Young Pitchers and Inconsistency, This is What Growth Looks Like

Mitch Keller

8-21-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

When you watch a young staff develop, well, it takes more than an ability to read a box score. You’re sometimes looking for confidence in a pitch, or command of a situation.

Don’t get me wrong, you’d love to see a young guy just come out and shove, it’s just not how things go for most of them. Sometimes what separates success and failure can be as simple as patience and opportunity.

This season has been all about those two things. See a team in the race can’t afford to spend half a season trying to convince a highly touted prospect he knows how to pitch. A team in the race can’t have a guy clearly gassed trying to train his arm to deliver the kind of innings load the club expects of him.

Even when the batch of pitchers most of us have been waiting for arrive it’s going to require a bit of that kind of thought process.

There’s a reason teams in the playoff hunt like San Diego would rather go get some veteran help instead of bringing up their own highly touted prospects. It’s fact that learning on the job is part of development, it’s also fact if you get to the point where the team is ready to compete, you might no longer be ready to instruct.

To be blunt, it’s part of why the Pirates were so loathed to demote Mitch Keller a while back. It’s why they are so hesitant to shut down a clearly pushed to his limit JT Brubaker. It’s why a team like this finds so much value in rotating new guys into the rotation. The more cups of coffee they hand out, the more chance some of these growing pains are out of the way.

We as fans have the right to not enjoy watching this part of progression. It simply isn’t fun most nights. The coaches don’t particularly care for it either, difference is, they know they have to do it.

So I thought it would be a good idea to go through some of these young guys and identify what they’ve shown, where they’ve improved, what they need to work on and ultimately have they shown enough to keep working with them.

Mitch Keller

What’s He’s Good At – When placing it, throwing high heat by guys. Nasty breaking pitches that play well off the fastball. It’s all about control, when he has it, he can be very good, when he lacks it, he doesn’t belong in this league.

Where He’s Improved – Nowhere consistently. His flashes for the most part have been parts of games, not entire outings. Since his recall he’s improved his ability to throw strikes, that’s helped him but the sample size is just too small to call it a win.

Next Steps – More of the same. The lessons he was to learn in 2021 are just now starting to show signs of taking root. Next year needs to show they aren’t taking two steps forward and three steps back. Command of his fastball is key to his success, but almost just as important is the ability to drop his curve and slider in the bottom of the zone. Far too often he only has one of them as an option. Tunneling (The ability to make it look like all pitch types are coming from the same spot) escapes him with his slider, that’s a problem because hitters can identify spin and lay off the breaking stuff. His Curve and fastball line up much more often which makes that his best potential out pitch and that’s my final point, he needs to develop an out pitch. That will keep his pitch count down, and get him out of more jams.

Keep Going? – Yes. But not much longer as a starter. He has the most potential of anyone who has pitched significant innings to be a middle of the rotation pitcher. If he doesn’t look like he’s taking hold early, I suggest a move to the bullpen where he could increase his velocity and hunt strikeouts while ignoring pitch counts.

JT Brubaker

What’s He’s Good At – Throwing strikes, consistently. Displaying confidence.

Where He’s Improved – Early on, his breaking stuff. It was his ability to throw those with control that allowed him to survive by inducing ground balls seemingly at will.

Next Steps – Throwing strikes is great, but JT now needs to learn the difference between a strike and a quality strike. This is one of those things that gets confused with nibbling, but it’s really more about targeting thirds of the plate. For instance, when you get to a 3-2 count on Mike Moustakas you have to realize that most of the time a walk is better than a meatball, be more fine, target the outer third, not just a strike. Get me over strikes aren’t going to fly when your stuff isn’t wipeout.

Keep Going? – Yes. His makeup has shown an incredible amount of self awareness. He knows what he’s doing wrong, or what gets away from him, but he needs to show he can change it now. Far too many homeruns will prevent him from any role on this staff and the scary thing with JT is not every bad pitch he’s thrown has been sent into orbit. Has to work on more consistently finishing his pitches in the bottom of the zone.

Wil Crowe

What’s He’s Good At – Pitch mix. He has five, and on a given night each one can be great. Reminds me a lot of Joe Musgrove if I’m honest.

Where He’s Improved – He’s found a way to have more of the arrows in his quiver nightly. He needs 3 of the 5 to be effective. 4 or 5 of them and he’s damn near unhittable. (again, a very Musgrove feel to him)

Next Steps – Has to learn to control the walks. Essentially the opposite of what I just said Brubaker needs to work on. Wil tries to be too fine at times and it gets him into trouble. Thing is, this lesson is just as hard to learn and often gets a guy pounded trying to learn it.

Keep Going? – Well, he’ll have a role, but I can’t say it’ll be in the rotation. I do think he’s earned himself a good look in Spring and I believe he’ll be one of their 13 best options next season, but Wil can’t be a starter if he’s using 60 pitches to battle through 2 innings of trying to throw darts.

Miguel Yajure

What’s He’s Good At – Miguel has in my estimation the most mature and controlled breaking stuff in the system.

Where He’s Improved – Fastball command. This was his knock in the Yankees system and since arriving in the Pittsburgh system there has been zero evidence of this being a problem.

Next Steps – Simple, get healthy, stay healthy, pitch more.

Keep Going? – Yes. Simply put, without being injured he’s already here and we’re breaking down what played and what didn’t. That’s moved to next year now and for the team that stinks. As I already stated at the beginning, I don’t expect many rookie pitchers to come up here and look lights out, there’s almost always something that doesn’t quite have the shape it needs to have, or something that always worked for them until they got to MLB. That said, he has nothing more to learn in AAA, even in a shortened season. Expect innings limits for Miguel next season.

There are others, but not that I’ve seen enough from as of yet to form a real opinion on. For instance, Dillon Peters looked great in his outing, but it was just that, one outing. Max Kranick looked outstanding in his first and his subsequent attempts weren’t so hot.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you this group has what it takes to lead this team back to a winner. I’m not even going to mention Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl probably shouldn’t be considered grizzled veterans. I will say these four guys I’ve focused on have the ability to improve, and I’d expect at least 2 or 3 of them to do exactly that.

One thing I know for sure, for the next 4-5 years, you’re going to be watching a ton of young pitching, and while your patience level has very little to do with the management’s decisions with them, it might help you to look at the parade of solid MLB pitchers who certainly didn’t start out that way.

How about Zack Greinke who didn’t post his first ERA under 4 until his 4th season. In his second season he was 4-17 with a 5.80 ERA. Missed the next year with injury then finally found it in year 4. The rest is nothing short of an 18 year MLB career, so far.

Lucas Giolito is another fun one. The White Sox Ace pitcher struggled with Washington, did well in a cup of coffee with the Sox after being acquired, then in year three put up a 6.13 ERA in 32 starts. He surrendered 118 earned runs and walked 90 batters while striking out 125. To make it even more fun he gave up 27 homeruns (see Brubaker is already ahead of him) and had a WHIP of 1.477. Brutal, in every sense of the word. But the Sox were rebuilding, and his stuff said, keep working. In his 4th year literally every single one of those numbers were night and day. Now he’s a linchpin for a surging first place team.

Again, let’s be clear, I’m not saying any of these guys will be like these two, but I will say that’s the type of pedigree Mitch Keller for instance has. This is why you don’t give up easily. This is why patience is important.

Thankfully this sort of thing doesn’t come down to the fans wishes very often, but trust me in Chicago there weren’t too many people happy they lost Adam Eaton and watched him win while Giolito was pooping the bed in 2018.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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