GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Pirates have what they call a “no touch” policy when a new minor leaguer enters the system. For the first few months after the player arrives, they’re in strict evaluation mode. The focus is to evaluate the player’s game, rather than immediately trying to change him. The approach makes sense, as there was a reason they would have added the player in the first place, and that wouldn’t have been to immediately change his game.
While they don’t make immediate changes, they do discuss philosophy. For pitchers, this includes pitching low in the zone, pitching inside, working off the fastball, and trying to get outs in three pitches or less to allow starters to go deeper in the game.
Right-handed pitcher Trevor Williams was added by the Pirates last month in a trade with the Miami Marlins, and immediately joined Glendale in the AFL, where the other Pirates prospects were playing. Williams is still in that no-touch period where the Pirates, and specifically AFL and 2015 Altoona Pitching Coach Justin Meccage, can evaluate him. But the philosophy sharing has already begun. In this case, though, it’s probably not going to make much of a difference.
I was talking to Williams the other day before he pitched in the AFL Fall Stars Game, discussing his approach on the mound. He’s hit 95 MPH several times in shorter outings the last few weeks, and hit 94 in the Fall Stars Game. That velocity comes from his four seam fastball. But despite that velocity, it is the sinker that Williams relies on.
“I strive off groundball outs, and I strive off getting outs in three pitches or less,” Williams said. “Strikeouts are great, but like Crash Davis said, they’re fascist. I’d rather be at 85 pitches in the eighth inning than 85 pitches in the 4th with 10 punches. That’s the type of pitcher I am. I’m not trying to be an upper 90s flamethrower with a bastard slider. That’s not my pitching. I’m very okay with throwing sinkers and breaking bats.”
Wait. Groundball outs. Three pitches or less. 85 pitches in the eighth instead of 85 pitches with a lot of strikeouts in the 4th. Relying heavily on a sinkerball and trying to break bats. With the exception of the aversion to throwing a “bastard slider”, these are all commonly mentioned approaches in the Pirates’ system. In fact, every pitcher and every pitching coach in the system will mention those things as a specific focus for the Pirates’ philosophy on the mound. And here was Williams, only in the system for a few weeks, already perfectly repeating the organizational philosophy.
I had to check at that point and make sure the Pirates hadn’t already gotten to Williams that quickly. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t some form of brainwashing going on that would make a pitcher say the exact things you’d need to hear in order to believe that this pitcher had been in the Pirates’ system for years. There was no brainwashing involved here. It just turned out that the Pirates added a guy who fit their organizational philosophy perfectly.
“That’s always been a philosophy since high school,” Williams said, while also mentioning that this approach has given him success throughout his entire career. “My high school pitching coach was really adamant about that. He was really adamant about if you walk people, you’re not going to pitch. So just throw strikes over the plate, hitters are supposed to get out.”
He’s a different type of pitcher when you dig deeper, but on the surface, Williams looks like a lot of other minor league pitchers with this approach. He has a fastball that can work in the mid-90s, but relies heavily on the 89-92 MPH sinker instead. Williams calls it the pitch he lives off of, and a pitch he can throw comfortably in any count. He knows that he can get that velocity from the four seam fastball whenever he wants, but still sticks with the sinker.
“What’s awesome about my sinker is I can throw it off my four seam and it can act like a changeup,” Williams said. “If it’s 4-5 MPH off my fastball, it can serve as a changeup, and then even slow it down more with my changeup.”
After reading about Williams following the trade, I felt that he sounded like a right-handed version of Steven Brault. Both get more velocity with their four seam fastballs, but both see better results from their two-seamer. The comparison goes a bit deeper when you look at the secondary stuff and the deception.
Williams spent some time focused on improving his curveball and slider in 2015 with the Marlins. The Marlins seemed to want him focusing on the curveball a bit more often, but from what I’ve gathered down here, the Pirates like the slider better.
“You’re always trying to make adjustments. I think we made great strides this year with my pitching coach in Double-A,” Williams said about his work on the breaking stuff with Miami. “He helped me out a lot in terms of both breaking pitches. He’s helped me strides with my slider. My curveball as well. It’s just another weapon as a starting pitcher, you need to have two different types of breaking balls.”
The curveball is a slower offering, sitting in the low 80s, and used as a change of pace pitch for Williams, similar to his curveball. As for the slider, the focus this year was to make that his out pitch, with the offering sitting in the mid-to-upper 80s.
“We wanted to develop the slider this year to be swing and miss,” Williams said. “At times it had success, and sometimes it didn’t, but it’s all part of the learning curve.”
As for the deception, Williams has that, which makes him a bit more difficult to hit. He credits this to getting a lot of extension, but also a slight crossover in his delivery that hides the ball a bit longer. In describing the crossover, Williams mentioned Jake Arrieta, although said he doesn’t have the crazy amount as the Cubs ace, who almost steps to shortstop before delivering. The combination of the longer extension and the crossover leads to hitters seeing the ball later.
“As long as the hitter doesn’t see it longer than he has to…if he only sees it for half a second, compared to 0.7 of a second, it makes a difference,” Williams said. “Especially coming in at 90-plus. You’re always trying to tweak with the hitter’s timing. You’re always trying to do something to mess with them. If the hitter can’t see the ball, then you’re in a good position.”
Williams is currently working in the AFL with Justin Meccage, who is very familiar with the pitcher. Meccage saw him a lot in the Florida State League in 2014, and liked what he saw at the time.
“I was just surprised when he showed up,” Meccage said of the trade. “I liked him, and I liked the way he competed when we’ve faced him. He threw strikes, and when they told me he’s ours, I was very excited.”
Meccage credited Williams with knowing how to pitch, his ability to pitch inside, and the velocity and deception, with a chance to improve on his current velocity totals.
“I think there’s a little bit more in there,” Meccage said. “[He’s a] guy that there’s some deception. Balls get on guys a little quicker than they think. He has a put away slider. And the mentality is nice.”
Williams isn’t on the 40-man roster, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a brief look in Major League Spring Training. If that doesn’t happen, he will almost certainly pitch out of the rotation in Indianapolis to start the 2016 season, especially with Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler out for the season. He could emerge as a depth options for the Pirates at some point during the season, either as a starter or a reliever. Williams did tell me that he would do either, but switching back to relief has been different, as he’s been a starter for the last four years, and is very routine oriented.
“I love starting, and I also love relieving,” Williams said. “Whatever helps me get the Pirates wins, honestly. Whatever Hurdle wants me to do, as far as helping the Pirates get wins.”
I’ve talked to scouts down here who think he has a chance to be a starter in the majors one day, while others feel he will only make it as a reliever where his stuff can play up. Having only seen him throw one inning, I can’t really offer a strong opinion on where he will end up in the future. It also might be difficult either way for him to be a starter in Pittsburgh, considering all the talent in the upper levels of the system. That said, my first impression is a good one.
I’d say he doesn’t have the best stuff, but he does have good velocity on his four seam fastball. He just opts to go with the lower velocity stuff for better results. If he can develop one of the breaking pitches further, then he could definitely be a starter in the future. But overall, I think he’s smart enough and has the stuff right now to make it in the majors at least as a reliever.