First Pitch: The Pirates Minor League Starting Pitching Assembly Line

In the last three weeks I’ve covered games in West Virginia, Bradenton, and Altoona. I’ve written many times about the philosophies at each level when it comes to developing starting pitchers, but you really get a feel for the differences when you see them all back to back. In those three weeks I’ve gone from watching semi-polished pitchers who are starting to focus on the actual art of pitching, to watching young throwers who are simply trying to learn how to command their fastball.

That’s the number one focus in the Pirates’ organization: fastball command. They don’t go with the 80-90% fastball approach anymore like they did back in 2008-09. And it’s not as simple as just throwing a lot of fastballs. The key is locating them in specific spots.

First, pitchers need to learn how to pitch down in the zone. You’ve probably heard about pitchers with downward planes about a million times while reading this site. Those pitchers have an angle on their pitch, where it doesn’t come in flat, but travels down through the zone as it reaches the plate, ending up around knee level. That’s the first goal.

Once a pitcher can work down in the zone, the next focus is commanding the ball to both corners of the plate. This allows them to pitch inside to both right-handers and left-handers, no matter what hand the pitcher throws with. If a pitcher can master this, then he’s got a great foundation for everything else.

Fastball command is the primary focus in West Virginia. There are other things to focus on. One big one would be inning totals. Most of the pitchers at this level came from college, or the lower levels of the minors, and have never pitched a full season. So the focus throughout the year is getting them used to pitching for the full five months, and getting a good innings base that they can build upon as they move up. Pitchers will also focus on a breaking pitch if they don’t have a lot of work to do with the fastball, and especially if they don’t have much of a breaking pitch.

The next step comes in Bradenton, where fastball command is still a focus, but where other pitches start to enter the mix. There’s one pitch specifically, and that’s the changeup. Over the last few years, the Pirates have forced the changeup upon pitchers. Jameson Taillon was challenged to throw 3-4 per inning, with the hope that he’d throw 15-20 per game. The next year that same challenge was given to Adrian Sampson. Last year it went to Tyler Glasnow. The pitch was pushed no matter the situation, even if it didn’t make sense to throw a changeup against a certain team.

Altoona is where things start coming together, and where guys start fine tuning their game, with the focus on pitching. I noticed this when watching a lot of the 2014 Bradenton pitchers while they were in Altoona. The focus for Glasnow last year was on the changeup, but he barely threw it against Akron because the matchup didn’t call for a changeup. Guys will add a second breaking pitch to be more effective, especially if they don’t really have a plus offering. This was the case with Zack Dodson last year in Altoona, adding a slider to go with his curve, change, and two fastballs.

The most common addition would be the two-seam fastball. Some guys in the lower levels throw both pitches in Bradenton, especially if those guys came out of college, or showed good command of the fastball in West Virginia. Some guys primarily throw the two-seamer in the lower levels. But when you’ve got a four-seam guy like Jameson Taillon who doesn’t do the best job working down in the zone, you give him a two-seamer as a situational weapon to try and get quick ground ball outs. And that’s exactly what the Pirates did when Taillon jumped to Double-A.

Almost every starting pitcher that has gone through Altoona has pitched around 150 innings at the level, which amounts to a full minor league season. From there, they get a bit more polishing in Triple-A, going up against better hitters and pitching as they would in the majors. They’ll iron anything out at that level, such as specific pitches or command issues, and will then wait for an opportunity when they are ready.

It’s almost like an assembly line. The first station, West Virginia, adds the framework — fastball command and a full season of innings. Next up, Bradenton adds a changeup, and maybe focuses on a breaking pitch or a second fastball. Altoona tries to bring everything together, while teaching the pitchers how and when to use their pitches. And finally, Indianapolis irons things out, getting pitchers ready for the majors by having them throw like they would throw in the majors.

For anyone who followed the Pirates’ minor league system prior to 2008, it’s refreshing to see such an organized approach, especially when the old method seemed to have so much disconnect between each level. In talking with players who were around at that time, it was like each level was a separate organization. The levels now are a continuous path, with one overall goal shared between them: developing MLB pitchers. That’s the way it should be.

There haven’t been many examples of guys who reached the majors, although the Pirates have a lot of pitching prospects in the upper levels who are about to start spilling over to the majors in the next year. The limited early results have been encouraging, especially when you include minor league development. The next year will tell us just how good this approach will have worked out for the Pirates.

**Prospect Watch: Charlie Morton Dominates With Altoona. Great sign from Morton, who got a ton of ground balls and threw a lot of strikes. If the Pirates can get the 2013 version of Morton back, it would be a huge boost, especially when the offense finally picks back up.

**John Sever Continues to Rack Up Strikeouts, Even With Command Issues. My first of several features from West Virginia, looking at the performance of the guy I was most interested in seeing from the pitching staff.

**Nick Kingham Placed on Disabled List. No update on the injury, and the DL trip doesn’t tell much, since the minor league DL is seven days.

**An Updated Look at How JaCoby Jones is Developing at Shortstop. I’ve had a chance to see him a lot on the field this year, and gave some updated notes and thoughts on what he’s working on and how he looks.

**First Mock Draft From Baseball America Has Pirates Taking a Prep Infielder. Exactly one month away from the MLB draft.


  • Isn’t this comment “But when you’ve got a four-seam guy like Jameson Taillon who doesn’t do the best job working down in the zone. kinda foreboding?

    MLB hitters are gonna knock his socks off, right?

    Pls tell me why I am wrong. 🙂

    • For all the same reasons you were wrong about Cole when he was in the minors.

    • I was looking at where he was at when going to Double-A. They didn’t give up on trying to get him down in the zone since then (as you know by reading my article on his mechanics this Spring). But at the time, they were focused on giving him another pitch to make things easier.

      • Tim: Excellent step-by-step explanation of the pitching process for starters – how all of the parts to the whole come together. Looking forward to the one on hitting?????

  • Is it fair to say the old regime was more concerned with teaching players how to win, even at expense of development? That’s my recollection of the bad old days.

    • John Dreker
      May 9, 2015 8:58 am

      They used to load the lower levels with veterans that were too old for the league. Those veterans would put up huge numbers against the lesser competition and the winning records in the minors would make it look like things were going well.