BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates have always gone heavy with prep pitchers in the draft, and that has continued even with the current draft rules that restrict spending. They went heavy on prep pitchers in 2014, leading to Mitch Keller and Gage Hinsz. The same approach was taken in 2016.
They followed up with a similar approach this year, going with Shane Baz and Steven Jennings with their first two picks, along with projectable guys like Cody Bolton and Jacob Webb later in the draft.
I’ve had a chance to see all of these new pitchers, plus have discussions with each of them about their game and development leading up to the draft. Here is video and info on each pick.
We’ve written about Baz twice, covering him right after he was drafted, and then right after he signed. I’ve had a chance to see him once since then, along with having a few conversations with him about his stuff.
Unfortunately, the outing I saw from Baz wasn’t a good one, with some poor control that day, and lowered velocity pitching from the stretch. That didn’t match the report of his first outing, and the first outing matched the reports from when he was drafted.
Baz throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, mixing in the two-seamer to the right side of the plate, and the four seamer to the left side. He doesn’t get much sink with the four seamer, using it primarily as an extension fastball.
He throws both a slider and a curveball, with his slider being the better offering. That originally started off as a cutter, but he turned it into a slider to get a better swing and miss pitch. He still uses the curveball in addition to the slider, and has gotten strikeouts on both pitches so far.
“I’ve been trying to mix them up pretty good,” Baz said. “I think my slider is a better put away pitch right now. But I try to mix them up. I like my curveball too. It gets a lot of swings and misses when it’s down in the zone, and a lot of takes when it’s in the zone.”
Prep pitchers with his stuff don’t usually throw a changeup, and that’s the case for Baz, who has only been throwing the pitch for a few years.
“I’ve thrown a changeup for about two years, but I’m hoping to start developing that this season,” Baz said. “It’s got good movement, I’ve got my grip down, so I’ve just got to throw it and get reps with it.”
I could see the Pirates getting him to focus on the changeup more in the future, while also focusing primarily on making sure his four-seam fastball control is down to all areas of the plate, which will also help the two-seamer.
The Pirates followed up on the selection of Baz by taking Steven Jennings, another prep pitcher, with the 42nd overall pick. It wasn’t a surprise for Jennings to be taken by the Pirates, since they had a heavy scouting presence at his games.
“I talked to my area scout, Jerry Jordan, and then seeing two or three guys from the Pirates during every start I had this year, so I had a feeling they were on me,” Jennings said.
Jennings has pitched in two games so far, throwing five innings with no earned runs, along with two walks and four strikeouts. I got one of those innings on video, showing a preview of his stuff.
Jennings throws a fastball in the 88-92 MPH range, although he has been higher than that earlier in the year. He pounds the strike zone, attacking hitters to get ahead, which is a big part of his motto.
“Most of the time, if you throw good quality strikes, let people get themselves out, a lot of stuff takes care of itself,” Jennings said.
After that outing, I talked with Pirates’ pitching coordinator Justin Meccage, who was in attendance for the debut.
“I thought he was good,” Meccage said. “The fastball command was there. He showed a nice breaking ball. I really liked the way he was composed and was competing in the strike zone.”
He mixes in a slider and a curveball, using both pitches, although he feels the slider is better. He typically throws the curveball earlier, using it as a pitch thrown for strikes to get ahead, and the slider later in the count as an out pitch.
The changeup is a pitch that most prep players don’t have, but that isn’t the case for Jennings.
“I’ve had a changeup since I started pitching off the mound,” Jennings said. “In high school you throw hard a lot, so you don’t really have to use a changeup that much. It puts people on time. So I never really got to use it that much in high school, but bullpens, I would always work on it and make sure I had a feel for it.”
Jennings said that after his first start. He didn’t throw a changeup at all that day. In his second start, he broke out the changeup early, and threw the pitch a lot. It got good reviews, and was very effective.
Clearly the approach of working on the pitch and keeping it fresh for when he would need it has worked out so far. He will likely need the pitch more often going forward in pro ball. The good thing is that he appears to have the pitch down, while also showing promising breaking stuff and good command of his fastball.
There were reports that Bolton was going to be difficult or impossible to sign, but that didn’t appear to be the case. He had a lot of contact with area scout Mike Sansoe leading up to the draft, and was called by his advisor ahead of the pick with the Pirates’ price, which they agreed on. Bolton said he wasn’t sure about where the reports on signability came from.
I haven’t seen Bolton pitch in a game yet, although he made his debut earlier this week, throwing two innings with one earned run. The reports on him have him sitting 91-93 MPH, touching 94. Those velocities have been a result of some recent changes over the last year.
“I’ve had a really big increase over the last summer. That’s when it really jumped up to 93-94,” Bolton said. “Just cleaning up my mechanics a little more, and then going in to conditioning and working out.”
The mechanical changes include driving off his back leg more to generate power. He mixes in a slider and a changeup, although there is a big difference in the history of the two pitches.
“I’ve thrown [the slider] ever since Little League,” Bolton said. “My dad didn’t want me to throw a curveball in Little League, because that would mess up your arm. So I stuck with the slider, and throw it just like a fastball. Just a different grip.”
While he’s very comfortable and familiar with the slider, the changeup follows that trend of being a new pitch that he needs to work on, with Bolton working on finding the right arm speed to disguise the pitch.
“I’m definitely going to be working [the changeup] more,” Bolton said. “I’ve never been fully comfortable working on it, so now I’ll work to master that pitch.”
I haven’t seen Bolton pitch in a game, but I have seen him throw a bullpen, with the video of that bullpen below:
Webb is a much different prospect than the first three in this group. Baz would be in a tier by himself, Jennings would be in a tier, Bolton would be in a tier, and Webb would be the fourth tier, representing a lottery ticket type pitcher. He’s tall and projectable, with a fastball that sits upper 80s, touching 90, and hitting 92 in the past.
Webb wasn’t sure if the Pirates would draft him, but was taken in the 18th round. He signed pretty quickly for $125,000 — the maximum amount a player beyond the 10th round can get without counting against the bonus pool — breaking a commitment to Kansas State.
“Kansas State was a great place for me, but it’s not everyday you get a chance to play professional baseball,” Webb said. “When I was able to be drafted, and once I got drafted, it’s hard to turn down that option.”
Webb throws a two-seam fastball as his primary fastball, with a lot of run in toward right-handed pitchers.
“My arm slot was always more of a three-quarters, instead of an over the top kind of pitcher,” Webb said. “When I threw that two-seam, it just took off, and it’s been something that I’ve been able to throw pretty well. I just need to start perfecting it.”
Webb added a slider in the last year, looking a bit like a slurve, but being thrown like a slider.
“I needed a good secondary pitch that I knew I’d be able to control pretty well,” Webb said. “Since it’s the same grip as my two-seam grip, I just tweak it a little bit. It’s been easy to practice knowing I have the feel for it already.”
Webb also shows comfort with the changeup, but he’ll be using the pitch a lot more often in pro ball, giving him a big test on how far the pitch needs to come.
I’ve seen Webb pitch in one of his two appearances so far, along with an extended bullpen session. Here are videos from both sessions.