BRADENTON, Fla. – The Bradenton rotation has been one of the strengths of the Pirates’ farm system this year. The group is the strongest rotation in the system, and probably could be one of the strongest prospect rotations across the majors.
It is highlighted by Mitch Keller, who is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Keller is followed by Gage Hinsz and Taylor Hearn, who both throw mid-90s or better fastballs with promising secondary stuff. The rotation previously included Dario Agrazal, who was another guy sitting mid-90s. It is currently rounded out by Pedro Vasquez and Cam Vieaux, two guys who don’t have the stuff of the top three pitchers, but get by with a bit more pitchability.
The rotation has seen five pitchers all year with MLB upside. With the season at the half way point, I wanted to get an update on how the five current starters are doing, and the latest in each of their development plans.
Keller is Healthy and Back to Development
Mitch Keller missed some time this year with a back issue, and that came right around the time that he was starting to settle in and pitch like the top pitching prospect in the system. I detailed earlier in the year that he was starting to focus on mixing his off-speed stuff in earlier, keeping hitters guessing, rather than allowing them to sit on the fastball.
“I felt really good before I got hurt, which was kind of unfortunate,” Keller said. “I felt like I picked up right where I left off last year. Just keeping going, and then I got hurt. It didn’t set me back at all. I kind of felt like it wasn’t too much time off, which was good. When I was coming back throwing, I kind of kept doing what I was doing. Two rehab starts, I felt good up in Morgantown, and then coming here and picking up where I left off feels pretty good.”
The focus since Keller has returned has been on the same thing. He’s got his typical focus on quick outs and pounding the strike zone, while also still mixing in the off-speed stuff early. That includes even in situations where opposing teams aren’t having success with the fastball early, which was actually a situation he encountered in one of his first starts back in Bradenton.
“They weren’t on fastballs at all, but [we were] just showing breaking balls and showing changeups,” Keller said of his approach and plan with catcher Christian Kelley. “Not necessarily when they’re on it. Just keep it in the back of their head so they knew I had it. Not just sitting on fastballs. Just mixing early and often.”
Bradenton pitching coach Matt Ford, who had Keller last year in West Virginia, noted that Keller’s best asset — his upper 90s fastball with good downward movement and plus control — isn’t as big of a weapon by itself as it used to be. The pitch is still a great offering, but he needs the secondary stuff to keep hitters honest and allow it to play up.
“Guys are getting better, and guys are adjusting as time goes on to upper 90s heat,” Ford said. “It’s just a different game now. It used to be uncommon, but now it’s very common. Once you see they’re on it, what are you going to do to defend that?”
Keller’s changeup has been a big focus in keeping hitters honest, using the pitch earlier in the game so that he doesn’t just have a predictable fastball approach.
“The changeup is going to be huge for him,” Ford said. “Knowing to use it early, just reading swings, trying to avoid the ambush before it hits him, and just knowing when to mix early. They know he throws strikes, so they’re going to try to attack the fastball. Just knowing when to use the off-speed early.”
Hearn Adds a New Slider
Taylor Hearn attacks hitters with an upper-90s fastball from the left side, and has a changeup that he’s been throwing since he was eight years old. He learned a new slider last year, and while the pitch showed some promise in the first year, it wasn’t consistent enough. Hearn had issues controlling the pitch, and wasn’t getting consistent results. So the Pirates switched him to a new pitch recently, giving him more of a slurve than his old sharp slider.
“I’m throwing it a lot more consistent with more strikes. Mixing it up a lot,” Hearn said. “I changed my grip so I could be more consistent. It’s been helping out a lot. The last two or three outings it’s been getting a lot more consistent now.”
Hearn used to have a space between his hands and the ball, but now rolls the ball up into his hand, leaving no space, and giving him a better grip that he can control more consistently. He has big hands, making this possible, and allowing him to get comfortable with the pitch in only a few days.
The new pitch gives Hearn a different look from his changeup, avoiding having another pitch that cuts.
“We’re trying to get something with more depth,” Ford said. “Something that he’s comfortable with. He’s got the changeup, which is absolutely filthy. Just something to go the other way. We keep working on it in our bullpen sessions. It’s getting better, but experience can be his best friend. Just find those situations to throw it.”
Bradenton manager Gera Alvarez feels that the new pitch could also help the fastball control, which has been an issue for Hearn at times.
“I think throwing a slider also helps his release point with the fastball,” Alvarez said. “So you’re seeing a combination of two pitches where he’s able to make adjustments and still attack the zone.”
Hearn went through a stretch where he had poor control, but has been doing better in his recent starts in that regard. He’s also been improving lately with his strikeouts, recording 16 in 11 innings over his last two outings.
“He’s throwing it for strikes more,” Ford said of the slider. “It’s just him getting the feel for it, and just throwing it and not being afraid to throw it.”
Hinsz Getting More Aggressive
Gage Hinsz missed a start in early May with shoulder soreness, and struggled in his next four starts after his return. Hinsz said that this wasn’t due to the shoulder, and that his more successful recent outings have been a result of being more aggressive.
“The past few outings I’ve just been in attack mode, and I’m sticking with it,” Hinsz said. “Earlier in the year it wasn’t quite there, but right now I’m in a pretty good spot.”
Hinsz said that the approach lately has been a mental approach, knowing that his stuff is good enough and having the confidence that he will be able to make pitches. Ford has also noticed the difference in his approach.
“Conviction with all of his pitches,” Ford said of the big thing working for Hinsz recently. “Being able to throw to the inner-half and away. Every pitch he throws is a competitive pitch now. There’s not the mis-fires that he was having before. Plus, he’s been able to land the breaking ball early and late, and the changeup out of the hand is a strike, when it used to be a ball. He’s getting all three things working, and we’re starting to see something special, I think.”
Hinsz has a fastball that sits 94-96 MPH, along with a developing changeup, and a curveball that flashes plus at times. One big thing lately is that the curveball has been more consistent, and that he’s been throwing it more often for strikes, while also being able to use it as a strikeout pitch at times.
“For me, locating obviously is always [a focus],” Hinsz said of his control and focus lately. “But using the breaking ball, making it more consistent, is the main thing I’m going for.”
Hinsz is looking to improve the spin of the pitch, having a consistent shape, and learning when to use the pitch.
“It’s perfecting it and his craft,” Ford said. “I just try to emphasize to him that it doesn’t have to be a 12-6, to not change your arm to try and 12-6 it. Just let your arm try to take care of it. It’s good enough the way it is.”
Vasquez Getting Pirate-tized
The Pirates acquired Pedro Vasquez as one of two players in the Arquimedes Caminero trade last year. The other half of that trade was lefty Jake Brentz, who was promoted to Altoona in June. Vasquez, meanwhile, has been putting up some of the best numbers in Bradenton, with a 2.52 ERA in 89.1 innings, along with a 69:18 K/BB ratio.
Unlike everyone else in the rotation, Vasquez hasn’t been working with mid-90s or better stuff. Or at least that wasn’t the case until recently. In his more recent outings, Vasquez has been sitting more consistently near the mid-90s, seeing his velocity tick up.
“He’s got some more fluidity in the delivery, and a lot of confidence right now,” Ford said. “I think those two right now, seeing the velocity increase with that, there’s a lot more athleticism in his delivery right now versus what I saw in instructional league and Spring Training. There’s a huge difference, and I think his arm is working that much better. He’s using his lower half a lot better. I think that’s where we’re getting a bit of the velo increase.”
The Pirates made some adjustments with Vasquez, working on his delivery, and also his approach in attacking hitters. A lot of this involves teaching him a common approach in the system.
“We did some delivery stuff. The tempo of the delivery, and just Pirate-tizing him with having him use the fastball as much as possible,” Ford said. “Using the fastball as a weapon, and creating those uncomfortable at-bats so the off-speed can work better.”
Vasquez has good secondary stuff, with a nice changeup that he can throw for strikes. He also has a curveball that is inconsistent at times, but like Hinsz, he can benefit from just trusting the arm slot, and trying to avoid manipulating the pitch. I’ve seen him more of a future reliever, or maybe a depth starter, but that upside could improve if he continues trending in this direction.
Vieaux Gets Back to His Old Self
Cam Vieaux has been a ground ball machine in his three starts with the Marauders, getting a 52% ground ball rate after being promoted from West Virginia. This actually started prior to the promotion in his final few starts in Low-A.
Vieaux had a 38.26% ground ball rate prior to his start on May 29th, and was more of a flyball pitcher. He has since put up a 50.68% ground ball rate, which is more of the typical result for him.
“I kind of feel like I’ve gotten back to my self,” Vieaux said. “I had a couple of starts in Charleston where I just started trying to do too much. That happens from time to time. I’ve just gotten back to my self, pumping fastballs, off-speed running too, and locating. Locating has been my best friend here.”
Vieaux didn’t have a reason for the difference in ground ball percentages, but said that he was more comfortable with his stuff and location as the year went on.
“I think just as the year goes on, you get more comfortable with your pitches, and you locate better,” Vieaux said. “I’ve just been pounding the bottom of the zone, and getting guys to dive after pitches low and away, and I’m kind of catching them off guard when I come in, and get soft contact and ground balls.”
Gera Alvarez has only seen Vieaux for a few starts, but has noticed he’s been aggressive and challenging hitters, which gets them swinging early, working in his favor.
“He’s obviously got good angle on his fastball,” Alvarez said. “He’s working corners. He’s got good command, walking very few guys. He’s filling it up. A lefty, he’s got a little bit of run to his ball. Good little run down in the zone makes it easy for those guys to get ground balls.”
Aside from improving his ground balls, Vieaux has been focused on the changeup this year, and learning when to throw the pitch.
“The main focus has been the change,” Vieaux said. “Not only making it better, but finding times to get it into the game. I’ve been using it more than the breaking ball. Probably time to start getting the breaking ball back in, and getting the feel for that pitch back.”
Vieaux is a different pitcher than the rest of the Bradenton rotation. He doesn’t have mid-90s velocity, and for most of the year he’s been sitting around 90 MPH. He gets his results on location of his fastball, and mixing up his pitches. So having better location and more ground balls, along with working on his secondary stuff, will lead to some good results and a good trend in his development.