Pitchers: An even tougher challenge

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Despite the individual nature of most of the instruction minor league players receive as they work their way through the system, some basic principles apply to everyone.

Roughly two-thirds of the players selected in the first round of baseball's amateur draft eventually make it to the majors. That number decreases for players selected deeper in the draft.

"You get one legitimate major league player out of a draft and then a couple of other guys who help your major league team, that's probably an average draft," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.

Pitchers face an even tougher path. To give as many pitchers as possible the best chance for success, the Pirates stress some fundamentals to everyone, high among them the need to consistently locate a fastball in the lower half of the strike zone.

"Is it mandatory? No," said special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict, who works with the organization's pitchers in addition to scouting. "But if you want to develop the masses, get a lot of guys to the big leagues, you're going to do it with a fastball as a priority."

Minor league pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell said the Pirates focus more on the fastball at the lower levels. Benedict said Pirates minor leaguers throw 60 to 70 percent of fastballs across all levels. The pitch aids a pitcher's health as well as his production.

"You can't develop unless you're healthy," Benedict said. "Throwing a four-seam fastball with an intact delivery down in the zone, that's a very healthy act."

The emphasis on the fastball also helps pitchers adjust to the effect wooden bats have on contact.

"A lot of kids, coming into pro ball either from high school or college, have pitched away from contact because of the aluminum bat," Mitchell said. "Getting into pro ball with the wood bat, these wood bats break when you start pitching to both sides of the plate, especially when you're pitching with fastballs [inside]."

Most of the instruction the players receive comes in the form of small tweaks, like perfecting a low fastball, rather than sweeping overhauls.

"These kids come in, most of them [played] AAU baseball, they've had pitching delivery or mechanics training since they were young," Mitchell said. "Their deliveries are pretty clean. You don't get the raw, out-of-control, pure arm strength guys anymore."

Most high school and college coaches call the pitches, meaning young pitchers often lack the ability to read swings and attack batters. To combat that, Mitchell said, the Pirates break down thousands of pitch sequences on video to teach pitchers the mental battle.

"We'll get the kids in and start to show them, OK, this guy, his hands are here, his hands are low, might be a low-ball hitter," Mitchell said. "May have trouble handling an elevated fastball. This guy was late with a fastball. He fouled it off over the first-base dugout. What pitch are you going to throw?"

In addition to noting pitch type and location on a chart, as many minor leaguers do, the Pirates have their young pitchers make notes on the opposing batters' tendencies and review them with the coaching staff after the game.

"You really start from ground zero when these guys come in, and that cat-and-mouse game, the chess match, if you will, between the hitter and pitcher," Mitchell said, "that starts right away."



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