Two weeks ago I wrote about how the Travis Snider trade was looking like a steal for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They ended up getting left-handed pitchers Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley in the deal. That trade is looking more like a steal this weekend. Snider was released by the Orioles, while Brault and Tarpley combined to give up one run in 15 innings of work, continuing their impressive seasons.
Sean McCool wrote about Brault and the success he’s having earlier in the week. I got a chance to see Tarpley pitch two weeks ago, and talked with him after his start about the season he has been having in West Virginia. The lefty is having a great year, with a 2.14 ERA in 92.2 innings, along with an 87:20 K/BB ratio. But the thing that interested me was how well he’s been doing since the middle of June.
Tarpley struggled in early June, combining to give up 13 runs, six earned, in 8.1 innings over two starts. Since then, he has combined for a 1.82 ERA in 69.1 innings, with a 66:11 K/BB ratio. The most notable thing was the increase in his ground ball rate. Tarpley started the year with an 0.77 GO/AO ratio in his first five starts. After those two rough outings, he almost immediately turned things around, and started becoming a ground ball pitcher, with a 1.33 GO/AO ratio. It’s gotten so extreme that he ended up getting 19 ground balls last night out of 30 balls hit in play, for a 63% rate.
Tarpley said that he started the year pitching to both corners, but was having some issues leaving the ball up at times.
“Those two outings kind of set me straight on establishing down, and inside and outside,” Tarpley said on what changed after the June 15th outing. “I focused more on getting the ball down, as well as going inside and outside, so that helped a lot in getting ground balls. So did attacking with my fastball more earlier in the count to try and get that weak contact ground ball.”
The Pirates stress to all of their pitchers the importance of pitching down in the zone, and pitching to both sides of the plate while down in the zone. This is also something the Orioles did, although the Pirates seem to put a bigger importance on this approach.
“The Orioles were about that as well, but they just didn’t emphasize it as much as the Pirates did,” Tarpley said. “I learned a lot of stuff with the Orioles, and I think that carried over to here with the Pirates. I’ve just been working a lot harder here with the Pirates on really establishing that down pitch, and moving in and out, and kind of establishing my fastball earlier in the game.”
The results seem to be working well for Tarpley, and he’s getting more comfortable with his three-quarters arm slot, which he switched to in Baltimore around this time last year in order to see better control and command. The fastball is already a nasty pitch for him, sitting 90-94 and touching 97 at times, including once when I saw him recently. Throwing that pitch down in the zone and at both corners with command is clearly a big reason why Tarpley has had so much success.
That said, his success isn’t entirely based on commanding the fastball down in the zone. That does set him up in favorable counts, but he needs a strikeout pitch to finish the job. He has seen better results with his off-speed pitches, including a changeup that he relies on a lot, and has gotten more comfortable with. Tarpley uses a circle grip, which he had in high school, got rid of in college, then added back in pro ball.
Tarpley has been working mostly with a fastball/changeup approach, while using his slider as his primary out pitch. The changeup could be a strikeout pitch, but Tarpley said that only happens when he sets a guy up in the right situation and puts the pitch in the right spot. He’s also been using his curveball later in the game for strikeouts, giving batters a different look the second and third time through the order.
You can expect Tarpley to remain in West Virginia the rest of the season, as there are only a few weeks remaining, and the Power are in first place in a playoff race. The Marauders are also in a playoff race, but West Virginia has a better chance, and it would be better for Tarpley to get his playoff experience at a level where he’s most comfortable, rather than a new level where he would have made just 2-3 starts. Next year Tarpley should move up to Bradenton, and if he continues the success that he’s shown this year, he could end up in Altoona in the second half, much like Brault did this year. The continued success from both left-handers will only make the Snider deal look even more like a steal.