Over the last two years, the Pirates have had a glaring weakness in their farm system – a lack of left-handed pitching talent. The Pirates have LHP Cody Dickson who was drafted in 2013, but he has been inconsistent thus far in his pro career. Other than Dickson, at the end of last season the system was barren of possible impact left-handed pitchers. Joely Rodriguez was around, but he was quickly dealt to the Phillies for Antonio Bastardo.
The Pirates addressed this weakness through the Travis Snider trade this past winter when they acquired LHP Steven Brault and LHP Stephen Tarpley from Baltimore. The 23-year-old Brault is currently pitching in AA, and profiles more as a back of the rotation type of starter – possibly a useful piece out of the bullpen.
However, 22-year-old Stephen Tarpley has an even higher ceiling and is an intriguing prospect. Baltimore selected Tarpley in the third round of the 2013 draft out of Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. What makes Tarpley so intriguing is his ability to reach the mid-90s with his fastball. He consistently sits in the low-90s throughout his starts and induces a lot of soft contact when he’s commanding his pitches. He also mixes in a curveball/slider combo that has improved as he has progressed, and has continued to develop a change-up.
Tarpley had a solid 2014 season in short season A-ball. In 66.1 innings, he posted a 3.66 ERA in with 60 strikeouts and 24 walks. Tarpley’s best pitching came at the end of last season. In his final 31.2 innings, he had a 2.56 era with 28 strikeouts and eight walks.
Tarpley was hoping to carry his late-season momentum from last year into this season with the Pirates, but was shut down early in Spring Training due to shoulder soreness. He wasn’t able to begin his season at Low-A West Virginia until the end of May.
He started off strongly in his first three outings, giving up only total three earned runs while pitching five innings in each of those starts. However, he struggled through his next two outings, giving up 13 runs – eight of them earned – in only 8.1 innings. Tarpley was pitching through an illness during that stretch, according to West Virginia pitching coach Mark DiFelice.
Illness aside, DiFelice admitted that Tarpley still had some issues with his mechanics and repeating his delivery in those starts. Like many young pitchers at the Low-A level, Tarpley still deals with consistency issues in his mechanics. After those two starts, Tarpley and DiFelice worked in the bullpen and did some fine-tuning.
“For [Tarpley], it’s about pace and tempo – going out there and being consistent,” DiFelice explained. “His last few outings, I don’t think his breaking pitches were where they were [during his first three starts] and his fastball was a little off.”
Tarpley has not needed a complete overhaul of his mechanics. Instead, it has taken a few small tweaks and fine-tuning to get him right mechanically. Since his arrival into the Pirates’ organization, the coaching staff has been working with Tarpley on having his foot land in a consistent spot after he releases the pitch, as well as adjusting his timing with other minor intricacies in his delivery. Pitching with a controlled pace and rhythm is aimed to aid Tarpley with repeating his delivery
“We’ve ironed some things out in regards to getting to the top and separating on time,” DiFelice said. “We haven’t shortened up his stride, but we’ve given him a more consistent base so he can land in the same spot every time. We’ve gotten him out of some old habits and instilled into him some new habits.”
The mechanical tweaks seem to be paying off for Tarpley, who has bounced back strongly since his two rough outings. On June 21st, Tarpley showed off his improved breaking pitches – he pitched 5.2 innings and gave up two earned runs while striking out six – four of them by the way of his curve ball, that generated some uncomfortable and ugly swings by the opposing batters. On June 27th, he threw six more innings giving up only one earned run while striking out five. Last night, Tarpley completed seven innings for the first time this season, giving up one run while striking out five. What is Tarpley doing well when he’s successful?
“I’m getting ahead of guys and making sure I’m working both halves of the plate,” Tarpley explained. “When I keep the ball down [in the zone] I can get a lot of ground balls and weak contact.”
Inducing a lot of ground balls and weak contact is exactly what Tarpley has done in his last three starts. Of the 56 outs he recorded in those starts, 42(75%) have come by either a strikeout or a groundout.
Tarpley’s goal for the rest of the season is to stay healthy, and continue to work on keeping his delivery consistent. He has the arsenal to become a good middle of the rotation starter, and has had an encouraging start to the season. If he can stay healthy and consistent, the Pirates’ left-handed pitching depth will look at lot stronger when you also factor in Dickson, Brault, and recently acquired Jayson Aquino, who is pitching well in Bradenton.