BRADENTON, Fla. – Pitcher Fielding Practice, commonly referred to as PFPs, is a routine for every club. You’ll see pitchers lining up behind the mound, a coach behind home plate with a ball that will be put into play, the pitchers making a fake throw, and then rushing to field the ball and make the throw to first after the coach puts it in play.
It’s a standard drill that hopefully leads to improved fielding during the season. What it doesn’t usually lead to is a change in a pitcher’s throwing mechanics, much less a major overhaul. But that’s exactly what happened last year with right-handed pitcher Jordan Milbrath.
Milbrath was with the Cleveland Indians and participating in PFPs when his coaches noticed something. He was throwing with a standard pitching motion off the mound, but when he fielded the ball, he would throw sidearm to first base. They stopped him and made the following suggestion.
“If you can throw sidearm there naturally when you can choose how you’re going to throw, let’s try doing that on the mound and see how it plays out.”
It’s not typically a good thing when a coach asks you to throw sidearm. It means your regular pitching slot isn’t getting things done. The further down you drop the arm slot, the more movement you get on your pitches, which typically comes with a trade-off of lower velocity. It’s often a desperation move, and a last-ditch effort before a guy is out of pro ball. But sometimes it works, and Milbrath has been one of the success stories so far.
“I was surprised at how fast I was able to pick up on it,” Milbrath said. “My coaches over in the Indians organization noticed that I can throw naturally down there. It was a natural change. They said to give it a shot on the mound, and see what my stats would look like as far as the axis and the ball spin and stuff like that. We gave it a shot, and we really liked what we saw, so we tried to implement it.”
Milbrath was seeing good movement with his pitch, which is expected with that lower arm slot. Then, the next switch he made was the key to his future success. He switched from a four-seam fastball to a two-seamer, and immediately his fastball started getting lively and actually added velocity.
“I saw a velocity increase and I saw more movement on the ball once I started to throw two-seam fastballs,” Milbrath said. “That, in turn, produced more ground balls, which is great in a league that is trying to hit everything in the air.”
I have yet to see Milbrath throwing off the mound, but I have seen him throwing in flat ground. I posted a brief video of that the other day, and as someone astutely pointed out in the comments, it looks like he’s throwing a wiffle ball.
That’s only four throws, and those were after he got settled down. The earlier throws resembled the action of a kite during a hurricane. The pitch has plenty of reported velocity. Milbrath said that he was sitting 95-96 MPH and touching 99. Other reports of his games last year confirm this. The combination of so much movement, plus so much velocity, gives him a dangerous pitch. The pitch led to an extreme ground ball rate of 74.5%, which isn’t something Milbrath noticed at first.
“Once I noticed the trend, and I was starting to get all of these ground balls, I just started playing to my strength and trying to get ground balls,” Milbrath said. “I had a great year because of it.”
Milbrath has been a starter in the past, but right now has the look of strictly a reliever. He didn’t have much in the form of a secondary pitch, and eventually decided to ignore the changeup altogether and develop a slider. The pitch has led to some good strikeout totals, coming in at 85-86 MPH with good movement that complements his fastball. The 10 MPH difference in speed from the fastball also provides a nice change of pace.
The Pirates selected Milbrath in the Rule 5 draft, and his selection might end up representing a good job of scouting. He didn’t look like a prospect prior to the 2017 season, both from a stats perspective, and in terms of his reported stuff. After his adjustment, the stats improved and the stuff really improved. He now has the look of a guy who might be the real deal, capable of being a ground ball specialist in the big leagues, giving the Pirates a middle reliever for a very cheap price.
We’ll see if it plays out that way. If the Pirates end up sellers this year, then they’d have all of the incentive in the world to give Milbrath a chance at a job. But regardless of their position, you want to give a chance to a guy like Milbrath, especially when he’s combining that velocity with so much movement and an insane ground ball rate.