When discussing the best Pittsburgh Pirates draft under Neal Huntington, the 2011 group has to be at the top of the list. It features Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Clay Holmes, and a few other players who have a shot at reaching the majors.
If there is one draft that could challenge that group, it’s the 2013 class. The Pirates took top prospects Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire in the first round that year. They also landed some interesting guys like JaCoby Jones, Cody Dickson, and Chad Kuhl, who will either be in Bradenton or Altoona this season. One other guy who could help boost the overall group is right-handed pitcher Billy Roth.
The Pirates took Roth in the 16th round, and signed him away from a commitment to Arizona with a $190,000 bonus. It’s a common story from the last few years: Prep pitcher drops due to signability concerns, Pirates draft said pitcher and give him an over-slot bonus to sign, and he joins the many other tall projectable pitchers in the system.
Roth looked special at the time of the draft. Baseball America called him the best late round pick for the Pirates, and one of the best late round picks in the draft in their reviews that year. He was 6′ 3″, 184 pounds, and could already hit 92 MPH with his fastball.
He showed some potential when I saw him in the GCL in 2013, working in the 90-92 MPH range early in his starts, and dropping down to the upper 80s after the second inning. Last year he made the jump to Bristol, and saw an improvement in his strikeouts, but that came with some serious control problems. He walked 33 batters in 45 innings, throwing a speed bump on his development track.
I saw Roth again on Tuesday, and he looked the best that I’ve seen him in the last three years. I only saw about two of his innings, but his control looked much better than last year. The biggest part was that he was working 91-94 MPH, hitting the 94 mark four different times.
“I put on a big of weight this year,” Roth said after his start. “In previous years I’ve seen myself up to 95, but I think gaining weight will help me be more consistent in my velocity.”
Roth worked in the off-season with the Pirates’ strength staff, trying to put on ten pounds. He’s currently weighing 201 pounds, which is 17 pounds heavier than where he was on draft day. That’s not uncommon, as part of the plan for the Pirates when they draft projectable pitchers is to add strength, and hope the added strength results in added velocity.
The added velocity is great, but Roth is going to need better control in order to get back on track this year. He showed that on Tuesday, but consistency will be the key.
“Sometimes I just don’t get to my backside,” Roth said of his control problems. “I just come out too quick. A lot of times I’ll end up spiking a pitch or two. I’ve been really focusing on getting to my backside.”
A big issue with Roth is that his leg kick needs to be more consistent. He calls it a “knee to nipple” approach, where the focus is literally trying to bring his knee up to his nipple. This helps him stay on his backside more, so he’s not rushing through his delivery and opening up too soon.
“It really helps being balanced on the back leg,” Roth said.
Fastball command is another common focus for the Pirates when developing prep pitchers. The third focus is learning a changeup, since most high school pitchers don’t throw that pitch often before pro ball. Roth said his changeup has come a long way in the last year.
“Last year I was just getting comfortable throwing it,” Roth said. “This year I want to get comfortable locating it. I threw it a lot today, and I think I got three outs with it. It’s come a long way, but it’s still got a long way to go.”
The focus here for Roth is typical for learning a changeup — getting consistency, having the arm speed match the fastball, staying on top of the ball, and getting more separation in velocity from the fastball. On that last part, Roth sat 86-88 MPH last year, and was in that range on Tuesday. The added velocity to his fastball will help, but he’s going to need to find a way to lose some velocity with the changeup in the future.
“I think it could be a good pitch for me, once I get consistent with it,” Roth said.
Roth has a nice 12-to-6 curveball that he can use as a strikeout pitch. However, his focus in the lower levels is primarily going to be on commanding the fastball and improving the changeup. He is currently slated to begin the year in extended Spring Training, and will likely go to Morgantown this summer. He’ll be one of the guys to watch in the lower levels, especially if he can improve his fastball command.
Tuesday Game Notes
**I wrote about the 2014 prep pitchers over the weekend. Two of them pitched yesterday, showing the typical strong velocity. Second round pick Mitch Keller was 91-94 MPH, hitting 95 once. 11th round pick Gage Hinsz was 90-92 MPH, hitting 93 once. For more on each pitcher, check out Sunday’s article.
**I saw JaCoby Jones make a nice diving stop on a hard grounder up the middle. I’ve been impressed with his transition to shortstop, and will definitely be following that a lot this year in Bradenton.
**I watched Josh Bell taking grounders on the back fields, and shot some video.