Minor League Look: Sand Gnats Pitching
NOTE: This is another installment by MetsToday minor league correspondent Matt Himelfarb.
Taking stock of the Mets pitch corps throughout the system, the picture is not exactly awe-inspiring.
Jenrry Mejia is struggling in the big league pen at the expense of further development. Twenty-three year old Brad Holt, whom the Mets selected with the 33rd overall pick in the 2008 draft, looks more like Bobby Parnell than a top-flight starter in the making.
In the lower minors, “the big four” who dominated the Sally League in 2009- Jeurys Familia, Kyle Allen, Robert Carson, and Eric Beaulac- are all struggling to one degree or another in the Florida State League.
Which leaves guys in Savannah such as Brandon Moore, Darin Gorski, and James Fuller as a semblance of promise.
Savannah currently boasts a Sally League best 2.46 era.- over a half-run better than the second-place Rome Braves (3.02).
Of course, Savannah also has the advantage of a more experienced pitching staff. Moore (twenty-four years old), Gorski, and Fuller (both twenty-two) are all college products. Nothing short of domination will put them on the map.
Pitching coach Marc Valdes does not expect anything less either.
A first-round pick of the Florida Marlins back in 1993, Valdes bounced between AAA and the Majors most of his career, including a two-year stint in Japan from 2002-2003 before retiring in 2005.
Terribly blunt and direct, Valdes epitomizes the old-school, hard-nosed coach. His philosophy is in line with many of the other Mets pitching coaches. For instance, he abhors pitchers who rely on strikeouts and feels it contributes to high pitch counts. He preaches pitching to contact to this year’s pitching staff in particular, whom he acknowledges could very well end up in the bullpen as they move up.
“Strikeouts are overrated”, he says. “Give me a guy who’s going to throw fifteen pitches or less in an inning and gets three ground ball outs and a K occasionally, you’re going to have a 15-game winner. You give me a guy who’s going to strike out 8-10 guys in a 7 inning game but he may give up 4 or 5 runs, I’ll take the guy who gets the groundball outs and quickens the innings. It helps out the infielders as well.”
Like most organizations, the Mets stress fastball command and the necessity of an out pitch. However, they also traditionally place a unique emphasis on developing a big league changeup.
“We like to implement the changeup use”, Valdez says. “It’s the pitch in the big leagues that seems to throw hitters off balance [moreso] than the other pitches. Guys that have a good changeup, which is usually their third-best pitch, it becomes their second or third right in the middle have success. The changeup is the key I think from what we’ve talked about over the last four years I’ve been here.”
Fundamental mistakes are an easy way of getting to him as well. “I gotta tell you that one thing I stress over here: no freebies. Whether it’s a bunt play or one of the little guys in the 8-9 hole — no freebies. No free passes. Play hard, bust your butt, bust your tail off that mound. You got a free groundball out on a sac play, bunt play, get the guy out. Those are freebies. Those are free outs.”
Valdes has his pitching staff run nine sprints every day before their scheduled outing; one for every inning they are expected to pitch. The following day is a long running day and a long process of leg work, proceeded by a bullpen session and two days of complete rest. Then, as Valdes says, they go nine.
The Mets 14th-round pick in the 2008 draft, Moore has been by far the most impressive of the bunch. Entering this past Sunday, he has unquestionably established himself as the best pitcher in the league, with a 2.29 ERA. He has thrown 59 innings, striking out 76 and walking just 6.
Moore’s bread and butter is a two-seam fastball with arm-side run, usually sitting in the high 80’s. While it tends to flatten out occasionally, his command of the pitch is improving, and becoming a swing-and-miss pitch for him. With improved command has come increased aggressiveness, and Moore is always an exceptionally quick worker, much to the delight of those playing behind him. In addition, his high three-quarter arm slot augments his effectiveness versus righties.
Valdes has stressed not becoming over-reliant on the pitch, however. In a typical game, he often throws it less than 60% of the time, mixing in, say, 50 fastballs, 20 sliders, and 10 changeups and curveballs in an 100-pitch outing.
Moore’s slider has been his out pitch his entire professional career. It is characterized as a hard slider with sharp, late break, around 81-83 mph, although it also has some horizontal movement to it. With increased confidence, Mets brass is hoping he can begin using it at any point in the count, instead of exclusively 0-2, 1-2, etc. Against the Phillies affiliate in Lakewood a month ago, Moore generated 11 swing-and-misses his first time through the lineup, about 7 of which came on sliders. While most scouts worry how effective it will remain as he moves up the ladder, Valdes contends it is big league caliber.
His high 60s-low70s curveball remains a work in progress, mixing it in to get ahead early in the count. Another concern among scouts is Moore’s tendency to change arm slots. He usually drops low on his slider, while throwing from a higher release point with his curveball. Even Valdes voiced concern as to how it would play at higher levels, although he also feels it would inhibit his ability to get on top of his curveball.
“It [arm slot on breaking balls] depends on if I want to throw it across the plate or want them to chase”, Moore says. “It depends on the situation, what the count is, and how they swing at whatever pitch.”
His changeup is partly what has held him back from advancing more quickly. The Mets would like to see him throwing it more often not only against lefties but righties as well, instead of relying on his fastball. At 24, time is of the essence.
Meanwhile, southpaws Fuller and Gorski are enjoying success thus far in Savannah as well.
Fuller is picking up right where he left off in Brooklyn last year, posting a 1.79 ERA, striking out 69, and walking just 18, in 68.2 innings of work.
On the day I saw him pitching on seven days’ rest against Lakewood, scouts were less than impressed. He fell behind in the count often, failing to spot his two-seam and four-seam fastball, both of which usually sit in the high 80s. His four-seamer usually features good tailing action. A crafty pitcher, he must command his fastball on both sides of the plate.
His changeup is working well him for thus far, but being a “feel” pitch, it is lacking consistency from start to start. His curveball remains average at best, forcing him to mix in a few changeups to lefties. He is mechanically sound, though, and shows terrific poise on the mound.
Fuller’s eventual move to the bullpen is a question of when, not if. Valdes, however, believes it is best for his development to remain in the rotation.
“When you start out as being a starter you get the innings in. The mental side of the game comes quicker. You get the innings and the pitch count up and you figure out what they have. Can this guy go and get an out in the 7th? Is this guy always in the 5th, 6th inning, only he can’t get over that hump?”
After struggling with a 4.91 ERA in Brooklyn last year, Gorski, a 7th-round pick in 2009 has posted a 3.43 ERA in 42 innings for Savannah. He has increased his strikeouts (41), but continues walking too many (17), driving up his pitch count. The Mets were hoping the walks that plagued him in Brooklyn were the result of a long college season, but he is struggling to repeat his mechanics.
Further, Gorski’s fastball velocity continues to disappoint. This year, it has been clocked 85-87, and as low as 84. It straightens out often and has been hammered on several occasions. He also mixes in a slider that is nothing to write home about.
What he does have going for him is an excellent changeup. It keeps hitters off balance with good speed differential, sitting in the high 70’s. He must inevitably return to his fastball, though. Coupled with high fly-ball tendencies (32% GB rate), Gorski is a long way from “The Show”.
Still, Valdes remains hopeful about his staff. “This year, these guys are a little bit older. Last year’s group, they may have had the so called numbers velocity wise that people enjoy to see. But these guys I have, they know how to pitch.”