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Rarefied Air Pitching in Reno Part 3 of 3

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Concluding the examination of Diamondbacks AAA pitching since 2009.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Today we finish off our look at the development of Diamondback pitching since 2009. Yesterday we took a moment to examine the lack of early bullpen success, but we also found that the bullpen now seems to be trending in a positive direction, finding more internal candidates to turn to rather than continuing to rely on veteran arms to assemble the most volatile part of the 25-man roster.

We also covered the first two years of starting pitching development in which we found one complete bust in Barry Enright, and two very decent success in Josh Collmenter and Wade Miley who have developed into solid, serviceable MLB pitchers. Each pitcher took a different approach to arriving. Enright took the "star caliber" approach, making the jump from AA to the majors. Collmenter's ascension has been one of having to prove himself at every level by defying expectations, while of the three, Miley took the most traditional path.

It was hard to find much to link these three prospects and how they arrived with such a small, disparate sample size. But today we turn our attention to the pitchers from 2012 to present that have also been a large part of the process, and some similarities do begin to emerge. How much or how little those similarities mean can and will of course be debated.

2012 - Tyler Skaggs

MLB* / Reno

ERA: 5.43 / 4.02
IP: 68.0 / 156.2
BB9: 3.7 / 3.10
SO9: 7.5 / 8.73
WHIP: 1.412 / 1.39

*MLB numbers during time with the Diamondbacks

Until 2014, Tyler Skaggs' professional baseball career has been largely defined by the expectation that he was a top-of-the-rotation arm. He was ranked as the #12 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season, the same year he was also listed as the #1 left-handed pitching prospect. He was also considered to have the best curveball for his league. When Skaggs is going well, he relies on his 4-seam fastball to dart to his throwing side, a nasty curveball that he can make disappear out of the zone, and a change-up that rarely is actually a strike.

A disturbing trend developed during Skaggs' split time with the Diamondbacks. His fastball velocity dropped from a high of 92 in 2012, to a low of 88 by the time he was sent back to Reno in July of 2013. Immediately before being sent back to Reno, the Diamondbacks encouraged him to develop a 4th pitch, a sinker, to try and offset players sitting on the 4-seam fastball. As a pitcher with a below average fastball, Skaggs was required to rely on pinpoint location and pitch movement in order to find success. Unsurprisingly, his devastating curveball helped him to generate strikeouts in Reno at a very respectable pace whether he threw it as a strike or not. However, the knock on Skaggs was his pitch count, and his inability to consistently throw his sinker and changeup for strikes, but rather, tended to miss both down and away. When he would throw them for strikes, they were hanging pitches, and they were summarily abused in the appropriate manner. Essentially, the only pitch he consistently threw for a strike in the zone was his below average fastball. His curveball was good enough that even without throwing it for strikes he could embarrass a batter. But as a starter, he needed a third pitch, and he was unable to control them in the lower portion of the zone, or on the edges of the plate.

For numerous reason, once the 2013 Diamondback season was completed, the team found itself needing to make a number of changes, mostly via the trade market. Despite his projected potential (or perhaps because of) the Diamondbacks traded Tyler Skaggs to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as part of the deal to acquire right-handed slugger Mark Trumbo.

Upon arriving with the Angels, Skaggs' mechanics were altered, in this case back, to what they were in 2012. Tyler Skaggs' velocity is now up 2-4 mph depending on the pitch. He has also found strike-throwing control of the sinker that the Diamondbacks encouraged him to develop, making him a true 4-pitch pitcher. The results have been rather mixed. Skaggs is still not the TOR arm that he was hyped up to be. In fact, his ERA+ still resides at 83, hardly impressive. On the other hand, Skaggs has also enjoyed a greater level of success in his new home than he ever did with the Diamondbacks. His walks are quite a ways down, helping to drop his WHIP. This has brought his FIP and ERA down and allowed him to start pitching deeper into games. While he is still not yet a fully league average pitcher, he is a markedly improved one. It's hard to evaluate the development since Skaggs left for the Angels, as we will never know what developments simply have come from more experience, and those that have come from a change in coaching. We do know two things though. Stretching out Skaggs' delivery revitalized his velocity, which points to the difference in coaching and risk evaluation. And we know that he has found a far greater degree of control with his movement-based pitches since leaving Reno, despite the level of competition being significantly higher.

2012 - Patrick Corbin

MLB / Reno

ERA: 3.80 / 3.44
IP:
315.1 / 52.1
BB9:
2.3 / 2.6
SO9:
7.5 / 9.5
WHIP:
1.221 / 1.376

The loss of Daniel Hudson after only nine starts in 2012 threw the Diamondbacks' rotation into a tizzy. A number of pitchers were given the opportunity to step in and cover the lost starts. Patrick Corbin was one of these options. The results were something of a mixed bag, but for the most part, Corbin's presence in the rotation was not a positive one and he was moved to the bullpen where his performance improved - but only marginally. Eventually Corbin was sent back to Reno. Then two weeks later, circumstances dictated Corbin be called up again. This time he managed to stay in the rotation and from August 1st through the end of the season, he made 12 starts, six of which qualified as a "quality start That performance to close out the year put Corbin in the running for fifth starter out of spring 2013.  Then, a funny thing happened on the way to Salt River Field.

During Patrick Corbin's rise through the ranks, he was considered by many to have a future as a solid #3/4 starter. While he possessed four pitches, all of which rated at least average, it was the combination of his plus changeup and pitching acumen that caught the attention of most evaluators. He commanded both sides of the plate and he knew how to mix his pitches up to get the most out of them.  During his time in Visalia and Mobile, Corbin picked up about two miles per hour on his fastball and sinker. His delivery also provided a good downward plane for his pitches. As a result of all of this, he was considered to have one above average pitch (his changeup) and three average pitches, though his slider could be slightly above average. Throughout his minor league career, and even during his initial 2012 season, Corbin's slider was very much his #3/4 offering. Though he still mixed it in with enough frequency to keep hitters honest and change eye level, it was his pitching smarts that helped his slider play up to slightly above league average.

All of that changed when Patrick Corbin arrived for spring training in 2013. Based on his very modest success in 2012, Corbin was given the opportunity to compete with the likes of Randal Delgado for the fifth starter's slot. It wasn't much of a competition. Patrick Corbin showed up with something his tools had always hinted at but never yet delivered. Patrick Corbin's slightly above average slider had become a devastating pitch, breaking down on the back foot of right handed batters.  Corbin rode that slider to great success in 2013, remaining in the Cy Young discussion until well into July, when he visibly tired and faded hard before limping into the offseason.

Despite his obvious fatigue, Patrick Corbin maintained throughout the 2013 season that he wanted to go out every fifth day and get his starts in. It is perhaps Corbin, as much or more than any other player, that embodied the much-maligned "grit narrative" of the team. In 2012, Corbin set a career high in innings pitched at 186.1. However, this very respectable number of innings also included a nearly one month stretch from the end of June to the end of July where he logged only 11.2 innings of work spread out over 5 appearances. In essence, Corbin was allowed to rest for the better part of a month at the season's mid-point before finishing up the year as a starter, during which time he showed so signs of season wear and tear. In 2013, Corbin blew right by that 2012 career high in innings pitched and logged 208.1. This number was reached without a pseudo month off in the middle of the season and with the weight of the team and its drive for a playoff berth on his shoulders. How much or how little the elevated demands of the elevated innings Corbin pitched affected his road to Tommy John surgery will never fully be known. That substantially increased number of high pressure innings, especially the ones at the end of the season when the team was out of the running, certainly did Corbin no favors.

Like Miley before him. Corbin's repertoire consisted of a 4-seam, a sinker, and a slider. Also like Miley, the slider was always fairly decent, but not considered the best of the offerings. In Corbin's case, it was probably his third best offering when he arrived in Arizona. Yet both pitchers' success came as the result of their slider developing. In both cases the development happened entirely at the MLB level, after Reno was left behind. It is entirely possible that the development simply came along as the result of the pitchers maturing and developing. However, the drastic improvement in slider command and break for both pitchers, but especially Corbin developed in a very rapid, almost day-to-day manner after leaving behind the thin air of Reno. Obviously, with only the two pitchers as an example, it is impossible to make a definitive case, but it would be remiss to entirely disregard the pitching atmosphere in Reno for the lack of devastating slider in either pitcher.

2013 - Mike Bolsinger

MLB / Reno

ERA: 5.50 / 4.18
IP:
52.1 / 159.1
BB9:
2.9 / 3.3
SO9:
8.3 / 8.3
WHIP:
1.586 / 1.425

It's probably fair to say that of all the players impacted by the combination of injuries and ineffectiveness associated with the Diamondbacks' rotation, Mike Bolsinger has possibly been one of the biggest beneficiaries. Bolsinger has been a 2-pitch pitcher for the majority of his career, relying on a cutting fastball in the 89-91 range that has a bit of sink and a very average breaking ball. While in Reno, Bolsinger's results far out-stripped his actual performance. While not possessing any real third pitch that he could rely on, he still managed to average just a hair below six innings per outing. When the Diamondbacks found themselves desperate for an arm to put into the rotation to stop the bleeding, Bolsinger had the distinction of being the most consistent of all Reno arms. This got him the call. He made the most of his time in the bigs, but his lack of velocity on the fastball, and his very average-at-best curve simply weren't enough to keep him up. Without a third pitch to keep hitters honest, his profile as a bullpen pitcher was exposed.

There is very little to comment on with Bolsinger. Expectations were always that he would eventually be a bullpen piece if he made it all the way. His rise has been very steady and unspectacular. Perhaps his greatest achievements have been staying healthy and remaining consistent - even if that consistency is at the lower end. Perhaps the most telling thing about Bolsinger's future and his ability is that nothing was changed with his repertoire when he returned to Reno. He remained the same pitcher and did not improve his curve or develop a true third pitch. Despite his 8.3 SO9, Bolsinger's success comes not from having any great pitches, but instead from being able to paint the edges of the black and hit his spots. Bolsinger also appears to have been a true beneficiary of the humidor being installed in Reno. While throwing essentially the same, with very similar walk and strikeout numbers (though both are down slightly in 2014) Bolsinger's Reno ERA is 1.42 less in 2014 than in 2013, with his HR rate down by .5/9 and the hits down 2.3/9.

At this point, it now looks like any return to Arizona for Bolsinger will be as a bullpen arm. Though he may compete for the fifth starter slot in spring, the lack of a developing third pitch suggests that Bolsinger's time in the desert as a starter is nothing more than an injury-induced blip on the radar.

2013- Chase Anderson

MLB / Reno

ERA: 3.58 / 5.73
IP:
60.1 / 88
BB9:
3.3 / 3.4
SO9:
7.8 / 8.2
WHIP:
1.392 / 1.591

Chase Anderson may quite possibly be one of the poster children for avoiding Diamondback pitchers avoiding too much development time in Reno. At first glance, it appears that Anderson had a rocky go of things in Reno, but because of the current status of the Diamondbacks' rotation in 2014, managed to get himself a call up. Except that Anderson didn't arrive in Arizona from Reno, he arrived from AA Mobile. In 2012, Anderson had a very strong full season of play in Mobile. While he didn't necessarily dominate the way some thought he should, he was nonetheless very good (with an ERA of 2.86 a low walk rate of 2.2/9) earning himself a promotion to AAA Reno for the 2013 season. His numbers in Reno were tragic. He managed just 88 innings of work over 26 games, half of which came out of the bullpen once he was demoted from the rotation.

In 2014, Anderson found himself beginning the year in Mobile all over again. This time around, he wasn't merely good, he was dominant. In six starts covering 39 innings of work, Anderson posted a 0.69 ERA. That is not a typo. Anderson was sporting a sub-1.00 ERA with a WHIP of 0.718 and a BB/SO of 6/38. Those are the numbers that brought him up to the desert. Anderson's numbers in AA were strikingly similar to another well-known name that made the jump from AA to MLB, skipping the elevated climes of Albuquerque, Clayton Kershaw. Obviously, Anderson is in no way the second coming of Clayton Kershaw, but it does put the level of his domination in Mobile into perspective.

Chase Anderson features four pitches, but his 4-seam fastball is very average at only 92 mph. Anderson's success is due largely to his off-speed pitches, namely his changeup. On the 20-80 scale Anderson's change rates a 75-80. This is quickly reflected in opponents .111 BA and 22 punch-outs in only 58 plate appearances. Anderson's second-best pitch is his curve. While the curve is mostly average, when he has it working, it plays up into the plus realm. In AA, the still undisciplined batters stood no chance against Anderson's offerings. Thus far, Anderson's time at the MLB level has him pitching to an ERA+ of 106. He has been unspectacular, but very serviceable. As in AA, hitters are having trouble with his off-speed pitches. Yet these hitters are not the undisciplined youth of AA-ball. So where was this level of AA dominance or big league success in Reno?

During his time in Reno, Anderson's walks, hits, and home runs allowed were all up significantly. He was considered a 2-pitch pitcher, with a very average fastball as one of the two offerings. Batters were able to lay off that filthy changeup, knowing they could wait on the fastball. His curve was considered to be average on a good day (even though it had been solid average in Mobile), a developing third pitch that never actually developed, leading to Anderson eventually being demoted. In 2014 Anderson skipped the Reno experience and his performance has rewarded the Diamondbacks for the decision. Once again, Anderson is but one case, but his performance split between AA/MLB and Reno is impossible to ignore, or to write off as entirely being about pitcher development. Clearly, Anderson's pitches simply were not impressive enough in Reno to keep moderately talented hitters in check. Yet those very same pitches have him currently performing above league average at the highest of levels.

Other Names to Examine

There are four other names worth mentioning quickly that speak more to pitching development than to Reno, though Reno still plays a part in the conversation.

Trevor Bauer

Trevor Bauer is a lightning rod for discussions about the recent organizational philosophy behind roster and player development. Drafted out of UCLA in 2011, Bauer made quite clear that no amount of pressure from above was going to change his reliance on the relatively "new" Effective Velocity Pitching method and his extreme preparation. The number of things that went "wrong" during Bauer's time with the Diamondbacks organization are tough to quantify. There was bad blood in the locker room. His control was a mess. He stuck to his word and did not abandon his approach to pitching. Despite all of his issues, he still reached the majors after only roughly one year in the minors. Even polished college pitchers often take 2-3 years before actually arriving. Bauer arrived a full year and then some ahead of the normal schedule of things. His dominance in the minors and the team's need for a fifth starter forced the issue. However, Bauer's short stint was not a terribly impressive one. He wound up injured and demoted and never pitched for the team again. His first year in AAA Columbus, he was still erratic, though he still showed flashes of the promise he had back when he was drafted. His four injury-induced appearances for the Indians in 2013 were a mixed bag, but mostly not very good, with his walks sky-high and his strikeouts dropping precipitously.

2014 marks the third year since Bauer was drafted. Now more or less on schedule for arrival in the majors, he is sporting a 3.93 ERA with a respectable 3.2 BB9 and an ERA+97. He regularly is getting through six innings of work and often pitching into the seventh. Though he is still nowhere near to putting up the TOR performances that were expected when he was drafted, he is clearly an improved pitcher that is clearly showing significant signs of improvement and trending in the right direction.

While Bauer's best pitch is his fastball, he also sports a plus curve. Yet, it would seem disingenuous to put too much weight behind Reno having anything to do with Bauer's control difficulties while he was there. Bauer's worst enemy was almost certainly his success. In Reno he was overpowering, with so many strikeouts that few batters were walking. In Columbus, even though his walks elevated significantly, he continued to strike out quite a few as well. It took facing the very best talent before he finally found a challenge. Now, he seems to be rising to the challenge. Next year will be a very big year for him.

Jarrod Parker

Before Jarrod Parker was traded, he was considered by many to have possible TOR potential. At worst, he was considered to be a solid #3 pitcher. Tommy John surgery in 2010 sidelined his ascension. Featuring a fastball, sinker, and unorthodox changeup, Parker recovered nicely from his surgery and performed decently in the most average of ways for AA Mobile. He never saw Reno or AAA ball before being promoted to MLB. Yet once he landed in Oakland, he experienced a rather impressive level of success for a rookie, posting an ERA+ of 112. Clearly, even though the Mobile results did not indicate it, Parker was ready for his promotion. It's tough to say whether or not the Diamondbacks would have ever let him pitch in Reno. His lone start for the Diamondbacks was clearly a showcase start. It is unlikely however the Diamondbacks foresaw Parker performing quite as well as he did during his 2013 campaign. He has since gone down and is currently rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery. All indicators suggest that the A's intend to continue using him as a starter once he returns.

Andrew Chafin

Pitcher A: Age 24 in AA

ERA: 2.58 / WHIP: 1.252 / BB/SO: 60/128

Pitcher B: Age 23 in AA

ERA: 3.75 / WHIP: 1.354 / BB/SO: 89/186

Sure, there are plenty of other statistics more telling of a pitcher's performance, but those numbers do give the gist of the comparison. Pitcher A is Andrew Chafin. Pitcher B is Jarrod Parker. Andrew Chafin has never been considered one to be a TOR arm. IN fact, many think that is he ever makes it to the majors, it will be as a bullpen arm. Chafin features three average to plus pitches, a fastball, a changeup, and a slider with some serious bite to it. Yet unlike Parker did in 2012, Chafin projects more as a #3-5 arm, or perhaps even a bullpen arm if his stamina doesn't improve a bit. Unlike Parker, Chafin's success in Mobile this season (ERA of 1.96) pushed him into a promotion to Reno. Reno has not been kind to the young pitcher. He is walking more batters, allowing more home runs, and pretty much just having a miserable go of things, which would explain the 5.45 ERA.  One major difference for Chafin has been his command in the zone. During his time in Mobile, Chafin became aggressive pitching to contact. Now, in Reno, his chageup no longer is falling the table, and his slider lacks the tilt and break it once had. The eyeball test alone says that his slider isn't getting deep enough into the zone. But when he elevates it, it gets hammered.

This is yet another pitcher for the Diamondbacks that has had great success at the AA level despite the lack of overwhelming velocity that has struggled mightily with Reno. Chafin is yet another pitcher who seems to be a victim of not commanding offspeed pitches on the edges of the zone and throwing them consistently for strikes. Given his level of success in Mobile, and the success that both Parker and Anderson enjoyed after making the leap, there is perhaps a legitimate argument to be made that Chafin's best course of action would be to remain in Reno until the Diamondbacks have room for him on the parent club.

Archie Bradley

The last pitcher to look at is Archie Bradley. In many ways, Bradley is like Bauer in that he may have been a victim of his own success. Featuring a plus fastball and a dominating curve, Bradley had no issues dominating the lower minors and essentially owned AA-ball in 2013. Bradley competed for the final rotation spot during spring training, but was assigned to AAA-Reno. In Reno, things went a bit pear-shaped. When observed by Dave Duncan, Bradley's changeup was considered essentially unusable. Bradley's curve, considered by many to be the pitch that will put him on the map, was erratic and entirely uncontrolled. His results showed it. Then, Bradley injured his elbow and was shelved. Since coming back from injury, Bradley has returned to AA-Mobile. The results have been mixed. Walks remain on the high side. Though he is still having some issues with fastball command, his changeup is now once again serviceable to average. His curve is once again dominant.

Conclusion:

The sample sizes are obviously small, but the results have shown some rather drastic trends. Pitchers heading to Reno that rely on movement, especially from the curve would seem to be at a real disadvantage. Even those that rely on the slider instead of the curve show marked improvement with the pitch away from Reno. While that falls under the "water is wet" category, it does speak to the future development of Diamondback pitchers. When looking at the pitchers that have had real success in Reno, we are looking at pitchers like Marshall, Stites, Barrett, and Bauer, they all have one thing in common. They all found success by blowing away the opposition without getting fancy.

The Diamondbacks' pitching future looks quite bright. Bradley, Aaron Blair, Braden Shipley, Cody Reed and Touki Toussaint are all potential TOR arms in the pipeline making their way to the majors with projected arrivals spread out from 2015 through 2018 or 2019. At least three of them rely on both a change and a hard curve. It certainly bears considering that those pitchers might best be served by never advancing to Reno, but rather staying in Mobile until the organization sees fit to promote them all the way up.

Looking at the past five years of pitching to come out of the high elevation affiliates such as Reno, Las Vegas, Albequerque, and Colorado Springs, the two best arms to come out are likely Patrick Corbin and the New York Mets' Zack Wheeler. While both are nice pitchers, neither is entirely dominant either. Yet pitchers with TOR stuff like Bradley and Noah Syndergaard are finding any sort of success in the PCL hard to come by. While Syndergaard has a plus plus fastball that is his primary pitch, his best secondary offering is a plus curve. Unsurprisingly, his PCL troubles seem to be tied to his lack of off-speed command.

It will be very interesting to watch how the Diamondbacks handle the development of these potential TOR arms. Looking at recent history, it is the pitchers that arrived with only moderate expectations that the Diamondbacks have actually shown the most patience with. While Tyler Skaggs was clearly unready to pitch for Arizona, the cord was quickly cut. Yet, only marginally better performance from Corbin was tolerated, with Corbin being given the time to work through his issues and develop. Bauer, despite his rapid ascendance was dismissed after less than two years in the organization, raising a question about why the team ever bothered to draft him. Jarrod Parker was moved before he ever had a chance to sink or swim. Whether these moves were warranted or not, they do indicate that there is some impatience with pitchers packaged together with high expectations.

Recently, Kirk Gibson said he felt that promoting Archie Bradley to the Diamondbacks before the season was out might actually be a very good thing, helping him to develop better and to give him a better idea of what he needs to be ready to face. Perhaps we'll see Bradley in Arizona this September after all. If we do it will be interesting to see if they make the move directly from AA. It will also be interesting to see how that curveball plays up. Hopefully, if Bradley stumbles a bit, the organization takes it in stride and does not use September as a way to showcase Bradley as they did with Parker. Given the way the pitching market has changed over the past few years, I'm inclined to believe that the Diamondbacks will be forced to let Bradley work through his growing pains. Patience is a good thing. Now if they would just move the AAA-affiliate back to Tucson, then maybe the curveball hurlers might stand a chance.