The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted left-hander Ike Schlabach in the 19th round of the 2015 draft. He was an 18-year-old prep pitcher out of Texas, with a projectable 6’5″ frame. He pitched briefly in the Gulf Coast League in 2015, then moved to Bristol last year and Morgantown this year, where he was the youngest player on the team by six months, and the youngest pitcher by nearly a full year. He’s still at the point where he’s considered a projectable young pitcher, but he took big steps forward this season.
Schlabach took the normal path the Pirates have set for prep pitchers during his first two seasons. He made four starts in the GCL during his first season, then went to Bristol during his first full year in the system. We don’t put too much weight into rookie league stats unless they are extreme, such as someone striking out too much, or someone showing plus power like Mason Martin did this season.
The reason stats don’t mean as much at lower levels is that they are usually a small sample size and you’re not always seeing the best from players, specifically with pitchers. They might not be using all of their pitches, or they may be working on something specific. We saw that in Bradenton this year with Mitch Keller getting hurt by his changeup in non-changeup situations early in the season. It happens even more in the lower levels, where the actual stuff is more important than the results they get early in their career. As players progress up the system, the results matter more because they are putting together everything they have worked on over the years.
That’s where Schlabach was in 2016 with Bristol. He made 13 starts, posting a 5.22 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP, with 31 strikeouts in 60.1 innings. He was a young pitcher in a league that favors hitters, but those obviously aren’t the stats you want to see from a prospect. Things have changed a lot with him since 2016 though, which helps explain the better results we saw with Morgantown this year.
The most obvious change was with his delivery, something that was still being worked on in instructs this fall. Schlabach used to have a lot of deception in his delivery, but it was described as “funky” and it wasn’t the easiest delivery to repeat. He brought his knee high into his chest, which can be seen in the photo below.
That front leg this year was dropped down to approximately waist level, which made it easier to repeat his delivery. Schlabach called the change “odd at first” but something he quickly adapted to during Spring Training. He noted that the tweaks he made gave him better body control, improved command and allowed him to stay on his backside better. That’s the delivery he worked with during the season, but the Fall Instructional League this year brought about more changes.
When Schlabach was signed, his fastball velocity coming out of school was sitting in the high-80s, touching low-90s. That is what we saw in 2015 in the GCL and 2016 in Bristol. There was a slight uptick this season, as he was hitting 91 MPH more often, but the Pirates want even more out of him. With his frame, they believe he can get up to the 95 MPH range, so they went to work during instructs. Schlabach described the changes this fall as “getting to the backside better, staying there longer, then using the back leg for more drive.”
Tim Williams caught up with Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway while covering the Arizona Fall League. He was able to get some thoughts on Schlabach and the changes he made to his delivery, plus what the Pirates hope to accomplish with the adjustments.
“Just really trying to help him get to his backside a little more,” Broadway said of Schlabach. “Just a little more power in the delivery. Not really changing much other than that, other than the focus of getting low over the rubber, using his legs more, and trying to get the stuff to come out of that.”
If he’s able to add velocity, part of it will come from just getting stronger, which is the plan this offseason. Schlabach hopes to come into Spring Training next year in the 225-230 pound range. They may sound like a lot if you’ve seen us talk about him recently, but it turns out that his weight just hasn’t been updated since he was drafted. We were told that he weighed 205 pounds when he was drafted, but he’s always been listed at 190. There was some concern before talking to him, because the Instructional League roster had him down to 185 pounds this year, but Schlabach assured me that he hasn’t been down at that weight since high school and he was actually around 218 this season.
There were more changes this season than just the mechanics. Schlabach also switched from a curveball to a slider around the beginning of May. Once he got a comfortable grip on the pitch, it immediately gave him a better breaking ball than in the past. While the curve was more loopy, the slider came in about four MPH on average harder, sitting in the 78-80 MPH range. When you mix that in with his 81-83 MPH changeup and the fastball, you get better results at a higher level.
Schlabach finished with a 2.83 ERA in 70 innings this season in Morgantown and it earned him a spot in the New York-Penn League All-Star game. His 1.07 WHIP had him ranked eighth in the league, and he held batters to a .205 BAA. Schlabach averaged 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings, which isn’t impressive, but it’s quite a step up from the 4.6 mark from last season.
Part of the increase in strikeouts led to his GO/AO ratio dropping from 1.72 last year to 1.09 this season. He mentioned that he was working his fastball up in the zone more often, trying to get batters to chase for strikeouts. There were a handful of games where that just led to more fly balls, rather than more strikeouts, accounting for the difference. That also goes back to the beginning where I mentioned pitchers working on things at the lower levels and it can skew stats. Schlabach became a worse ground ball pitcher on paper, but it was part of becoming a better pitcher, rather than him losing the ability to get grounders.
The Pirates were happy with how Schlabach pitched this season against a step up in the competition. Broadway noted the improvements he made with his velocity and his control as factors in his success.
“I think he started ticking up his velocity a bit,” Broadway said. “He was around the zone a lot. He’s a little bit funky, and it keeps guys off-balance, and he’s still able to land his pitches in the zone. He did a nice job of getting out there and taking the ball in the [NYPL].”
At 21 years old next year, Schlabach is still going to be considered a projectable pitcher until we see him put everything together. The Pirates believe he could add more velocity, which would help turn more of those fly balls on high strikes into strikeouts. The repeatable delivery will help his command. The slider is still somewhat new to him, so there is more potential to improve his off-speed pitches. He is still in the stage where he is filling out, which will be important going into next year when it appears he will be part of the West Virginia rotation. That would require him to throw extra innings next season.
It’s still a lot of potential at this point, but right now he is closer to becoming a prospect than ever before.