The Pittsburgh Pirates are in a good situation with their left-handed relievers in the majors. Tony Watson looked like one of the best relievers in baseball during the second half of the 2013 season. Justin Wilson put up a 2.08 ERA in his rookie season, although his 3.41 FIP suggests there might be some regression going forward. With that combo, the Pirates don’t have any questions about who will be their left-handers in the majors. But every team needs depth, and beyond Watson and Wilson, the Pirates don’t have any left-handed relievers to step up should one of those two get hurt or struggle.
One of the top options might become Daniel Schlereth, who was signed over the off-season to a minor league deal, with an invite to Spring Training. Schlereth doesn’t have the best numbers in his major league career. He has a 4.35 ERA in 93 innings, with an 8.1 K/9, and a 5.9 BB/9 ratio. He did have decent numbers in 2012, but his xFIP pointed to a regression. He also developed tendonitis in his shoulder that same year, and has dealt with shoulder problems ever since. That combo doesn’t give much faith in his ability to be an effective pitcher going forward. But the Pirates are working their magic, and won’t be getting that pitcher in 2014.
The Pirates have lowered Schlereth’s arm slot from his previous over the top delivery to a low three-quarters angle. The move was designed to take the stress off of his shoulder, and also to give him more movement with his fastball, thus generating ground balls. That probably sounds familiar, if you’ve followed the Pirates’ philosophy at all of converting guys to easy, repeatable deliveries with the focus on generating ground balls.
Schlereth used to be a hard thrower, capable of hitting 97-98 MPH. The new arm slot doesn’t have the same velocity, but he will gladly trade that for more movement.
“I still have pretty solid velocity, but the movement is still the biggest thing for me,” Schlereth said. “I can just attack guys instead of in the past I might have tried to nibble a little bit too much just to hit spots. Right now it’s easier for me to be aggressive and attack the hitter, and just go right after him and throw strikes.”
Pitch F/X classifies Schlereth as throwing a sinker the last two years, although his grip is unusual. He throws what is called a “one seam” fastball, rather than the standard two-seam that most sinkerball pitchers throw.
“It’s just a weird grip that I throw,” Schlereth said. “It’s a strange pitch, but it’s worked for me in the past, and it’s definitely working for me right now. I’m getting a lot of good movement on it, and guys are hitting it right into the ground and that’s what I want.”
He also used to throw a 12-to-6 curveball, which is made possible by the over-the-top delivery. Schlereth still uses the same grip to throw his curve, but now it acts more like a slider, with sweeping movement across the zone. The new approach might help his control numbers, since he found it difficult to get strikes with the old breaking ball.
“It’s hard to throw for strikes,” Schlereth said of the old 12-to-6 curve. “A lot of umpires, I’ve found over the last couple of years, don’t really call that pitch. It’s harder to throw for a strike, and it’s harder to get called. So I think the sweeping breaking ball gives you more of a chance to catch the plate, which is good too.”
At this point in camp, Schlereth hasn’t really thrown his changeup. In fact, he hasn’t thrown many breaking balls. In his appearance on March 2nd, he threw 16 pitches, and all of them were fastballs.
“That’s definitely a good sign,” Schlereth said. “I want to throw that until they prove they can hit it, and then I’ll mix in breaking balls. As of right now, I’m working on that fastball.”
The biggest problem for Schlereth in the past was his lack of control. The new arm slot should fix that problem. The movement of the fastball will allow him to just pound the middle of the strike zone, without worrying about getting hit hard. The new angle on the breaking pitch will catch more of the strike zone, leading to more strikes. He might see a decline in his strikeout rate by pitching more to contact, but he should see a big increase in his ground balls, which were at 39% the last two years.
The Pirates don’t really need Schlereth on Opening Day, since they have Watson and Wilson. That will give him more time to work on the new mechanics with Indianapolis. But the recipe for a successful turnaround is there, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him as the number three lefty on the depth chart at some point this year.