ALTOONA, Pa. – As I sat and watched Waddell pitch for the Curve on Tuesday night in Altoona, it was hard not to reflect on his short professional career so far and think of how it has been such a roller coaster ride for the young man. After pitching a gem to win the College World Series for the University of Virginia, Waddell went to the West Virginia Black Bears and had a 5.75 ERA in six outings. He had a couple good outings, but they were overshadowed by a few bad performances in late August that year.
Fast forward to last spring in Bradenton, you could say that Brandon Waddell was the best pitcher in all of professional baseball in April. In his five starts for the Marauders, Waddell allowed only three runs in 29 innings, giving him an 0.93 ERA and a .133 BAA. His quick start earned him a promotion to Altoona, where he won his first three starts in Double-A (2.41 ERA, .221 BAA, 67% GB-rate) and looked like he would never come back down to Earth. Then, baseball happened.
He had a few rough starts through the rest of the year, threw a lot of pitches, and seemed as though he may have run out of the proverbial juice through the rest of the summer months. After those first three starts, he had a 4.44 ERA in 99.1 IP, including a .279 BAA and .798 OPS-Against.
This season, Brandon Waddell returned to the Altoona rotation with a lot of expectations surrounding him. But after his first outing of the year, he found himself on the disabled list with a forearm strain.
“Honestly, from my side of it, all I could feel was it tighten up,” Waddell said. “There was no pop, and it wasn’t like it was on just one pitch. It was a colder day and I couldn’t get loose. It got to a point where, when I was trying to stay on top of a few pitches and I wasn’t able to. That’s something as a pitcher you are going to notice. We diagnosed it after the start since I mentioned I was tight. That’s how the road went.”
Management left the door open to Waddell making his next scheduled start, but he was scratched late the night before (or early morning the day of). The decision was made as a precautionary measure since it was early in the season; however, any time you hear an injury related to the forearm or elbow, you have to be nervous as a pitcher.
“It’s always scary when you see that,” Pirates Minor League Pitching Coordinator Justin Meccage said. “It’s something that guys go through, and you need to understanding how to listen to your body. He caught his early so it was just a little rest, and he was good to go.”
Officially diagnosed as a flexor pronate strain – or “just general forearm stiffness” as Waddell said – it didn’t take too long for him to get back to the mound. He was back within a month of being put on the disabled list and threw three great innings in Akron for his return. After a tough next outing in Richmond, where he couldn’t get out of the first innings because of pitch count, he has worked his way back to having no limitations in the Curve rotation.
The goal is to be more efficient and get quicker outs.
First innings have not been kind to Curve starters recently, and Waddell has not been immune to that. Waddell, Yeudy Garcia, and Alex McRae have all been chased in the first inning due to pitch count and/or performance.
Manager Michael Ryan says that, besides the ninth, the first inning is absolutely the most important inning of the game.
“A three pitch mentality is what we need,” Ryan said. “We have to get guys out in three pitches or less, because it’s so valuable to be able to go deep in a game. That’s the difference between going four innings or seven innings — the first inning. Usually people don’t understand how important that first inning is, but if you are around it all of the time, you get how big that first inning is.”
Waddell said that he’s honestly just trying to get a feel for the mound again after being off for basically a month. It has been difficult to get a feel for his breaking pitches at the beginning of each game.
“You’re not going to come in and just dominate how you want,” Waddell said. “It’s the nature of the game – just settling in and getting a feel for game speed again. It’s just nice to get up and attack some hitters, honestly.”
Simulating the adrenal, effort, and speed of a real game has proven to be a little difficult for some of the Curve starters.
“You can get pretty close, but when you got hitters standing in there, you might try to manipulate a different way or throw the pitch in a different scenario,” Waddell said. “Obviously, off-speed pitches are going to be harder to get a feel for right off the bat. In a way, you look at it like a hitter where you get more tempo and rhythm throughout a game. The same goes from the pitching side.”
In addition to those times where a starter couldn’t get through one inning, there have been plenty of cases where pitchers haven’t been able to go deep into games because of high pitch counts.
As an example, Waddell looked great in his last start on Tuesday against Akron where he threw six scoreless innings, but his pitch count rose quickly and didn’t allow him to go deeper into the game. Coming back from injury, this was the first time he has gone six innings all season, and you’ll easily take a guy getting through six at this level, but efficiency has been a problem for Waddell in his career. On Tuesday, he threw as many first pitch balls as strikes, and he recorded outs in three pitches or less to only three batters. He averaged around five pitches for each out. Even when he did get ahead, he often times evened up the count or fell behind after a few extra pitches.
Waddell’s stuff plays extremely well at this level, like it did in Bradenton last season before his promotion. With five pitches that are at least around average, Waddell simply needs to find ways to record outs quicker. Tuesday was a step in the right direction by getting through six, but his goal is to be able to go further into games.
“Something that I want to nail down is to be more efficient,” Waddell said. “Not getting into 2-2 or 3-2 counts all the time. Get a guy 0-2 or 1-2, get a strikeout or put the ball in play. It’s just something to keep my pitch count low. It opens your eyes when you are on a pitch limit. You notice it when all of a sudden you are out of pitches in a certain inning. It’s something that opens your eyes. It really makes you aware of it.”
Meccage said that he isn’t necessarily nibbling around the plate intentional; rather, he’s just “trying to do a little bit too much and trying to get too nasty at times instead of just making pitches”.
“He’s learning the art of pitching and how to be efficient so that he can get deep into games,” Meccage said. “Obviously, he’s been building back up, but there are still some efficiency issues there. He’s almost working harder than he needs to work to get through games and at-bats. He’s still in the process of figuring that out. He can be a pitch maker and hopefully that’s where we are headed.”
Armed with five good pitches, Brandon Waddell has shown the capability of being a Major League starter. A left-handed pitcher who can locate well and touch 95 MPH doesn’t come around every day. Now, it’s honing in that skill set and figuring out how to retire batters in a quicker and more efficient way. The great part is that Waddell fully understands and is actively working on that art.
“Prepare with a winning and confident mindset,” Waddell’s Pitching Coach Bryan Hickerson told me. “For me, it’s not letting the outliers of one bad inning compared to nine good ones get to you and having the confidence to not let that one impact you more than the other nine.”