GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Arizona Fall League is a place where players can get additional experience against upper level talent. It’s a showcase league, filled with some of the better upper level prospects around baseball, so it provides a better experience at times than a player would get in Double-A or Triple-A. Often, players are working on specific elements of their game, trying the new approaches out in this showcase league.
In some of those cases, the league presents an opportunity for players to get different opinions, and advice they wouldn’t normally receive during the season. That was the case with Taylor Hearn and his slider.
Hearn had been working on finding a new breaking pitch during the season. He made the switch over the summer, getting a pitch that he could throw for strikes, and also something that would lead to more consistent strikeouts. He went down in July with a grade 3 torn oblique after a pitch, which prevented him from continuing his work during the season.
The focus for Hearn as he went out to the AFL was to work on that pitch. And the AFL provided the right opportunity for him to find what he needed for the pitch.
“Down here I finally found a grip that’s working,” Hearn said. “I’m throwing it a lot more, throwing it for strikes a lot more, and it’s a lot more consistent. That’s definitely what I needed. The missing piece, what I think.”
The grip actually came from Matt Zaleski, a pitching coach in the Chicago White Sox system, and the pitching coach for Glendale. Zaleski talked with Pirates’ minor league pitching coordinator Justin Meccage prior to the AFL about the goals for Hearn, and went to work with Hearn.
“Just talking with Justin Meccage, and hearing he wants to get his breaking ball better, it stems from the fastball,” Zaleski said. “Took a look at his fastball grip, played off that, to where it would just feel free and easy out front. Wouldn’t have to worry too much about spinning the ball, or trying to make it do too much. Just staying over it, and making the slider break how it does.”
Hearn said that the grip is tighter now, and that he’s on the side of the ball, making it easier for him to control the pitch and throw it for strikes. And the grip was comfortable for him almost immediately.
“I talked to [Zaleski] about [the slider],” Hearn said. “I told him it was something I was working on. He said ‘Why don’t you try this grip?’ The next thing you know, it was a lot easier. It wasn’t a pitch I had to force. I didn’t have to think as much. I just went up there and threw it. The other ones, I was still getting a feel for it, and I was running with it, but this one is a lot easier.”
Hearn is still in the early stages of using the pitch, and hasn’t had much experience with it, but the results from the actual movement of the pitch have been good so far.
“It’s got that hard bite to it now, and it’s got good spin,” Hearn said. “That’s what I needed, was good spin, so they won’t be able to pick it up. I’ve been throwing it in games, and it’s been really effective. I’m just excited to use it during the season.”
Zaleski has been impressed with how the pitch has worked for Hearn so far in the AFL, noting that Hearn has already shown some progress.
“He’s been able to throw it in the zone for strikes, and get weak contact when he does throw it in the zone for strikes. Huge plus,” Zaleski said. “That means it’s doing what it should. The change of speeds is definitely going to help with the movement. The movement means the weak contact. He’s actually thrown a couple back foot to righties, he’s got some swings and misses. A couple good ones to lefties that he’s got some swings and misses. So the progress is definitely there.”
Justin Meccage was in Arizona the same time I was there, and got his first look at the new pitch. He said that it looks a little inconsistent at the moment, but when it’s on, it looks like a good pitch.
“I just watched him in his throwing program, doing his flat ground work, and it was really good,” Meccage said. “If it’s good there, I think it will eventually show up more consistently in the game. I’m excited with where it’s at, and if it’s the grip, that’s awesome. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Pirates want the pitch to be more consistent in terms of the shape and action of the pitch. Hearn has been throwing his fastball in the usual 93-97 MPH range in the AFL, and the slider has come in at 86-88, with down breaking action that has good depth and tight spin. That provides some nice velocity separation, but Hearn already has the changeup to accomplish that goal. As Pirates’ Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway said, he needs the slider to play off the fastball.
“His changeup is a very good pitch, and it’s the change of speed pitch,” Broadway said. “Now, from a breaking ball standpoint, to get something a little tighter and a little sharper to get off the fastball, and get off the barrel is something that he’s looking to get. He doesn’t need a slower breaking ball. Something a little more wipeout.”
Time will tell whether Hearn’s new slider will be effective for him. We’ll probably get the first true look at that next year when he makes the jump to Altoona. For now, he seems to like the new grip that Zaleski taught him, although Zaleski is giving all the credit to Hearn.
“Credit to him,” Zaleski said. “He’s the one who put in all the work. All I did was throw a grip in his hand. He took over, and has let it done what it’s done.”