Despite adding plenty of pitching through the draft over the last several years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been short on the amount of quality left-handed pitching in their system. All of their top pitching prospects are right-handers. The left-handed supply got smaller in the last year when they traded Blake Taylor for Ike Davis, and Joely Rodriguez for Antonio Bastardo. The lone left-handed starting prospect remaining was Cody Dickson, who will make the jump to High-A in 2015.
The Pirates traded Travis Snider to the Baltimore Orioles toward the end of the off-season, and in that trade they tripled their left-handed starting pitching prospects. They added Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault in the deal, with both players projected to begin the year in A-ball, and both pitchers having starter upside. Both pitchers are now in camp at Pirate City, joining the rest of the early arrivals. I had a chance to talk with each pitcher about the trade, about their specific pitches, and what they had been working on before the trade.
Tarpley was the first player to be named in the deal, and we rate him as the better prospect of the two. He threw his first bullpen with the team on Tuesday, after arriving to camp a few days early last week. At this point, the coaches are just watching him to get a feel for his pitches, style, and routine, before offering up any changes.
“They got video of me today, and they’re going to sit me down and just go over the video, and then we’re going to talk a little bit here and there,” Tarpley said on Tuesday about his first bullpen session. He did note that he was casting his curveball a little bit, and will need to tighten that pitch up as camp goes on.
Last year Tarpley played in short-season ball, and had mixed results. He struggled early in the year, giving up a lot of runs and walking a lot of batters. He had a 6.04 ERA and a 21:13 K/BB ratio in 22.1 innings through his first six starts. He turned things around in the second half, posting a 2.45 ERA in 44 innings, with a 39:11 K/BB ratio. One of the second half games came against Jamestown, where he threw seven innings, giving up three runs on eight hits, with two walks and four strikeouts. The Pirates noticed him in that outing, and talked about that start with him after they acquired him from the Orioles.
Tarpley credits the second half change to having more command of his fastball and off-speed pitches, along with doing a better job of keeping the ball down. He credits the new command of his pitches to a new arm slot he moved to last year. He switched to a high three-quarters slot, after struggling with dropping his arm down while using the previous arm slot.
“That caused a little bit more command,” Tarpley said. “I wasn’t letting the ball run, or pulling it as much. I was able to keep the ball down around where I wanted it to be. That definitely helped, and then just getting my curveball out of that same slot, finally during the back half of the season finally started working out.”
The Pirates usually keep pitchers in the lower levels focusing on three pitches — a fastball, changeup, and a breaking pitch. That will be the case for Tarpley, who throws a four-seam fastball that can touch 97 MPH, a circle changeup, and a spike curve. He will eventually add a two-seam fastball to the mix that he can use as a situational offering, although that usually comes after the jump to Double-A in the Pirates’ system.
“This is just more to get my base pitches down, and to get my command down to where I want to be, so I can be locked in with three pitches,” Tarpley said of his focus on the three pitch mix right now.
He’s in a different pitching group than Brault, although the two have been spending time together in camp. Two left-handers in the same situation is certainly a benefit for each player.
“It’s good seeing him down here, and getting to talk with him,” Tarpley said of Brault. “Kind of both being in the same situation, where we just showed up, and kind of figuring everything out. So I don’t feel alone in that situation.”
Brault was announced a month after the trade as the player to be named later, although his name was featured a lot when the initial rumors came out. He had a big season in the South Atlantic League last year, and eventually moved up to High-A at the end of the season. In his time in the lower level, Brault put up a 3.05 ERA in 130 innings, with an 8.0 K/9 and a 1.9 BB/9.
In that time, he made four starts against West Virginia, combining for a 3.09 ERA in 23.1 innings, along with a 21:6 K/BB ratio. Those numbers were inflated by his third outing, when he gave up five runs on ten hits in six innings, while striking out seven and walking one. The other three outings saw him combined for a 1.56 ERA in 17.1 innings, with a 14:5 K/BB ratio. I talked to Brault yesterday, who discussed what worked for him last year.
“A big part of it was being able to control my fastball, which is what they talk about with the Orioles a lot, and they talk about it here a lot too,” Brault said.
He throws two different fastballs, working with a four-seamer and a sinker. He also throws a changeup, slider, and curve. He pitches off the fastball, commanding it to both sides of the plate, and letting his other pitches work off of that. As for the sinker, he noted that he uses it more than just a situational pitch, leaning on it a lot more often on days when it is working for him.
“A lot of times my velocity will be at one point one day, and then it will be a little bit lower another day, and usually the day it’s lower is because the sinker is working,” Brault said of the usage of the two pitches. “It’s getting people out. I’ll keep throwing it if it’s going to get people out.”
The Differences Between the Orioles and the Pirates
Brault has only been here for a few days, but already he has picked up on a few of the differences between the way the Orioles do things and the way the Pirates do things.
“There’s physical testing here, like running, timing,” Brault said. “We didn’t do that over [with] the Orioles, so that was a surprise.”
The testing is aimed at seeing what shape a player is in, and evaluating their athleticism. There is also the Pirate Run, which every minor league player has to do. This is an 860 yard shuttle run, with the goal of completing it in under three minutes. That was one of the first things Brault did when he arrived at camp, as it’s one of the first things for everyone in camp.
He also noted that the throwing program for pitchers is a little bit different with the Pirates than the Orioles.
“The Orioles, we did a lot of dry throwing,” Brault said. “So before we would throw without a ball, we would go through our motion a lot and repeat, do the same stuff over and over again, and then we would start throwing. Here, we do a longer stretch, and then we get right into it.”
Overall, Brault said that the Pirates have a faster pace in their minor league camp than the Orioles.
“We run everywhere all the time. It’s a little bit more geared towards athleticism, I guess.”
It’s too early for either player to be assigned to a team for the 2015 season, especially since they have both only thrown one bullpen, and are still in the early stages of their work with the coaching staff. I’d expect Brault to go to Bradenton this year, since he finished last year in High-A. He might have a chance to move up to Altoona by the end of the year, due to his age.
Tarpley pitched in short-season ball, and it’s not out of the question that he could also go to Bradenton, especially if his second half adjustments stick and show that he doesn’t need much work in West Virginia. I think it’s more likely that he goes to West Virginia, with a chance to move to Bradenton by the end of the year.
I usually reserve judgement on left-handers until they have success in Double-A, as lefties can fool lower level hitters with stuff that doesn’t work once they make that jump to Double-A. Both of these guys, along with Cody Dickson, have the chance to be a starter one day. But we’ll probably have to wait a year or two in order to see them make that jump, and see what kind of upside they really have once they face that key upper level challenge.