The 2015 draft is only days away, and while the draft is unpredictable, there is one thing we know will happen with absolute certainty: The Pirates will take a college pitcher who has a pretty bland scouting profile, but a good sinker and good command of his fastball. And despite the vanilla feel to the pick, that prospect will probably end up putting up good results in a rotation spot in the future.
This happened in the 2013 draft with Chad Kuhl, who went in the ninth round and is now doing well in the Altoona rotation. From that same draft, tenth rounder Shane Carle was used to acquire Rob Scahill, and is also pitching in Double-A. In 2012 the Pirates took 18th rounder John Kuchno, and signed him to an over-slot deal. He is also in Altoona now, and has a Jared Hughes upside. They’ve also taken guys like Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler in previous years.
The Pirates went that same route again in 2014, selecting Austin Coley with their eighth round pick. Coley signed for under-slot, saving the Pirates a small $28,900, which they used as part of a package to sign 11th round pick Gage Hinsz. Despite being under-slot, and despite the lower profile and ranking at the time of the draft (there was very little information on him, and he wasn’t in the top 500), Coley has managed to put up some strong numbers this year in West Virginia.
This shouldn’t be a big surprise for two reasons. For one, Coley is a college pitcher who is throwing in a college league. He is used to this level of talent, so his success at the level doesn’t tell as much about his upside. Then there’s also the fact that the Pirates have been successful with so many of these picks before, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that another guy is off to a good start.
Coley has a 3.62 ERA in 54.2 innings with the Power this year, although that is a bit inflated due to poor infield defense in West Virginia. You get the real story when you look at his 54:7 K/BB ratio and his 48% ground ball rate. When I saw him last month in West Virginia, he looked very polished for the level, showing command of all three of his pitches. He isn’t a typical sinkerball guy, since he throws a four seam fastball instead of a two seamer. However, he gets some run on his pitch, and enough sink that he generates an above-average amount of ground balls. This isn’t totally unusual, as Brandon Cumpton sees the same thing with his four seam fastball.
Part of the movement and the ground balls might be due to an adjustment he made last season with his arm slot. He had a shoulder injury, which derailed his rookie season in pro ball. After the injury healed, he worked with Minor League Pitching Coordinator Scott Mitchell on dropping from a high three-quarters slot to a three-quarters slot that Coley said feels more natural.
“Coming out of college, the way I threw the ball was really detrimental to my shoulder,” Coley said. “So what we did is we really worked on simplifying the delivery. I’m kind of dropping my arm angle just a tad. And that may have added something to it with run on the fastball.”
The new arm slot also changed his curveball, making the switch from a 12-to-6 pitch to a slurve, since the new angle wouldn’t allow for the 12-to-6 pitch. The pitch still has a similar movement, just with a tilt. Coley has looked good using the pitch for strikeouts, and is able to command it well, throwing it for strikes but also burying it in the dirt for swings and misses as well.
“His delivery allows him to be competitive on every pitch that he makes, and that’s exactly what we want,” West Virginia manager Brian Esposito said. “There is nothing in his way. Mechanically, everything he does now is to go out there and compete. He looks to get the ball on the ground. He looks to get guys out on three pitches or less. And he attacks hitters.”
Coming out of the draft, the changeup was Coley’s best rated off-speed pitch, and was his out pitch due to the inconsistency of the curveball.
“The changeup was my best pitch in college, because the curveball was really inconsistent,” Coley said. “The changeup was always something that has been kind of my out pitch. I’m just trying to continue to work that in. It’s gotten good results so far, so hopefully use it more and more.”
Despite the high ratings, Esposito said that the changeup was behind the fastball, and pitching coach Mark DiFelice said that they had been working on cleaning up the pitch.
“Once he’s able to master throwing that changeup the same way he does his fastball, and bottoms out that zone, he’s going to have three deadly pitches to work with,” Esposito said. “He’s doing a really good job now of just competing in the bottom of the zone.”
Esposito managed Coley last year in Jamestown, and noted the key difference in his stuff this time around is better command from the new arm slot. That strong command is allowing him to focus on the off-speed stuff a little bit more than you’d expect from a West Virginia pitcher.
“He’s a little bit older than most in this league, so that was one of the things that we said in Spring Training with a lot of these guys on the staff, if the fastball command is there, then we can go to the secondary pitches,” DiFelice said.
This is typically an approach that the Pirates take in Bradenton. However, Coley is stuck in West Virginia, due to a lack of rotation spots at the higher level. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move up. When I talked with DiFelice last month, he mentioned that Coley does a great job of throwing all of his pitches for strikes. He mentioned two other names on the roster who did the same thing — Montana DuRapau and Miguel Rosario. Both have since been promoted to Bradenton.
So is Coley ready for the same jump?
“The way my reports have been with Austin, do I think he’s ready for that jump to Bradenton? Probably,” DiFelice said. “I think if you’re able to command three pitches for strikes, basically throw the ball where you want to as far as your fastball inside, that warrants a level increase. It’s not my call, and there’s guys ahead of him that have been in the organization a little bit longer.”
It might be difficult for this to happen, especially with Tyler Eppler and Clay Holmes joining the Bradenton rotation in the next few weeks. Coley definitely looks ready to jump to the next level, but he’s going to need a spot cleared for him before that can happen. Until then, expect Coley to continue pitching well out of the West Virginia rotation.