Last year in West Virginia, all of the pitching focus was on Tyler Glasnow, who impressed with a 36.3% strikeout rate in his big breakout season. Meanwhile, Ryan Hafner quietly put together a dominant season out of the bullpen, working a long relief role where he threw 87 innings on the year. In that time, Hafner had a 26.9% strikeout rate, and posted a pretty dominant 3.00 ERA. Following that strong season, the Pirates will be moving Hafner to the rotation in Bradenton during the 2014 season.
The 2010 draft for the Pirates was their second draft where they went big on hard-to-sign prep pitchers. A lot of the guys in the top ten rounds ended up going to college, rather than signing for over-slot money. So the Pirates turned to later round picks, including Hafner. The right-hander got a $450,000 bonus as a 17th round pick. He was all about projection at the time, with a fastball in the upper-80s and the lack of a good breaking ball.
A Lack of Control
The 2010 draft also featured prep pitcher Nick Kingham, who has broken out as one of the top prospects in the system. While Kingham had success during the 2012 season in West Virginia, Hafner struggled with his control. He posted an 8.31 ERA in 60.2 innings with West Virginia, along with a 29:68 K/BB ratio. That’s not a typo and those numbers weren’t flipped. He walked more than a batter an inning.
Hafner was sent back to State College, where he pitched during the 2011 season. In 2011 he had a 3.15 ERA in 65.2 innings, with a 4.2 K/9 and a 2.7 BB/9 ratio. So when he struggled with a 6.08 ERA in his return to the level the next year, and saw his walk rate increase to a 4.7 BB/9 ratio, it raised concerns.
Following the 2012 season, the Pirates completely changed Hafner as a pitcher.
A New Arm Slot and a New Fastball
Hafner was previously a high three quarters guy, but the Pirates dropped him down to a three quarters delivery. The reason for this was that they also switched him from a four-seam fastball to a sinker.
“We put some work in during Spring and kind of got me to a natural throwing position,” Hafner said. “And then went to a sinker/slider, and kind of stuck with that and just progressed throughout the year.”
The impressive thing about his sinker is the velocity he has with the pitch. Hafner was consistently 89-93 MPH with the pitch last year. He made his first start of Spring Training today, and was sitting 91-93 MPH, touching 94 twice while throwing nothing but sinkers. He pitched two shutout innings, giving up two hits, one walk, and striking out three. The sinker was extremely effective last year, getting a 52.3% ground ball rate.
The sinker wasn’t completely brand new to Hafner. He did throw it prior to the 2013 season, but was primarily a four-seam fastball guy.
“I messed around with a two-seam sinker [before 2013], and it just became more comfortable than a four seam now,” Hafner said.
Hafner will still use the four-seam fastball against left-handers, but he’s primarily a sinkerball pitcher now.
Finding a Breaking Pitch
Hafner threw a curveball when he came into pro ball, but it wasn’t a strong breaking pitch. Last year during Spring Training, I reported that Hafner was working on a slider to replace the curveball, and that he was having success with the pitch. Hafner noted that it was easier for him to throw than the curveball, and that he could throw it for a strike or a strikeout when needed.
“It’s a pitch for me that I can go to. If I don’t have a fastball that day, I can go to my slider,” Hafner said.
The slider was obviously a big source of strikeouts in 2013, looking at the numbers. However, Hafner didn’t credit the slider for the strikeouts, but credited his approach.
“Honestly [I] focused on getting ahead,” Hafner said. “That was the big thing. If I got ahead of hitters then I could put them away.”
Looking Ahead to the Next Addition
The transition to a sinker/slider pitcher worked well for Hafner last year. There were still some control problems, but he turned into a dominant pitcher after struggling to get strikeouts prior to the 2013 season. The move to the rotation makes sense, as Hafner has one of the better arms in A-ball. But to have success as a starter, he will need a changeup. That is something he’s been working on over the off-season.
“It was something we worked on during instructs, and I worked on during the off-season, and continue to work on this Spring,” Hafner said of the changeup. “Obviously as a starter I’ll need to keep developing that pitch, but it’s coming along well.”
Hafner’s Value as a Prospect
We had Hafner rated 33rd in the system in the 2014 Prospect Guide. He’s got a chance to make a big jump in the rankings this year if he can transition well to the rotation. A lot of that will depend on his success with the changeup. He seems to do well maintaining his velocity in the early innings, and he’s got the large frame — 6′ 6″, 227 pounds — to be able to maintain the velocity in later innings. That frame should also allow him to pitch a lot of innings out of the rotation.
Hafner was drafted out of high school in 2010, which means he’s eligible for the 2014 Rule 5 draft. That makes the 2014 season a big year for his development. There aren’t a lot of potential Rule 5 guys for the upcoming off-season. Jameson Taillon is eligible, but he should be added to the 40-man roster mid-season. Nick Kingham is a guarantee to be added next off-season, if he isn’t added to the 40-man during the 2014 season. After those two, there are question marks. Willy Garcia and Jose Osuna are the biggest question marks, but both need a breakout season to be locks.
Hafner seems like a strong bet to be protected, especially if he continues to dominate with his sinker/slider combo out of the rotation. And that’s not even considering that he’s a sinkerball pitcher and the Pirates love sinkerball pitchers.
It’s hard to project what Hafner could become as a starter without seeing much of his changeup, or what he can do in the later innings. Fortunately, I’ll get a chance to see him a lot in the rotation in Bradenton this year. I do know that if he doesn’t make it as a starter, he’s got a strong chance to be a solid Major League reliever just off his sinker and slider.