BRADENTON, Fla. – When Travis MacGregor was drafted, the pick wasn’t met with a lot of fanfare. He was taken 68th overall, but was rated 186th by Baseball America, and didn’t land in MLB.com’s top 200 draft prospects. There were a lot of mixed reports on his stuff, with most of the reports saying he was throwing in the 80s, and had inconsistent velocity early in the year.
However, there was a sign of hope, as some of the late reports on MacGregor had him seeing an increase in velocity, getting his fastball up to 93 MPH. The Pirates had plenty of opportunities to see MacGregor, who pitched in Tarpon Springs, FL, which is about an hour north of Bradenton. As a result, they got to see the improvements late in the year.
“They were looking at me,” MacGregor said. “They had been looking at me throughout my high school season. I didn’t know it was them who was going to take me. It was a few teams that were pretty interested in me. I was thrilled when they took me. This was the club I wanted to be with.”
There were other teams interested, and MacGregor got a tip that he had a small chance of being taken by one of the teams late the first night or early the second day. The Pirates took him with their final pick the first night of the draft, taking him in the second round.
A big area where the reports conflicted was on the velocity. It seems that if you saw him early, the velocity was lower. If you saw him later, the velocity was much better. MacGregor took a few steps to improve in this area. First, he dropped all other sports, playing only baseball. He went a step further, playing as a pitcher only, rather than in the past when he was a pitcher and an infielder. He also added some gym work. In short, he put all of his focus and energy on pitching for the first time.
“I was just able to get a good routine for me that worked for me,” MacGregor said. “I was able to get my days off, my rest, my throwing program where I was prepared for my next start. And I was able to get in the gym more than I had before and put on a little weight.”
The interesting thing I found when talking with MacGregor wasn’t how he added velocity throughout the 2016 season. It was the back story with his secondary stuff. He throws a 12-to-6 curveball from an overhand delivery, and also throws a changeup. Most high school pitchers don’t know the changeup, and rely more on a fastball/breaking ball combo to get them through the lower levels. Velocity and a good breaking pitch tend to get guys paid, which is why a lot of pitchers will start working on the breaking pitch at a young age, and do everything they can to add velocity.
MacGregor is the opposite. His changeup is his go-to secondary pitch, and what he considers his out pitch. The curveball is the pitch he feels he needs the most improvement on. And there’s a good reason for both of those results.
“I hadn’t actually thrown a curveball until just before high school,” MacGregor said. “I wasn’t allowed to throw one. My Dad set rules on me that he wasn’t going to let me throw a curveball in the games until I got old enough. So I learned to rely on my fastball and changeup, and got really confident in both of them.”
MacGregor’s father had read the Tommy John research that suggested throwing breaking pitches at a young age was bad for the arm. He bought into the idea, and Travis was only working on his fastball and changeup at an early age, leading the changeup to be more advanced than most high school pitchers, and the curveball to be very raw. It also taught MacGregor to pitch off his fastball.
“There’s a lot of things out there that say younger kids throwing curveballs can have arm injuries,” MacGregor said of the approach. “But also, you’ve got to live off your fastball. If you can’t throw your fastball, you can’t throw anything else.”
The changeup has always been reliable, according to MacGregor, since it’s a pitch he has thrown his entire life. The Pirates love the changeup, and stress that pitch as a main secondary offering now in the lower levels. I’ve talked to Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway about the pitch many times, and he feels that a good changeup is the best breaking pitch a pitcher can have. So, aside from the velocity increase, you can see the appeal that MacGregor had for the Pirates.
The curveball will still need some improvements, as you’d expect from a pitch that is so new, and stands third behind the fastball/changeup combo. But MacGregor is already starting that work.
“I’ve been working pretty hard on it,” MacGregor said. “I’ve been seeing a lot of change in it. Good change. I’m doing good with that.”
After the end of his high school season, MacGregor took 2-3 weeks off from baseball. He started back up shortly after signing, and has been throwing bullpens and sim games so far with the GCL Pirates. He is scheduled to make his pro debut on Monday, July 4th, and based on previous debuts from Pirates prep pitchers, he will probably only go two innings.
MacGregor will be an interesting story to follow for many reasons. There’s the Pirates aspect, where you want to see if the late-season velocity carries over, and whether he can develop the changeup. There’s also the big picture aspect, where you want to see how the cautious approach at an early age helped him from a health standpoint. The latter part will be a long-term study, and will require more cases than just MacGregor. (Spoiler Alert: I’ll have articles on Braeden Ogle and Max Kranick this week, and both had the exact same situation where they couldn’t throw breaking pitches early, for the exact same reasons, which makes me think the Pirates saw a common appeal with the three pitchers. I’d bet that Nick Lodolo is in the same situation.) As for MacGregor’s impact with the Pirates, we should start to get a pretty good first impression of that this year in the GCL.