Since becoming the GM of the Pirates, Neal Huntington has been known for acquiring (mainly through the draft) big arms, that is arms with premium velocity.
The more well known prospects include Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon but there also have been several others as well. Here I will talk about two different bullpen pitchers that made their MLB debuts in 2012 that fall into that category and could help the Pirates going forward.
Justin Wilson was named the Pirates 16th best prospect by John Sickels of SB Nation’s Minor League Ball, who called him a “Power lefty”.
Wilson was picked in the 5th round by the Pirates in 2008. The 25 year old has spent most of the last two seasons in AAA (pitching in 8 games in the Majors in 2012), pitching mainly as a starter. After struggling in Indianapolis’ rotation in 2011, he was solid in 2012, with a FIP just better than league average and a SIERA .032 better than league average. He still struggled with walks, but was able to get more strikeouts to go along with a decent HR/9IP. While he wasn’t a big ground-ball pitcher to start with, he sacrificed the ground-balls for strikeouts (and increased his IFFB %). This lead to an absurd 4.30 Pit/PA. While having more pitches per plate appearance is usually a positive thing (for both pitchers and hitters ironically), no starter in the Majors were even close to 4.30 (Max Scherzer had a 4.15). This probably means he is destined for the bullpen, especially since control and high pitch counts have always been a problem with him.
If his short sample in the big leagues is any indication, a bullpen Justin Wilson is going to be a guy that relies heavily on his fastball. He showed off a solid fastball at 93.3 MPH on average and getting up to 96.6 MPH (I have seen reports of it getting up to 99 MPH). He also threw a curve and a slider and has been known to throw a changeup. However, fastball command will be the issue for Wilson. If he can command it and throw that hard from the left side, he will become an effective bullpen piece. That isn’t bad for a guy who has never really been considered as a big time prospect.
Bryan Morris named 14th best prospect in Pirates system by Sickels. Sickels also thinks he might develop into a closer and should at least be in the Pirates bullpen in 2013. Marc Hulet of FanGraphs ranked him as the team’s 8th best prospect before the start of the 2011 season and then the 12th best before the start of 2012. He was picked in the 1st round out of college in 2006 by the Dodgers (traded to the Pirates as part of the Manny Ramirez/Jason Bay/Brandon Moss trade in the middle of 2008) and it seems like everyone has been waiting for him to take the next step (whatever that means). The 25 year old right-hander finally moved from being a starter in 2011 (he made only 6 starts and 29 relief appearances) and then became exclusively a reliever in 2012. This actually didn’t have a huge affect on him statistically, but it did finally allow him to reach the Majors (in which he threw 5 innings) after pitching in AAA all year in 2012.
In his 81 relief innings in AAA in 2012, he had a 3.16 FIP and 2.84 SIERA. His 23.6 K % and 5.1 BB % was tainted only slightly by a HR/9IP that was .09 over league average in a slightly pitcher friendly park. 7 of the 8 home runs he gave up were on the road and Morris hasn’t really had a home run problem in his minor league career, so I don’t think it is something to worry too much about (he went from a 4.9 HR/OFB % in AA in 2011 to a 17.4 HR/OFB % in 2012. That seems like a statistical fluke if I have ever seen one). He has always been known for his ability to get ground-balls (56.1 GB % over the last two years), so this really isn’t a surprise. He threw plenty of strikes (over 2 % more than league average) and got more swings than league average and yet yielded less contact than league average. Over the last couple of years, Morris really hasn’t had platoon splits, basically equally effective against lefties and righties. This gives you (along with the fact that he was a first round pick) the idea that he has good stuff.
Of course, since he also pitched for a short amount of time in the Majors, we can get a better idea as to what kind of stuff he has by his Pitch F/X data. Morris showed off a good fastball at 94.72 MPH on average along with an extremely hard slider that averages nearly 90 MPH and has reached 91 MPH. Of course there were just 29 of them thrown, so it is a small sample size, but he is in the position to have one of the hardest sliders in baseball as just 7 pitchers in all of the Major Leagues had sliders over 88.5 MPH on average, and just 2 of them had sliders above 90 MPH. He matches this with one of the hardest curveballs in baseball, as the 8 he threw in the big leagues averaged 84.25 MPH. Just 3 pitchers (minimum of 10 innings pitched) had a harder curveball than that. It is interesting to note that the pitchers with the hardest curveballs and sliders weren’t necessarily pitchers that have been very successful in the Majors. It seems that he throws a cutter as well, though the velocity is basically the same and the movement on what is called his fastball and what is called his cutter is inconsistent.
Overall, Morris, like Wilson, is a hard thrower. For a team that is close to legitimately competing like the Pirates are, having hard throwers to pitch at the back of the bullpen will be valuable. They will only cost the league minimum, allowing the team to spend their money elsewhere. This is one of the reasons they were able to trade Brad Lincoln for Travis Snider and may be able to allow Jason Grilli walk instead of spending the money to retain him (and use that money on other players). It also may allow them to trade closer Joel Hanrahan to help plug in roster holes so the Pirates can avoid another 2nd half collapse.