucleball used mostly by pitchers as their #1 pitch. A knuckleballer will throw that pitch 85-95% of their pitches. Rarely do you see fastball pitchers use the KB as a change of pace. Reason is you have better control of the straight change. You know where it is going. If your release is similar to the fastball, it takes longer for the batter to recognize it.

      • leowalter

        Not to mention the fact that most MLB people do not like the knuckleball and knuckleball pitchers very much. Too difficult to make adjustments to those who use it and run into problems. Try to watch the MLB documentary from 2012 ,” Knuckleball ” , that follows Tim Wakefield and RA Dickey to see what the prevailing mindset is regarding knuckleball pitchers

        • piraddict

          So the fact that most pitching coaches don’t know how to throw it and therefore discourage it is the limiting factor? Wakefield’s success was up and down, Dickey has had a lot of success recently, and his is a little faster than most, maybe 70 MPH, isn’t it? Karstens had that really slow curveball that also was an effective way to spread the range of speeds as well. The ability to vary speeds is such a key that you’d think that the Pirates would teach a pitch slower than the changeup as well as the existing repertoire they promote.

          • emjayinTN

            The Knuckler is usually the pitch of last resort for guys struggling to make it. Wakefield’s career as a pitcher was over until he started to master the knuckler. As salaries were skyrocketing, Wake maintained a $5 mil per year contract that renewed each year. And, if you want to see how to throw a knuckleball, just ask a Catcher to show you – I’ll bet Russell Martin can throw an awesome knuckler.

      • piraddict

        I guess control and knuckleball may not belong in the same sentence. If a FB pitcher did throw it he would probably only do so when ahead in the count. None the less I still think the combo could be devastating.

  • TonyPenaforHOF

    As I was reading your article I kept thinking about the Altoona Curve a few years ago when they won the championship but fired their manager. At the time I thought they were crazy but they have proven they knew what they were doing. Here is to another great year of Pirates Baseball!

    • leowalter

      TonyPena : I have had season tix to the Curve since 1999,and take it from me,that guy was the kind of person who listened to no one. He was let go by the Tigers’ organization before the Bucs, and had a very hard time getting a job after 2010.Then I think the Braves hired him, but very quickly let him go also. He had his own ideas about how to use pitchers,and that just can’t be tolerated.Besides,Managers have very little to do with team performance in the Minor Leagues.