CHARLESTON, WV – The Pirates sent right-handed pitcher Luis Escobar to pitch in the MLB Future’s Game during the All-Star break last month, with Escobar serving as the team’s lone representative. He pitched a scoreless inning, sitting 94-97 MPH with his fastball, and touching 98. He was also overthrowing some of his pitches, and throwing a lot of balls in the process, with only seven strikes in 16 pitches.
After that outing, Escobar returned to West Virginia and got to work with pitching coach Drew Benes on some mechanical changes. It’s not that they hadn’t been working on adjustments all year. They definitely had been, since day one of Spring Training. But this time, Benes found something that seemed to click with Escobar.
A Lot of Power and No Control
Escobar has been high on the prospect lists the last few years due to his stuff and the upside that comes with that stuff. He throws a fastball that now consistently sits in the mid-90s, while mixing in a curveball that flashes plus, and a changeup that has really improved in the last year and a half.
The downside is that his control is bad, with 50 walks in 111.2 innings this year. Combine that with him getting hit around at times, and we had some concern that Escobar might never figure it out, even as we knew that the Pirates were working with him on adjustments.
Escobar had a drop and drive delivery, which got to extremes at certain points last year. He would also fly open with his delivery, opening up to the first base side, and leading to poor control. That was only made worse by his tendency to try and over-throw and add power. The combination here was that you had a guy throwing flat fastballs with poor control, making him either easier to hit than he should be, or all over the place, making it easy to lay off his pitches.
It’s difficult to get pitchers to make the necessary adjustments, even if they’re open to change. It’s not an easy thing to change the plane of a fastball, or to improve control, which is why the lower levels of the minors are filled with hard throwing relievers with poor control who will never make it out of A-ball. Escobar is one of those guys who is open to change, and yet that didn’t make the entire process easier for him.
It Just Clicked
The Pirates have been working with Escobar on having less of a drop in his delivery this year, while also working to get him more in line with the plate and giving him the ability to command the ball where he wants to in the zone.
“It was an area of focus for us that we needed to fix a little bit,” West Virginia manager Wyatt Toregas said of the drop. “He’s actually not getting down as much. He’s a little higher than he’s been. Last year he would go way down in there, and it would almost force him to throw back uphill. This year he’s staying up a little more and loading his back leg better, getting better angle and better break, and allowing him to get on top of his changeup. That’s something that he’s actually controlling now, and I don’t think he thinks about it anymore.”
Escobar would previously sink into his back leg, then almost lunge into his plant foot, as Toregas described it.
“This year there’s a down load, plant, throw, and it’s repeatable. Last year it was max effort, and it’s hard to repeat max effort,” Toregas said.
The new delivery also has a bit of deception, as Escobar can get into a weird crouch in the middle of his delivery, almost transferring his motion like a rocking horse.
“When hitters are facing him, not only does he have good stuff, but it’s visually not what you’re used to seeing, timing wise,” Toregas said.
Escobar had been working on his changes throughout the year, but the biggest adjustment for him came when he was working with Benes after the Future’s Game. Benes suggested that Escobar keep his glove in, holding a firm position in front of him to lead to better direction for the ball, rather than allowing it to swing to the side of his body. That advice made sense for Escobar, and he’s been working on that ever since.
“He has explosive stuff. All three pitches are good,” Benes said. “I think the biggest thing for him that has been identified has been controlling his body, controlling his delivery. Within the last month, we’ve kind of identified the thing that clicked in his mind was controlling his glove. Before it was kicking out away from his body, and ripping across and pulling his body away from the target. With controlling his glove better, he’s able to keep a better direction towards the plate, and he’s able to drive the ball where he wants to more often.”
Since the Future’s Game, Escobar has made six starts, giving up five earned runs on 18 hits in 36 innings, with 42 strikeouts. Another thing that has helped Escobar is that the Pirates have been challenging him throughout the year to throw the changeup in certain situations, or throw the curveball only in specific counts. In previous years, he would throw off-speed stuff, but would rely too much on those pitches. Now that he’s pitching off the fastball, he’s starting to learn how to use the off-speed stuff properly, while also learning how to use all three pitches throughout the game.
“He’s got a good fastball, and when you can throw it where you want to, it builds confidence in that pitch,” Benes said. “Now, instead of throwing a lot of off-speed, out of 90 pitches, he’s at about 60 fastballs, which is where we want him to be. The ability to do different things with his fastball has grown confidence in him. Now he wants to throw more of them, shaking in two strike counts.”
Still Work to be Done
Escobar hasn’t fully figured it out yet. That adjustment he made a month ago with his glove arm was a bit of a breakthrough, but he still has trouble staying on track. When I saw him pitch two weeks ago, he looked good with the control, but did see that falter in two innings, especially in the seventh. He was able to get back on track earlier in the outing, but the seventh inning walks ended his day with just two outs in that inning.
The new changes with the focus on the glove do allow Escobar to get back on track quicker, once he realizes things are going wrong. I saw this happen in the middle of that game, but he couldn’t get back on track at the end, and resorted to pitching off the curveball and changeup in a few at-bats.
While the stats I mentioned above look good, the one thing I didn’t mention was the walk rate. In those 36 innings since the Future’s Game, Escobar still has 17 walks, showing that the control hasn’t been fixed. Seeing him in that one outing, it appears those numbers could be misleading, as he is showing improvements with momentary lapses. The question is whether he can fully iron out the problem, and get rid of the lapses during the game. What works in his favor is that he’s putting a big focus on this, and open to any changes the coaches have for him.
“Every player gets better with reps, and when you get to a full season, you do it every day for six months, and you’re going to get better,” Toregas said. “I think he’s just reaping the benefits of really concentrated work. I think he’s focusing in his work days, he’s taking it seriously, and when he goes into the games, it feels like his work day. He’s also very coachable, which is a plus. If we ask him to do something, he does it. He’s not scared to take a risk. That comes from confidence. He’s confident that no matter what he throws, he’s going to be okay.”
The Pirates obviously like Escobar, and he’s regarded as a good prospect, as shown by his assignment to the Future’s Game. I talked with Kyle Stark in West Virginia a day after he saw Escobar pitch to get some input on how they view his season.
“We’ve always liked the package of stuff,” Stark said. “He’s got some velocity, he’s got the breaking ball. The changeup has really developed this year. I think the biggest thing was just continuing evolving from thrower to pitcher. He has certainly made strides in that this year in terms of he has pitched with his fastball way more than he has in the past. The changeup, like I said, has become a really good weapon for him. He’s definitely made strides in terms of being a guy who has a chance to start in the big leagues.”
I think that last part is up in the air still, depending on how you look at it. Escobar has the stuff to be better than a back of the rotation starter, but there is obviously some risk with the control issues. It’s not like continued control issues paired with top stuff has prevented pitchers from making the majors as a starter before (SEE: Glasnow, Tyler). The question is whether Escobar can make the majors and stick, which would require some improvements, and whether he can improve even more to become more than a back of the rotation guy or a depth option. He’s taken a good step this year, but still has work to do.