When West Virginia’s Opening Day was postponed and changed to a doubleheader, manager Wyatt Toregas knew if he used both James Marvel and Matt Anderson as planned, he would wreak havoc on the five-day rotation by putting Marvel and Anderson on the same schedule. He needed a spot start from the bullpen, and he made a prescient choice. He gave the ball to Eduardo Vera.
Vera has been that go-to guy for Toregas all season long. He served as the Power’s closer through mid-May, collecting three long-relief saves. He then transitioned to the starting rotation where he, once again, thrived. In his eight starts this season, he holds a 2.90 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP.
In all 16 of Vera’s appearances in 2017, he has given up more than two runs only once and has never walked more than two batters. In fact, in a stretch of 12 games from April 12 to June 17, he walked only one batter.
Vera has always been a command-first pitcher. He hits his targets consistently and has only issued 43 walks in his 202 career innings pitched. (Luis Escobar currently leads the Power with 33 walks in 75.2 innings this season, for comparison.)
Vera’s last season as a starter, which came in the Dominican Summer League in 2013, looked very similar to his results this year. He started 13 games and appeared in relief once. His 1.95 ERA led the rotation, and his 14 walks were the least among DSL Pirates starters.
“[The command] is something that he’s grown up with,” said Power manager Wyatt Toregas, “and he’s got a knack for throwing the ball to the glove.”
“When you’re not throwing as hard, you have to be pretty good with where you’re throwing it. He had to learn to pitch before he started throwing hard,” pitching coach Drew Benes said.
This year, Vera has returned to and surpassed that 2013 form. He has been the most consistent and most surprising West Virginia pitcher.
That success has been a long time coming.
Vera had Tommy John surgery in 2015, which caused him to miss all of the 2015 season and most of the 2016 season. He returned to action just over a year ago but was shut down after one inning due to soreness. By the time he joined the GCL Pirates full time, he had only a month remaining in the season.
“The surgery was big time for me,” Vera said. “It helped me to be more mature mentally and physically.”
“I’m a better pitcher now because of it,” he concluded.
He put on about 15 pounds of muscle while recovering, bulking up from 170 to 185. As a result, he added at least three miles per hour to his fastball, touching 95 in his most recent start. This increase in velocity has changed who Vera is as a pitcher.
The biggest change has been Vera’s transition into a more powerful strikeout pitcher. He now averages 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings, compared to 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings prior to 2017. Like most power pitchers, he tends to allow fly balls, so his groundball rate has decreased from 1.03 in 2013 to 0.88 in 2017. As a result, 19 of Vera’s 61 hits allowed have been extra-base knocks.
Unlike other pitchers at this level, Vera hasn’t needed much mechanical development. He has turned up the heat on his fastball through physical development and repetition.
“He’s got a very consistent delivery,” noted Benes.
The increased velocity on the heater and repeatable delivery have enabled Vera to focus on other areas of his game. He has been working on his curveball, which has transformed into an effective swing-and-miss pitch over the last few starts.
“I have that ability to throw all my pitches for strikes,” said Vera, “but I’ve been working on my curveball. I consider it a strikeout pitch, but I can throw it early in the count, too.”
“His ability to throw some of his off-speed early in the count has allowed him to finish guys however he wants to,” said Toregas.
In addition to working on situational uses of his off-speed pitches, Vera has also added some downward movement to his changeup.
In his last two starts, all these improvements have come together, and Vera has emerged as not only the best pitcher on the West Virginia staff, but also one of the best pitchers in the South Atlantic League. He ranks second among active SAL pitchers with a 2.78 ERA and fourth in WHIP with 1.04. (Six other pitchers with a better ERA have already been called up to their respective High-A team.)
“I didn’t have my best stuff [against Kannapolis on June 18], but I really felt my curveball in Augusta,” Vera said.
Those two starts, against Augusta and Hickory, have been the longest starts of his career. He went six innings in both appearances, needing just 78 and 84 pitches, respectively. He only allowed one run on ten hits between the two starts, and he collected seven strikeouts against two walks.
These two performances have impressed Toregas enough to keep him in the rotation long-term.
“He’s being aggressive, he’s executing what he wants to execute, and he’s doing what he wants when he wants,” said Toregas. “I hope that’s the pitcher he’s becoming.”
Vera is pleased with the return to the rotation but notes his versatility and success in the bullpen increase his stock. He nabbed three saves early in the season and has only allowed eight runs in 24.1 innings of relief.
“I prefer being a starter, but I can do both,” said Vera, “and I hope that’ll help me later on.”
Since Vera signed with the Pirates at only 17 years old, his place in Low-A makes sense age-wise. In fact, he’s the exact average age of SAL pitchers, but the loss of almost two seasons put pressure on him to perform. He has more than lived up to expectations.
“He’s gaining his confidence back now,” said Toregas. “He believes he can do it, therefore he’s doing it.”