On Monday night in Morgantown, Scooter Hightower pitched a brilliant eight inning shutout against Mahoning Valley. That’s a long way from where he was just four months ago.
Near the end of Spring Training, Hightower suffered an oblique injury. That kept him completely out of action for six weeks, in which he said he never even picked up a baseball. He didn’t get into an Extended Spring Training game until May and by the time the Morgantown season started on June 19th, Hightower had not even pitched a five inning game to get ready for the season. Yet two months later, he is now on a string of four starts in which he has allowed one run over 28 innings.
Hightower was being used as a reliever during Extended Spring Training, transitioning late into the starter role. His season debut was in relief for Morgantown, throwing a shutout inning during that June 19th opener. Just three days later, he pitched five innings for the first time and it was a gem of a performance. The only base runners he allowed were on a hit batter and an error. Ten of the 15 outs he recorded that day were on strikeouts. His previous career best for strikeouts was eight while with Bristol, after he was drafted in the 15th round in 2015.
While his recent streak has been incredible, there were some bumps in the road after that terrific first week. He had a 3.82 ERA in six starts last month. His worst starts were early in the month, which could be explained somewhat by him still building up his pitch count at that point, but he was also working on a new pitch that he just picked up during Extended Spring Training. Our scouting report on Hightower had his breaking ball as a curve, but he wasn’t throwing a curve as I watched last night’s performance.
“When I was coming back from the oblique I transitioned to the slider from the curve,” Hightower told me this morning. “The slider gave me more of a fastball look because I’m able to throw it harder.”
The pitch seemed to get the desired results on Monday night and he been using it very effectively the last month. Hightower is a three-pitch pitcher, throwing the slider along with a four-seam fastball and a changeup. The fastball sets up everything else, but the changeup looks to be his best pitch. The bottom drops out of the pitch late and got a lot of swing and misses from Mahoning Valley last night.
The fastball sits high-80s, though he said it can get into the low-90s. What makes it so effective is his command of the pitch. He works the four corners of the plate and rarely misses his spot. He gets good downward plane on the four-seamer, coming from his 6’6″ frame, and he works both sides of the plate well, getting some run in on right-handed batters and away from lefties.
Yesterday’s game plan against Mahoning Valley worked to perfection, leading to eight strikeouts. When I asked him about changing the eye level so well, he said the plan going into the game was getting chases up in the zone with two strikes. The boxscore says that he threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes, but he definitely didn’t throw 65 pitches in the strike zone. Mahoning Valley batters couldn’t lay off the high fastballs, and with Hightower’s command, he was throwing them just high enough that they chased all day.
We mention often about velocity and being a ground ball pitcher, as well as looking at the age of pitchers. All of those things work against Hightower. He’s 23 years old in short-season ball, doesn’t throw hard and is one of the more extreme flyball pitchers in the system. He’s also one of the better command pitchers in the system, which makes his stuff so effective. In 166.1 innings as a pro, he has walked 20 batters, while picking up 161 strikeouts.
His oblique injury was definitely a setback this season. At the end of last year, he got promoted to West Virginia and threw seven shutout innings over two appearances, with two hits, no walks and eight strikeouts. So for him to put that performance together, then start the following season a level lower, is a disappointing turn of events, but he has made the most of it recently.
His new slider, along with his plus command, strong changeup and a solid approach to pitching, has led to the second best ERA (1.88), the best WHIP (0.86) and the most innings pitched (72.0) in the NYPL this season. Hightower also hopes it will also lead to bigger and better things down the line at a higher level.