Power-hitting former pitcher and Pirates prospect Stetson Allie.
By Michael Sanserino Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was during an instructional week at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., last summer that Stetson Allie finally felt something new after nearly two years as a pro baseball player: comfort.
Allie and the rest of the minor league pitchers got a chance to step into the cage for a bit of batting practice.
"I had 2 1/2 years off hitting, but I was smacking balls around the ballpark and hitting them out," Allie said. "I was like, 'Man, this feels way more natural to me than pitching.' "
Signed for $2.25 million as a hard-throwing pitcher out of high school, Allie was a gamble by the front office. He started pitching just before his senior year of high school, but his ability to hit the high-90s on the radar gun made scouts salivate. He fell to the Pirates in the second round of the 2010 draft, and they lured him away from a scholarship to the University of North Carolina.
But it is as a hitter that Allie is showing some promise. With low-Class A West Virginia, he has 12 home runs, tied for second most in the South Atlantic League. He leads the league with 40 RBIs and is second in hits (56) and slugging percentage (.627). His on-base plus slugging (OPS) is 1.037, which would make him an MVP candidate in any league that doesn't involve slow pitch softballs.
"You couldn't be more proud of a guy for what Stetson has endured and the adversity he's faced and where he's at," said Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark, who was among a group of people who met with Allie individually last summer to gauge his interest in switching from pitching to hitting.
As a pitcher, Allie was erratic. He spent a lot of time in extended spring training working on control issues. In starts with short-season Class A State College in 2011 and West Virginia in 2012, he struggled to command that power arm.
And in the four days between starts, he brooded over what went wrong.
"I really didn't handle adversity well as a pitcher," he said. "I beat myself up after every start. I really wasn't comfortable. I changed my mechanics every day, trying to find something that worked. I never did find anything that worked."
So, when Stark and others in the organization offered a chance to move from the mound, he jumped at it.
"It was a blessing for them to give me a chance and believe in me," he said. "I ran with it."
It wasn't a crazy idea. As a power-hitting prospect, Allie had the potential to be a third-round pick out of high school.
He struggled last year while playing for the rookie-level Gulf Coast League (GCL) team as he tried to get re-acclimated to hitting. He hit .213 with a .314 on-base percentage and did not play when the team advanced to the playoffs. He focused on bulking up this offseason, lifting weights to "be as big as possible."
"It's a long season, and I wanted to have the power that everyone thinks I have," he said.
He stood in the cage against offseason roommate Jameson Taillon, the Pirates' 2010 first-round pick and a prized pitching prospect, and fellow minor leaguer Zack Dodson, who also spends his offseason in Texas.
Nothing ever clicked for Allie at the plate, but he said he made a series of small steps to improve.
He wowed the front office enough that they shipped him out to West Virginia instead of keeping him in extended spring training.
"We were cautiously optimistic that he was going to be able to take some steps forward," Stark said. "He's taken a bunch of steps forward."
West Virginia manager Michael Ryan has seen Allie crush baseballs out of Appalachian Power Park and crash into the second story of buildings across the street.
"He's got huge power potential," Ryan said. "He can mis-hit a ball, and it can go out of the park. Not too many people can do that."
The transition to the field has proven challenging, too.
Allie began by playing third base, but he committed eight errors in 30 defensive chances with the GCL Pirates, a .733 fielding percentage. Eventually, he moved to first, where he has been much better. He has a .989 fielding percentage this season. He also serves as West Virginia's designated hitter at times.
His mentality has improved, too. Once a player who grew quickly frustrated while struggling on the mound, Allie has embraced a "laid-back" personality. Ryan said Allie remains relatively unchanged whether he's slugging or struggling. That type of consistent mental approach is something veteran players credit for their ability to maintain success.
"He's definitely the guy that, whenever you need it, he'll pick you up and bring a smile to your face," said teammate Josh Bell, like Allie a high-profile prospect. "Whether we win or lose, whether he's going well or not, he's always a positive guy, which is awesome to have in the clubhouse."
Stark said it is Allie's mentality that has allowed this switch to be successful. Had he not supported the move, it is likely Allie would still be laboring on the mound somewhere else in the system.
"Stetson would be the first person to tell you he wasn't the most mature person coming in," Stark said. "But he's grown up a ton. ... The only way that we were going to do this is if Stetson was ready to hit. Stetson was ready to hit."