The Arizona Fall League season wrapped up on Thursday for the seven Pittsburgh Pirates in the league. The Pirates sent one of their best groups of prospects to the league, taking their top prospect in the system, along with six players who rank among the top 50 prospects in the system. Usually there are a couple of players who haven’t yet established themselves as prospects yet among the AFL group, so this was one of the more interesting seasons. Here’s a recap of what those players were working on it the league and how they fared. Each player has an article linked in their recap, which expands on their time in the AFL.
Mitch Keller was the big name in the group and he put together a solid performance. He posted a 1.52 ERA, which was best among all starters and a 1.01 WHIP, which was fourth best among starters. He also had a very impressive 2.25 GO/AO ratio and a .226 BAA. The only downside was his strikeout rate, which is why I went with a “solid” performance instead of a more glowing term. He struck out 13 batters in 23.2 innings, which isn’t good under normal circumstances, but the AFL had a lot of strikeouts this year. In fact, out of the 47 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in the league, Keller had the 45th best (or third worst) strikeout rate.
The AFL is more about players working on things, or in some cases as you will see below, making up for lost time. We know from experience that Keller can strike out batters, we have seen it over the last two seasons. So that isn’t an issue to worry about, it’s just relevant to his short time in the league. Keller’s main goal was to continue to work on his changeup, which showed great improvements during his last few starts in Altoona. He accomplished that goal and also made up for some innings he lost during the season due to his mid-May back injury. When you add his AFL innings to his regular season and playoff innings, Keller pitched a total of 156 innings. He also put in two weeks at Pirate City during the Fall Instructional League and pitched in the Fall-Stars game, so he was over 160 innings total.
If you’re thinking about the absolute best case scenario for Keller in 2018, then we could see him in Pittsburgh in September. He put in 160 innings this season, which would put him in line to handle a full workload through the end of the big league season. That’s a long way off though, but something to keep in the back of your mind. If they need him down the stretch in the majors and he is ready for it, there shouldn’t be any worry about him reaching an innings limit.
Taylor Hearn also had two specific things to work on in the AFL, and it wasn’t much different from Keller’s situation. Hearn missed nearly two full months will an oblique injury, coming back in September for one appearance in the GCL. Like Keller, he also put in some innings in the Fall Instructional League before the AFL, so you don’t see everything he did when looking at his stats. Hearn put in 89.1 innings during the season and another 17.2 innings in Arizona. Add in the Instructs innings, and he was probably in the 115-120 range. The added innings will help him next year, as he attempts to put in his first full season in the rotation. That should come in Altoona this upcoming year, where he will likely remain all or most of the season.
Hearn also went to the AFL to find a slider grip he was comfortable with, and that happened during a talk with Matt Zaleski, a pitching coach in the Chicago White Sox system, and the pitching coach for Glendale. They came up with a grip that made it easier to throw his slider for strikes and Hearn immediately took to the pitch. Equipped with the new pitch, Hearn had a 3.06 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, a 1.36 GO/AO ratio and a .230 BAA, with 14 strikeouts in 17.2 innings. Those are nice stats, but they are also skewed by one relief outing in which he gave up four runs on five hits, while recording just two outs. He gave up three runs on 12 hits over 17 innings in his other seven outings combined.
Brandon Waddell also missed time with an injury during the season, so he needed the extra innings during Instructs and the AFL to allow him to go through a full workload next season. He pitched 78 innings during the regular season, six in the playoffs and 14 more in the fall. Throw in the Instructs innings and he was probably around 110 total. He has been a workhorse starter in college and the pros before this season, so he should be fine to go next year.
If you ask the Pirates, they will tell you that all innings aren’t the same and they also look at pitch counts and stress pitches. Waddell would qualify for more stress pitches than you want to see because he’s not always the most efficient pitcher. His goal in the AFL was to become a more efficient pitcher by attacking hitters better. All but one of his appearances came out of the bullpen, which he considered a good learning experience in case he ends up in that role in the future. With the pitching that the Pirates have at the upper levels, that could end up being his future, even if he has the ceiling of a starter.
Waddell finished his time in the AFL with a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings, with a 1.21 WHIP, a .236 BAA, a 1.45 GO/AO ratio and 15 strikeouts, so he was strong in all areas.
JT Brubaker turned some heads in the AFL when scouts there saw what we saw during the second half of the season in Altoona. He was sitting 97-98 MPH during the fall, hitting 99 at times. In Altoona, he was sitting 96-98 MPH during his lone playoff start, holding that velocity through the end of his eight inning outing. It wasn’t just the fastball velocity that made him interesting. His slider and his changeup were both effective pitches late in the season and showed improvements in the AFL.
In the AFL, Brubaker posted a 2.63 ERA in 13.2 innings, with a 1.24 WHIP, a 1.27 GO/AO ratio and 16 strikeouts, while walking just two batters. The only downside was his .278 BAA, with lefties hitting .318 against him in an obviously small sample size. Besides just working on his pitches in general, the Pirates wanted Brubaker to become more aggressive on the inside of the plate. That was in order to make batters less comfortable in the box. For someone who throws very hard with some movement, Brubaker will give up his share of hits. The continued development of his off-speed pitches and his ability to keep batters from sitting fastball, are the keys to his future success. He has the big frame and four-pitch mix for a starter, with the floor of a hard-throwing reliever.
On the offensive side, Kevin Kramer was the top hitting prospect in the AFL for the Pirates. His main purpose this fall was originally just to make up for a lot of lost at-bats due to a broken hand during the regular season. He ended up playing just 61 games total this year, including playoffs, missing more than half of the season. Once Kramer reported to the Fall Instructional League, we found out that he was going to play shortstop and it wasn’t to just get him some work there. He played there everyday for three weeks during Instructs, then all 16 games during the AFL season were spent at shortstop. In fact, the only time he played his normal second base spot was during the Fall-Stars game as a late innings replacement.
Kramer hit .200/.296/.317 in 60 at-bats in the fall. He hit two homers, drew nine walks and struck out 20 times, which was tied with three others players for the second highest total on the team. His best stat wasn’t actually on offense, it was on the defensive end, where he didn’t commit any errors at shortstop. While 16 games is still a small sample size and errors aren’t the best way to judge defense, Kramer received some high praise for his defense. The Pirates also saw a lot of him during Instructs as well as the AFL and liked his instincts at the position, with the ability to go left and right or come in on balls. He has played the position in the past, so that isn’t a total surprise, but it appears it’s still an option for him in the future.
Logan Hill went to the AFL to help make up for lost at-bats during the season and to also get him some extra time against upper level pitching. The fall was an extension of his season, where he simplified his swing and showed better pitch recognition. He tried to stay with that same approach while facing strong pitching everyday, usually seeing at least three different pitchers each game.
Hill had his hand broken by a pitch at the end of July and didn’t see any game action until the Fall Instructional League. So you could say he was in Spring Training mode in Arizona, still working his way up to game speed. He saw a long slump in the middle of his fall time, but finished with a decent stat line considering the circumstances. Hill hit .239/.312/.433 in 18 games, collect eight extra-base hits, which was tied for the team lead. He played only left field during the regular season and most of the 2016 season. In the AFL, he saw some time in right field as well, so expect him to take one of those spots for Altoona next year, possibly seeing time at both to give him more experience at both spots.
Mitchell Tolman was the only player the Pirates sent to the AFL, who wasn’t on the disabled list at some point this season. Tolman was a replacement for Cole Tucker, who wouldn’t have been ready to play games during the first couple of weeks in Arizona due to the hand injury he suffered during Altoona’s playoffs. Tolman had just nine games of Double-A experience, while the typical AFL player has at least a full season of Double-A and some have even reached the majors already. So this turned out to be a nice learning experience to get him ready for next season.
Tolman had stats very similar to Kramer in the league, putting up a slash line of .196/.290/.328, which was within 11 points in each category. Besides stepping up in competition, Tolman was also trying to change up his approach at the plate to better handle the higher quality pitching he was seeing. He tends to be patient to a fault at the plate, getting himself into bad spots by letting a lot of tough strikes go while looking for pitches in his zone. That leads to extra walks in the lower levels, but better pitchers will capitalize on that approach. If he never expands his zone, he’s going to end up with more strikeouts and lower averages as he progresses up the system.
Tolman saw some time at third base during the fall league, which was his position in college. He played there a little during the regular season as well, mostly while Ke’Bryan Hayes was out for a handful of days with a minor injury in July. That’s smart to keep him active over there because he will likely need that versatility to help him get to the majors.