ALTOONA, PA – Brandon Waddell has displayed both flashes of brilliance and signs of struggle so far while at Double-A Altoona. Waddell’s biggest strength leading up to his promotion in early May, his control and constant feel of the strike zone, has turned into an inconsistency for the second year pro out of Virginia.
I don’t begin with those two sentences to say that Waddell has been bad at Double-A. On the contrary, I feel that he has shown signs of improving as a pitcher and has grown as a professional. However, Waddell’s season has been quite the back-and-forth display, not just between starts but between innings on the same night.
The constant stance on Waddell from his pitching coach this season has been that he will try to throw the perfect pitch or nitpick around the strike zone rather than fully trusting his stuff. For example, Waddell’s two-seam fastball had a lot of downward motion, and his changeup/slider both looked extremely good during his last start a week ago on Tuesday night in Altoona. Although the stuff looked good, his pitch count jumped sky-high because of long at-bats and deep counts, only letting him get through five innings.
“I think he was just trying too hard to finish hitters, especially in that first inning,” Pitching Coach Justin Meccage said of Waddell’s 25+ pitch first inning when he only faced four batters. “He was just trying too hard to make that perfect pitch to finish hitters. He’s just got to trust his stuff a little more to know he’s good enough to get out of innings.”
“At times, he tries to make a perfect pitch, and that’s when he starts walking guys.”
As Meccage said, that mentality of trying to be flawless around the strike zone has led to the opposite — more walks. In his five starts in Bradenton to begin the season, Waddell had a 0.62 BB/9 rate, while in his 17 starts in Altoona, his BB/9 has jumped to 4.84.
(I did not include statistics from his outing out of the bullpen on Sunday night after Tyler Glasnow’s rehab start. I learned after that game that it was Waddell’s first time ever coming into a game as a reliever, and Meccage said that it definitely may have affected him. He allowed two earned runs and walked four in 3.2 innings pitched.)
With such a difference in results between Single-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona, the learning experience is probably very difficult to go through; however, that’s what the process of development in the minor leagues is all about.
“I think it’s just something he’s going to have to go through and figure out,” Meccage said. “How can he be more efficient and when does he have to do that? Then, when he can just make pitches and get people out in an efficient manner. It’s been better this past three or four weeks, but he still has a ways to go.”
Waddell still looks to be trending upward now towards the latter half of the season after what looked to be a very inconsistent summer in Altoona. In his last six starts, he has a 2.45 ERA in 36.2 innings pitched. That includes a six inning, four earned run outing at Trenton on July 28th. He has sandwiched that bad start with four outings of one earned run or less since early July, as well.
More important than the outcomes, Waddell has a 66% ground ball rate in that same span. Once instance of the outcome not necessarily equaling the performance was when he had a 17-to-4 ground ball to fly ball rate against Harrisburg on July 17th and still earned the loss after allowing three earned runs. Last Tuesday, he had an 11-to-6 GB:FB rate, and it honestly felt like more as I watched the game, as Harrisburg batters were driving the ball into the ground.
“The ground balls usually mean you are down in the zone,” Pitching Coach Justin Meccage said last week. “We’ve been working on his fastball quality down in the zone.”
On top of his two-seamer, Waddell’s slider has consistently been his out pitch this season, as it has been in the past back through college. Meccage has called Waddell’s slider his “comfort zone pitch”, as it is the one that he regularly goes back to. Waddell says that he now is working on the ability to place it in more areas around the strike zone as to be able to throw it in multiple situations.
“I came into the year with the slider as my out pitch, but that being said, you can always improve on a pitch,” Waddell said. “You can always get a better feel with it. Being able to put it where you want it in situations that other guys wouldn’t feel comfortable throwing it. The ultimate goal is to be able to throw anything at anytime. Late in the game, you don’t want to groove a fastball down the middle. I feel confident in it, and it definitely helps me out.”
His changeup comes next as his third most comfortable pitch, as he has been able to recently throw it in difficult situations and while behind in the count. I’ve seen him strike out a few batters recently with the pitch, too. At times, it will come across as a little on the firm side, allowing batters to square it up better, but when the pitch is on, it has some action that makes it difficult on batters.
Lastly, Waddell has yet to really utilize his curveball as an out pitch this season; rather, he has used it as more of an early count, or show me, pitch. Although he did a good job with his curveball in Bradenton, he seems to lack a little bit of confidence in the pitch, which ultimately means he hasn’t throw it that often.
“Really, the whole time he has been here, he hasn’t shown the confidence in his curve,” Meccage said. “That being said, he hasn’t thrown many of them either. It’s hard to get confident with a pitch you’re not really throwing.”
To recap, Waddell’s bread and butter have been his two-seamer and slider, seemingly the two pitches that he regularly goes back to. He’ll heavily use the slider out of the stretch with runners on base, and he’ll rarely use his curveball in those situations. When the bases empty, he’ll go to the curve as an early count pitch but still try to put runners away with the other three pitches.
His pitching coach really seemed to put things in perspective when it comes to Waddell’s pitch usage.
“Four pitches are tough to maintain and have working on a regular basis,” Meccage said. “You need to have two working pitches at the very least when you go out there. When you have three going for you, it should be a good night.”
Waddell sees what he needs to continue to work on as he continues to try trending upward coming down the final stretch of the season.
“I just need to keep attacking guys,” Waddell said. “A lot of teams we face have first pitch swingers, and that’s been consistent in Double-A in general. They want to attack the fastball. As a pitcher, just make quality pitches and you can stay efficient. That being said, you’re going to give up hits, but that’s managing the game. I try to stay efficient, attack guys, and throw a lot of strikes.”
If Waddell is able to work through the mentality of attacking the strike zone more regularly and allowing his stuff to do the work for him, I’d expect him to continue to keep the ball on the ground and slowly return closer to the pitcher we saw at the beginning of the year. The jump to Double-A has been a difficult one for Waddell, but he does show the ability to pound the strike zone and get ground balls when he attacks.
As for Waddell’s status entering 2017, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him begin in Altoona with the opportunity to move up quickly to Triple-A. The Pirates generally like moving up players when they feel they need to experience a little more of a challenge, as they did with Waddell earlier this year. I would think that Waddell would want to establish himself a little better at the Double-A level before moving up. Also, there may be a little bit of a log jam at Triple-A to begin the year factoring in Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Frank Duncan, other guys moving up from Altoona, any other signed depth options, and any returning Tommy John surgery pitchers (Nick Kingham, Angel Sanchez, Casey Sadler, Brandon Cumpton). That might block Waddell early in the season, but he could make it up to Triple-A at some point in 2017.