Over the past two seasons, the Pirates have drafted athletic players with an advanced hit tool and have moved them into positions that lacked depth throughout the system. The Pirates are utilizing this strategy with these prospects in order to take advantage of their strong hitting abilities, while hoping that their athleticism will allow them to make the transition into new positions.
21-year-old Jordan Luplow is an example of the Pirates employing this strategy. Luplow was an outfielder during his time at Fresno State and last season in short season A-ball, but the Pirates moved him to third base this season in Low-A West Virginia. The prospect depth at third base is minimal – Wyatt Mathisen had the highest potential upside of the group of third basemen going into the season. The other third base prospects throughout the system profile more as fringe major leaguers/organizational players.
Last season we saw Mathisen make the same adjustment that Luplow is making now, when he switched from catcher to third base. However, Luplow’s switch over to third base might actually be a tougher transition because of the position he previously played. The nuances of third base make it a tough transition for any young player, but it is an especially tough transition for a player who spent their last four seasons playing the outfield.
“It’s a tough transition for a player of any position to go over [to third base] except for a catcher perhaps, where things get up on you pretty quick,” West Virginia Manager Brian Esposito explained. “Your reactions, you have to make sure you are 100 percent locked into every pitch. You can’t miss a pitch at third base. The one pitch you take off might be that one-hopper from a left-hander that’s scorched at you that you aren’t really expecting and you don’t read the ball off of the bat and all of the sudden, you have a one-hopper sitting in your lap.”
The speed of the game is much quicker at third base than it is in the outfield, which is something that Luplow feels he is still learning and adjusting to.
“The speed of it is a lot faster, I mean obviously it’s a lot closer to the hitter and its going to be a lot faster coming in,” Luplow said. “Reading hops and all of that stuff is different. It comes with time. I’m getting used to it a little bit better than I was.”
Esposito knows that Luplow has the arm strength to play the position, but Luplow needed to make an adjustment to his mechanics and footwork in order to maximize his arm strength, as well as aid him with his throwing accuracy.
“We are starting to unlock some arm strength because he’s doing a better job of staying low, staying in his legs,” Esposito explained. “That’s really what we’re pounding on him right now – getting the ball, funneling it, making a good strong move and staying in your lower half, which is unlocking a lot of arm. He’s got plenty of arm over there, but now it’s about gaining the IQ and gaining the instincts.”
Tim updated Luplow’s progress at third base in May, when Luplow was still struggling a bit with the fundamentals at the position – making errant throws along with sub-par glove work. When I watched Luplow at the end of June, he had just come off a week where he didn’t play for four straight games in order to work on his fundamentals and take extra reps.
My observation of Luplow a week ago was that he was passable defensively. He showed his improved instincts when an opposing batter laid a good bunt down the third base line. Instead of forcing a throw to first base on a play that Luplow had little chance of getting the out, he held onto the ball, recognizing that more bad would likely come out of a possible attempted throw than good.
With the good came some bad as well though for Luplow. He allowed a high chopper to bounce underneath his glove as he charged the ball, but was fortunate not to be credited with an error by the official scorer, who rewarded the opposing hitter with a base hit.
Overall, Luplow showed the basic fundamentals necessary to play the position. His throws were crisp, and other than the high-chopper, his glove work was solid.
The key going forward for Luplow is to continue to gain experience and continue to refine his fundamentals. Esposito was adamant about Luplow needing to gain valuable in-game experience and needing to develop the instincts needed to naturally make the right decisions in certain scenarios.
Luplow has been solid thus far at the plate. His .241 batting average is on the low side, but his .343 on-base percentage and his reasonable 20% strikeout rate shows that he has a good feel for the strike-zone. He’s also shown his extra base power-stroke, hitting four home runs, 18 doubles and two triples.
There is still a lot of work to be done defensively, but Luplow’s overall performance so far has made him a player to watch going into the second half of the minor league season. The Pirates third base depth looks a lot better with Luplow, Mathisen and recently drafted Ke’Bryan Hayes.