CHARLESTON, WV – The Pirates have already seen some nasty results from Felipe Rivero, one half of the return in the Mark Melancon trade. The left-handed reliever has made eight appearances, throwing 7.2 shutout innings, with 15 strikeouts and 5 walks. The walk rate is a concern, although improving in his last five outings. The strikeouts, though, are pure dominance, backed up by a fastball that averages 96 MPH.
Rivero is under team control for five more seasons after the 2016 season, and if that was all the Pirates got for two months of Mark Melancon, then the trade would look like a great result. But that’s not all they received. They also have another powerful left-hander currently pitching for West Virginia, and his early results are just as exciting.
Taylor Hearn was no stranger to the Pirates. They drafted him in the 22nd round in 2012 out of high school, but because all of their money was tied up in Mark Appel negotiations, they couldn’t sign him. Hearn was made an offer early, but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t pitch his senior year in high school, due to a strained UCL, and that missed time, combined with the low offer, made him decide on going to college.
Four years later, the Pirates finally got him, making him the second half of the Melancon deal.
“I was actually pretty excited to see that the team that drafted me out of high school traded for me,” Hearn said. “This was probably the best place to be. I’m pretty excited to be here. Great guys, great coaches so far. Making improvements so far. I’m pretty excited.”
When Hearn was drafted by the Pirates in 2012, the reports were that his fastball velocity reached 87 MPH, with the typical projectable frame profile. He has since seen a massive increase in that velocity, which happened throughout college. He hit 94 his freshman year, 95 his sophomore year, and 98 his junior year. This all came due to gaining weight, and working in the off-season with his trainer. He continued the development with the Nationals, eventually hitting 100 MPH.
“My main goal coming out was to hit 100, and I hit it with the Nationals,” Hearn said. “I still want to try to hit it again, and continue progressing. The weight was coming, and the velocity was jumping up too. It was good to see both coming together. It was definitely a lot of hard work, trying to make it work, and still trying to make it as consistent as possible.”
The velocity is only part of what makes the fastball so good. Hearn pitches from the first base side of the rubber, and his long arms and high three-quarters slot give him a lot of movement on the pitch.
“Electric arm, man. It’s hard from the left side. 98 MPH, that’s special,” West Virginia Pitching Coach Matt Ford said. “He’s from the first base side. When he’s on time, he’s creating a lot of angle, and it just gets on you quick. It looks like he likes to throw it in on righties. It looks like it’s really difficult to hit when he’s in the zone right there.”
Consistency is the key. Hearn has seen a high walk rate and some command issues in his career so far, matching the issues seen by Rivero. But the Pirates are hoping that a few changes in his approach will lead to better control in the future.
The first change was minor, but effective. The Pirates coaches saw that Hearn wasn’t on line to the plate with his delivery, and was moving more side to side. Now that he’s back on track there, Hearn said his stuff is more in the zone and more consistent. But the bigger change might have been an adjustment to his pre-game work.
The Pirates have a practice of long tossing everyday, which is something the Nationals also had. But the Nationals allowed pitchers to extend out as far as they want, and Hearn would go out to around 200 feet. The Pirates mostly keep players limited to 120 feet. They allow some players to extend beyond that, but only if they show that they can maintain their mechanics.
The problem with extending beyond 120 is that it can develop bad habits. In order to throw the ball further, pitchers will arch it up in the air, rather than throwing it more on a line. When they take that down to the mound, they can start to elevate their fastball, with the arm angle pushing the ball up, rather than getting used to driving it down.
“It’s just a main thing we’re preaching to him,” Ford said. “Our philosophy with the throwing program, it’s something different for him to not go as far. But to focus hitting the belt, creating some angles, making sure his flat ground work is angled down, and down in the zone. Everything is down, down, down. We’re preaching that, more than anything.”
Hearn has been limited to 120 feet since he arrived, and he’s already noticing a big difference in the ability to work down in the zone and command his fastball by hitting more of the plate.
“The Pirates have a different throwing program than the Nationals did,” Hearn said. “The Nationals’ throwing program was good. But when I came over, the Pirates did things a little bit different. At first, I didn’t really understand. They’ve had success, so obviously I’m going to roll with it. … They go as far as 120, but then they throw flat grounds everyday, working on things, and that’s where I’ve seen improvement. At first, I didn’t really understand it, but after a couple of days, I saw my stuff be more consistent.
“I’m seeing a lot more in the zone, low in the zone. Getting on top of the ball, not really losing it so much. But definitely low in the zone. And it helps me out with the changeup. Because if I keep my fastball low in the zone, it will give the changeup a lot more of a better look, and a lot more swings and misses.”
I saw Hearn for his third outing, which took place last Friday. He had a few fastballs that were wild, but for the most part, he looked fantastic. He was sitting 95-97, touching 99 once. There are times when watching minor league players, even in the low levels, where you just know you’re looking at a Major League player. Hearn looked like a guy who doesn’t need much work to develop into a dominant late inning lefty reliever, just like Rivero’s upside. But the Pirates are obviously pushing for more than that.
“It’s a live arm man,” West Virginia Manager Brian Esposito said after Friday’s game. “He’s got a real good fastball, he gets after it. That’s big. The ball is on top of you, the velocity is big, and he commands it well. He showed some real good off-speed pitches as well. His changeup is really good, and he threw some nasty sliders in there.”
In order for Hearn to be more than a power reliever, he needs to develop his secondary stuff. A lot of the reports after the trade said that he had a promising slider, but didn’t have much of a changeup. The truth is that he has a good changeup, but just doesn’t use it because he’s working to develop the slider.
“It’s funny, when I got traded, to hear guys say my changeup was awful. I think it’s funny, because they haven’t even seen me pitch,” Hearn said. “A lot of people think my changeup is not my best pitch, but I’ve been throwing it since I was eight. A lot of the time I don’t throw it that often, so a lot of people think it’s my worst pitch, but honestly it’s my best pitch. I’ve been throwing it forever. It’s been a money pitch. The only thing I’ve been working on is my slider, and it’s been coming along pretty well.”
The Nationals coaches felt that Hearn needed a slider to put guys away, and had him really focusing on that. He always has a feel for his changeup, so he was comfortable abandoning the pitch to work on the slider. He’ll eventually mix the changeup back in when he reaches higher levels, but for now, it’s about developing that third pitch.
The slider is a fairly new pitch for Hearn. He threw a curveball in the past, but added a slider during his junior year of college in 2015.
“They switched me to a slider because of my arm angle, and it just took off after that,” Hearn said. “I was changing grips, trying to find something, and I think I found something. Now, the main thing for me is trying to find a consistent release point for it, that way I can keep it in the zone. Lately, I’ve been keeping it in the zone, throwing it for strikes more often.”
The pitch has a lot of cutting movement, with a steep drop straight down. That’s what Hearn looks for, trying to drive the pitch down in the zone. He’s starting to get a feel for how to accomplish this.
“If I start it at the catcher’s head, I know it’s going to drop in the zone, and it will have a good break. If I want to put it away, it will have a lot more speed on it, and less break,” Hearn said. “Right now, the way I’ve been getting on top of it, it’s going straight down and maybe to the right. It’s doing what I want it to do. I’ve just got to put it in the zone consistently.”
Hearn threw all fastballs in the first inning on Friday, which was shown in the video above. He started mixing in the slider in the second inning, and got some very encouraging results.
“For me, it was dominating stuff tonight,” Ford said. “I know we had him at 98 tonight, but he commanded it much better than he had his fastball the last couple of outings. Man, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, I tell you. He could have probably just thrown his fastball, but found some spots to throw some sliders. You saw what he did to the lefties. It was pretty good, played right off his fastball. It was dominating stuff. Fun to watch.”
For now, Hearn will stick in the bullpen as he eases his way back from a broken foot earlier in the year. The Nationals had him pitching long relief in his return, and the Pirates will continue this, as there isn’t much time remaining to get him stretched out. He said that the current plan is to get him back to being a starter next year in Spring Training, to prepare for the 2017 season. However, the Pirates already have him working as a starter as far as getting used to the routines and workouts.
“I think it’s a great fit,” Esposito said. “He’s got a good arm, and he wants to work. He wants to get better. He’s inquisitive about some of the things that we do here, and how the guys that we’ve pushed through have had some success and have reached the big leagues, what they do and how they went about it.”
Hearn is a high upside pitcher who might have the best fastball in the entire system, and that’s saying a lot. His slider is coming along well, and he seems to be comfortable with the changeup. If he only turns out to be a dominant lefty reliever, then the Pirates could end up getting 12 combined seasons of dominant lefty relievers from the Melancon trade, which would be a steal. But the Pirates are going to try to make him a starter, and if that works out, they’ll have a dominant lefty starter to pair with all of their power right-handers, making an already promising future rotation look that much better.