First Pitch: Cody Bolton’s Future Development

I had a mistake in yesterday’s article, which kind of messed up the transition to today’s article.

I was discussing Shane Baz, and doing a brief comparison to Cody Bolton. The Pirates originally intended for Baz to arrive in Low-A at the end of April 2018. He struggled with control and was held back in Bristol. Meanwhile, Cody Bolton took a big step forward and got that promotion to Low-A in a very unexpected manner.

I was also looking at the rankings we had for Baz last year before the trade, and comparing them to the ones we have for Bolton now, after the season. If both rankings (Baz last mid-season and Bolton at this point) had been in the same year, then Baz and Bolton would have definitely been in the same tier, and ranked next to each other.

It could be a bit of a confusing comparison, and I ended up migraine-braining it yesterday by saying that we had Bolton ranked ahead of Baz, which I should have caught right away, because we didn’t even have Bolton as a top ten prospect until this point. So we’ll skip past all of that, and get back on track with the observation I was trying to set up.

The comparison between Bolton this year and Baz last year pre-trade is interesting. We had Baz (last year) with a slightly higher ceiling, but Bolton (this year) as a safer bet to reach the majors as a starter.

Baz has obviously improved beyond his midseason ranking last year, and he’d be above Bolton in our current rankings if he was in the system, and the comparison between ceilings wouldn’t be as close as last year. I don’t want to say that the Pirates have another Baz in Cody Bolton.

But I do believe the Pirates have something good in Cody Bolton, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him. That said, the comparison to Baz shows some concern about whether the Pirates can get the best out of Bolton.

Baz went elsewhere and improved. He improved with similar technology that the Pirates use, just used in a better way, and used in a mandatory way.

Bolton stayed in the system and also improved. He reached Double-A by the end of the year this year, with improved velocity and good secondary stuff. That said, he didn’t look the same in Altoona, often overthrowing his fastball, and not using the secondary stuff as much — especially with his changeup, which has developed into a decent pitch.

All of this raises the question of whether Bolton will improve next year. Baz came in with a ranking similar to what we had on him last year. We didn’t change much between the early season and the midseason rankings. So it’s not like the Pirates developed him to a point where he had future top of the rotation potential. They drafted him with that possibility.

Bolton is different. The Pirates drafted him in the sixth round in 2017 — five rounds after Baz — and saw him improve rapidly in his first two full-seasons. But now he’s reached the upper levels, where a lot of other pitching prospects have struggled in the past, and he’s off to a slow start.

I say that because it’s only been nine starts. This could just be adjusting to a new level late in the season. But the Pirates don’t have a good track record of taking guys who are starting to show potential, and getting them to that potential in the majors. They have a great track record of developing guys like Bolton to emerge from the lower levels, but that hasn’t produced much in the majors.

I’ve thought of this as an upper level development issue. But the situation with Baz makes me wonder if there might be something missed in the lower levels.

The biggest thing I’ve noticed with Baz right now, all from reading interviews and seeing reports from the outside, is that he has a lot of confidence in his pitches, what they’re capable of, and how to use them. That appeared to be the opposite for Bolton in Altoona, where he wasn’t using his pitches correctly.

The Pirates’ approach over the years has kind of been like an assembly line. You learn to control your fastball in the lower levels. Then you learn to improve your out pitch in A-ball. You focus on improving the changeup in Double-A, and maybe add a pitch that you’re going to need in the future. You learn how to use all of those pitches together in Triple-A, while possibly learning a pitch at that level, then you make the jump to the majors.

There have been some variations of that order. There have been adjustments over the year. For example, they have started teaching the changeup earlier, putting a bigger emphasis on the pitch in the lower levels. But it also seems like they might be holding back some work in the lower levels, which probably would make things easier for pitchers once they reach the upper levels.

The short summary here is that I think Cody Bolton has the chance to be a middle of the rotation pitcher in the majors, and possibly better than that. But I’m also skeptical that the Pirates can get him to that point, considering their history in the upper levels. And the Baz situation makes me wonder if there’s something they’re missing in the lower levels, which leads to those upper level issues.




By John Dreker

Six former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, including two with family connections on the Pirates. Starting with the oldest first.

Cliff Carroll, outfielder for the 1888 Alleghenys. In five games in Pittsburgh, he went 0-for-20 with three errors and eight strikeouts, which led to him quitting baseball. After he took off all of 1889, he returned in 1890 and hit .285 with 134 runs scored and led the league in at-bats.

Hans Lobert, infielder for the 1903 Pirates. He played five late season games for the first World Series team, going 1-for-13 with a walk. After spending 1904 in the minors and a brief trial with the Cubs in 1905, he became a star player, known as one of the fastest men in baseball. Spent 14 years in the majors. His cousin Joe Schultz was a utility player for the 1916 Pirates and Schultz’s son Joe Jr was a catcher for the 1939-41 Pirates. Lobert had a brother named Frank, who played in the majors.

Phil Morrison, pitcher for the Pirates on September 30, 1921. In his only big league outing, he allowed one hit, while recording the final two outs. His younger brother Johnny Morrison was a pitcher for the 1925 World Series champs and 1927 NL champs, who won 25 games during the 1923 season. They were teammates in 1921.

George Hendrick, outfielder for the 1985 Pirates. Hedrick spent 18 season in the majors and played 2,048 games. He spent 69 of those games with the Pirates, hitting .230 with two homers, before he was traded mid-season to the California Angels. He hit 267 homers and drove in 1,111 runs in his career.

Andy Hassler, pitcher for the 1980 Pirates. He had a long and productive MLB career, but his time with the Pirates lasted just six relief appearances. He had a 3.86 ERA in 11.2 innings. Hassler played 14 seasons, splitting his time between starting and relief work, including 29 saves.

Garrett Olsen, pitcher for the 2011 Pirates. In four relief appearances, he allowed one run over 4.1 innings. Olsen had split four seasons in the majors between the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles prior to joining the Pirates. His only big league game after Pittsburgh was on August 8, 2012 for the New York Mets.

On this date in 1973 the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies completed a two player trade with the Pirates sending second baseman Dave Cash to Philadelphia in exchange for pitcher Ken Brett. Cash was a three-time All-Star with the Phillies from 1974-76, receiving MVP consideration each year. Brett pitched well in two seasons with the Pirates, though he was somewhat limited by an elbow injury. He had a 22-14, 3.32 ERA in 43 starts and seven relief appearances in Pittsburgh.