First Pitch: How the Pirates Develop Pitchers Differently in Altoona

There has been a trend in Bradenton over the last few years with the development of pitchers. The Pirates have guys focusing heavily on adding a changeup at this level, to the point where they challenge pitchers to throw the offering about 15-20 times per game, just to get used to the pitch.

I first noticed this in 2012, when Jameson Taillon was going through that process in order to force him to use the pitch, and try to get him comfortable with the offering. It happened again in 2013 with Adrian Sampson, and was a big focus last year for Tyler Glasnow.

I covered Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, Jason Creasy, and other current Altoona pitchers while they were in Bradenton last year. That coverage gave me a unique perspective when watching those same pitchers in Altoona earlier this month. The biggest thing I noticed was that the developmental approach changed at the higher level.

Altoona’s pitching coach, Justin Meccage, was the pitching coach in Bradenton last year, moving up with the group. He noted the differences, with a bigger focus on pitching, and less of a focus on individual pitches.

“It was more about the individual, what the guy needed individually,” Meccage said about the focus in Bradenton. “Now it’s starting to game plan a little bit, and execute game plans. That’s something that, as they progress, they’re going to have to do. So we’re getting a bit more in detail, based off the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and combine that with our strengths and what we need to get done.”

I saw Altoona take on Akron, a team that would have done well against a changeup. As a result, Altoona didn’t throw many changeups all series, since that would play into the advantage for their opponents. This included Glasnow, who only threw about 6-7 changeups in his outing. That’s a huge difference from last year, when Glasnow would throw three times that amount in a start, regardless of the opponent or how they handled a changeup.

Of course, this approach will lead to guys having to learn different ways to pitch. One key change will be adding the ability to throw their breaking pitches for strikes early in the count, just to get ahead of opposing hitters. That’s a change from the lower levels, when the breaking pitch is either used in strikeout situations, or put on the back burner while the pitcher focuses on his fastball command and changeup.

“That’s something that all of our guys are going to have to do,” Meccage said on throwing early count breaking balls for strikes. “We’ve talked a lot about our starters having that ability. Because that’s something we don’t do a lot of in the lower levels. Having that ability to dump that early count breaking ball over for a strike is important. I think you’ll see some more of that with our guys.”

So far the results have been very strong, and in the case with the guys who just made the jump from Bradenton, the results have been better than what we saw in the lower levels. That’s not a surprise, especially when you think about how those Bradenton pitchers were sometimes playing into the strength of opposing teams, all to focus on developing one pitch. It gives you some perspective on the Bradenton numbers, and gives a little bit more appreciation over how well Altoona has been performing so far this year.

**Below is the podcast from my weekly radio show with David Todd:

**Prospect Watch: Josh Bell Continues His Hot Streak

**Another Pirates Sinkerball Pitcher Having Success in Altoona

**Jaff Decker Placed on the Indianapolis DL

**Cervelli Playing a Small Role in the Pirates’ Stolen Base Problems

**Morning Report: Alen Hanson is Off to Another Slow Start

  • Tim, I had noticed in the one start of Glasnow’s in Altoona that he started off at least two hitters with offspeed breaking balls, which I had never seen Cole or Taillon do a couple of years ago.