GREENSBORO, NC – Bubba Chandler went home after his start on July 6th.
He didn’t pick up a baseball. He didn’t even think about the game.
Instead, he sat on a lake for ten hours a day, fishing.
The break, which also included some golf, allowed Chandler to focus himself for the remainder of the season.
“Alright, you got 10 starts left on the year,” Chandler recalled of this thought process. “Let’s make every single one of those starts something that people talk about.”
Chandler was struggling in his first full year as a pitcher, to this point. After the start on July 6th, he had a 6.79 ERA in 62.1 innings with Greensboro. He was getting hit around to the tune of a .318/.419/.492 opponents’ triple-slash. He had 77 strikeouts, but 38 walks.
The Pirates drafted Chandler out of North Oconee High in Georgia, paying him a $3 million bonus to break his two-sport commitment to Clemson. The under-slot strategy with first overall pick Henry Davis led to them giving most of their extra money to Chandler, who was ranked 20th overall, but drafted 72nd.
During his mental reset in July, Chandler acknowledged to himself that the season hadn’t gone as he hoped.
“All my goals and aspirations beginning of the year — make the futures game, get a promotion — that’s kind of out the window,'” Chandler recalled of his thought process during the break. “Just be yourself. Have fun. Compete every pitch, treat every pitch like it’s your last, and just do what they paid you to do.”
THE BREAK PAYING OFF?
Chandler returned to the mound on July 18th against Wilmington. The results this time were much different. He threw 5.2 shutout innings, allowing three walks and three hits, with eight strikeouts. Later that week, Chandler made his second start in Wilmington. This time it was five shutout innings, with a walk and a hit, and six strikeouts.
Chandler returned home for two starts. He allowed one run on a solo homer in five innings against Winston-Salem, with two hits, no walks, and four strikeouts. In the next week against Asheville, he went seven shutout innings, with four hits, no walks, and six strikeouts.
In his first four starts after the break, Chandler combined for an 0.40 ERA in 22.2 innings, with a 24:4 K/BB ratio.
“His thing wasn’t stuff,” said Greensboro manager Robby Hammock. “It’s throttling him back, but throttling him back to with his mental and emotional state. He’s just wired — go, go, go.”
As a guy who previously dedicated his focus to multiple sports, and multiple positions within the game of baseball, the challenge for Chandler is finding a routine for all of his competitive energy. Especially in a season where the Pirates moved him to the mound full-time for the first time.
“I found some stuff to bide my time, at the field, and off field,” said Chandler. “Being a [pitcher-only] has its perks. Your arm’s tired every day but your body’s not super tired. So you can go out and play golf three or four times a week. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing. That’s my outlet.”
On the field, the focus for Chandler has been on the art of pitching, learning new approaches for how his stuff works, and learning how to overcome the inevitable struggles.
Those struggles continued in August. After his seven shutout innings against Asheville, Chandler gave up seven earned runs in nine innings over his next two starts. I was at the second outing, and Chandler had issues with his command, speeding himself up following three home runs.
“It’s just been a process with him, with patience and teaching him the nuances of pitching,” said Hammock. “And we’ve started to see that over the last month to month and a half. So it’s been it’s been fun to watch.”
THE DEVELOPING STUFF
What makes Chandler stand out as a pitcher is his power. He’s got a fastball that can sit mid-90s, hitting upper 90s in his age-20 season. The pitch location isn’t the best for the bandbox ballpark in Greensboro.
“I’m a guy whose pitches need to live up in the zone to be effective, and it’s tough sledding here, but it is what it is,” said Chandler.
His focus has been adding depth with his offspeed stuff, aiming to keep hitters off the heater. He’s been developing a slider over the last year, after entering pro ball with a curveball.
“I didn’t really want to throw a slider, didn’t really know how to throw a slider, and just kind of threw a curveball,” said Chandler. “[The curve] was alright, decent pitch, wouldn’t play here, but it was good enough.”
Prior to Spring Training this year, Chandler worked with MLB pitching coach Oscar Marin on how to throw a slider with the orientation to play off his fastball.
“I really took that and ran with it and did some modifications myself; finding ways to throw it harder, or a little like sharper,” said Chandler. “Now, some days, I’d rather throw that than my fastball.”
The slider has seen progression into a harder, more firm, tighter slider. Chandler throws it 87-88 early in the game, with more side-to-side action. As he gets warmed up, it gets to 90-92 MPH with “more gyo slider-ish” action, as he describes it.
“It’s been a good pitch,” said Chandler. “A lot of growing, to put about a year of work into it and it’s shown it’s gone from not a great pitch to a pretty good pitch. So there’s more room to grow. I’d say more the pitch itself is good, but the command with it, it’s got to be better.”
The Pirates want Chandler creating separation between his rising fastball and his offspeed stuff.
“My fastball is at 20 inches [vertical], then we want my slider under five inches,” said Chandler of his pitch locations. “So that’s 15 inches that hitters got to cover.”
There are other offspeed pitches that Chandler has in his arsenal. The changeup has been a big help for him in getting hitters off the fastball.
“My changeup goes down well enough and it moves side to side pretty good too,” said Chandler. “So it’s a good pitch for me.”
He’s come full-circle with his development, adding a curveball back into the mix after his break in July. He’s recently starting to feel comfortable with the pitch.
“I threw it a few times and got a few strikeouts with it, which is big,” said Chandler. “Really just another pitch to add, get more depth, because I’m a rise guy with a fastball, so anything that can go straight down off that is a big pitch.”
GOOD STUFF IN A BAD START
I saw Chandler in his worst statistical outing since returning from his break.
On August 16th, Chandler allowed five runs in six innings, with most of the damage coming on home runs. Recounting the start, he felt he made two mistakes.
“One was leaving a 1-0 fastball up,” said Chandler. “Hit a homer. Another one was leaving a 0-1 slider up. The other homer was BS. 0-0, good changeup out, that he just got some wood on it and put it in the jet stream in left field.”
After the home runs, Chandler sped up his movements and lacked command of his pitches. Following back-to-back homers in the sixth inning, he responded with two 96 MPH fastballs that were high and inside, followed by a mid-80s slider outside. He recovered by pounding the zone with the fastball, getting a swinging strike on a 96 MPH fastball, before a groundout on an 88 MPH slider. He struck out the next two hitters.
The struggles in the games this year have given Chandler a taste of the real world.
“With the throwing programs, they tell us that each pitch needs to have intent behind it, conviction, and yeah, of course that,” said Chandler. “But, same time, you’re not going to be locked in from pitch one to whatever. You’re going to fall in a loop or lull. And finding joy in that moment has been key for me.”
Chandler has been trying to not get bogged down by the tediousness of this game.
“I love baseball and that’s my favorite thing in the world,” said Chandler. “But if you do some every single day, at one point you’re going to be like ‘Man, I need a two day, three day break.”
Chandler tries to find little challenges in the game. He doesn’t work out much in-season, but aims to set personal records with each workout. He’ll even take it as far as seeing how far he can throw a football.
He’s also maturing with the feedback he’s getting from the games.
“You look at the positives and the negatives from each start, but a lot of starts I’d go out and look at it like, I didn’t have fun out there,” said Chandler. “It felt like nothing was working.”
Chandler eventually realized that hitters weren’t swinging at pitches because he wasn’t anywhere near the zone. In a way, he was almost fishing on the mound, casting his pitches into the water and hoping to get a bite.
“My command was bad,” said Chandler. “So even if I throw a really good pitch, they’re not looking for that. They’re not going to swing at it.”
Chandler’s command has been better since returning from his break in July. There are still some mistakes, as I saw in the start on August 16th.
“We want to minimize mistakes each week,” said Chandler. “If I can throw two mistakes this week one mistake next week, I’ll be fine.”
How did he do the next week in limiting mistakes?
In his start on August 22nd, Chandler threw seven shutout innings, allowing four hits, no walks, and striking out six.
His finish to the year is definitely giving Pirates fans something to talk about.+ posts
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.