Left-handed Pitcher Tom Harlan spent the first year and a half of his minor league career as a reliever, and was extremely efficient. At Low A West Virginia in 2013, Harlan had a 2.27 ERA in 74 innings to go along with an impressive 74/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 2014, 24-year-old Harlan continued his success out of the bullpen in High A Bradenton, posting a 2.49 ERA with a 41/9 k/bb rate in 50.2 innings pitched. This success caused the Pirates to aggressively move him up to Double-A Altoona.
Harlan’s role changed in Altoona where he made 10 starts. As a starter, Harlan was able to hold his own. In 60.2 innings pitched, he had a 3.71 ERA with a 1.27 WHIP, although he was only able to strike out 26 batters while walking 17.
It’s been a challenging adjustment period for Harlan. Not only is he adapting to his new role as a starter, but he is also facing tougher competition.
“It’s been a learning process and it’s a little different,” Harlan said on his move to the starting rotation. “The strike zone is a little smaller [in Double-A] and the hitters are more experienced. [I have to] trust myself; have confidence in myself that I have the stuff to do it, and if I can execute and do what I need to do, I should be successful.”
Curve Pitching Coach Stan Kyles was impressed with Harlan’s poise on the mound considering his lack of professional experience as a starter. Former Curve Manager Carlos Garcia echoed Kyles’ sentiments regarding Harlan’s poise and confidence on the mound.
“It really surprised us because he was never a starter. He is sustaining good pitch-ability. Every day he is covering the innings he’s needed to cover. You know he is going to have a great effort every time he goes to the mound,” Garcia said.
Harlan throws a fastball in the low 90s and accompanies it with a slider and a change-up. Garcia said that Harlan is especially difficult on left-handed hitters, against which he attacks with fastballs and sliders. Harlan’s approach to lefties has been effective, especially coming out of the bullpen. In high A, he posted a 0.75 WHIP against lefties, striking out 28 of the 74 lefty batters he faced, while holding them to a minuscule .183 batting average. When he moved into the starting rotation he wasn’t as dominant against lefties, but he still had decent numbers. Against lefties in Double-A, Harlan posted a 1.17 WHIP while holding them to a modest .376 slugging percentage in 98 plate appearances.
Harlan has work to do against right-handed hitters. In 2014, he had a 1.42 WHIP with a .439 slugging percent against and had a below average 28/20 k/bb rate in 67 total innings. He has been working on throwing more change-ups to righties in order to keep them off of his fastball and keep the hitters off-balance. With more experience, both Kyles and Garcia both have the confidence that Harlan has the talent to stay in the rotation.
The Pirates are sending Harlan to the Arizona Fall League to get more experience as a starter, and to see how he performs against the tough competition in the league. It’s uncertain whether Harlan will be a reliever or a starter in the future. If Harlan is able to improve against right-handed hitters, its possible that he could become a solid 4th or 5th starter. If not, he could fill the role as a left-handed relief specialist.