What Do the Triple-A Pitchers Need to Work on Before a Promotion to Pittsburgh?

One of the things that I’ve always found the most difficult about prospect coverage is explaining the line between a prospects future upside, and their current level. Even with a clear explanation of what a player needs to work on, there’s always the idea that he can easily work on that at a higher level, or in the case of a Triple-A player, that the team could just promote him to the majors.

The typical assumption is that the player is ready, and this determination is either based on minor league numbers alone, or his future potential, or a bit of both. Unfortunately, a team has two options here. They can leave the guy down and let him work on his issues a bit longer, or call him up, at which point it would be revealed if he was actually ready.

The other night, I reviewed the 2015 depth in Indianapolis, noting that the Pirates don’t have a need for many minor league free agents. One of the needs would be a starting pitcher for early season depth. There were a few responses saying that the prospects could come up for a spot start, or for a role early in the season. But I got the feeling that those opinions were based on what a player is projected to become one day, and not what he is right now.

Take Tyler Glasnow, for example. He put up great numbers in Altoona, and a great ERA in Indianapolis. He is projected to be a top of the rotation starter one day. There will be a lot of calls for him to make the majors out of Spring Training, and a lot of anger on the inevitable day that he is sent to minor league camp. Every time a starter has a poor outing in the majors, there will be comments that the team would have won if Glasnow would have started. It’s an unrealistic scenario for any prospect, and when those prospects don’t immediately turn into stars, the pendulum swings to the other extreme. You’re starting to see this with Gregory Polanco, all because he’s not a star player after his first full season in baseball at the age of 23.

It’s easy to see that a player doesn’t belong in the majors if you’re actually watching the player. It’s more difficult to hear about the potential and see the stats. So I wanted to give a rundown of each of the potential Triple-A pitching prospects, along with the key things they need to work on before arriving in the majors next year.

Tyler Glasnow – Glasnow has an amazing fastball, although it lacks control at times. He showed improvements with that control in Altoona, but that didn’t carry over to Indianapolis. His control issues stem from his mechanics and repeating his delivery, which he’s been slower to develop due to his tall, skinny frame. Aside from the control, he also needs to continue improving his secondary stuff. The curveball is an out pitch, but he needs to command it better and throw it for strikes. Otherwise, MLB hitters can sit on the fastball and lay off the curve, as it wouldn’t post a threat to them. He also needs to work on improving the changeup, which saw improvements last year in Altoona.

Jameson Taillon – He hasn’t pitched in an official game the last two years, but Taillon looked the best he’s ever looked this year during his rehab work. Assuming that carries over to his 2016 season, he wouldn’t be far off from the majors. He’s got the best curveball in the system, and his fastball now features easy downhill movement, making that mid-to-upper 90s velocity harder to hit. He’ll need continued work on his changeup, which was showing improvements before his injuries. Most importantly, he will need to get readjusted to upper level hitting before making the jump to the majors.

Chad Kuhl – Kuhl was impressive in the second half in Altoona. He primarily relies on a pitch-to-contact approach and a sinker, but he flashed a nice four-seam fastball that was sitting mid-90s, touching 97 on frequent occasions. He lacked a strong secondary pitch, but worked a lot last year on improving his slider. That pitch showed improvements by the end of the year, but he’s still going to need more work in order to make it past Triple-A and to the majors.

Trevor Williams – The Pirates acquired Williams to provide some pitching depth throughout the year. He’s got a chance to be a starter in the majors one day, although his likely upside with the team seems to be a reliever. He is in the process of trying to find a good breaking pitch, with both his slider and curveball needing work. The Pirates seem to prefer the slider, so that’s the pitch you can expect him to focus on going forward. Until he shows improvements, he’s a sinkerball guy with deception and no out pitch.

Steven Brault – Brault is in a similar situation as Williams. He has a good sinker, and is also working this off-season to add some more power to his four-seam fastball. He’s been working on improving his changeup, and has settled on the slider for his off-speed pitch, after having a need to find a good out pitch. Just like Williams, he’s a guy with a good fastball who gets a lot of ground balls and has deception, but needs improvement on his secondary stuff.

The last three guys show a common trend in that they all have good fastballs, but need work on their secondary stuff. You can get away with that in Double-A and still put up really strong numbers. It’s a lot more difficult getting those same results in the majors with below average off-speed stuff. Glasnow also needs to improve his stuff, although in his case, he has a plus breaking ball that he needs to learn how to command.

These guys can all improve, and the improvements won’t take a long time. You’ll probably see Glasnow and/or Taillon up by mid-season, not because their improvements magically came right after the Super Two deadline. Instead, that will be the first time it would make sense to jump them to the majors and see them continue their work at the next level. They won’t be close to finished products yet, but the hope would be that they’d be upgrades in the rotation, reaching that number one upside in the next few years.

This is exactly what happened with Gerrit Cole.  He was promoted to Triple-A at the end of the 2012 season, despite poor command of his fastball and breaking stuff in Double-A. His stuff was so good that he got away with it in Double-A. The command issues continued in Triple-A in 2013, although he quickly fixed them and put up numbers good enough to make the jump to the majors. He was far from a number one starter in 2013, mostly due to the lack of command of his plus slider. He improved that pitch over the last two years, and in 2015 he was one of the best pitchers in the game.

Cole’s situation is the optimistic timeline for these pitchers. None of them are ready for the majors at the start of the 2016 season. You hope that they can resolve each of their issues early in the year, getting to the point where it would make sense to call them up by mid-season. At that point they still won’t be ready, but the hope would be that they’re good enough to provide some value out of the rotation. From there, they would continue improving their stuff in the majors, and within a year or two, would reach their upsides.

Unfortunately, you can’t fast forward to that point, and calling a guy up before he’s ready could lead to a lot of damage to his career, with a player compensating for his weaknesses by altering other parts of his game, which is how mechanics can be thrown off for good. Even if the Pirates lean to a more conservative approach, they’d be better off than this overly aggressive result, as they’d do much less damage by holding a guy down a bit too long.

  • Tim,

    A lot of times teams will hold back a player due to Super 2 issues and I believe that both Bell and Glasnow will be held back for those reasons even if ready earlier. Do you think that if Taillon has a good April/early May the Pirates might consider moving him up sooner just due to the fact he has lost multiple seasons with injuries? Kind of the whole “so many bullets” theory.

  • I remember Don Robinson came into ST I believe and grabbed the starters role by the throat and never let go. I’m kind of hoping to see one of these guys go lights out and go 14-2.

  • This question might be posted late to get answer, but why the slider over the curve? The curve is easier than the slider on the elbow, and the platoon split is better.

    • Not everyone can throw a curve. Some guys throw a slider better. For example, Tyler Eppler came in with a curve and a slider. The curve wasn’t working for him at all, but they see some potential with the slider, and are focusing on that pitch going forward.

      Really it’s just about finding a breaking pitch that a guy can throw. I believe Montana DuRapau threw a curve and a slider in the past, but he really saw success when he started using a cutter as his main out pitch in relief. And that’s a variation of a slider, but just another example of how you try to find a pitch that works for you.

    • The platoon issue with slider vs curve is too simplified. It depends what form of each pitch a given pitcher uses.

      The “modern” hard slider with short, late vertical break is not more platoon-prone than say, Charlie Morton’s big two-plane bender.

  • The guy or gal who figures out a way to measure “perceived” velocity is going to make themselves a boatload of money.

    I can’t get over thinking that Steven Brault is the epitome of the undervalued pitching prospect. The command/changeup/deception guy who doesn’t light up traditional radar guns but has a fastball that plays above those numbers. Think about how his prospect stock would change if it was known that his “perceived” velocity was really in the mid-90s?
    22% K-rate in AA is significantly higher than Kuhl and Williams, whom Brault has been compared to. And then he went into a hitters league after pitching a career-high 155 innings and struck out almost ten per nine. Adding that 4-seamer at the top of the strikezone for not only swings and misses but changing the hitters eye level was brilliant.

    • I’d imagine Statcast could get something like this. It would be simple if you had the data. You’d need a pitcher’s stride to the plate. A longer stride would shorten the distance the ball has to travel, which would make it seem faster. If you had the actual distance the ball was traveling, you could calculate that.

      But then there’s the factor of hiding the ball longer. You’d need a batter’s eye view there.

      • It’s the last part that would be tough…I agree that statcast could get us the measurable response…but I’m way too dumb to figure out how to value or even measure hiding the ball.

        • Mike Fiers is excellent at “hiding” the ball. He sits 89-91, maybe hitting 92 on occasion, but his ball jumps on the hitter and it seems to be much harder than the gun readings. His k/9 #’s are excellent due to his extreme over the top delivery and his penchant for “hiding” the ball.

          • Nailed it.

            And what else? Plus changeup! The underrated pitching prospect starter kit.

            • >> The underrated pitching prospect starter kit.

              I think I’ve seen those on late-night TV — 3 payments of $39.99 IIRC.

              • but wait…there’s more….

                you also get the “Ronco Strike-o-Matic” for free! Tired of nibbling at the corners? The Strike-o-Matic teaches you how to throw Quality strikes (ie, the ‘near’ strikes which make batters swing).

                • I tried that in High School and my baseball coach Sr. Mary told me it wouldn’t work. It’s still in my mother’s attic.

            • Arrieta throwing across his body has the same effect, imo Blanton throwing across his body help with his rebound.

        • A few years ago during Spring Training, the Pirates were testing a company that provided pitch tracking software from the batter’s eye. It’s not something that could ever be implemented in games at the moment. It required a big pack on their back, and huge goggles, with a cord connecting to the receiver.

          The hitters would go up to the plate and just watch pitchers throw their pitches. The results were pretty interesting from the limited amount that I’ve seen. They did a scatter chart of where hitters look. Minor league hitters were all over the place, while MLB hitters primarily focused on the pitcher’s face, until the ball came out, at which point they were locked in on the ball.

          If they ever made something like this that was small enough, they could add it to helmets and provide a new camera angle for the game. At that point, they could measure how soon you see the ball. They probably wouldn’t be able to connect it to individual hitter skills, since that would require glasses that track your eye movement. But they could track the pitchers in that way.

          I don’t know if MLB would ever do such a thing. It could be possible with the way high quality cameras are getting smaller and smaller. It would also be costly though, which makes me think they wouldn’t do it. But that’s the only technology I know of that would come close to accomplishing this.

          • Wow, very cool. Thanks for sharing.

          • Kind of alarming that the best hitters in the world look at the pitcher’s face for the ball. I understand it’s human nature, but it seems to me if instead they looked where the ball was coming from, they’d gain an advantage. Maybe some already do.

            • Think of it like a pitcher addressing his catcher without him presenting a target. Theoretically it shouldn’t matter, but it’s awful tough to focus on an arbitrary point in space.

              I’ve heard guys say the focus on the throwing shoulder, as the ball typically comes into view around there.

              • The best hitting coaches teach young hitters to focus on the Letter on the pitcher’s hat till the hand appears only then shift the focus to that hand.

            • They looked at the face while the ball was in the glove. They moved from there to the release point and locked on the ball at that point.

          • I remember seeing that when you and I met at Spring Training in 2012, Tim. The players didn’t appear too comfortable wearing the gear, but seemed amused by the concept. I think you said you were considering an article about it. Did you ever publish one?

            • I tried, but unfortunately wasn’t able to get access to the company. They were only working with the Pirates at the time, and the Pirates didn’t want any other teams catching on in the event that they discovered an edge. So the company decided they didn’t want to do any interviews, to avoid hurting that relationship. Then they stopped doing it, and it didn’t seem relevant.

          • I read an article once about how Babe Ruth’s eyesight was far superior to even other athletes. I have no doubt the very best hitters not only have superior swing mechanics, but also have exceptional eyesight, too.

            Putting cameras on the front of a helmet sounds cool, but still doesn’t account for pitch recognition capabilities of a batter. It would however be a cool way to view the pitcher vs batter duel.

            • The average MLB position player’s vision measures 20/15 with some at 20/10. They don’t all wear contacts for nothing ! Corrective surgery is quite common.

          • It’s possible that there are visual tells (like you’d see in poker) in a pitchers facial expressions that give hitters a subconscious “read” on what the pitch will be. The hitter may not even realize that’s what he’s “looking” for but his brain does the work all the same.

            That would factor into why you see the “third time through the order” and “fourth time through the order” effects. Pitching is hard enough as it is without maintaining a poker face the whole time. A subtlety in facial expression would appear long before anything mechanical the hitter could identify.

    • Think Dallas Keuchel NMR. He is a perfect example of what you are talking about.

      • Thank you! I keep wanting to type that name, but each time feel like I come off as even more of a fanboy. I’m already printing passes to the club. 😉

        But really, Keuchel is absolutely the peak of this profile and I’m sure we’d all take even the halfway point if Brault were able to reach it.

  • Is work on pick off throws and holding runners also worked on in AAA or is that something they don’t worry about until they get to the majors? I ask because of the poor CS numbers and many of those stolen bases tend to be on the pitchers rather than the catchers IMO.

    • The reason for the stolen base problems is due to a total disregard for the runners. And that’s more extreme than the disregard in Pittsburgh. The Pirates don’t care in certain situations, like when there are two outs. The prospects don’t care in any situation, because they’re focusing on mechanics or a specific pitch. When the mechanics get fixed, they’ll focus a bit more on the running game. They are taught how to control it, but don’t practice it as much in games as they do the more important stuff.

      • This is an accurate description of what the Pirates do but I disagree with it. Expecting pitchers to change their habit patterns once they get to MLB is unrealistic.

        • Agreed- I hate this approach. Disregarding a runner at first with two outs takes a relatively unlikely chance of the other team scoring a run requiring 2 hits, and reducing it to 1. I can’t see how they ran the probability tables and decided this makes sense. With Pittsburgh it seems the big problem isn’t so much “holding” runners on, but rather the time to home plate. If we can’t figure out how to have pitchers be effective without being painfully slow from the stretch, then we have big coaching problems from the beginning to the top of the organization, because this is something most organizations have the ability to do

  • Excellent article, Tim… Who do you see being closer to PGH of Glasnow and Taillon? Also, who has the higher upside if both are healthy?

    Thanks

  • Baltimore called up Bundy very early and look what happened. Yes, he got hurt, but was that from overthrowing or doing something is was not ready to do? There are other pitchers that were called up too early and did not make it. And yes, Polanco was called up to early. I repeat what i said in a previous post. He only had around 250 ab’s in AA and 300 in AAA. A full year in AAA would have made him ready for the majors.

    • Reminds me of something I was thinking about a few weeks ago. Back in 2011 there was a debate between Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, and Dylan Bundy for the first overall pick. The other two had extreme throwing programs, and didn’t want to come to the Pirates, for fear that the Pirates wouldn’t let them continue those programs.

      A lot was made at the time about how the Pirates don’t allow long toss, which was never true. The Pirates do allow long toss, but if a player shows he’s not capable of doing that while maintaining proper throwing mechanics, then they restrict him from going out X amount of feet. They didn’t restrict Cole from going out well beyond 200 feet, so the idea that they would have restricted the other two just over the distance was silly. They might have restricted them if they saw a problem with the programs.

      In Bauer’s case, he throws from an extremely long distance, over 300 feet. The problem with this approach is that it can lead to a flat fastball off the mound. And it’s no surprise that he has had poor control issues and has been hit around in the majors. Bundy has an extreme workout program, and an extreme throwing program, and he’s dealt with multiple arm injuries. Rushing him probably didn’t help either.

      It makes me wonder if we should revisit that situation from 2011. The Pirates were seen as the bad guy for not being willing to let prospects do their own thing. Now they’ve got the only guy from that group who reached his upside, and the other two are struggling with problems that could stem from an improper throwing program.

      • I think revisiting a lot of the prevailing opinions around those early-ish years would be fun and instructive.

        • I’ll be honest, I would snap if I went back an reviewed all of that stuff. At the time, I was hearing from smart baseball people — both in and out of the organization — that the Pirates were doing the right thing in a lot of those cases, or that they just weren’t extremely wrong (throwing programs, draft scouting and approach, trading closers, reclamation pitchers, Navy SEALs, etc).

          Because of what I was hearing, I was positive on those moves, and with the more controversial stories (SEALs, throwing programs) I presented what was actually going on, instead of the click-bait complaining approach that every outlet had at the time.

          The result of this was that I got a “pro-FO”/”apologist”/”unobjective” label. And the people who were giving the hot takes, rather than researching what was actually going on in the system, are seen as “objective” because they complained, even though they were wrong on most cases.

          I don’t have a problem with the individual treatments here. But I hate the fact that you can be overly negative and maintain objectivity, even if you end up being wrong (or were wrong at the time), but if you’re overly positive about an overly positive situation, you’re seen as unobjective.

          End “I hate how objectivity is associated with criticism” rant.

          • Ha! Amen. Point made.

          • You’re good, Tim. Well said. MUCH of my willingness to pay for this site is my respect for your objectivity. It shows with the folks that you’ve hired, also. Anyone can rant, and we have way too much of that anywhere else you look about anything.

          • I remember all of that stuff very well Tim, and your comment here is completely correct and well said.

      • There seems to be a real causation/correlation issue with your reasoning. Are you implying Bauer’s issues/struggles are primarily a result of his throwing program/long toss? That seems like a very big assumption. And Bauer’s arm injuries are a result of his throwing program? But Cole HAS NOT been injured because of the Pirates develoipment system?

        I don’t think the Pirates have a lot of high ground to talk about health and pitchers. Guys are dropping like crazy to TJS and recent data shows a huge disproportionate amount of Pirates being victimized. Way worse than any team in MLB last 12 months. Maybe it’s all dumb luck. But regardless, they certainly haven’t proven they have any advantage over other organizations as far as keeping arms healthy either.

        • At the time, the knock against Bauer’s program was that it could lead to poor mechanics on the mound. It leads to arm strength, yes, but it also leads to control problems and an elevated fastball when you go from 300 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches.

          That’s the problem he’s having now. He spent so much time focused on throwing as far as he can, using a throwing motion that is aimed at getting the ball high in the air. Now he elevates his fastball and has control problems.

          I don’t know if the injury aspect really has anything to do with this. It’s impossible to say in those cases. However, one big argument for the extreme throwing programs was that they built strength, and lowered the risk of injuries. And it’s clear that isn’t the case.

          I can’t say if Bauer or Bundy would be better off from a health standpoint with different throwing programs. I can say they’d be better off from a control/command standpoint with different throwing programs.

          • There is so much that goes on with a pitcher. I think it’s foolish to pinpoint one thing between 2 players and use that as a basis for a determination of the validity of an approach. There are a lot of other potential explanations to Bauer’s problems than long toss.

            You do know Greg Maddux and Felix Hernandez are big believers in extreme long toss? I don’t think Maddux had trouble elevating his fastball.

            Maddux does nothing to prove long toss is good. Bauer does nothing to prove it is bad. There is way too much you and I don’t know.

            • But Maddox and Hernandez never had issues with elevating flat fastballs…

              I agree that neither side proves the practice is wrong in general, but do you really think it’s good for a player with a known issue to practice in a manner that reinforces that mistake? I think Tim has a point there.

              • I really don’t know. It seems to me there are some respected voices who don’t think the extreme long toss causes fastball elevation. I just don’t think we can directly point to that as a primary cause of bauer a struggles

                • ” It seems to me ” doesn’t validate whatever point you are trying to make. It always occur to me that being a contrarian with out any solid facts is usually your main objective.

                  • I know Leo. I don’t bring “solid facts” to the table like you do. Lmao. I’ll try to emulate you and work on my sycophancy.

            • I’m not making any sweeping comments here. Long toss is fine. You can throw as far as you want. But you also have to avoid letting it change your mechanics on the mound.

              Long toss from extreme distances can lead to pitchers having an inability to pitch down in the zone. They throw hard, but they just have high, flat fastballs. Bauer looks like a case of that. Maddux doesn’t. There are going to be guys who long toss from extreme distances and still have the ability to pitch down in the zone. Others won’t be able to.

              Also, I know a ton about this subject. I’ve written about it countless times over the years, and I’ve had a ton of conversations with people in the game who were some of the early adopters of long toss (this includes Jim Benedict, who was doing it back in the early 90s with the Expos). I’ve read a lot of articles on the subject as well. What I’m telling you is based on years of research and conversation on the subject.

              There are some things I still don’t know, but you can trust me that this is a topic where I’ve got a deep knowledge.

              • OK Tim, so basically you’re saying “I know more than you on this topic, so just trust my opinion on Bauer”. Got ya.

                • Well, not exactly.

                  What I’m saying is that I’m not just throwing out BS here. These comments are backed by years of research and conversations with people in the game about this subject. You can choose to trust it or not, but realize that I do have a strong background on this subject.

                • He’s actually simply explaining how he has built his opinion. I don’t think he gives a rat’s ass if you trust him or not.

                  Come on, baby, why you gotta be like that?

          • fair enough

        • Missed the point…..completely.

        • I am not taking a side here, but want to point out something. Coming out of college, Cerrit Cole had a very fast, flat elevated fastball, which college hitters were not having much trouble hitting. Today he doesn’t, why is that? Could it possibly have to do with the Pirates program they take with pitchers? There is history and a track record that would lead a reasonable person to believe that that is the case.
          Coming out of college, Trevor Bauer was also a hard throwing pitcher, with a funky delivery. At the time he was seen by some as the better prospect. He was so stubborn about his program that he was traded by one organization because he refused to be coached. It wasn’t until his second organization, when they let him fail and allowed him to be knocked down a rung or two that he finally allowed someone to offer him some coaching. It wasn’t until last season that he had even a modicum of success.
          As for Bundy, replace college with high school in the Bauer write-up and it is basically the same.
          I say that to say this, you can not say that one specific thing lead to the injuries, but it is pretty emphatic evidence that what the Pirates did worked, while what the other two did, did not work.
          Just my two cents.

      • and they also have about 9 TJ surgeries in the last 4 years…….are you sure they should revisit it?

  • Well I am sure whatever issues Glasnow has will be resolve by June 15th. Tallion is a different story. Time you mention he was impressive in rehab outings. Who was he pitching to in these games? If it was a bunch of Gulf Coast guys then I am not sure we really know what he has yet. As far as I can tell he hasn’t pitched competitively for two years. I would think he may need a lot of work to get back up to speed and I would think he still might be on an innings or a pitch count. Anything we gt from Tallion will be a bonus.

    • When he says that he looks good in rehab outings, he isn’t talking specific results on paper, he’s talking about improvements Taillon made, specifically with his fastball down in the zone. http://18.206.184.11/2015/06/could-jameson-taillon-pitch-in-pittsburgh-this-year.html

    • I think he is referring to his fastball having good downward action, instead of grooving his fb like he did pre TJ.

    • Glasnow’s issues won’t be resolved by June 15th. That will just be the point where it makes sense to call him up and let him continue working on his issues in the majors.

      With Taillon, it was more about the mechanics, as John noted below. The ball never came out of his hand that easy, and never had that much downward movement in the past. He was playing short-season guys, and a few rehabbing upper level guys, but the stuff was good enough for him to have success in the upper levels and the majors.

      That’s kind of the point of the whole article. It’s not about stats, and not about who the pitcher is currently going up against. It’s about evaluating his stuff, and determining whether that stuff can play in the majors.

      • Thanks Tim. Do you believe he will be on an innings limit and if so how much? I know you indicated he threw a lot in the instructs but how much of that was truly competitive? Thanks for all of your work. I really enjoy ready your articles however I do chuckle when NH comes out in June and talks about how prospect (fill in the blank) is now ready to tackle the bigs as if it has nothing to do with super two status.

        Which leads me to another question. If the Pirates or any team admitted to holding a player back for purely fiscal reasons could the players association file some sort of action against the team or MLB?

        • I could see Glasnow on a same innings total as Cole in 2013.

          As for holding a player back, if anyone was going to file action, it would have been Kris Bryant this year, since he was held down for about a week before being called up, thus buying the Cubs an additional year.

          • I don’t see how anyone could file “action” since the team has absolutely no requirement to promote a player to the major leagues no matter how good he is. It is their call.

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