BRADENTON, Fla. – Stephen Tarpley has hit a bit of a rough patch his last two outings. In those two starts, he has combined to give up 11 earned runs in 8.2 innings, with 11 hits, 6 walks, and 8 strikeouts.
That’s all a big change from what Tarpley was doing the month prior to those starts. In his previous six starts, he combined for a 1.67 ERA in 32.1 innings, with a 30:10 K/BB ratio. He capped all of that off with seven shutout innings on July 6th.
Tarpley also struggled earlier in the season, posting a 5.87 ERA in his first five starts after an oblique injury, although those numbers were largely inflated by two bad outings.
So what has led to this up-and-down season so far?
Part of the early struggles were due to coming back from the injury and shaking off some rust. But the injury wasn’t the sole problem. Tarpley was working on his concentration and his approach, and saw some improvements in those areas around the start of June.
“I think it was just working on my concentration, and getting back to being how I was last season,” Tarpley said. “Coming back from the injury was a little rough. It took about a month to kind of get my rhythm back, and everything like that. Once I found that, I was able to concentrate more on making pitches, and getting guys out, and enjoying myself out there, rather than focusing on coming back from the injury.”
Bradenton Pitching Coach Jeff Johnson said that it was about Tarpley being a pitcher, rather than a thrower who was relying solely on his talent.
“He’s super talented,” Johnson said. “One of the things when you have a guy that’s super talented is they want to use that talent, instead of learning how to do things necessary in a process that’s going to enable him to keep getting better and better. One thing we’ve done with him is basically trying to get him to understand [he’s] very talented, and can do some things with the baseball because of that talent, but it needs to be consistent. How do we get consistent? Daily throwing, concentration, make sure our intentions are right, make sure what we’re trying to do mechanically is helping you, instead of making it harder.”
Johnson has been talking and communicating with Tarpley all year about these steps, making sure he gets a feel for what needs to be done, and Tarpley has been very open to the talks.
“He’s latched on to that really well,” Johnson said. “He’s been very receptive, very committed to it,” Johnson said after Tarpley’s July 11th start. “Tonight wasn’t a very good result, but I loved what I saw. I saw the things necessary for him to really start to get better. Because the timing wasn’t quite great, the release point was a little off, okay. But the mind is working great. The mind is allowing the body to work.”
The last two outings have seen Tarpley struggle with his fastball command, but the one consolation is that his secondary stuff is working better. Tarpley didn’t have good command of his fastball on July 11th, but the secondary stuff looked good, and he felt good about the pitches.
“I really enjoyed how my slider felt and how my changeup felt tonight,” Tarpley said after that start. “I think they were both the best that they’ve been this season, and probably since last season. I’ve got to take that, and kind of take it into the next game.”
The changeup has always been Tarpley’s better secondary pitch, but has struggled a bit lately. Johnson said that Tarpley got back on track with the pitch on the 11th, after focusing on it in bullpens and side work the last month.
“This is going to be very important, especially if he continues to start,” Johnson said of the changeup. “Tonight I saw a lot of good ones. First time I’ve seen in about three starts where it felt like he could throw it over and get swings on it. Because I don’t care if they hit it, I want them to swing at it. And that’s what I’ve tried to teach him, is it’s no good if you’re not swinging at it.”
The slider has been a big area of focus for Tarpley this year, and the pitch has seen a lot of improvements. Johnson had high praise for the pitch, even telling Pitching Coordinator Scott Mitchell that it looks like a pitch that could be “Major League good” and an above-average breaking ball one day.
“Way better than we’ve seen,” Johnson said of the slider. “At the beginning of the year, that was the focus. Trying to get the breaking ball to work, to get it to where he felt comfortable with it, to throw it whenever he wants it. It’s gotten there now. He’s even gotten it to the point where it’s a two strike weapon. As you saw tonight, especially late in the game, they’re not hitting it. I’m very happy with that. The slider is there.”
The changeup and slider are in a good place right now, but the fastball has been off lately. Tarpley did have fastball command issues with the Orioles prior to the trade that brought him over to the Pirates, but fixed some of those command issues by lowering to a three-quarters arm slot in his final months with Baltimore. He carried that over to the Pirates, and had a lot of success last year with the approach. It’s still something he needs to work on and get comfortable with as the work continues.
“Now I’ve got my pitches back. Everything is working good,” Tarpley said. “I think the hardest part for me would be repetition. I’m getting the reps in now. I’m becoming more consistent on it. Especially with my arm speed, my changeup has been a lot better than it has been, my slot is a lot better. The more repetition I get, the more comfortable I’m going to feel out there.”
One thing that helps is that Tarpley doesn’t shy away from the pitch when it’s not working. He throws a two-seam and a four-seam fastball, and when both of them are on, he will use them according to the approach against the opposing hitter. But if one of them is off, he won’t rely solely on the other one, but will try and get the original pitch back on track. This is a very development-oriented approach that doesn’t do good things for the numbers.
“I like to challenge myself,” Tarpley said. “If I’m not making a pitch, I like to challenge myself with that pitch for the rest of the night, to try and get that pitch back.”
When the fastball is on, Tarpley has a great pitch to set up his secondary stuff. The two-seam fastball has cutting action, and the four-seam fastball has the appearance that it’s running in on the hands of right-handed hitters, making it a difficult pitch to hit.
“I think just because of the angle I’m throwing it from on the left side of the mound, it has the appearance — especially after I throw a two-seam to them — that it’s almost running into their hands,” Tarpley said of the four-seamer. “I kind of use that as a weapon in itself. It keeps them honest. It keeps them honest about the two-seam, now they have to adjust to a four seam that looks like it’s cutting in. I think that [improves] my changeup and opens up the plate better for me.”
Tarpley has shown some positive signs this year with the secondary stuff, and there have been a few starts where everything has come together. But he’s also had his issues where the fastball command has been off. If he gets to a point where the fastball command is more consistent, then Tarpley could be a high upside starter. He’d have a fastball that can touch 97, and sits 90-94, along with the potential for an above-average slider and changeup. That’s a great combination to have for a left-handed pitcher, allowing Tarpley to stand out in a lower level group of Pirates pitching prospects that is largely dominated by right-handers.