Pirates Saw Some Strong Pitching Performances from Their Prospects in the AFL

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.

  • The Survey is over! Some interesting results.
    I will try to post this throughout the week.


    • Thx for doing this, Lee. Appears the survey was taken by a disproportionate number of optimistic fans like me. I doubt the average fan sees the upcoming season as rosy as the survey suggests.

  • John: Off topic, but Is there a current 40 anywhere? I pulled up the Pirate site – 37 players were listed and Stewart and Ngoepe were both still listed. I thought they had been taken off the 40.

    Others still on there were pitchers Leathersich and Turley, and Utility IF, Chris Bostick. One or both of those pitchers can go, and Bostick has shown ability, but how many MI’s are needed on the 40? We have Mercer and Harrison, with Moroff, Rodriguez, Frazier behind them, Newman close, and Tucker right behind him.

  • I have the solution to Pirates offensive woes, a return to the original rules of the game.

    In the early years of professional baseball, Pitchers were forced to throw underhanded without breaking their wrist, and the hitter could tell them where to pitch the ball. It wasn’t uncommon for teams to score 100 runs or more.

    Wasn’t long before Pitchers started cheating and the game morphed into something similar to what we enjoy watching today.

    • Great, you’ve found a way for Nova to give up even more home runs 🙂 🙂

      • I thought Cole was the team leader in that category with 31?

        • He only gave up 31? Seemed like more.

          Never good when your Ace has to keep a Chiropractor on retainer to avoid a DL stint from whiplash of the neck.

          • OK, how much of this from Cole is at least partially an attitude issue? After his career year in 2015, the Pirates played a head game with him on his salary for 2016, his last year before arbitration. I think he received possibly $50,000 above minimum. That same year the Pirates went out of their way to hand out incentives to a few players – don’t think Cole did not notice. Is all of that just a coincidence?

            • I was no fan of how the club handled that situation, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that was responsible for 0.0% of his 2017 home run issues.

              2017 Gerrit Cole is just more evidence to the theory that *nobody* has an appreciable ability to limit home runs in a sustainable, predictable fashion.

              Prior to 2017, Cole amassed a career of about 600 IP with a HR rate of 0.56/9 and a HR/FB rate of 7.6%. His rate of contact in the air (LD+FB-IFFB) was 44.5% and his hard hit rate was 28.4%.

              In 2017, Cole’s HR rate was 1.37/9 and HR/FB rate was 15.9%. His rate of air contact was 42.5% and hard hit rate was 31.3%.

              That means his home run prevention was more than cut in half despite giving up less contact, less contact in the air, and only a small increase in rate of hard contact.

              Looked at another way, Chad Kuhl limited opponents to a 0.97/9 HR rate and 10.8% HR/FB rate. He allowed 3% more balls in play, a 53% rate of air contact, and 36% hard hit rate. His average FB/LD exit velo was 93.1mph vs. Cole’s at 91.3mph. 5% more of his contact was hit at 95mph or harder.

              This means that Kuhl allowed more contact, more contact in the air, and air contact that was harder and more numerous than Cole, yet “limited” home runs at 60% of the rate of Gerrit Cole.

              Good luck turning this into a “skill” argument.

              • You have access to a lot of stats. Was there one pitch that seemed to result in a large percentage of the homeruns? Because my impression was that a lot of flat 4 seamers seemed to head out of the park.

                • The change and sinker gave up the highest percentage:

                  but the fourseamer gave up the highest total, because he throws a shitload of them:

                  I don’t dispute that his home runs were not “earned”, but I’m also not sure I see any evidence that he threw more of those pitches you speak of than he had in the past, nor more than Chad Kuhl in this comparison.

                  • Thanks for the info!

                    My impression is that Cole’s performance doesn’t match his stuff. Whether that is due to a lack of deception, poor pitch selection, tipping his pitches, I don’t know. But his problem dates as far back as UCLA, when his ERA didn’t live up to his potential.

                    Cole frustrates me. He is a good pitcher, but should be great, and he continues to fall short.

                    • Definitely agree with you there.

                      My guess is lack of deception – his mechanics are almost too perfect – and it seems his secondaries may have actually backed up a bit. There was a point in college where his changeup was considered his best secondary, and for some reason he all-but abandoned the pitch until last year.

                      Not sure the Pirate’s proclivity for throwing a jillion fastballs has benefited him.

            • If you will recall Cole was mostly average in 2016. Didn’t deserve a big raise.

              • So Huntington used his crystal ball to determine *before* the season started that he’d be injured and throw less than 120 innings? 😉

                Also, factually-speaking, Gerrit Cole was 5% better than the average starter by ERA and 12% better by FIP.

                • Well, the arbitration system rewards performance, whether hampered by injury or not, not potential.

                  Okay, slightly better than average, but still within the bounds of a 3, not a 1 or 2, which given his stuff you would hope he would be.

                  • Which is why he deserved a raise coming off a 5 WAR year.

                    Sorry, this is my chosen hill to die on. That, and respect for Charlie Morton and Pedro Alvarez. We’re all weird, don’t judge me. 😉

  • There’s going to be stuff competition with Kramer now joining Tucker and Newman. Hopefully they push each other and one emerges as a solid (or better) major league shortstop.

  • Last chance to take the Off Season survey! It closes Monday!


    The limit is 100 and we are at 92.

    Thanks to all who took it!

  • Are there any plans to make up Tucker’s lost ABs?

    • This was the first year he played over 100 games. His 444 ABs were 114 more than last season which was second highest total. It would be really nice to see him have a healthy year next year.

      What other options are there for him to get more ABs? Is it too late to join a winter league?

      • He had enough playing time this year that it’s not important to get him more. His 510 plate appearances were the fifth most in the minors for the Pirates. The AFL would have been nice, but it wasn’t the same situation as Kramer or Hill, who both missed much more time.

  • Looks like the AFL pitchers did better & accomplished their goals-the hitters were not as good although Hill & Kramer were making up for lost time.