When it comes to minor league and amateur baseball, scouting box scores tells only a piece of the story. In mid-April, I had the opportunity to travel to Greenville, S.C., to see West Virginia Pirates right-hander Clay Holmes. Five days later, North Carolina State ace Carlos Rodon pitched the Saturday night game at Georgia Tech. As of today, Rodon is the top prospect in the 2014 draft.
Admittedly, my last NCAA baseball game was in 2011, when now-Mariners prospect Danny Hultzen faced off against now-Padres prospect Mark Pope. Carson Cistulli would shame me in public for my general lack of interest in the college game, but that lack of familiarity is a driving factor for this piece.
For years, we’ve read about pitcher overuse at the college level — exemplified by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo in 2009. Back in 1995 and 1996, I remember being a high school senior/college freshman and watching R.A. Dickey throw nine innings on Friday night, then come back for a multi-inning save on Sunday as a member of the Tennessee Volunteers. Today, I reflect on those weekends and cringe.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Pirates organization has developed a pitching program for its young hurlers that focuses on fastball command and changeup development. Strict pitch counts are adhered to, and breaking pitches are more lightly used than in other organizations.
The goal? To limit the wear and tear on a pitcher’s arm. And while it may be considered extreme to a few industry contacts, it does force a pitcher to focus on efficiency. This was evident during Holmes’ five scoreless innings against the Greenville Drive.
Holmes opened the game with a fastball-heavy first inning. The pitch touched 95 mph, and he attacked the strike zone with a focus on getting ahead.
In the second and third innings, Holmes began to mix in his curveball and changeup, with success, but the West Virginia offense had opened up a three-run lead by the time he toed the rubber for the fourth.
Three runs ahead, Holmes shelved the off-speed stuff and attacked Greenville hitters. At 92-93 mph with sink, the right-hander owned the bottom half of the strike zone with his fastball.
Across the fourth and fifth innings, Holmes faced the minimum number of batters, and the Power hitters continued to reward his efficiency with more runs.
Holmes’ fastball heavy arsenal was impressive, but his ability to go on the attack was even more so. The 20-year old is struggling in 2013, but he flashed the stuff and wherewithal of a big leaguer during this 75-pitch outing. His final tally? 5 1/3 innings pitched, zero runs, five base runners and four strikeouts.
Against Georgia Tech, Rodon threw a 104 pitch gem on paper. In nine innings, his surrendering zero walks against three double play balls helped to keep the pitch count down. This points to efficiency if scouting the box score. In actuality, Rodon probably could have completed the game in 80-90 pitches.
So why didn’t he?
Rodon leads NCAA Division I baseball with 122 strikeouts in 82 innings pitched. His 13.39 K/9 leads the second best pitcher by 1.40. To say his slider is an equalizer would be an understatement — neutralizer, or sterilizer would be a more accurate portrayal. Cistulli’s “mancrush” on Rodon’s slider is well-documented.
And while it was a plus pitch, I sat behind home plate wanting to see it less, not more.
Why? By the bottom of the third inning, the left-hander was staked to a three-run lead. At the same point Holmes went on the attack, Rodon continued to pitch for the strikeout.
By the bottom of the sixth inning, Rodon had a 4-1 lead and was throwing more sliders than fastballs.
In the top of the eighth, NC State put Rodon up 6-1, yet he continued throwing far too many sliders and cutters.
When the game ended, my left elbow was sore. I left the park thinking, “What if Rodon had walked a hitter or two?” And, “What if he hadn’t rolled three double plays?” Those same “what if’s” will enter the minds of scouting director’s heading into the 2014 draft — especially when Rodon has four starts of 123-133 pitches. With those pitch totals, the question might even be answered. Below is a chart of Rodon’s innings and pitch counts.
|Innings Pitched||Pitches Thrown|
|Average Innings||Average Pitches|
Against Georgia Tech, an efficient Rodon who attacked with fastballs and tallied six strikeouts would have been more impressive in person than his actual 10-strikeout performance. Without a doubt, Rodon is a better pitcher than Holmes, and just about every other 20-year-old pitcher on earth. However, if he continues on his current path, the perception of college wear and tear will do nothing but hurt his draft stock come June 2014.