First Pitch: Should the Pirates Move Pitchers Through the Minors Faster?

I had an interesting question in the comments the other day from jalcorn427. I started to respond, then thought about the topic some more, and decided to expand on it with an article. The comment can be seen in its original form here, and the text of the comment is blow, with my thoughts to follow.

Tim, could you comment on the value of slow tracking elite SP prospects? In another organization (Toronto, Miami, etc) [Glasnow] would have been in AA in June and MLB this fall. It seems that some teams promote rapidly almost in fear of future injury. There is also less benefit of gaming team control with pitchers due to high attrition/injury rate. Do you think the patient approach pays off, I imagine command is the big difference. I’m not saying I think he should be in the pen next month, just thinking about how differently other teams do things.

I don’t know the motivation for other teams when they’re moving guys through the system, so I can’t really speak to the theory that teams move guys in fear of an injury. I will say that when I think of organizations that move their pitchers quickly, I think of the Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins. In each case, the results aren’t good.

The big success story here is Jose Fernandez. He was drafted out of high school in 2011, and spent his first full season in 2012 between Low-A and High-A. He started in the majors in 2013, jumping over Double-A and Triple-A, and immediately looked like an ace. In these cases, it’s popular to say that the Pirates would still have Fernandez in Triple-A. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. They definitely take a slower approach, but then again we don’t know how they’d react with a guy like Fernandez, because they’ve never had a guy like Fernandez. He was a first round prep pitcher. Their only experience in this area (under the current management group) has been with Jameson Taillon. Taillon has struggled with his stuff being too easy to hit — a problem Fernandez never had. They could have moved Taillon up on a rapid pace, but it would have been a disaster.

Speaking of disasters, that’s where the rest of the examples come in. Jacob Turner, who was once one of the top pitching prospects in the game, was brought to the majors by Detroit in 2011. That was two years after he was drafted out of high school. Miami traded for him in 2012, and kept him in the majors. He has struggled, and now has a career 4.73 ERA in 266.1 innings. He’s out of options, and Miami was forced to get rid of him, with the Cubs now trying him in relief.

Chris Volstad was rushed to the majors at the age of 21. He had early success, but quickly went downhill, with a career 4.94 ERA in 703.2 innings. Alex Sanabia came up at age 21, had early success, and has struggled since. Then there’s the most popular example, Dontrelle Willis, who looked amazing from ages 21-24, then lost it after that.

Switching over to Detroit gets more examples. Andy Oliver was rushed to the majors one year after he was drafted out of college, with very little time in the minors. He has dealt with horrible control issues that he might be starting to overcome this year with the Pirates, just in time to become a minor league free agent. Rick Porcello was brought up at the age of 20, and struggled over a four year span before having success this season. Unfortunately, he also only has one year of control remaining beyond the 2014 season. Perhaps he should have spent more than one full season in the minors, and some time above A-ball.

Then there’s a case where a guy didn’t have minor league success after being rushed through the lower levels. Casey Crosby was one of the top prospects for the Tigers for a few years. He skipped High-A, and developed some horrible control problems in the upper levels. He’s never gotten over those issues, and is now a struggling reliever in Triple-A. Ryan Perry was a first rounder out of college in 2008, and Detroit sent him directly to Triple-A in 2009, along with a trip to the majors. He hasn’t stuck in the majors, and has been struggling in the minors for the last two seasons.

There are also two recent situations where Miami has benefitted by other teams rushing pitchers. Henderson Alvarez came up at the age of 21 with Toronto, then posted a 4.85 ERA in 187 innings at the age of 22. The Marlins added him as one of the players in the huge salary dump that sent Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle to Toronto in 2013. Obviously Alvarez had some value still, but not enough for Toronto to be content with him as a starter, even though he probably shouldn’t have been up so early.

Nathan Eovaldi is a similar case, coming up at the age of 21 with the Dodgers, pitching a full season at 22 with struggling numbers, and getting traded to Miami. This time it was for Hanley Ramirez, so again, Eovaldi had value. In both of these cases, the players didn’t break out in their first two years, and waited until ages 23-24 to start having consistent success in the majors. And that’s two years burned off their team controlled years.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what would have happened under alternate timelines. Would Chris Volstad be a horrible pitcher if he spends a few more years in the minors? Were guys like Andy Oliver and Ryan Perry destined to have horrible control issues, even if they spent time in the lower levels? Would Eovaldi and Alvarez have struggled for two years even if they came up at age 23?

We also don’t really know the benefits of the Pirates’ approach, or if there are any. To this point, we really haven’t seen any examples of guys who have had lasting success after being developed by the Pirates. Gerrit Cole is one of the first guys who has been drafted and fully developed by this group, under the “slow” approach. And he didn’t even move through the system at a slow pace, since he spent one and a half years in the minors. You could count Jeff Locke as a guy who moved through the system, although we haven’t seen consistent production yet.

That’s to be expected. Most of the guys I mentioned for Miami and Detroit were drafted around 2007, then rushed through the minors. That leaves years of data to give us a good read on their careers. Meanwhile, the Pirates examples were drafted several years later, and are moving slower through the system. If they have reached the majors, we don’t have any long-term data like we do with Perry or Porcello.

I will say that I don’t think the slow approach hurts the Pirates. You look at some trends above, and a lot of guys see similar problems. Skip over A-ball, then develop control issues in the upper levels. The Pirates stress command of the fastball in the lower levels. Tyler Glasnow will be a huge test of whether this approach works. If he ends up having the same control issues in the upper levels, then the slow approach might have been for nothing. If he can seriously cut down on the control problems, then the slow approach would be everything.

Or there’s the guys who get to the majors, have quick success, see the league adjust to them, and never adjust back. I’d think that’s due to the fact that they never really developed their game in the minors. They had good stuff — good enough for limited success in the minors — but that stuff wasn’t developed enough to allow for long-term success. Most guys need that development. Guys like Jose Fernandez are the exception.

The problem here is that people see this quick success, then call for every pitching prospect to be rushed, while ignoring all of the struggles that come later. Glasnow could probably come up now and have a lot of immediate success in a smaller role because other teams don’t know him, and because he’s got great stuff. But the league would quickly figure him out, and he’d have to find a way to get outs with more than just good raw stuff. He’d have to develop a changeup, learn to command his fastball, learn when to mix in the off-speed stuff, and all of the other things he is working on in A-ball right now.

Another problem with the desire to see people moved up quickly is that it only shows success on the surface. People equate a promotion with good development, and that’s not always the case when you’re aggressively pushing a guy through the minors. A guy gets promoted and it is seen as a good step for his career, and a step closer to the majors. But if that player hasn’t developed the tools needed to play in the majors, then the quick promotion is actually a bad thing.

The desire to see people moved through the minors at a fast pace is an interesting one. I know when I post this article, with this title, I’m going to get immediate “YES!” answers on Twitter and Facebook from people who have only read the title. There’s probably a huge case study there on why fans want to see guys moved up so fast while having such an automatic response. Maybe it’s the lack of understanding of what a player is working on, or the lack of having actually seen a player in person to realize his flaws. Maybe it’s just what I said before, where a promotion equals success and a step closer to the majors, without regard to whether the player is actually having success and a step closer to being ready for the majors.

If the slow approach means that the Pirates miss out on a stud pitcher going in the majors at age 21-22, then they’re probably eventually getting that same quality, just starting at ages 23-24. The flip side is avoiding the Eovaldi/Alvarez situation, where a guy doesn’t have the best stuff his first two years, then figures it out, but burns 1.5-2 years of service time. The former situation, with a phenom like Fernandez, is rare. The latter situation, with guys not reaching their potential until 23-24, is much more common. It would be better for the Pirates to start the career of a phenom a year or two later, rather than wasting a year or two on a guy who isn’t ready for the majors yet.

For Glasnow, we’ll see how this approach pays off. It’s a question that won’t be answered for a few years, at the least. And it might never be truly answered, since we will never know what an aggressive approach would have led to. The only thing that matters is developing a quality MLB pitcher, and getting the player as close to his ceiling as possible. The Pirates seem to take a more thorough approach to developing pitchers, with the goal that they’re fully ready when they reach the majors. That’s not a bad approach to take, even if it does mean that they might never see a guy coming up to the majors at the age of 21.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Adrian Sampson With Much Better Stuff in His Second Triple-A Start

**Pirates Sign Catcher Out of Venezuela

**Charlie Morton Has a Sports Hernia

**Gerrit Cole Activated From the DL, Brent Morel Optioned to Triple-A

**Minor Moves: JaCoby Jones Placed on the West Virginia DL

**Morning Report: Ranking a New Prospect

First Pitch

  • I will keep this about Glasnow as the pace of pitchers moving through the minors should be on a case by case basis. In my opinion Glasnow should have a couple months of AA ball under his belt. I don’t see any value in him being in high A whatsoever, although it would be pointless now to bring him up. He is not being challenged there in the least and as basically throwing bullpen sessions as he gives up about the same amount of hits in warmups. Glasnow is much more dominant than Cole ever was in the minors and he has accomplished the Pirates main goal for him of improving his control. To me it’s hard to improve if you’re not being challenged and everything you are doing is working. He earned his promotion a couple months ago. I will enjoy watching him in Altoona next year though.

  • Very interesting question… The Cardinals seem to move their pitchers to St. Louis relatively quickly – Wacha, Rosenthal, Miller, Kelly and Martinez all moved up without a whole lot of time in the minors and probably had their mlb debuts at an average age of around 21 (Kelly was a little older) (Rosenthal and Martinez were starters in the minors, and Martinez has started a few games for St. Louis this year).

  • They should move them up when they are ready. There isn’t a counter-argument here.

    • Well the problem with that is how you define “ready”. Some define ready as having great stats and overpowering the hitters at a certain level. However, a player can absolutely dominate A ball and still have big flaws that need to be addressed before taking on AA talent.

  • Detroit has a history of rushing guys more than just about anyone for whatever reason. Matt Anderson is another kid they rushed. He was the number one pick in the draft I think and was up at 20 or 21, threw 98 or harder, and ended up never developing command of the fastball or having a true second out pitch. They did have Porcello but he had under a 100 era+ for 4 of his first 5 years and is only now pitching really well at 25. The Pirates have also had decent success being patient with struggling pitchers and fixing veterans with good stuff so I come from the perspective that I think they know what they are doing and what their goals are for a kid. For some miscellaneous fan to say they are going too slow…they have their right…but the opinion rarely is based on any facts…even with Glasnow, his control wasn’t decent until the last 5-6 weeks or so and he is still 20 for a few more days…so what’s the rush?

  • Terrific article Tim. Undoubtably, the Pirates take a holistic approach to player development. I mean, NOBODY and I mean NOBODY saw Tyler Glasnow coming except a lone Pirates scout. ALL the other MLB scouts literally walked out on this kid according to the Pirate scout that signed him for $600k. Same thing with Verlander when he only threw 83 mph in his workout for the scouts in high schoo. He had to go to college. Ditto with Stephen Strassburg, He also had to go to college to develop. The Pirates were in Las Vegas hoping that the Nats wouldn’t actually take Bryce Harper, but they also had their eyes on a high school prep pitcher that was flying under the radar…Nick Kingham. Being a small market team, the Pirates are always looking for the next Justin Verlander. Before he becomes OBVIOUS to everyone else. That’s their true stated motivation. That’s their only hope to get high end starters. They have to develop them. Then once/if you get your Cadillac pitcher in the garage, you want to keep him. You don’t want to over-use him. You certainly don’t want to rush him…ala Tim Conroy. I mean what a misuse of a talented young arm (a hard throwing lefty with a loose arm to boot) by the A’s.

  • I have no problem with the patient slow approach in general. I think my one wish is that they’d do more of the Michael Wacha-Ian Kennedy approach and bring good starters up when in a pennant chase to throw out of the bullpen. I’m not saying Glasnow, per se, given that he’s all the way down in single A, but someone like Taillon last year (I realize we may not have actually needed him last year…this is more of a “this is how I’d like to see them do it comment”). FWIW, I did a search on fangraphs for rookies under the age of 22 (picked that number arbitrarily so it’d show guys who made it through the minors relatively quickly…I know some started at 22 and others at 18) that were brought up since 2000 just to see what kind of success those players had in that month. I’m not really sure what it shows (don’t have time to go and look at who the cautionary tales and who the successes were, but I see a list of names of players that helped teams in the pennant race and have turned out ok (some of them like Kennedy took longer than they should..and maybe that’s because he got pulled up too soon). Just for fun, here’s that list.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=10&type=8&season=2014&month=0&season1=2000&ind=3&team=0&rost=0&age=14%2c22&filter=&players=0&sort=17%2ca

  • Wabbit_Season
    August 21, 2014 10:41 am

    Mr. Williams. This is an interesting article and one of the reasons I enjoy your blog.

    I develop soccer players from the youngest age to the cusp of college and there is much in my experience that would seem to support the Pirates’ approach. I have had many young athletes want to “play up” and I think this is really common in our country. It’s like a parent who is proud of his prodigy who skips a grade: That kid will never see the birthday parties of his classmates and never be socially old enough to be included at the advanced grade.

    I always have parents who want to “push” their player. And while that child may be able to handle the higher level, they may not be able to master that level, where they would have been studs at their appropriate age. The parents, given the choice, almost never listen to me.

    I love reading on this site about how the Pirates manage this process. 1. Consistent fastball command. 2. Change of speed. 3. Breaking stuff. I love that they actually take pitches away from players to make them focus, win or lose, on the development of the essential tools. I love that the Pirates watch for what a player does with failure, because this is so essential in building a well balanced person, let alone a finely tuned professional athlete.

    I feel that, in general and not for all cases of course, when an athlete skips levels they miss essential training. Much of this is just the social aspect of sport and the importance of team-building, knowing your surroundings, developing support mechanisms. I just cannot imagine what it is like for a teenager just out of high school to be suddenly engulfed in the world of professional sports. I would have to imagine that it would be destructive to the individual.

    Thanks, Tim, for a great article.

    -Wabbit
    “What’s the score, boys? What did Bugs Bunny do? What’s with the Carrot League Baseball today?”

  • good stuff tim. I personally have little problem with how they move our pitchers.

  • Great article Tim. I don’t think there is a perfect solution here. I think each pitcher creates his own path. Some are ready earlier then others. For the Pirates and our cash limitations we cannot afford to bring up a guy and allow him to develop in the majors. Porcello is a great example. He has struggled until recently and he is getting close to FA. The TIgers will likely resign him to a big contract and never look back. The Pirates don’t have that luxury. If he was a Pirate he would likely be tracking towards FA and a move to a bigger team.

  • Thanks for the well thought out reply. I agree that you want to make sure your pitching prospects are fully developed prior to exposure to MLB. The issue of gaming service time for SP is another issue. I think the consensus is that there is little gained by doing the whole super 2 thing with SP. At any rate, it will be interesting to see if the slow route really works better or if it is more about raw talent in determining MLB success.

    • I remember Littlefield’s last or second to last year sitting and adding up something like their worst 8,9,10 relievers that year’s eras. It was only 5,6,7 ip for a lot of the guys but they had a revolving door and probably 20+ guys pitch for them that year but these guys eras added up to some crazy numbers, like a 9.00+ ERA and a 1.8 WHIP or higher…and these IP added up so it was those numbers for 50-60 IP or more. Take your last guy in your bullpen and give him those numbers this year or any year and be glad this fo is here… I disagree with them on things and the Grilli deal while in theory made some amount of sense was a disaster…not getting a better reliever than they did and overconfidence in this pen and dealing Morris because of that overconfidence also has irked me, not getting a real 1B has hurt, but those are debatable issues after the fact. 60 innings with a 9.00 era at the back of your pen is inexcusable jack-assery!

  • CalipariFan506
    August 21, 2014 8:15 am

    My biggest issue isn’t that they are taken on a slow path. It is that they don’t give up on guys as a starting pitcher to convert them to relievers in time to help the MLB bullpen. Bullpens are year to year and volatile. Sadler should be pitching out of the bullpen exclusively right now. Not being stretched out in Indianapolis only to return to Pittsburgh and sit or pitch 2 innings at a time. If you’re counting on Sadler as MLB starting pitcher depth your season is essentially over anyways so I don’t necessarily buy that rationale.

    • “they don’t give up on guys as a starting pitcher to convert them to relievers in time to help the MLB bullpen.”

      Really? Let’s look at the Pirates’ bullpen as of this very day:

      Brandon Cumpton
      Jeanmar Gomez
      Stolmy Pimentel
      Jared Hughes
      Justin Wilson
      Tony Watson
      Mark Melancon

      Hughes, Wilson, Watson, and Cumpton spent their entire minor league career in the Pirates’ organization.

      Hughes was a full-time starter from 2006 through 2008 (in AA). In 2009 and 2010 he split time between starting and relieving, and by 2011 was primarily a reliever.

      Wilson was a full-time starter from 2009 through July of 2011. He moved into the bullpen for August of 2011, then started again in 2012, until he was called up to the Pirates, at which point he pitched full-time out of the bullpen.

      Watson was a full-time starter from 2007 through 2009. He started 2010 in the bullpen, then moved back into the Altoona rotation at the end of July before becoming a full-time reliever again in 2011.

      Cumpton has pitched 92 games in the minor leagues over 6 years, only 6 of which have been in relief.

      Gomez and Pimentel were both full-time starters before coming to Pittsburgh – Pimentel in the minors, Gomez in both the majors and the minors.

      Basically, the ENTIRE PIRATES’ BULLPEN is “guys they gave up on as a starting pitcher and converted to the bullpen”.

      If your complaint is that they don’t give up on guys as starters FAST ENOUGH, then (a) giving up on a guy as a starter too soon is worse than giving up on him too late, because starters are more valuable than relievers; and (b) you’re just wrong: Hughes was converted to a full-time reliever in 2011 and was in the majors in 2012; Watson was converted to a reliever in 2010 and was in the majors in 2011; and Wilson and Cumpton were still starting in the minors when they moved into the Pirates’ bullpen.

  • Dave Williams is about the only Pirate I can think of that was rushed through the system. That was like 10 years ago, maybe more. He had a good year, and then the league caught up to him.

    • It’s tough to judge any other Pirate front offices besides this one on rushing prospects because the other ones didn’t produce any prospects! Very few at least. Esteban Loaiza was brought along at a normal rate a long time ago, and Bullington and JVB were pushed a little but those were guys that blew out their arms…as was Brad Lincoln and Sean Burnett. Moskos was not rushed but Moskos never dominated anywhere ever. Going back to the early 90’s Steve Cooke was pushed and was up at 22. He blew out his arm but I thought that guy was gonna be awesome before that. Huge lefty with control before the injury. Had a great rookie year at 23 then injuries started the next season. He was done by 27.

  • Joe Sweetnich
    August 21, 2014 7:37 am

    Another Detroit example is a current Tiger farmhand and Pirate AAA guy this year, Daniel Schlereth.

  • Scott Kliesen
    August 21, 2014 5:21 am

    It’s hard as fans to be patient, but the Pirates brass is paid to take the long view on the organization and the upcoming star players in it. I generally agree with the slow approach of the Pirates, especially w prep Pitchers, but I do think Pirates could deviate from the plan w a college Pitcher if he shows he has certain characteristics (pitch command, mental toughness) which would lead to ML success.

    • I agree scott, the individual approach is the best thing in most situations and it sure beats trying to turn pitchers out with an assembly line approach.

    • SK: I guess the whole article centers on Tyler Glasnow and whether he could be in the majors this year or next. Prior to 2013 this was a young kid (19) with a big arm, control issues, and only 35 IP as a professional. He broke out last year, but only threw 111 innings. This year started with a leg injury that kept him behind, and he is now only at 113 innings pitched. He will turn 21 in a few days, and why move him out of Bradenton, a playoff bound team to the AA Altoona franchise that is 15 to 20 games under .500 and going nowhere? Once he gets to AA, then we can think about whether we need to see him in Pittsburgh as a 21 year old, or be patient and work him through AA and AAA so that he is ready to be in Pittsburgh as an adequately mature 22 year old in 2016. Gerrit Cole was drafted the same year as Glasnow (2011), but he had the benefit of 3 years in college, and progressed quickly through the minors to get to Pittsburgh in 2013 as a 22 year old. The Pirates are not slow, and they are not fast, but they do work with each individual to maximize their skills so that they can cope with adversity by the time they get to the majors. The kid from the Marlins was 14-1 with an ERA under 2.00 and excellent control and command at Lo A and Hi A in 2012. They bypassed AA and AAA and he pitched in 2013 and he was excellent. Now he is off with TJ and will be lucky to make it back by mid-season in 2015 – was it worth rushing him past AAA? Not if the team has to sacrifice 2 years to get one.

      • Scott Kliesen
        August 21, 2014 7:48 am

        Good morning Emjay. You clearly are well versed on this matter. Your reasoning is quite sound.

        I would dispute the contention some make that TJ surgery is a direct result of a Pitcher being rushed too fast up to the ML team. It’s much more likely a byproduct of throwing too often at 100% effort combined w too many curves/sliders/cutters before the arm and shoulder are fully developed.

        I don’t believe for a minute if Fernandez had been in the Pirates system he would’ve avoided the elbow injury he sustained earlier this season.

        • Yeah TJ and being rushed have nothing to do with each other. If someone knew the answer to preventing TJ in young SP they would be a rich man. The Bucs have several TJ guys of their own with the slow promotion plan.

          BTW, James Andrews thinks the TJ rise is due to playing too much baseball as young pitchers. All the travel teams and year round training is a huge difference to the old days when high school kids played baseball in the summer and then basketball, football, etc. for 6 or 7 months. His recent paper really pushed the idea that taking fall/winter off might be the best medicine.

          • Wabbit_Season
            August 21, 2014 10:53 am

            427

            Nice. I’m totally with Dr. Andrews on this and was unaware of the recent article.

            Although I do offer soccer development basically year round, I do recognize the value in my athletes taking up wrestling or basketball or baseball or some other sport.

            The body breaks down due to overuse when you specialize too early. You need to use different muscle groups for different sports and this is good for athletes. Time away from your chosen sport can be very good for you.

            Wasn’t one of our All-Time Pirate greats a college all star in basketball? I wanna say Dick Groat? It is too bad, the passing of multi-sport athletes.

            -Wabbit
            “That’s the ol’ pepper! That’s the ol’ pitchin’ kid!!!”

            • Dick Groat was an all-american at Duke (his number is retired at Cameron Indoor) and even played in the NBA briefly.

              Here is the Andrews statement –

              http://www.asmi.org/research.php?page=research&section=TJpositionstatement

              • Link got messed up – just google James Andrews tommy john statement, its the first result

                • Wabbit_Season
                  August 21, 2014 11:03 am

                  427 – It worked for me.

                  Really good stuff in there and coming from the preeminent man on the issue.

                  Makes me think back to when the Bucs put in place rigid pitch founts and even started keeping track of warm-up throws and the like. I remember one minor league coach was fired for violating the pitch-count protocol.

                  Thanks for the article.

                  -BB

      • Because in the minors it’s about developing the player, not going to the playoffs. If Glasnow’s development requires a bigger challenge he needs to be moved up .
        I personally think, or thought when the Pirates weren’t playing for anything in SEPT, that you bring a good kid up to show him how much more work he needs to do. And to reward him for having a good season. I think it would also tell you a little about the character of the guy your trying to develop. Show em what the big dance is like. It lets them see what they need to be able to do to get there and be successful.

  • Exellent article Tim. The pirates do seem to have pitcher development down to a science, of course there are going to be some guys who just don’t make it regardless of the teams approach, all in all though it looks like the pirates have a pretty sound approach to pitcher development. Now if they could just translate that to hitting and fundamentals…..

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