The jump from Single-A to Double-A is commonly known as the most difficult move in minor league baseball, for both pitchers and hitters. From a pitchers’ standpoint, batters are more likely to lay off of balls outside of the strike zone. If you are a pitcher that is used to inducing swings and misses on breaking balls outside of the zone in Single-A, there is a good chance that you will need to begin working more around the strike zone to induce those same swings in Double-A.
Typically, starting pitcher prospects are able to develop at least three pitches and up to five. For that first time going through a lineup, starters will often rely on their fastball command and one or two put out pitches. The more often a batter sees a pitcher in an outing, though, the more capable the batter is seeing the pitch and making contact. That is where a starter needs to have good control of a changeup and breaking pitches to keep batters off balanced later in the game.
For relievers, two to three effective pitches will usually get the job done. For a guy who is able to overpower a batter with his fastball, a changeup or slider is great to keep the batter off balanced and get strikeouts. For others, versatility is key in being able to adjust your routine to come into games at different times. Don’t overlook that element of being a relief pitcher. Baseball players are creatures of habit. As a reliever, you show up to the ballpark without the knowledge if you’ll pitch that night, for how long, and when. Some of these elements of the game cannot be forgotten when talking about relievers.
In Altoona, there are some guys in a relief role who are very interesting and may have a shot at making the major league club sooner or later. Since we cover the starters regularly, I wanted to touch base on a few relievers in Altoona that are making a case to be moved up in the system at some point.
Barrios was originally signed by the Pirates as a shortstop, but he was unable to hit well in the lower levels so the organization moved him to the mound, showing off incredible arm strength. Between West Virginia and Bradenton last year, he had a 3.86 ERA and 15 saves in 58.1 innings. The Pirates moved him to Altoona this year, and the results have been great so far.
In 24.2 innings this year, Barrios has a 1.46 ERA and a 1.054 WHIP. Altoona was using him regularly as a closer early in the year, and he was converting at a high level, not allowing a run in his first 11 games while saving eight. They began using Barrios earlier in games, noting that he has the ability to advance in the system, but it may not be as a closer in Triple-A and the majors. They wanted to get him used to coming in games at different times and lengths, and some of the results showed it was more difficult than they hoped. In three of the four outings that Barrios has pitched two innings, he has allowed runs. In contrast, he has only allowed one run in his 16 appearances of less than two innings (15 of those just one inning pitched and the other 1.2). Overall, batters are only hitting .193 against him.
His fastball is sitting in the mid-90s, reaching as high as 99 MPH this year. The fastball has been more down in the strike zone this year, which is something the Pirates ask all of their minor league pitchers to be able to do. The one pitch that they continue to work on is his slider. He has been able to get guys to two strikes regularly because of that explosive fastball, but the development of that slider is essential to him moving forward. Right now, Pitching Coach Justin Meccage is asking him to throw two to four sliders every outing, keeping them consistent and using it with two strikes.
Right now, it looks like Barrios can be leveraged as a great guy to come in to start an inning in the 8th or 9th inning, using his dynamic fastball to try to overwhelm batters. If he can continue to locate his fastball well and make his slider more consistent, expect to see Barrios make a case for the majors soon. He was recently promoted to Indianapolis.
Jhondaniel Medina is another hard throwing reliever for the Curve who is putting up strong numbers this season. Take away one bad outing at the beginning of the year where he allowed three earned runs in 2/3 of an inning, and he has only allowed four earned runs in 16 other appearances. He has been used in different situations, coming in to just get one batter out in a few outings and also being stretched to two innings in about half of his outings.
The knock on Medina going into this season was his fastball control. He has only allowed more than one walk twice this season, with one of those being a five walk inning that doubled his walk totals to that point of the season in one game. His SO/W ratio of 0.67 is inflated terribly from that one outing; however, strikeouts are still down this year compared to his previous years. More experience at the Double-A level could help those numbers. Batters are taking more pitchers that they swung at in Single-A, so he needs to work on staying more consistent in the strike zone to continue his development.
Overall, control of his fastball is coming along. You can see him battling those control issues from time to time, but he has been working on some mechanical adjustments to make his windup more consistent.
After Tommy John surgery in 2013 and beginning the season on the disabled list this year, Inman has been the most consistent reliever the Curve have sent to the mound. Inman has been sort of a late bloomer, being one of the oldest players in the locker room, but injuries have prevented him from moving faster through the system. This is his last year before minor league free agency, and he has taken advantage of his last opportunity.
In 24.2 innings last year in Double-A, Inman had a 1.09 ERA. He is out doing himself so far this season, not allowing an earned run in eleven appearances since he made his season debut on May 8th. He has a SO/W ratio of 3.33, only allowing three walks in those eleven outings.
His fastball has topped out at 96 MPH so far this year, and it consistently sits between 92-96. As long as he can keep the injury bug away, Inman would be a candidate to move up to Triple-A soon, especially with the way he has pitched so far this season.
Kuchno has made the move to the bullpen this season after being a regular starter for West Virginia and Bradenton in 2013 and 2014. The Pirates made this move to put him in the best position to pitch in the big leagues. He has made himself very versatile, pitching up to four innings in relief this season.
Kuchno is able to sit in the mid 90s with his sinker and can slow down his curveball to the upper 70s. Kuchno had a rough outing last night after a walk, HBP, and a blast in the ninth inning to blow a save for the Curve, but he has been consistent otherwise this season. He’s got an extreme 69.4% ground ball rate, which leads to most of his success. His K% is slightly down this year, but it will be interesting to see how he levels out late in the season after the move to the bullpen. He will need to find a way to utilize his strong fastball and curveball as a put away pitch to move forward in the system.