It’s no secret that the Pirates consider fastball velocity a key component of pitching in the major leagues. According to Fangraphs, the Pirates are tied for first in all of MLB in fastball velocity since the start of the 2014 season. They’ve also gone to some lengths to accumulate a collection of hard-throwing pitchers in the minors. They haven’t just drafted them, but have picked up live arms wherever possible, often with the idea of trying to turn around a pitcher who throws hard but hasn’t mastered the other aspects of pitching, typically including the strike zone.
In spending a few days at Pirate City this March, I was struck more than anything else with the sheer number of pitchers who were sitting in the mid-90s or higher. It seemed like there were noticeably more even than last year, so I thought I’d catalogue the hard throwers in the system, then and now.
As an aside first, you have to be cautious when looking at scouting reports you find online when it comes to claims about velocity, or even about a pitcher’s repertoire for that matter. For one thing, you often see statements like “he has a 96-mph fastball,” when in fact the pitcher sits in the low-90s and only occasionally reaches 96. So when I say mid-90s in this article, I mean “sits,” i.e., “typically throws,” in the mid-90s.
You may also see information that’s simply outdated, because a pitcher’s velocity changes over the years, or even during a year. One advantage we have at Pirate Prospects is that we have a number of writers covering one team’s system, not one or two or a handful of writers covering 30 systems. One or more of us sees nearly all of these pitchers multiple times during the season. That’s not to say we always have real-time information. Clay Holmes, for instance, set us a puzzle last year by changing his pitch mix at mid-season, which isn’t something you see a lot. But I don’t think you’ll find more current or accurate information about how pitchers in the Pirates’ system are throwing than you will here.
I’m going to limit this to prospects, so I won’t include in the discussion pitchers, specifically Jameson Taillon, who’ve graduated to the majors and lost prospect eligibility. I will, however, include veterans the team has signed to minor league deals, because it’s an interesting aspect of the team’s search for velocity.
Back in 2016
A year ago, the Pirates had a handful of prospects throwing in the mid-90s, all of whom are still with the organization:
Luis Escobar: Prior to 2016, he sat around 92-94, but a year ago he started getting more consistently up to the mid-90s, reaching 97.
Yeudy Garcia: I should maybe put an asterisk here. A year ago, Garcia was coming off a season in which he sat in the mid-90s and topped out in the upper-90s. Last year, though, he threw most of the time only in the low-90s as he struggled with shoulder soreness. He’s healthy now, but in camp he was still topping out at about 93.
Tyler Glasnow: You’ve probably heard of this guy. He typically throws about 94-97, although he sometimes dials it down to the low-90s in his ongoing efforts to find the plate with some consistency.
Mitch Keller: Keller threw about 92-94 when the Pirates drafted him in 2014, but a year ago his velocity increased to about 94-96, sometimes hitting 97 or higher, as he headed for a breakout season.
Nick Kingham: Prior to his Tommy John surgery, his velocity kept trending up, reaching as high as sitting 92-95 and touching as high as 98. He was hitting mid-90s frequently early in his outings, with the lower end of his velocity coming in later innings.
Dovydas Neverauskas: A move to the bullpen early in the 2015 season helped Neverauskas get his velocity up to 96-97, sometimes higher, and started him on a quick ascent from low-A to Triple-A.
Edgar Santana: A year ago, Santana had only about 60 innings of pro experience, but a mid-90s fastball that reaches 97, along with a nasty slider, propelled him through three levels of the farm system. He may be the Pirates’ best relief prospect now.
Jacob Taylor: Prior to being drafted, he was reportedly throwing 93-94, touching as high as 97. He threw two innings, then went down with Tommy John. When he returned last year, he was sitting 95-96 in his rehab.
In addition to the prospects they’d developed, the Pirates had a few hard-throwing veterans signed as, essentially, lottery tickets. All of these pitchers are gone now:
Trey Haley: Haley failed to last in Cleveland despite a mid-90s fastball that got into triple digits occasionally. He didn’t make it with the Pirates, either.
John Holdzkom: Holdzkom and his upper-90s fastball had nine glorious innings for the Pirates in September 2014, but he couldn’t get over shoulder problems and they released him in April 2016.
Curtis Partch: Partch threw 95-96 and got into two games for the Pirates in 2016, getting only two outs.
Jorge Rondon: Rondon also threw 95-96 and also made two very poor outings for the Pirates.
Adding Hard Throwers for 2017
The Pirates seemingly went on a spree during 2017 and roughly doubled the number of pitching prospects they had throwing in the mid-90s and higher. One of the “additions,” though, was a pitcher who’d been around awhile.
Angel Sanchez: Sanchez is something of a special case. He’s been with the Pirates since 2014, but had Tommy John surgery late in 2015 and missed all of 2016. Before the surgery, Sanchez was topping out in the mid-90s but throwing mostly in the low-90s as a starter. Tommy John can sometimes leave a pitcher stronger, though, and Sanchez was sitting at 96-97 in camp, albeit in one- and two-inning outings. Time will tell whether the velocity increase lasts.
Jake Brentz: Acquired late last year from Seattle for Arquimedes Caminero, the left-handed Brentz came with a scouting report that said he threw 90-95, sometimes harder. We saw him topping out at 95-96 during instructs. This spring he was sitting around 97 and hit 100 at least once.
Joel Cesar: The Pirates actually signed Cesar out of the Dominican in October 2015, but he made his pro debut, which lasted just six and two-thirds innings, last summer. He has hit 100 mph in the past and in fall instructionals he was sitting at about 97. This spring he was sitting at 94-95, as he seemed to be dialing it down a bit in an effort to find the plate more often.
Blake Cederlind: The Pirates selected Cederlind in the fifth round last year, but had to shut him down not long after the draft due to forearm tightness. In camp, he was throwing 94-97.
Tyler Eppler: In his first start this year, Eppler was sitting 94-95 MPH in his first three innings, dropping to 93-94 in the final two frames. This is up from last year when he was 92-95 throughout his starts, and not hitting the higher numbers as consistently.
Taylor Hearn: Lefties who throw in the mid-90s are hard to find, but the Pirates acquired two, actually three if you count major leaguer Felipe Rivero, during the latter part of the 2016 season. Hearn came with Rivero in the Mark Melancon deal and sits at 95-97.
Holden Helmink: Still only 23, Helmink washed out of the Arizona system quickly. The Pirates signed him after he was clocked at 98 mph at a training facility. He was throwing 94-95 in camp.
Clay Holmes: He was sitting 92-95 last year, but has increased the velocity of his two-seamer this spring, and was consistently hitting 94-95, touching as high as 97 in his season debut this weekend.
Braeden Ogle: Make that four lefties added in 2016. Drafted in the fourth round in 2016, Ogle throws his fastball 93-96 mph.
John Pomeroy: Definitely in the lottery ticket category, the 13th round pick has so much trouble finding the plate that he rarely pitched in college. He does, however, sit in the mid-90s and miss a lot of bats.
Apart from the above prospects, the Pirates also added a few hard-throwing veterans:
Pat Light: Light came from the Twins in a waiver trade. He throws 95-96.
Dan Runzler: Runzler had success in the majors way back in 2010, but fell on hard times due to control issues. He throws 94-95.
Greg Williams: The 27-year-old, left-handed Williams throws in the mid-90s, or at least used to, but his career has been a long struggle with injuries.
Whether any of these guys work out remains to be seen. They all have things to work on, with better command and control being a universal need. The Pirates clearly believe, though, that they can’t teach velocity, at least not beyond a certain point. They’ve got an increasing amount of raw material to work with, so they’ve at least made good strides with the first step of the process.