CHARLESTON, WV – Blake Cederlind’s 2017 season hasn’t lived up to expectations, and the once-promising starter has been moved back to the West Virginia bullpen for the third time this year. If you ask Cederlind, though, the move is just what he needs to salvage his season.
“I think it’s a good move for me,” said Cederlind. “It gets back to my strengths. All I’ve got for me right now is I’m throwing hard.”
So, in a way, Cederlind is doing exactly what the Pirates drafting him in the fifth round last year for: throwing hard. He came out of junior college as a flamethrower who could touch high 90s, but he has struggled to control that velocity. He also didn’t have a strong secondary pitch to use on nights when his fastball went off the rails.
After the draft last year, Cederlind got stretched out in six starts for the Bristol Pirates before getting shut down with forearm tightness, and in those starts, he lived up to expectations. He collected 14 strikeouts, only gave up two extra base hits (both homers), and finished with a 43.4 percent groundball rate.
The success Cederlind had in 2016 and the work he put in coming back from the forearm injury impressed the Power staff enough to carry Cederlind as a spot starter. When Cam Vieaux moved up to Bradenton, Cederlind slid into his spot in the starting rotation.
That’s when the trouble started.
Coming into the rotation, Cederlind’s ERA stood at 5.84. (It ballooned thanks to a 1.2 inning relief appearance in which he gave up seven runs. Otherwise, his ERA would have been 4.33.) After his last four starts, in which he gave up 20 runs in 12.1 innings, his ERA was at 7.66. He has since thrown two shutout innings of relief to lower it 30 points.
“I had a mentality when I was starting that I had to be efficient, and I had to pace myself,” explained Cederlind. “I was working at a velo I wasn’t really comfortable with, and I think that’s why I was leaving balls over the plate that were getting hit.”
When he’s getting hit, he’s getting hit hard. His groundball rate is down to 40.6 percent, and 25 of the 61 hits he has allowed this season have been for extra bases. Even his strikeouts have decreased. Since his move to the rotation, he has only struck out four of the 65 batters he has faced.
So, after four starts as a member of the regular rotation, Cederlind headed back to the bullpen, and Mike Wallace jumped into the mix as a starter. Wallace at the time of the switch had only allowed one run in his first 13.2 innings as a spot starter. He has also pitched six innings or more in three different appearances, while Cederlind couldn’t break the five-inning threshold.
Cederlind feels confident about the move. “Out of the pen I feel I can take the mound at max effort for a couple of innings,” he said.
That kind of confidence is exactly what the Power staff has been looking for from Cederlind in the past month.
“He doesn’t trust himself right now so he’s trying to pitch backwards,” said West Virginia manager Wyatt Toregas, meaning that Cederlind has been so worried about making a mistake that he doesn’t aggressively attack the zone, which leads to mistakes.
Pitching coach Drew Benes has also seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of Cederlind’s year, and he knows that the young pitcher has the stuff to succeed as a starter and a reliever.
“It’s one thing to do it in a side session, in a bullpen setting,” noted Benes. “It’s another thing when your adrenaline is going through the roof, and you’re in a game.”
The bright side here is the staff seem to think that the mentality and confidence issue is the only thing holding Cederlind back right now. They haven’t been working on any mechanical changes, and they have been making minor changes to his arsenal of pitches. The biggest developmental focus has been on sharpening his off-speed pitch.
“He’s throwing strikes, but the thing now is we’ve got to get it down in the zone a little bit, and we’ve got to get his off-speed a little tighter,” said Toregas.
“If you throw really, really hard and your off-speed’s just OK, [opposing batters] are going to have an easier time hitting it,” he concluded.
Cederlind feels good about this side of his development. He said, “I like where all my pitches are at, I just need to put them in better places.”
Benes has been working with Cederlind on how to get those pitches in better places. The two use their bullpen sessions to adjust how to get his 6’3” frame working for him and driving straight toward the plate.
“Right now our big focus for him is just through the zone and down, controlling his body, and executing pitches down in the glove,” explained Benes. “We’ve seen some improvement there. I think a big part of it is body control.”
For the most part, the Power seem to be shaking off Cederlind’s struggles for now and attributing them to growing pains. Both Toregas and Cederlind see this as a opportunity.
“He’s going through adversity for the first time in his life, and it’s probably not fun for him, but without these moments, you’re not going to become the pitcher that could pitch in the big leagues because in the big leagues, you’re facing adversity every night,” said Toregas.
He went on to note that, as a player, he struggled in Low-A, hitting only .231 in the South Atlantic League. The next year, he started in High-A and hit .336 before graduating to Double-A. “Everybody hits this at some point. It might be Low-A, A-ball, Double-A,” he said.
The adversity has given Cederlind, who is just shy of a year younger than the league average, a chance to grow and get to know himself as a pitcher, said Benes.
“These guys are young, and they’re trying to figure out who they are, and what their tools are,” he concluded.
Even Cederlind is looking at the bright side. “I’m learning more than I would from good outings. I’m taking all I can from them and hoping I’m not back in this situation.”
For the next couple months, Cederlind will be worth keeping an eye on. If he weathers this storm, he could live up to the early hype that put him on our preseason Top 50, but if he continues to fail as a reliever in Low-A, we could be looking at a bust.