If you’re setting up a dream rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the not-too-distant future, then you’re going to be throwing out names like Tyler Glasnow, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and in the short-term, Francisco Liriano. The Pirates have collected a strong group of young pitchers, with Cole and Taillon being big-name first round picks, and Glasnow and Kingham developing from just another over-slot prep pitcher status to becoming top prospects.
Cole and Liriano are already members of the Pirates’ rotation. Kingham and Taillon could join the mix this year, while Glasnow is on pace to join the Pirates in 2016. But there’s another name who could factor into the rotation in the next two years, and he’s a guy who gets lost in the mix of all of these marquee names — Adrian Sampson.
The Pirates drafted Sampson in 2012 out of the JuCo level. He kind of flew under the radar in that draft for a few reasons. For one, he didn’t come in as an over-slot prep pitcher, but instead was a fifth round pick who signed for $2,000 under slot. He also was over-shadowed by first round pick Mark Appel, who didn’t end up signing. Sampson put up strong numbers in his first season, and looked like a sleeper.
His experience above high school, and his strong numbers in State College led the Pirates to push Sampson to Bradenton in 2013. It was an aggressive push, and it also came with the challenge that Sampson would be learning a changeup, and being forced to throw the pitch much more often than he was used to. The results weren’t pretty, and Sampson’s sleeper status quickly faded.
Lost in the numbers was the fact that he finally learned that changeup. His fastball was already a strong pitch, thrown with great command at a downward angle. The Pirates made an adjustment in 2013 to move him to the third base side of the rubber, adding more deception by giving him an angle from the side, to pair with the downward angle. The combo of the fastball and the changeup led Sampson to have a breakout season in Altoona in 2014, and also led to him reaching Indianapolis in the second half of the season.
Sampson credits the changeup improvements as being the biggest factor, along with good command and good plane on his fastball. But in the process of focusing on these two pitches, he lost his third pitch.
“Since I had those two working together, I was able to get away with what I didn’t work on in High-A, which was the curveball,” Sampson said. “I kind of lost it a little bit, and brought it back towards the end of the year in High-A. I wasn’t thinking about it much in Double-A.”
The pitch turned into more of a slider and got sweepy, which isn’t what it is supposed to do. His focus going forward is to add more depth to the curveball, throwing it with 12-to-6 movement, and aimed at getting more strikeouts. He had a good strikeout rate in State College when he first arrived in pro-ball, with a 9.3 K/9. In the last two years, his best rate has been his 6.0 K/9 in Altoona last year. When we saw the curve working in 2012, it looked like a pitch that could generate strikeouts, with good depth on the pitch. He showed that occasionally the last two years, and with more of a focus on that pitch, the strikeouts could increase.
The other key for Sampson will now be focusing on when to throw his pitches. He spent most of his time in High-A learning how to throw them, and a lot of his success in Altoona was due to the fact that he had the pitches, and learned when to throw them.
“Once you know how to throw these pitches, you know how to game plan around them,” Sampson said. “You feel like you’re almost ready to have the three-pitch arsenal with the game plan around it. And learning how to throw those pitches in certain counts, and throughout a game, it’s a hard process.”
Sampson credited his catcher, Elias Diaz, for help with this process. He has worked with Diaz in each of the last two seasons, and the relationship between the two really grew in Bradenton. They’re comfortable talking about hitters, game plans, and what is working and not working with Sampson’s individual pitches.
“I give him praise for learning English really well, because communicating with the catchers is one of the most important things,” Sampson said of Diaz. “Being able to communicate with him, and not having that language barrier was huge.”
Diaz and Sampson were both with Indianapolis by the end of the season, and will both return to Indianapolis in 2015, with Sampson in the rotation and Diaz as the starting catcher.
The initial run through Indianapolis didn’t go well for Sampson. He posted a high ERA, a low strikeout rate, and his walks spiked through four starts. He had two strong outings, and two outings that were a disaster, including his first appearance where he gave up five runs on ten hits in 3.2 innings. Sampson said one problem when he made the jump was that he got away from what worked for him in Altoona.
“I know last year when I got called up to Triple-A, I was trying to impress the guys,” Sampson said. “I didn’t know a lot of them, and I just got way outside of what I was doing in Altoona. I got off of my routine, and it showed in the first game, but I kind of bounced back and got to what I know best, and go to my strengths instead of trying to pitch to their weaknesses. Eventually I found success.”
He finished the season strong, giving up one run on four hits in 5.2 innings in his final start, along with five strikeouts and two walks. He followed that up by going to the Arizona Fall League in the off-season, where he threw 12 innings with decent results. In total, Sampson threw 179 innings between the Altoona, Indianapolis, and the AFL. That has continued his steady progression, jumping from 140 innings the season before. He’s capable of handling 200 innings a year, and could make that jump this season.
“I’m ready to be a workhorse for this team,” Sampson said about an increase to 200 innings in 2015.
Sampson isn’t quite on the same level as the other top pitchers in the system. Cole, Glasnow, and Taillon all have top of the rotation upside. Nick Kingham has the upside of a strong number three starter, with the chance to be better if he improves the quality and consistency of his secondary stuff. Sampson is closer to Kingham in terms of upside, with the chance to be a solid middle of the rotation starter who can throw 200 innings per year.
If you’re setting up a dream rotation, Sampson probably doesn’t make the cut. He most likely would end up sixth overall, with the chance to crack the rotation after Francisco Liriano leaves the team in a few years. But the reality is that dream rotations never work out as expected. Pitchers get injured. Pitchers fail to reach their upside. It’s possible that Sampson could fall victim to one of those setbacks, and fail to reach his upside in the majors. But if he does work out, there’s a strong probability that he’s going to find a rotation spot in Pittsburgh. And that could come as early as the 2015 season.