ALTOONA, Pa – Taylor Hearn entered this season as the Pirates’ top left-handed pitching prospect, and he was beginning to get national recognition, ranked as a top lefty by Baseball America. Hearn was also picked by Jonathan Mayo from MLB Pipeline as a player to watch, saying that he was one of 12 prospects set to break out in 2018.

With recognition comes additional pressure, something that Hearn embraces.

“I love it,” Hearn said. “That type of stuff fuels me, and I love it. It’s funny, because now people are like, ‘whoa, watch out for this guy’.”

Of course, those within the Pirates’ organization have known about Hearn for years, as the Pirates were the first team to draft him, taking him in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft out of high school. Hearn chose to go to junior college instead, and he was drafted in both 2013 (36th round, Reds) and 2014 (25th round, Twins) before finally going pro in 2015 after the Nationals took him in the 5th round out of Oklahoma Baptist University.

Fortunately for the Pirates, it didn’t take long for them to finally get their guy, with Hearn joining the organization during the Mark Melancon deal in 2016.

After an oblique injury forced Hearn to miss a considerable amount of time last season while pitching for Bradenton, the Pirates were aggressive in promoting the lefty to Double-A Altoona. The injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the Pirates sent Hearn to the AFL to make up for lost time. While in Arizona, Hearn discovered a new grip for his slider, a pitch that he had been working on during last season but did not have the opportunity to master because of the injury.

“I went out there and found the slider grip,” Hearn said. “It’s honestly a more consistent one. “The White Sox pitching coach showed me the grip, and it was just like a light bulb went off.”

The White Sox pitching coach, Matt Zaleski, was a pitcher in the White Sox organization for a decade, and it was a grip that he used for his slider. Hearn told Tim Williams last fall that the grip was tighter than it used to be, and he’s now on the side of the ball making it easier to control.

“I talked to [Zaleski] about [the slider],” Hearn told Tim Williams in Arizona. “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.”

Curve manager Michael Ryan was impressed with the slider during Hearn’s first start of the season last week in Altoona, saying that it is now a much harder pitch than what he was throwing last year.

“He has such good angle,” Ryan said. “He’s a long guy, so his slider will be more effective.I liked how he backdoored it to righties and how he still used it as a weapon with lefties.”

Even though Hearn says that a different offspeed pitch, his changeup, is his “best pitch”, he is still known as a power thrower with a dominant fastball. So far this season and during Spring Training, he hasn’t quite reached back and hit those high 90s numbers consistently like in previous years; however, Hearn did say that the short offseason was sort of a shock to his body.

“My offseason was really short, so that was new,” Hearn said in reference to pitching in the fall league. “My body felt okay. I kind of went through some shock in Spring Training, because I wasn’t used to it. I’m used to getting more down time, but it wasn’t bad.”

Even with the short offseason, Hearn has impressed in his first two Double-A starts. In his first start, he went five scoreless innings and only allowed one hit. On Tuesday night in Akron, he went six innings, only allowing one earned run and striking out seven batters. He walked three batters in his first start but roared back to walk nobody in his second.

As he progresses higher in the system, Hearn is now learning that he doesn’t necessarily need to strike out every batter he faces. During his eight appearances for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the fall league, he only struck out 14 batters in 17.2 IP (eight appearances, four starts). He still saw good results, though, posting a 3.06 ERA and 1.25 WHIP.

“I’ve come to realize, especially in the fall league, that the higher up I get, I won’t be able to strike everybody out,” Hearn said.

Consistency is now key to Hearn’s development, he says.

“I need to be consistent,” he said. “I can’t go out there and try to do too much. I need to stay within myself, like I did in the fall league. I need to get outs rather than try to strike everyone out. Try to become a pitcher instead of a thrower. Yeah, I have the hard fastball, but I need to be able to spot it up to become better. That’s what I took to heart – become a better pitcher rather than a thrower.”

As long as Hearn sees his fastball velocity get back to the mid-to-high 90s, he is a good bet to help the major league team by 2020. His secondary pitch development will be key to if he will be better suited as a high leverage reliever or as a starter.

Altoona Rotation Setting an Extremely High Standard

Hearn hasn’t been to only starter for the Curve to see success in the early season. Twice through the rotation, Hearn, JT Brubaker, Mitch Keller, Brandon Waddell, and Dario Agrazal have a combined 1.28 ERA (8 ER in 56.1 IP). Keller and Waddell lead the team with a 0.77 ERA in 11.2 innings each.

“Any time you can get guys on the bump that are starting games and get you through six or so innings, it gives guys the confidence to move forward,” Michael Ryan said. “Brubaker set the tone [on Opening Night] then it carried with Agrazal. It’s become like a competition, which is great. We’ll see if we can carry it over.”

This is the best start from Altoona starters since 2015, when Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, Angel Sanchez, Zack Dodson, and Jason Creasy combined to allow two earned runs after two times through the rotation (54.0 innings, 0.33 ERA).

Including the Altoona’s six postseason games last year, Curve starters have a combined 1.88 ERA (42 ER in 201.0 IP) over their last 31 games.
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