The Altoona Four Providing Depth and Trade Chips

Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, and Justin Wilson earned the group name “The Altoona Four” after all four pitchers put up strong numbers at the Double-A level in 2010. All four pitchers were expected to move up at some point in 2011. That point came at the start of the year for Owens and Wilson. It came later in the year for Locke. It didn’t come until 2012 for Morris.

The results in 2011 were the exact opposite of 2010 for most of the pitchers. Owens struggled in Triple-A, with a 5.05 ERA in 112.1 innings, along with a 5.7 K/9 and a 2.6 BB/9 ratio. Wilson also struggled, and was eventually moved to the bullpen. The struggles from Wilson mostly came with a lack of control, with the left-hander posting a 4.8 BB/9 ratio.

Morris and Locke started the year back in Altoona. Morris was hit hard in the rotation, then moved to the bullpen where he put up dominant numbers the rest of the season. Locke started off slow in Altoona, then really took off. He moved up to Triple-A, dominated for five starts, then went on to pitch in the majors for four starts in September, having the best season of the four pitchers.

All four started the 2012 season in Triple-A, and so far the results have been strong. Morris remains in the bullpen this year, where he has posted a 3.60 ERA in 15 innings. His secondary stuff shows that he’s been much better than his ERA, with a 15:2 K/BB ratio, a .179 BAA, and a 2.44 ground out to air out ratio. His overall numbers are inflated by a bad outing on April 11th against Columbus, when he gave up his only two homers of the year and walked one, giving up three of his six runs in one inning.

Morris worked on adding a slider to his arsenal last year, and that pitch converted in to a cutter/slider combo this year. He’s only been throwing the pitch for a few months, but so far it looks like a nasty offering, sitting in the upper 80s with sharp break that drops low in the zone. The pitch is a great compliment to his mid-90s fastball, and has led to his high strikeout rate this year, as well as his high ground ball ratio.

The other three pitchers remain in the rotation. Owens and Locke are off to excellent starts, and both could be options for the majors if a pitcher is needed. Wilson is still struggling with his control, posting a 5.0 BB/9 ratio, although he’s more dominant this year, with a 9.0 K/9 ratio in 34 innings. These three starters give the Pirates some options, as they not only provide depth from Triple-A, but they also provide potential trade chips should the club look to make a move for a major league piece.

“You can never have enough starting pitching. You can never have enough pitching period,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “To have some options, present and future, whether it’s here in Pittsburgh or to build some pitching depth. Everyone needs pitching. As we continue to grow, as we continue to develop. We’ve talked about it from day one. Two reasons why you have a talented farm system: to replace the players when you have a need at the Major League level, and also to utilize in trades as you go forward. It’s tough to trade pitching. But if we get the right piece, the right fit for us along the way, whether it’s two months from now, or two years from now, you want to have that depth to be able to build from within. But also to be able to add to your major league club.”

Rudy Owens has regained the command that made him so good in 2009 and 2010.

The biggest story from this group has been the turnaround that Rudy Owens has made from his 2011 numbers. The left-hander was named the Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009 and 2010. He then was hit around for the first time in three years after jumping to Triple-A in 2011. That caused him to lose confidence, get away from his mechanics, and ultimately lose the command that made him so good the previous two seasons.

Owens came down with a shoulder injury in the second half. The injury wasn’t the cause of the poor performance. Instead, it actually was beneficial for Owens, as it forced him to shut down his season, then focus on getting back to his mechanics while rehabbing the injury.

“I think [the injury] was a blessing in disguise, just to get me back to my mechanical issues that I had,” Owens said.

Owens put a focus on his mechanics over the off-season, starting during instructs, then continuing in mini camp. He looked much better in Spring Training this year compared to his performance last year. His command continues to be an asset this year, with a 6.9 K/9 ratio and a 0.5 BB/9 ratio in 34 innings.

“His trust of his stuff and his understanding of how he’s going to get hitters out is definitely better,” Huntington said. “He just out classed some hitters in A-ball and Double-A. Those veteran hitters, he didn’t have that 96 mph fastball that blew past them, he had to learn to pitch a little bit more. When he made a mistake, they hit it harder than the lower levels. Rudy’s learned a lot about himself. The value of the changeup. The value of the curveball. The importance of his fastball down in the zone. The importance of pitching in with his fastball, even if it’s not at 95. The ability to add, subtract, in-out, up-down, hard-soft. It’s definitely been a lesson he’s learned, and taken to heart so far this year. He’s obviously attacking the strike zone with low walk numbers, but he’s getting some swings and misses with the strikeout numbers as well. He’s off to a good start.”

Jeff Locke's turn.

Jeff Locke had strong numbers last year in Indianapolis, with a 2.22 ERA in 28.1 innings, along with a 7.9 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9 ratio. That earned him a promotion to the majors, where his command struggled, posting a 6.48 ERA in 16.2 innings over four starts, along with a 2.7 K/9 and a 5.4 BB/9 ratio.

After being optioned to minor league camp in the Spring, Locke started working on adding a Ted Lilly-esque turn to his delivery, which allows him to get to his backside during the windup, and gives him better command of his pitches. The new turn is a bit extreme, with Locke’s back completely turned to the plate before he delivers (pictured on the right).

“The whole turn thing, I think it’s added a little more deception,” Locke said. “It’s kind of complimented my other pitches as well because of that.”

The numbers for Locke this year are strong. He has a 2.31 ERA in 35 innings, with a 7.2 K/9 and a 1.8 BB/9 ratio. He has thrown seven shutout innings in each of his last two starts, and has allowed two earned runs in 26 innings over his last four outings, with a 21:7 K/BB ratio in that span.

Locke and Owens look like they could both make the jump to the majors right now, if needed. Justin Wilson, on the other hand, still needs some work on his command. On the season Wilson has a 3.97 ERA in 34 innings, along with a 9.0 K/9. However, his 5.0 BB/9 ratio is the highest of his career, and worse than his 2011 numbers at the same level.

Wilson has recently been working on some mechanical adjustments with Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer. He’s been focusing on repeating his delivery, and has moved to more of an over-head delivery, which will help keep his body under control.

“I think it gives me a little bit more rhythm and consistency,” Wilson said of the arm slot.

In his first start since making the adjustments, Wilson combined with Jose Diaz and Doug Slaten on a no-hitter, walking two in 7.1 innings and throwing 107 pitches. However, in his next start he threw 95 pitches in four innings, walking three. If Wilson doesn’t make it as a starter, he is an intriguing option as a reliever. Last year he was hitting 99 MPH out of the bullpen. However, his control problems exist whether he is starting or relieving.

As a starter, Wilson still has great velocity for a left-hander. During his no-hitter he was sitting 92-94 MPH, touching as high as 96. He has a lot of movement on his pitches. Sometimes he will put up a start that makes him look like an ace. That was the case not only in the no-hitter, but earlier in the season when he allowed one run on five hits in 6.2 innings, with a 7:0 K/BB ratio. Other times he shows zero control. His first start of the year he walked six in five innings, giving up three runs. He walked five in five innings in his fourth start of the year, also giving up three runs.

He doesn’t allow a lot of hits, with 24 in 34 innings this year, so right now the walks are pretty much just singles that he’s not giving up. But he’s probably not going to hold major league hitters to a .198 BAA, which will make his walks hurt once he makes the jump to the majors, unless he can find a way to cut down on his inconsistent control.

The numbers we are seeing from “The Altoona Four” are pretty much what we expected — only we expected this to happen last year. The dream scenario was that the group would provide the Pirates with four starting pitching options for the future. Pitching is a game of attrition, and right now it looks like the Pirates will come away with two starters, one late inning reliever, and Justin Wilson as the wild card. Of course the Pirates could also use some of these guys as trade chips later in the year, especially if the club is in a position to contend. In either case, it’s a year later than expected, but we should see the Altoona Four start to make an impact on the major league roster this year, one way or another.