From 2008-2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates spent a lot of resources on projectable pitchers out of high school. So far, this approach has led to breakout performances from Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham. Glasnow was taken in the fifth round of the 2011 draft and given a $600,000 bonus. Kingham was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, signed for $480,000.
The new draft rules limited middle round spending, and for a team like the Pirates, it meant they would be limited in giving out those types of bonuses in the middle rounds, especially if they were spending the maximum amount on their early round picks. But the Pirates have still been drafting prep pitchers and signing them to over-slot deals. They just have had to take those pitchers earlier, lining up the expected bonuses with the suggested draft slots in the early rounds.
We saw this last year when the Pirates landed three prep pitchers to over-slot deals. They drafted Mitch Keller and Trey Supak in the second round, then landed Gage Hinsz in the 11th round. Keller and Supak signed for $1 M each. Keller’s bonus pool amount was $886,800, while Supak was at $772,000. Meanwhile, Hinsz signed for $580,000. Picks after the tenth round can sign for up to $100,000. Anything beyond that amount counts against the overall bonus pool. The Pirates paid Hinsz the maximum amount they could to get him signed without losing a draft pick, paying a $261,525 penalty in the process.
All three pitchers are your typical Pirates prep pitcher — tall, projectable starters with fastballs that touch the low 90s or higher out of high school. All three will start off in Bristol this year, after spending time in extended Spring Training. And the goal with prep pitchers is always to get as many as possible, and hope one of them pans out. It’s unclear which one will work out in the long-run, although all three have a good shot.
Keller is the best of the group right now. He sits 91-94 MPH with his fastball, touching 95. I saw him a lot last year, and he had some poor command problems at times. Other times he looked dominant. That has been a focus for him this off-season. The pitching coaches have been working on him staying back longer, and getting his hip engaged in the delivery.
“The velocity is there,” Keller said. “I just need to work on the command. Staying back will help me. Keep the arm ahead and not getting so late in the delivery will help it. Not have to speed up as much and be able to place it wherever I want to. They’re hoping that might work.”
Keller came down to Spring Training a week earlier than everyone else to get acclimated to the warm weather, and to get an early start. For that reason, he is already into games, while the others are only up to live batting practice. His command looked good in his first start, and he said it was working well in his bullpen following the outing.
One interesting scenario came up over the off-season when the Pirates traded Travis Snider. Keller’s brother, Jon, is a pitcher in the Orioles’ organization. The two worked out over the off-season back at home in Iowa at a Perfect Game facility. When the Player to Be Named Later rumors came out, one of the rumored players coming from Baltimore was Jon Keller. As it turned out, Mitch’s brother wouldn’t be uniting with his brother in the Pirates’ organization. Despite that, they both saw the rumors.
“I actually saw that somewhere, and I was joking with him about it,” Mitch said. “It was kind of funny.”
Right after taking Keller, the Pirates drafted Trey Supak. He can hit 94 MPH, but usually sits 88-92, working 90-92 in the early innings last year, and dropping to the upper 80s later in the game. He spent the off-season working out at the University of Texas with MLB pitchers Homer Bailey and Chad Qualls, along with minor league pitchers Kenn Kasparek and Taylor Jungmann. Supak and Bailey are good friends, coming from the same home town and the same high school.
“I was low on the totem pole, but I learned so much from those guys,” Supak said.
The focus this off-season was to get stronger, slimming down while adding muscle. That might help him maintain his velocity beyond the early innings. To get to that point, he focused on nutrition and eating right.
“I feel like working at UT really helped,” Supak said. “The pitching coach at UT is really good.”
There were rumors that Hinsz was approached by the Pirates in the second round, but turned down their offer. That would suggest they liked him more than Keller and/or Supak. Because he signed late, he didn’t get a chance to pitch as much as the other two during the season. He did get an opportunity to pitch during the Fall Instructional Leagues, and started making some changes at the end of the event.
“Trying to get me in a little more rhythm with throwing,” Hinsz said. “Just keeping everything going towards the plate.”
The focus is staying strong on the backside, and making sure that he is directed to the plate during the delivery.
“It was more about opening up my hips a little more, because I close myself off at some times,” Hinsz said.
The Pirates put a big focus on two things in the lower levels with their prep pitchers — fastball command and developing a changeup. The mechanical adjustments for the prep pitchers are aimed at helping them repeat their delivery and improve their command. As for the changeup, that’s something all three will focus on this year.
“It’s one of the best pitches you can have after your fastball, and I didn’t get to throw it much in high school,” Hinsz said. “There’s no reason to.”
Hinsz finally found a grip that worked for him this off-season, and said that he’s starting to get a feel for the pitch. Supak said that it took him awhile to get the grip and get familiar with the pitch, but that it is going better now.
“It’s really come along pretty good this off-season,” Supak said. “It’s really smooth, really nice out of the hand. Same arm action [as the fastball], pretty much. That was one of the things I tried to work on this off-season when it comes to pitching.”
The grip was an issue for Keller. He originally tried a circle change, but found that his hands weren’t big enough for the grip. He eventually found a grip that worked. Keller has a good curveball, but that won’t be a big focus this year as he focuses on the fastball command and the changeup. The latter has become his secondary pitch this year.
“It’s been a really good pitch so far this Spring,” Keller said. “I’m really confident in it now. I just keep throwing it time after time, and it’s coming along really nice.”
The prep pitcher approach relies on drafting in quantity, and hoping that at least one quality player emerges. The Pirates had success in that area in the past with Glasnow and Kingham. The 2014 trio will give them three good candidates for a future breakout. However, they’re going to need to continue this approach in the draft in the future, so that they can keep pushing top pitching prospects through the system.