The Arizona Fall League ended on Thursday with a 3-2 loss for the Pittsburgh Pirates players and their Scottsdale Scorpions team. The team finished the season with a 10-21 record, but there were some positive signs from the Pirates players assigned to the league.
The Pirates sent a total of eight players to the AFL, the last coming when Phil Irwin replaced Jameson Taillon on the roster. They had three position players, Alen Hanson, Alex Dickerson and Gift Ngoepe, two starting pitchers in Irwin and Taillon and three relievers, Matt Benedict, Zack Thornton and Tyler Waldron. In our AFL season preview, we broke down these players, where they stood as far as prospect status and what was needed to do to establish themselves as better prospects.
Below you’ll find a recap of each player’s performance in the AFL along with some comments on where they stand now that the season is over.
Jameson Taillon went to the AFL looking to add some innings to his season total. He ended up adding just two shutout innings before being shutdown with a tweaked groin. The injury is just a minor setback and Taillon should be able to endure a full workload next season, which will likely include September innings in the majors, as well as possible October innings. In his only game, he threw 35 pitches and was sitting 94-96 MPH, touching 97 MPH and showing strong secondary stuff.
The biggest name for the Pirates in the AFL after Taillon was clearly Alen Hanson and he impressed some scouts. He was the youngest position player on the Scottsdale roster. After some early hiccups on defense, that included two games in a row with two errors (one fielding, one throwing each time), Hanson settled down and excelled on both sides of the ball. He was named to the Fall Stars game, the only representative of the Pirates. Hanson finished with six errors on the year and just one in his last 15 games.
On offense, he had a .253/.294/.329 slash line in 79 at-bats and looked much better from the left side. All three of his extra base hits came off right-handed pitchers, while southpaws held him to a .200 average and .476 OPS. Hanson had six stolen bases in nine attempts. He will likely end up back at Altoona for at least half of the 2014 season, as he looks to refine his skills all around. Hanson will be 21-years-old the entire 2014 season, so for his age, AA is still an advanced placement. If the defense improves, and he has the skills to do that, Hanson will be batting leadoff for the Pirates as their everyday shortstop by mid-2015.
Hanson impressed the scouts, but Alex Dickerson also looked fairly good at the plate. He batted .290 in 18 games, though it was a slightly empty average. He had four doubles and no homers, plus drew only five walks. One caveat with the lack of power is the fact Scottsdale plays in a huge ballpark. It’s 360 down the left field line and 430 to straight away center field. As a team, they had just 11 homers as season, the lowest total in the league. Dickerson was decent hitting against lefties, something he did well during the regular season. He ran into one issue during the season that has caused him problems in the past. He missed a week of action with back stiffness, but is was a minor setback and he picked up hits in six of the seven games he played after returning.
Dickerson split his time between both corner outfield spots and to the chagrin of many Pirates fans, he didn’t see any action at first base. The fact he played both outfield spots without an error and we know he can play first base, gives him some versatility. But the Pirates don’t have a definite long-term option at first base, which raises questions of why Dickerson continues to play the outfield and whether he can be a starter for the Pirates at first base.
Gift Ngoepe the middle infielder, had a great season in the AFL. Unfortunately, Gift Ngoepe the batter, was the polar opposite. While his glove and speed might someday get him to the majors, the chances of that happening didn’t go up with his performance in the AFL. You might be able to find a bright spot with his struggles at the plate. Ngoepe is Rule 5 eligible this off-season, and he proved during the regular season at AA and during the AFL that his bat is far from major league ready. That could keep the Pirates from feeling they need to protect him, but should also turn off any other team from picking him.
Ngoepe went 4-for-51 at the plate and struck out 19 times. His .270 OPS was the worst in the league among anyone who played more than one game. Basically, his hitting was awful. The good side is the defense, 17 games in all with no errors. He mostly played second base, but had a couple of appearances at shortstop as well. Ngoepe didn’t get much of a chance to run the bases, so he had just two stolen bases in two attempts. He should be back at Altoona next year alongside his double play partner from the AFL, Alen Hanson. He will have a lot to prove with his bat if he wants to go any further.
Phil Irwin was originally announced for the AFL, then the Pirates decided to hold him back and have him pitch in the Fall Instructional League. When Jameson Taillon went down with an injury, Irwin was sent to Arizona to get in his work. He was coming off an injury, followed by right elbow surgery, so you can’t be too critical about his results in the AFL. Irwin had a strong first outing, throwing three shutout innings. It went downhill for him after that game. In his last four starts combined, he allowed 15 earned runs on 20 hits and six walks in 12.2 innings. Working on a 60 pitch limit, Irwin got through four innings of work twice and twice he was knocked out in the third inning.
The results from Irwin should be scrutinized too much. This was basically like a rehab assignment for him and a chance to build up some innings for next year. He only made three starts during the regular season, throwing ten innings for Indianapolis and 4.2 in his lone Pirates start. The good things are that his velocity was just a tick below normal, he was using all of his pitches and more importantly, he proved he was healthy.
Matt Benedict pitched well in the AFL up until the end. In his last three appearances, he allowed runs in each game, a total of four earned runs in 4.1 innings. Prior to that, he gave up one run in his first eight outings. He posted a very impressive 3.38 GO/AO ratio due to relying heavily on his sinker and held batters to a .233 BAA. Benedict also issued just five walks and while he struck out 11 batters in his 16 innings, he picked up a strikeout in each of his last ten outings. In relief, he was able to touch 93 MPH with his fastball. Benedict was starting for half of 2013 and struggling, but he looks like he could have a place as a reliever if he can continue to command his pitches and keep the ball on the ground.
There were a few good signs from Tyler Waldron in his nine appearances. He had a nice 1.58 GO/AO ratio and didn’t allow a home run. He also had back-to-back appearances in which he threw a total of five no-hit innings. The bad for Waldron was basically everything before and after those five no-hit innings. In those other games, he gave up 17 hits and five walks in nine innings. Left-handed batters hammered him for a .348 average. In his last outing, he was mixing in all of his pitches and he hit 92 MPH. Waldron was in the AFL trying to make up for what was basically a lost season, as an arm injury limited him to 32.1 innings during the season.
Thornton Learns From AFL Experience
During the regular season, Zack Thornton split his time between three levels, beginning in Bradenton, moving to Altoona, then shuffling back and forth between the Curve and Indianapolis. Three important things were consistent between each stop, he kept the ball on the ground, refused to walk batters and piled up strikeouts.
The overall results were good at Indianapolis, but the ERA went up and Thornton took a lot from that.
“I learned no matter what level you are at if you make the pitch you execute in the right spot that you are going to be successful,” Thornton said. “The approaches are a little different but I still went and attacked hitters and didn’t back down.”
With just 12 walks in 75.1 innings during the regular season, there should be little doubt that Thornton goes out to the mound with a game plan and sticks to it.
“It comes down to be able to execute the pitch and if you can do that you will be very successful in this game. I never change the way I pitch. I go after hitters and pitch to my strengths and stay with the process.”
Going to the AFL allowed Thornton to work on things under the tutelage of Stan Kyles, the pitching coach during the regular season for Altoona and for the Scottsdale Scorpions. Thornton said about Kyles “He knows me very well and if I was struggling he knew my key points to get me back to where I needed to be.”
That allowed him to be comfortable on the mound and concentrate and work on a one particular pitch.
“The thing I really wanted to work on was my change-up, being able to throw it in any count and especially the right on right change-up. I felt like I accomplished that very well and was very successful with it.”
Thornton also learned a lot in Arizona just from not sitting in the bullpen like relievers normally do. The Pirates have their starters track pitches between starts, but going to the AFL allowed Thornton to do that for the first time regularly in his career. It was a whole new perspective for him,
“When I am on the mound it is hard to tell how much my ball is moving and what the action is on my ball so it is cool to see it from a different view on other pitchers.”
It also helps when he’s facing the same hitters down the line because he gets to see their approach against the other pitchers.
All that he learned in the AFL led to strong numbers in his 11 outings. In 14.2 innings, he had 14 strikeouts, a 2.57 GO/AO ratio, walked just three batters and had a .157 BAA. To get these results, Thornton mixes in a fastball that sits 90-91 MPH with a low 80’s change-up and a slider in the 77-78 MPH range.
Thornton called pitching in the AFL an amazing experience. Putting what he learned into action and staying on the right path might lead to an even more amazing experience: getting to the majors in Pittsburgh.