Young arms must make adjustments
In what seems like the decade of the pitcher, 2013 is no different. There has been a whole host of big pitching prospects getting called up with the expectation that they can contribute right away. In fact, they are expected to hold down a consistent spot in their team's rotation.
Most recently, the St. Louis Cardinals called up hot pitching prospect Michael Wacha. He turned heads in the Cardinals' camp by receiving rave reviews from just about everyone who scouted him. The positive feedback came from his ability to command the target and to do so with explosive action on his pitches.
In his first big league start, he did not disappoint. He tossed seven innings, allowing only two hits while not walking a batter. He was consistently ahead in the count and hitters couldn't catch up with his stuff. He featured a nasty changeup along with a 95-plus mph fastball.
But we have seen dazzling arms before. In fact, Wacha was one of three Cardinals starting pitchers to make their major league debuts this season (Tyler Lyons, John Gast are the others). We know that pitchers drafted in the first round come with a spectacular arsenal of pitches, we also know about the inevitable health protection questions that will be asked. But the most critical question to their sustainable success is, "Will they make the adjustments quickly enough?"
It would appear Matt Harvey has answered that question with a resounding "yes" as he has shown the aptitude of being able to change his plan mid-game and find which of his four "plus" pitches is working the best that day. This prevents turning the big inning into an insurmountable inning and helps the New York Mets from using their bullpen sooner than absolutely necessary. This is the work of an ace. The ability to keep his team in the game, even when he does not have his best stuff that day.
Having great stuff is one thing, have "the stuff" is another. Makeup is the foundation of making adjustments. Yet it is a tough balance given the ego required to excel at such a level. You have to be confident enough to stare down Miguel Cabrera, but humble enough to know when your pitches are not sharp on a given night. Young pitchers usually have trouble balancing that equation, especially in the first month of their work.
Take the Baltimore Orioles' Kevin Gausman. One year ago he was pitching for LSU in the super regionals of the College World Series. This past Sunday, he made his third major league start. In his first two starts, he showed flashes of dominance, featuring a 98-mph fastball, a good changeup and a solid curveball. Yet he ran into trouble by getting behind hitters. In Gausman's debut, Toronto Blue Jays hitters quickly recognized which pitches to leave alone, and in turn started to attack, as did the Washington Nationals off of his fastball in his second start.
So his first two starts were to test his adaptability. He was punished by the long ball because he worked behind in the count (he allowed a combined 11 earned runs in nine innings in his first two starts), but on Sunday against a tough Detroit Tigers lineup, he held them to just one home run, from Prince Fielder. Generally, he stayed out of the middle of the plate. He attacked the outer third to lefties well, did not walk a batter and he kept battling.
In Gausman's numbers, the story is also told with his fly-ball and ground-ball totals. As a pitcher with a strong sinker, his first outing was one filled with fly balls, not where he must pitch. He had 11 fly-ball outs compared to only five ground ball outs. On Sunday in six strong innings, he had hitters pounding the ball into the ground, recording 12 ground ball outs and two fly ball outs. It was an adjustment that showed he's heading in the right direction for sustainable success.
Next up for Wacha on Tuesday will be the Arizona Diamondbacks, which will be a different challenge for him as he confronts a contact and ground-ball-driven lineup, anchored by Paul Goldschmidt. It will be worth noting if Wacha can fine tune his performance. In his debut against the Kansas City Royals last Thursday, he threw 14 of 23 first-pitch strikes, which he will want to be higher when he faces the Diamondbacks. He also threw only three curveballs out of 93 pitches. So it will be of interest to see if he sees a need to establish his curve early, should his changeup not be as sharp as it was in his debut.
Like Gausman, Wacha pitched in college last year at Texas A&M so pacing himself as the innings pile up will be half the battle. This is something I am sure their organizations have a firm sense of how to implement. Will they be allowed to go deep into games consistently or will it be an automatic bullpen game? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, these two young pitchers have top-of-the-rotation stuff. Now they will work on the experience side of their development and they'll be doing it at the big league level. A tall order, indeed. Nevertheless, Gausman's adjustments should give confidence to Wacha as Gausman was able to take the same repertoire he has and locate it better. Wacha is working off of a start that was strongly successful. His adjustments will mostly be in anticipation of a new result or pattern, not based on anything he didn't do well in his last outing.
Virtual planning is often harder than planning from game-based evidence. Either way, hitters will be adjusting quickly and if these young pitchers are to stay relevant for years to come, they have to start preparing to counter what hasn't even happened yet.