The 2014 Arizona Fall League wrapped up on Thursday for the Pittsburgh Pirates prospects and now it’s time to look back on the season. For the two top prospects in the system, the AFL season could be called disappointing. Tyler Glasnow did not pitch like one of the top prospects in baseball, while Josh Bell didn’t hit at all and his defense was below average at first base. Each of these players should be better from the experience though, because part of the reason for sending them there was just the extra playing time.

Starting with Tyler Glasnow, the problem wasn’t the plus stuff he flashed, it was command issues and he seemed to tire near the end of the season. The early reports on his fastball and curve were glowing and he ran off three straight shutout performances. We knew coming into the season that Glasnow has a plus fastball and curve, so he went to the AFL with three things in mind. He was there to work on his command, which has been a work in progress since he signed and has slowly improved. He went there to build up his innings, so he can go into the 2015 season with no limitations. The third thing he needed to work on was his change-up and while we heard he was there for that reason multiple times, the numbers suggested that he threw his third pitch less often than he did during the regular season.

Glasnow averaged more than a strikeout per inning.
Glasnow averaged more than a strikeout per inning.

Glasnow finished with a 3.72 ERA which was mid-pack for starting pitchers. In 19.1 innings, he picked up 20 strikeouts, but also issued 12 walks. The strange part, for him at least, is that he allowed 20 hits, leading to a .278 BAA. During his three years in the minors, he has held batters to a .160 BAA and his highest single-season mark was .174 this year with Bradenton. Between the hits and walks, he finished with a 1.66 WHIP, which was one of the worst marks in the league. It’s also part of the reason that he made seven starts, yet threw only 19.1 innings, which was the lowest IP total among the eight pitchers that made seven starts in the league.

While the season looks disappointing due to the stats and the fact he rarely used his change-up, he did add the extra innings, which should help him next year. Glasnow was losing velocity as the pitch count was getting up there in his last few starts. He only threw 124.1 regular season innings, though he did get a few Extended Spring Training starts and pitched in the FSL playoffs. With the added innings in the AFL, he should be able to get up into the 150-160 inning range next year, which in turn will lead him to more innings in 2016 when it looks like he will make his Major League debut. For now, he will go into Altoona next year and continue to work on commanding his plus pitches and developing the third offering, which is necessary for success as a starter in the majors. He is far from a polished prospect, but the upside remains as high as any pitcher in the minors.

As for the pitcher that did get some notice due to his stats, Joely Rodriguez had the best ERA in the league going into the last day of the season. His last start didn’t go well, but he definitely turned some heads. During the AFL Fall-Stars game, Jonathan Mayo said that Rodriguez originally looked like a possible future #5 starter in the majors, but his performance in the AFL up to that point led Mayo to believe he could surpass that prediction. Rodriguez limited his walks, while striking out batters, posting a 6:22 BB/SO ratio in 22.2 innings. He didn’t limit the hits though, posting a .310 BAA, with left-handed batters hitting the southpaw at a .294 clip.

He still has work to do if we are going to see anything more than a fifth starter out of him, but Rodriguez took a step in the right direction during his time in the AFL. He has the type arm you don’t see often from lefties and his command is usually above-average, so it could just be a matter of putting it all together. He just turned 23(Nov 14th), so he is still he still has time on his side.

The five Pirates pitchers in the AFL threw a total of 80 innings and allowed just one home run between them. Adrian Sampson gave up that homer, though he didn’t give up much else during the year. He was there on a limited pitch count, making ten appearances and throwing 12 innings out of the bullpen. Sampson pitched 167 innings during the regular season and had a breakout year that finished with four starts in Indianapolis. During the AFL season, he held batters to a .238 BAA and he posted a 1.89 GO/AO ratio and a 1.17 WHIP. He was in the AFL refining his secondary pitches and with the extra work, it’s possible he could see significant time in Pittsburgh next year.

Angel Sanchez took Nick Kingham’s spot shortly after the AFL season started. Sanchez was another starter that saw time in the bullpen and up until the last day of the season, he was really excelling in the role. He gave up three runs in his last outing, but had made seven scoreless appearances before that, totaling ten innings pitched. In 12 innings, he had 11 strikeouts, with a .234 BAA and 1.78 GO/AO ratio. It’s possible that the bullpen could be an option for Sanchez, who hasn’t had much success recently as a starter, but he was hitting 94 MPH in the AFL in short outings. Word from the AFL was that his off-speed stuff looked strong as well.

Thomas Harlan was the fifth pitcher from the Pirates in the league and he made six starts with very little success. Somehow he managed seven strikeouts in one outing, yet ended up with just four in his other five starts combined. He gave up at least two runs in every game, ending with a 9.64 ERA that was easily the worst among all starters in the league. His 2.07 WHIP was 68th among the 72 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the league lead. Harlan works in the 86-88 MPH range with his fastball. He had strong command and decent secondary stuff, which usually works for lefties at the lower levels, but they tend to get sorted at the upper levels.

The Offense Sputters

The Pirates sent three hitters to the AFL, Josh Bell, Dan Gamache and Elias Diaz. Among Scottsdale players, the .763 OPS put up by Diaz was the seventh best mark on the team. Bell was ninth and Gamache was tenth. Diaz really didn’t have a bad season, but as someone with AAA experience, the numbers were not exceptional. The three Pirates players were all there to get some defensive work in, with Bell learning first base, which was the most important thing that happened during the AFL season among Pirates players. Gamache was horrible during the season at third base, so he needed the extra time. It might be hard to believe that the guy who was named the Eastern League’s best defensive catcher this year and the Florida State League’s best defensive catcher last year, needed work on his defense, but that is what we heard.

Josh Bell spent time getting use to first base in the Instructional League before the AFL. (Photo Credit: Mike Farnham)
Josh Bell spent time getting use to first base in the Instructional League before the AFL. (Photo Credit: Mike Farnham)

Josh Bell didn’t have many positives during his AFL time, except limiting his strikeouts. The important part is that he got in plenty of time at first base, so going into Spring Training next year, the position won’t be foreign to him. He led the team with five errors and that’s from someone who spent part of his time in the designated hitter role, so there were issues with the new position. Those that watched him during the entire AFL season noticed improvements and he will get a chance to add more polish to his defensive game in Spring Training next year before reporting to Altoona. On offense, he really disappointed, continuing to show very little power from a big man.

Bell finished the 2014 regular season with 200 consecutive plate appearances without a home run. He didn’t hit a homer during his 97 plate appearances in the AFL. During that time, he also played in the FSL All-Star game, the Futures Game and the Fall-Stars game(where he reached base four times) without hitting a home run. When you add it all up, you’re at 300+ plate appearances without a homer from the guy who is supposed to be your future first baseman and big bat in the middle of your batting order. It wasn’t just the lack of homers from Bell though, he hit .214/.320/.310 in 23 games and struggled from the left side, where he posted a .591 OPS. His hitting wasn’t an issue during the regular season, despite the lack of homers, because he was getting on base at a healthy clip.

I have little doubt that Bell will be able to hit someday in the majors, he puts in extensive time in the batting cages to get better. I also believe he has the power to hit homers. He is a big strong kid with a large frame. Saying all that, he may never be a big home run hitter because his swing has no loft. He makes a lot of solid contact, but from seeing him in person and covering every plate appearance in the AFL, it’s safe to say he doesn’t put the ball in the air that much. He is a line drive hitter that uses the whole field and there aren’t too many parks outside of Williamsport, Pa. where that approach leads to high home run totals. He is only 22, so he is far from a finished product that is set in his ways. The worst case scenario is that you have a high average doubles hitter, which isn’t your typical first baseman, but still has plenty of value.

You will often hear the AFL referred to as a finishing school for players and Elias Diaz might be the best example of that among Pirates players. I mentioned his defense above and while it’s considered above-average, the Pirates believed he still needed to go to the AFL and work on things behind the plate. He will also still have to prove he can hit AAA pitching before he goes anywhere, but for now his worst case scenario seems to be a defensive-oriented back-up in the majors.

He seemed to have a solid approach at the plate in the AFL, which led to many long at-bats and more walks than we normally see from him. Diaz doesn’t strike out much, but also doesn’t draw many walks or hit for much power, so despite the .328 average during the season for Altoona, you want to see a continuation of that AFL plate patience and for him to drive more pitches. He is really strong with good size, so he should be able to hit for some power. So far, he has a career high of six homers in a season and he didn’t hit any in the AFL. Added power and patience would add to his projections, turning him from a back-up to a solid regular in the majors.

Dan Gamache missed time during the year with a broken foot, so the AFL assignment was mainly making up for some of that lost time. He hit well at Altoona this year, though it was only over 39 games. He split his time between second base, where his defense is average at best and third base, where he really needs work. Gamache ended up hitting .186, with a .611 OPS and he really struggled against left-handed pitching, going 1-for-14. He should return to Altoona next year and if all goes well, you could see him as a bench player in the majors someday, though his defense really limits his value on the bench.

Looking Back on the Season

The Arizona Fall League is a small sample size, just like any other small sample size, so it should never supersede anything else a player has done. Tyler Glasnow is a 21-year-old that has put up video game numbers in the minors, so his upside remains huge. His curveball was just named the best breaking ball in the AFL this year.  Josh Bell is still a solid hitter, with big upside, even if he isn’t putting the ball over the fence. Glasnow added extra innings to his season, plus got his first real experience against hitters from the upper levels of the minors. Bell took a big step with his move to first base and learning the position.

No one is ever worse off from the added experience of 32 games against some of the top prospects in the game. Elias Diaz and Adrian Sampson added polish to their game, bringing them closer to being useful parts with the Pirates during the 2015 season. Joely Rodriguez can look towards next year, finishing on a high note in the AFL, instead of looking back at his tough season in Altoona. It’s also possible that Angel Sanchez may have saved his spot on the 40-man roster this off-season due to better stuff/results out of the bullpen. While the stats from the top two prospects weren’t anything to be happy about, there are still plenty of positives from the AFL season.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. John: Good piece, thorough and useful. But a point of grammar must be raised. “Tyler Glasnow is a 21-year-old THAT has . . . .”???!@%?? Why is Glasnow a “that”? You did this elsewhere in the piece too. A stadium or a horse calls for a pronoun like “that”. A human being calls for the pronouns “who” or “whom.”

    I’ve seen a few other sports writers infected by this flawed usage in lately. Please — no more?

  2. AFL stats, much like ST, are pointless. It’s more about getting the at bats and experience against a higher talent level pitching, or hitting, for young guys IMO. That said, Glasnow has a lot of work to do. Needs to really work on his control, and develop his secondary pitch. If not, he’ll never be the front line starter people expect. I could see him being a shutdown closer, and I’d be 100% okay with that.

  3. How easy is it for a hitter to change his swing to add some loft, increasing HR potential? Young little league hitters are often taught a line drive swing. But can hitters really move away from that, or are you stuck with the swing you are “born” with?

    • I don’t know about adding loft to his swing, but as far as changing a swing, Bell’s swing and stance seems to be in a constant cycle of change. I saw him early last year, middle of last year, then watched him in batting practice in spring training this year and it was like watching three different players. He is a switch-hitter as most know and he’s totally different hitters from each side. Lefty he has some more power, a bigger swing, while righty it looks like he is just trying to put the ball in play, doesn’t strike out much, doesn’t really drive the ball either

    • Haha, this reminded me of a coach videotaping my swing and telling me how bad it was. I just wanted to go with my swing. I didn’t hit home runs, but you don’t need to. In fact “adding loft” would increase his fly ball percentage, which would decrease his BABIP. I would rather have a guy who hits for a high average with a good line drive swing.

      • A player of his size and strength should always trade fly balls for ground balls. He’s a fringy runner, meaning the increased ISO he’d get out of fly balls will almost certainly make up for a potential drop in batting average.

        • Bell’s speed is average, maybe even above average. And if you trade fly balls for a line drives, your average is going to be significantly lower. And that still doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have gap power and occasional home runs, just don’t try to change him into what hes not

    • I have heard that swing path can be more difficult to adjust than timing-related mechanics, but it certainly can be done. Changing swing path is what both JD Martinez and Marlon Byrd have cited for their recent success.

      John’s response is definitely worth keeping in mind. This isn’t a kid that just needs some AAA “seasoning”. He’s a prospect still in a great deal of flux, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. He’s gotta learn to get those arms extended and leverage his natural strength, or else we’re looking at James Loney upside.

    • I agree to a point, but he only pitched 19.1 innings because he struggled. If he had better control, he would have put in more innings. As it says, eight pitchers made seven starts in the league(which is the most a pitcher can make), he had the lowest inning total and it wasn’t due to limit pitch counts, it was due to poor control. Saying all that, the summary at the end does say it’s a small sample size, not to worry, and it shouldn’t supersede anything else he has done, so it is all there.

    • I think everything is judged relative to age and experience in the league. Last year, Alen Hanson put up Trout-like AFL numbers, but he turned 21 during the season, so those numbers were perfectly acceptable. Trout turned 20 right before the AFL season, so his AFL numbers were pretty good for his age. Glasnow is 21 and never played AA, so that’s why the experience is good for him. Bell is 22 and had played AA, so you should expect a little more from him compared to those other three. Just like Diaz is about to turn 24 and he played AAA, so he should do good in this league, because he’s older and more experienced than most. AFL stats can’t be looked at on a level playing field because there are all different levels/ages of players in the league, so it’s really a case by case judgement.

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