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Luis Escobar Has Seen His Velocity Increase and Changeup Improve This Year


MORGANTOWN, WV – Coming into the 2016 season, Luis Escobar was a big sleeper for us. We had him ranked 48th overall in the system in our pre-season rankings, calling him one of the biggest sleeper pitching prospects in the lower levels, and a breakout candidate.

That all seemed good, until the rest of the pre-season rankings came out and Keith Law had Escobar ranked 12th overall in the Pirates’ system. I don’t agree with Law’s ranking at all, as it seems to be one that’s made looking only at his upside, and ignoring current risks. That’s not to say that Law’s writeup of Escobar’s skills were wrong, but he was more of a future number 12 prospect in the system (or higher) rather than the current number 12 prospect in the system. Regardless, that put Escobar on the radar for those who didn’t see his writeup in the Prospect Guide, and for those who didn’t see my reports on him from the GCL last year.

The problem is that Escobar has largely shown issues this year in his jump to Morgantown that make him a risk, and more of a breakout/sleeper candidate than one of the best prospects in the system. Through 42.1 innings, he has a 3.19 ERA and a 35:19 K/BB ratio. The alarming thing is the walk rate, and that was around last year. It didn’t always show up in the stats, but Escobar had some control issues in the GCL, which showed up in a small way with four walks in 6.1 innings in his first two starts with Morgantown last year.

A big reason for the control issues come from Escobar’s mechanics. There are a lot of moving parts to his delivery, and he tries rushing through, which leads to inconsistent mechanics where he’s driving to the plate too early, with an inconsistent release point.

“He’s a guy that wants to do everything really, really fast,” Black Bears Manager Wyatt Toregas said. “He wants to do everything powerful. And what happens is when he tries to get powerful, he tries to get all out of rhythm and tempo, and his release point is different every single time. The one thing that we’ve been trying to do is slow the tempo of the delivery down, so that he can stay tall and strong on his backside, which gives him angle and strength to his backside.”

Escobar has gotten better lately with his walks. In his last six starts, he has walked seven batters in 28.2 innings. That compares favorably to his 12 walks in 12.2 innings in his first four outings. The coaches in Morgantown have him focusing on controlling his energy through many different approaches.

“He’s got a lot of energy,” Morgantown Pitching Coach Mark DiFelice said. “We’ve controlled his body down the mound to make him throw more quality strikes below the strike zone. So we’ve kind of controlled his front side energy, just to make sure the ball gets out on time, and he’s not flying open. His last five or six games have been pretty impressive. He’s held hitters and runs to a minimum. He’s been doing a good job of that. We’ve been working on his breathing, and whatever you can think of, to slow the pace of the game. I’ve been pretty impressed with him.”

Even though the stats have been better, there are still some issues. I saw Escobar give up two runs on a walk and two hits in five innings last week, with five strikeouts. The stat line was good, but there were some times when Escobar ran into trouble with his command, and didn’t look the sharpest. At a higher level, he might not have the same results.

“I think early on he had a little command issues,” catcher Kevin Krause said after the outing. “With the fastball though, once he was able to locate that, the changeup played off real well.”

Escobar noted that he was overthrowing a bit, and trying to throw too hard, which was preventing him from getting to his backside, and causing him to fly open to the plate too early.

“When I’m rushing too fast, I begin to throw a lot of balls,” Escobar said via translator. “I just have to work on calming down and throwing strikes, instead of rushing through my delivery.”

Escobar’s fastball is lively, and has a lot of velocity. When he first signed, he was sitting 87-90 MPH. In his first season in 2014, he jumped up to 94 MPH. When I saw him last year, he was sitting 91-93 MPH, touching 95. I saw him at 89-93 MPH last week, which might have been a mixture of the light rain during his start, and pitching late into the season. I received reports that he has hit 97 MPH this year, seeing an uptick in his velocity. Wilbur Miller had him in the mid-90s a few weeks ago.

The fastball is lively, and a big reason why Escobar is a sleeper in the system. But a big focus this year, and a big factor in his recent improvements with his control, has been the addition of a changeup.

Escobar had a curveball that flashed plus potential when he had a consistent release point, with 12-to-6 movement and slider action. He didn’t have much of a changeup coming into the year. He said that he found a grip that worked for him, and found the release point for the pitch, which has led that to passing the curveball.

“I’ve been working a lot on the changeup,” Escobar said. “It’s my second best pitch after my fastball. That’s one of my go-to pitches. … It just started this year. I threw a lot more curveballs than changeups last year. Now I’m a lot more comfortable with the changeup.”

The Pirates have actually limited him on when he can throw the curveball, so that he puts more focus on the changeup.

“[This] forces him to throw his changeup if he wants to throw off-speed,” Toregas said. “His changeup is a better pitch than his curveball. His curveball, he knows it’s good, but he doesn’t know where it’s going.”

DiFelice says that one issue was that Escobar was going to the curveball too often early in the season, which was making the pitch less effective. The same thing was happening in Bradenton this year with Yeudy Garcia and his slider. He took the same approach as Escobar is taking in Morgantown, relying on the fastball/changeup combo, and using the slider only as an out pitch. That led to improvements all around with Garcia, and it seems the same thing is happening with Escobar.

“We felt that a changeup would be more of an equalizer for his fastball, to keep him ahead in the count, to get to his breaking ball, then he can go ahead and bury that pitch to try and get some guys out,” DiFelice said, while noting that they now only use the curveball in pitcher counts with two strikes. “That’s actually made the pitch a little bit better, because they don’t see it as much. If you throw it early in the count, next thing you know that’s your out pitch, and you’ve lost the surprise of the pitch.”

The pitch flashes plus potential still, but is much more effective now that he’s using it less often. He threw a lot of changeups in the start I saw last week, and used the curveball as an out pitch. Wilbur noted the same thing when he saw him, with Escobar leaning on the change and throwing the curve effectively. I also heard he threw his changeup 25% of the time in the start between our views. John Dreker also noted he was using his curve effectively as an out pitch in the start after the one I saw. So in the last four starts we’ve had three people who have seen the same thing, and another report confirming Escobar’s increased changeup usage, and more effective curveball use.

With a fastball that hits 97 MPH at age 20, plus an improved changeup that he trusts and already relies on, and a potential plus curveball that will improve with proper usage, it’s easy to see why Escobar is such a breakout candidate. He’s still not a top prospect yet, as there are some things he has to work through to get there, mainly his fastball command, slowing down his delivery, and finding a more consistent release point for his pitches. But he’s heading in the right direction, is still very young, and has all of the tools needed to one day be one of the best pitching prospects in the system, which is a big difference from now, when he’s seen as raw, but one of the best pure arms they have.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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