ALTOONA – Over the off-season, the Pirates traded Charlie Morton to the Phillies in a deal that was largely a salary dump. They freed up $8 M this year in the move, but the prospect they got back was more of a project than an established guy with a certain MLB upside.
David Whitehead came to the Pirates as a 23-year-old sinkerballer who posted a 4.44 ERA in the Florida State League last year, and hadn’t pitched above Double-A. It was difficult to see how he fit in to the Pirates’ mix. They had a rotation full of prospects in Indianapolis. They had plenty of starting options slated for Altoona. Whitehead became one of those options, but was far down on the prospect list, falling behind guys like Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler.
A big reason for this is because Whitehead is a pitcher who relies heavily on his sinker, and didn’t have much of an out pitch coming into the season. The Pirates saw some potential to make him more than that, and have been working with him on a few changes to improve his game. Whitehead’s reaction to the trade and the organization show that he’s very open to the changes they have suggested.
“I was surprised,” Whitehead said about the trade. “It was an exciting moment. And when I found out I was going to the Pirates, I’ve heard nothing but good things about this organization. Especially pitching-wise and development. So I was very excited. And then I just gathered info, and it got more and more exciting. I say it all the time, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here.”
The Pirates are making a few changes to Whitehead’s mechanics, focusing on adding more power to his game. He usually sits in the 89-92 MPH range with his sinker, touching 93. His big frame suggests there could be more velocity in there, but the Pirates feel he needs to stay back in his delivery a bit longer in order to try and tap into that power and be more than just a sinkerball guy.
“I think he can be even better than that,” Altoona pitching coach Justin Meccage said about Whitehead relying on the sinker. “I think there’s some more power in there. And that’s why we’re trying to get some of that out. That sinker will always be there, I think. But I don’t know if that sinker is good enough to take him where he wants to go. That’s why I think we’re going to get some more power out of there. All of a sudden, you’ll have a pretty good starter.”
The Phillies apparently also realized that Whitehead needed more than just his current sinker to succeed. He had a changeup and a curveball, but added a slider last year, aimed at getting more strikeouts. Whitehead still throws the curve, but is moving towards the slider as his out pitch.
“I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not a strikeout pitch for me,” Whitehead said of the curve. “Some days it is, but on occasion. It’s more of a strike pitch for me.”
Whitehead said that a big problem with the curve is that it gets loopy, and hitters recognize it early, even when it’s good. The slider has been inconsistent, but when it’s on, Whitehead doesn’t see the same problems, and sees an effective pitch. Meccage agreed with all of this.
“I’m guessing they added [the slider] because he lacked a strikeout pitch,” Meccage said of the slider. “I’ve seen it where it is a strikeout pitch. His [curveball] is just kind of loopy. So I’m guessing he added it because he needed a go-to pitch.”
I saw Whitehead in real action for the first time on April 12th. That night he had six strikeouts in four innings, but also gave up five runs on seven hits and three walks. It was very cold, with temperatures in the 40s, and everyone was having trouble commanding their pitches, so I don’t dock him too much for the outing. I did see a few sliders that looked good, with nice, tight break. Others weren’t as good, becoming sweeping sliders and finishing way outside of the strike zone. Whitehead said that this happens when he tries to overpower the pitch, making it so that it doesn’t look like a strike at any point.
The pitches that were on play well with the sinker, coming in looking like the fastball, then breaking the opposite direction, which is the goal.
“When I throw it right, I can definitely notice a difference,” Whitehead said. “I think it works well when my two-seam is really working, having the two-seam go one way and the slider go the other way. So it’s still getting there.”
Going forward, Whitehead will need to learn how to work the pitches off each other, working the two-seam on the inside, then throwing the sharp slider away, without making it too sweeping and ending up in the left-handed batter’s box. Meccage feels that the mechanical changes they’re making will also help that pitch.
“He gets real fast, physically, so I think that’s where you see the inconsistencies,” Meccage said of the slider. “He gets way forward, and the arm drags, and it leaves it spinning. When he gets back behind it, those are the ones you see with good, sharp depth. That’s what we’re working with him, is getting some low half involved, and getting some leverage going.”
It’s hard to call Whitehead more than a project at this point. He’s putting up better strikeout numbers in his first two starts, but the control is off, due to a lot of movement on the sinker that the mechanical adjustments might help out with. Even if he develops more, it’s hard to see him turning into more than a back of the rotation starter. In this organization, with so many talented pitching prospects in the upper levels, that would make it difficult for him to become more than Triple-A depth, a reliever, or a trade chip. If the Pirates could get something like that out of Whitehead, it would be good, as it would give the Morton trade more value than just short-term salary relief, while also adding another potential MLB pitcher to the mix in the upper levels.