On Wednesday I was looking through a minor league baseball set from 1988 and it led me to a terrific conversation on Thursday night with a former player in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. The 1988 Augusta Pirates were the South Atlantic League affiliate of the Pirates and they had some great players. They had nine players make it to the majors, including Moises Alou, Orlando Merced and Carlos Garcia. They also had a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher named Joe Pacholec, who posted a 2.06 ERA in 148.1 innings, with 120 strikeouts. A pitcher with those stats now would be a top prospect in the system, but he never played pro ball after the 1989 season and that got me curious.
I tried looking through old articles for any information about Pacholec, but there was nothing from the end of 1989 until April 5, 1991 when it was announced that the Pirates released him. He had a good 1989 season for Salem in the Carolina League(High-A), so what happened? The only results I was getting from 1990 were from a fishing site called Legends Outdoors, so after finding nothing else, I went to the site. Once I realized it was the same person and he had contact information, I sent an email and that eventually led to a 45 minute phone call from Joe Pacholec.
He was roommates with Tim Wakefield when Wakefield was a position player that had no shot at making it to the majors. He remembers Wakefield learning the knuckleball on the side and then coming to camp the next year as a pitcher. Pacholec tells of how catcher Trent Jewett was the smartest player on the field and he never shook him off. He said that he knew Jewett wasn’t going to make it as a player, but the fact he has coached since 1992, with 17 years in the Pirates’ system, is no surprise.
Talking to someone who pitched from 1987-89 in pro ball offers a stark contrast between what we see with the Pirates now and back then. Pacholec was signed as a non-drafted free agent after long-time Pirates’ scout Joe Consoli saw him hitting 90 MPH in the eighth inning of a legion ball game. That was in 1986 after he was out of high school for a year, and he had a half year of college. His bonus at the time was $1500, which was enough back then to convince him to give pro ball a try, though Joe said that he may have been better off going to a four-year college and entering the draft at a later age.
After going through Spring Training in 1987, Pacholec was assigned to Watertown of the NYPL(same league as the Morgantown affiliate now). At that level now, pitchers can either go five innings or throw 75 pitches, unless they top 30 in a single inning, then they are done. Back then, Pacholec threw 79 innings over 15 starts and had a 3.76 ERA and 80 strikeouts. A little quick math will tell you that inning total couldn’t happen now in 15 starts.
The next year he was at Augusta and using today’s standards, his 5IP/75 pitch limit would still be in effect due to his age and pro experience. Pacholec made 25 starts and threw 148.1 innings, an average of almost six per outing. He also had two complete games and threw one shutout. The only way a 20-year-old in Low-A gets a complete game now is with some help from the weather. So here is where things really get interesting. His pitch count was tracked back then, but he said he threw over 120 pitches multiple times. Pitchers came out due to performance or they said “yes” when the manager asked if they were done. Pacholec said he had a bulldog mentality on the mound, so he was only coming out if the manager told him.
Pacholec went to Salem in 1989 and had a 3.87 ERA in 158 innings, with 150 strikeouts. Again, you’re talking about those numbers from a 21-year-old, and while the ERA is higher, the strikeout total alone would keep him highly rated in the system. He also had a fastball that sat 91-92 MPH, a slider that was “nasty” at 83-84 and an overhand curve. What he didn’t have was a change-up and that’s where everything went wrong.
After throwing 158 innings during the regular season, Pacholec went to Mexico to play winter ball and he went down there to learn a change-up. There was a roadblock though, and that’s the fact that winter ball down there isn’t a league where you can get knocked around and stick around. It was a win at all cost league and he was one of the better pitchers. That led to the team paying him more to pitch more and the change-up practice was scrapped in favor of better performance.
Fast forward to 2014 and a 21-year-old pitcher named Tyler Glasnow went to the Arizona Fall League to work on his change-up and he did it under a strict pitch count and lots of supervision. Times, they have changed.
So now we get to the disappearance of Joe Pacholec, a pitching prospect with a three-pitch mix and youth/success on his side. His 1990 season was done before it started. All those innings in 1989 caused a tear in his rotator cuff and after surgery in Pittsburgh, he was done for the season. When he returned in 1991 for Spring Training, his fastball was in the low-80’s and by April his baseball career was over. Pacholec said the injury could be partially blamed on mechanics as well as overuse. He likened his delivery to Rob Dibble’s, what we would call a high-effort delivery now.
Pacholec said that he would have been a better reliever than starter. With his high-effort delivery and mentality on the mound, plus that fastball/slider combo, he is probably right. Under current conditions, there may have been mechanical adjustments to help him, and maybe he would have better out of the bullpen throwing harder and not worrying about four different pitches. The Pirates would have probably stuck with him in the rotation though, because they feel that you leave a pitcher with that type of talent in the rotation until they prove they can’t be a starter at the higher levels. Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Justin Wilson all stayed in the rotation and they put in the innings that helped teach them be better pitchers, and not just throwers.
Pacholec now offers baseball coaching to kids for free if they are willing to listen to his experience and take it to heart. You could take his career itself as a learning experience. Is it better to go to college instead of starting young in the minors? Back then it probably would have been and I’m sure in some cases now, it’s also a better idea. There are a lot differences now compared to back then of course. You won’t find anyone throwing 120 pitches in a game in the minors. You won’t see those inning totals from someone his age. You won’t see a team allow a player to do what he did in winter ball.
It’s a sign of progress and while some people think the Pirates are too strict with their young pitchers, there doesn’t seem to be a right way to handle it because every team deals with pitching injuries now. For Joe Pacholec, his baseball career didn’t amount to much, but he has great memories. If you ask him, and I did, he was sure he was going to make the majors, but now he seems to be fine with how everything worked out. He helps kids using his experience as an example and he has some great stories from the minor leagues and he does a lot of fishing. That’s not bad I’d say.
Pirates Game Graph
The Pirates trail by eight games in the division to the Cardinals. They have a half game lead for the top wild card spot.
Indianapolis is 3-7 in their last ten games, breaking a six-game losing streak on Thursday. They have a four game lead in their division.
Altoona is 5-5 in their last ten games and they have a one game lead in their division.
Bradenton and West Virginia did not win their first half title. The second half began yesterday for both teams and the second half records will be included below in the schedule.
Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pirates lost 5-4 to the Reds in 13 innings on Thursday night. Francisco Liriano will take on Williams Perez and the Atlanta Braves tonight. Perez started against the Pirates on June 5th and gave up four runs in five innings. He has a 2.78 ERA in 45.1 innings this season. Liriano did not face the Braves the first time these two teams met. He allowed five runs over 5.2 innings in his last start.
In the minors, Radhames Liz will make his first start since being sent down to Indianapolis. He has thrown 5.1 scoreless innings in his four relief appearances. Austin Coley will make his 14th start of the year. He had a 1.80 ERA in April, but since then he’s had a 4.28 ERA in May and 3.91 in June. We will update this article when any of the TBD’s below are announced. You can view last night’s prospect watch here.
MLB: Pittsburgh (40-32) vs Braves (35-38) 7:05 PM
Probable starter: Francisco Liriano (3.26 ERA, 28:105 BB/SO, 88.1 IP)
AAA: Indianapolis (43-31) vs Syracuse (26-48) 7:15 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Radhames Liz (0.00 ERA, 4:4 BB/SO, 5.1 IP)
AA: Altoona (42-30) vs Erie (28-44) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Jason Creasy (3.14 ERA, 30:36 BB/SO, 80.1 IP)
High-A: Bradenton (33-38, 1-0 second half) @ St Lucie (35-36) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Frank Duncan
Low-A: West Virginia (38-32, 1-0 second half) vs Greensboro (29-41) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Austin Coley (3.64 ERA, 9:61 BB/SO, 71.2 IP)
Short-Season A: Morgantown (3-4) @ Auburn (5-2) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable Starter: Dario Agrazal Jr.
Rookie: Bristol (1-2) vs Princeton (2-1) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable Starter: TBD
GCL: Pirates (1-2) vs Astros (0-4) 12:00 PM (season preview)
DSL: Pirates (12-11) vs Red Sox2 (17-5) 10:30 AM (season preview)
Yesterday we showed a video highlight of Gift Ngoepe on defense and talked about his hitting. Well here is a highlight of that hitting.
6/26: Tyler Glasnow assigned to Altoona.
6/26: Deolis Guerra added to Pirates roster. Rob Scahill placed on disabled list.
6/26: Wilkin Castillo activated from Indianapolis disabled list.
6/25: Robert Stock added to Bradenton roster. Jordan Steranka placed on disabled list.
6/24: Casey Sadler placed on disabled list. Brad Lincoln and Josh Wall added to Indianapolis roster.
6/24: Corey Hart placed on disabled list. Chris Volstad added to Pirates roster.
6/23: Pirates sign Shane Kemp. Assigned to Bristol.
6/22: Andy Otamendi assigned to Morgantown.
6/22: Pirates sign Austin Sodders. Assigned to GCL.
6/21: Marek Minarik and Luis Paula sent to Bristol.
6/20: Pirates release Edgar Munoz
6/20: Pirates sign Garrett Russini as a non-drafted free agent.
6/19: Pirates sign Sean Keselica and Stephan Meyer. Both players assigned to Morgantown.
6/19: Collin Balester traded to Cincinnati Reds.
6/18: Steven Brault promoted to Altoona. Jin-De Jhang added to Bradenton roster.
6/17: Alen Hanson placed on disabled list. Kelson Brown added to Indianapolis roster.
6/17: Pirates sign Kevin Kramer, Tanner Anderson, Nicholas Economos and Mike Wallace. Kramer assigned to Morgantown. Anderson and Wallace assigned to Bristol. Economos assigned to GCL.
6/16: Pirates sign Ke’Bryan Hayes. Assigned to GCL Pirates.
6/15: Pirates sign Kevin Newman. Assigned to West Virginia
6/14: Angel Sanchez promoted to Indianapolis.
6/14: Tyler Eppler added to Bradenton roster. Ryan Hafner released.
6/13: Brad Lincoln and Wilkin Castillo placed on Indianapolis disabled list. Radhames Liz activated from reserve roster.
6/12: Pirates sign J.T. Brubaker, Seth McGarry and Bret Helton.
This Date in Pirates History
Seven former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including two of the better players in team history. Starting with the other five players(their bios can be found in the link above), we have pitcher Howie Pollet(1951-53, 1956), pitcher Elmer Singleton(1947-48) and third baseman Deb Garms(1940-41), who controversially won the 1940 batting title. Also outfielder Babe Herman(1935), who was a star during his day, and pitcher Elmer Ponder(1917, 1919-21). Pollet was involved in two of the bigger trades in team history, coming over from the Braves in 1951 for Cliff Chambers and Wally Westlake. Chambers had thrown a no-hitter a month earlier. In 1953, he was part of the huge Ralph Kiner deal with the Cubs.
The bios for the two other players can be found here. They are catcher Jason Kendall and IF/OF Bill Robinson. Kendall played nine seasons(1996-2004) for the Pirates and caught more games that anyone else in team history. He ranks in the franchise’s top 20 in games, runs, hits, doubles and stolen bases. He batted .306 in 1252 games. Robinson played eight years(1975-82) in Pittsburgh and hit .276 with 109 homers for the Pirates. He hit 166 homers during his career. During the 1979 championship season, he hit 24 homers and drove in 75 runs.