About a week ago, I was cleaning up my personal Top 30 Pirates Prospects for our Pirates staff writer Top 40 that we’ll be running here very soon and something struck me. I’ve always liked the Pirates’ approach to developing pitching. Success in the minors be damned, Pirate draftees will learn to locate a fastball in the part of the zone where it is difficult to make strong contact. The idea is to efficiently pitch to contact, get ground balls put in play and let the defensive shifts go to work. Prospects threw the fastball 80% of the time and for some that carried all the way through to their time in Double A Altoona. Problem is, it may have cost some pitchers a little feel for secondary stuff. I liked their system even better when I heard they tweaked it to increase emphasis on the change up.
The emphasis for the draft the first four years under Neal Huntington was about getting high ceiling, projectable high school pitchers into the system and spending the money to get them signed. With no point of reference, however, it really felt like the Pirates were actually becoming a factory for making something out of seemingly nothing in the middle rounds of the draft when it comes to college pitchers and JUCO pitchers. Brandon Cumpton could be a number four pitcher in quite a few rotations around the majors, but he’s stuck as the number seven guy for the Pirates. His place could slip even further as the first wave of high school talent like Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham look set to surpass him. Justin Wilson is the new set up man in the Bronx. Casey Sadler’s looking like a long man at worst, while fellow 20+ rounder Phil Irwin had a chance to crack the Texas Rangers’ rotation this past season after the Pirates released him. Then there are the sinker ball throwing, back of the rotation types my top 30 is littered with who haven’t yet reached the majors. It’s almost looking too easy.
Of course everything is relative, so rather than get overjoyed by my narrow framed and myopic observation, I decided to look at how the league in general was doing with the college pitchers they scouted, drafted and developed asking a simple question, how are the Pirates doing relative to other teams at getting college level pitchers to the majors?
To be clear, I’m only looking at those who made it. Frankly, I wasn’t all that interested in how those pitchers did when they got to the show for a couple of reasons. First, my observation was that they were looking like a factory which to me suggests mass production, not artisan craftsmanship. If their goal was to simply take overlooked prospects and develop them into decent pitchers who earn a shot as it seemed, they are getting value from the middle rounds anyway. Second, the Pirates’ priority seemed to be with the high school pitchers; any production they got from college pitchers felt like a bonus.
I employed a straight forward methodology. I looked at every teams draft from 2008 – 2011, Neal Huntington’s first four years on the job, and tabulated how many pitchers each team developed from the fourth to the twenty-fifth rounds. I started with the fourth to avoid supplemental picks and it seems like the earliest round where teams completely leave the script behind. Chances are they’re going off the reservation when it comes to pre-draft rankings and teams might get their best available player in the fourth and then the next player on their board in the fifth. I cut it off at the twenty-fifth because that was the end of the middle rounds in the old draft system. Teams were halfway home and it felt like a clean place to end my research. On top of that, I spent enough time on this piece looking at twenty-one rounds. In the end, there weren’t many success stories drafted in the late rounds and it would have honestly distorted the success rates of earlier picks.
So how did the Pirates fare? Short answer is they are above average, but I wouldn’t call what they did those first four years under the new front office factory – type production. Here is a chart of the top ten most productive teams:
The Pirates ranked as the tenth best team developing almost one in five of their middle round college pitching prospects into major leaguers. The Padres and White Sox tied for the best, beating the Pirates success rate by about 10% while focusing almost entirely on pitchers from four year colleges.
The research also quantified what I could only assume in the past — that the Pirates focused almost entirely on high school pitching. In fact, they drafted a major league low twenty-one college pitchers from the middle rounds between 2008 and 2011, two fewer than the Los Angeles Dodgers during that stretch and six fewer than a few teams tied for third.
The Pirates’ philosophy appears to be changing as they drafted seventeen college pitchers in 2012 and 2013 alone. Part of that might have to do with their emphasis on stockpiling cheap picks at the back of the first ten rounds to hoard bonus money for above slot players after the tenth. Part of it might be that they’ve clearly seen some early returns from the college ranks. While I didn’t track high school draftees while tabulating the college data, it didn’t appear as if many prep draftees from the middle rounds between 2008 and 2011 have reached the majors yet. Certainly, some are still on their way, but the rate of return appears much higher for the college players.
While the Pirates haven’t been a mass produced major players from college pitchers so far, they fared relatively well. However, some teams might surpass them as the Pirates seem tapped out on remaining college prospects between 2008-2011 likely to reach the majors. Recent Rule 5 loss Tyler Waldron is now with the Cardinals, while 2009 draftees Jeff Inman and Ryan Beckman have outside shots at a cup of coffee if they can just stay healthy long enough to reach AAA. Both have stalled out in Altoona. That said, the real factory-style returns might be just around the corner. Of those 17 college pitchers from 2012-2013, one (Adrian Sampson) has already made it to Indianapolis. Two others, Pat Ludwig and Thomas Harlan have already pitched in Altoona while Chad Kuhl, John Kuchno, and Brett McKinney all appear set to start the year there. Shane Carle and Cody Dickson may not be too far behind. Traded prospects Kyle Haynes and Buddy Borden could follow similar paths for their new organizations. Ten of the seventeen will end the year on a normal development curve towards the majors, while Sampson could debut in the majors at some point in 2015.
The Pirates may not have an elite pitcher development philosophy as I suspected they might, but they do have a very good one that seems to work well with college-aged pitchers. They appear poised to improve their already strong numbers with their next crop of more experienced draftees as many move quickly through the system. In the end not all of them will make it, but the Pirates will be in better shape than most if they continue to beat the curve.
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