July 3, 2003
If you have never heard Lou Piniella talk about a young pitcher, you're missing one of life's true joys. Inevitably, you will hear three words linked together; big, strong, and kid. Piniella referred to Freddy Garcia by this phrase after almost every start. This spring, Piniella referred to Seth McClung in the same fashion. McClung just underwent Tommy John surgery last week.
I am not here to pick on Lou Piniella, however. He is just continuing to echo the sentiments of baseball men throughout history. Large pitchers last longer than small ones, or so the theory goes. There is validity to the belief that shorter pitchers have a smaller margin for error. In order to generate the same power as a pitcher with more natural strength, they can tend to put more pressure on their arms, thus leading to poor mechanics and eventual injuries. The prevailing thought is not that short pitchers cannot be effective, but rather than they cannot withstand a large enough workload to be valuable investments.
The love of tall pitchers is not just talk, either. Teams back up their assertions that a tall pitcher is more valuable than a short one every June during the first-year player draft. Chad Cordero was the only first-round pitcher selected who is listed under 6'2". The first pitcher selected, Kyle Sleeth, is 6'5". You can peruse any random minor league roster and the trend becomes obvious.
However, there is a rebel in the ranks, refusing to limit themselves solely to pitchers able to ride all the rides at Disneyland. The Houston Astros have been aggressively scouting what they feel is an untapped resource: the short right-handed pitcher. When other teams see a pitcher without the leverage to dominate, the Astros see Roy Oswalt. Instead of writing off Octavio Dotel based on his frame, the Astros acquired a pitcher who became of the premier relievers in the game. When Shane Reynolds needed to be replaced, they turned to Tim Redding. All three have been key parts of the Astros success this season, yet all three are generously listed at six feet tall.
It doesn't end with the major league club, either. The Astros boast several of the premier "small arms" in the minors, and each level of their organization features at least one right-handed pitcher listed at 6'0" or less. The premier talent of the group is Fernando Nieve, though he has gotten little press to this point, largely because of his diminutive stature.
I saw Nieve throw twice for Martinsville last summer and came away more impressed the second time around. He featured plus velocity for a 20-year-old (he turns 21 in July), hitting 94 with such regularity that I stopped looking at the radar gun. He topped out at 98, but didn't show a tremendous amount of movement on his two-seam fastball. His curveball was a strong 12-6 power curve, thrown between 81-84. It has hard break, but his command came and went, and he was still getting a feel for the pitch. His changeup was in the developmental stage, but he flashed potential with it as a third pitch. The repertoire to be a strikeout pitcher is definitely there.
Usually, top prospects will post ridiculous strikeout rates in the Appalachian League, but Nieve did not follow this trend. He is continuing to average just below one strikeout per inning in the South Atlantic League this year, but it certainly isn't for lack of a strikeout pitch. Nieve is simply learning how to set up hitters early in the count and put them away when he has two strikes. He hasn't yet perfected the art of hitting his spots, and it isn't a guarantee that he will. He has improved in this area, but he still has a ways to go. Much like Juan Cruz, however, Nieve has the stuff to make a dramatic improvement in a short period of time.
Martinsville boasts a Nieve clone this year named Alan Vergara. I got a chance to watch him recently and was amazed at the similarities. Essentially, he looks like Nieve after a trip to the Mo Vaughn buffet. Vergara is listed at 5'11, but that was likely standing on his toes. He is legitimately 200 pounds, and that might be on the conservative side. His stocky build helps set him apart, but the velocity and pitch selection are not unique.
Vergara didn't get above 94, but was consistent at 91-94 for his entire six-inning stint. Most 19-year-olds will lose velocity as the game wears on, but Vergara's pure arm strength allows him to continue throwing hard even as the game wears on. He has good sink on his two-seam fastball and uses it effectively. His curve (80-83) bends away from right-handed batters, making it nearly impossible to pull, but making him vulnerable to left-handed batters. He does have a violent delivery, putting a lot of strain on his arm, and this may be a problem as he begins to log large amounts of innings.
Vergara was also a different pitcher out of the stretch than he was from the windup. He didn't get the same bite on his curve and had problems with his release point. This creates some question to how well he'd handle a move to the bullpen, which is always a consideration when dealing with pitchers who don't look like workhorses. Overall, though, his stuff is well above average for a teenage arm, and the Astros will let him continue to develop in the rotation.
The Oakland A's, always willing to go against the common thought, jumped on the short-pitcher bandwagon with Shane Komine in the 9th round of the 2002 draft. Komine was the ace of the Nebraska Cornhuskers staff, though he experienced some tendinitis in his senior year, which contributed to his fall in the draft. He set university records for both wins (41) and strikeouts (510) in his four years at Nebraska, but one number continued to cause questions about his major league future: 5'9".
After scuffling with his control in his pro debut last fall, Komine has righted himself this spring with some tremendous performances. He was untouchable in 54 innings in the Midwest League before the A's jumped him past high-A to Double-A Midland. In another 55 innings since the promotion, he's logged a 2.43 ERA and a 13/45 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Komine is not the power pitcher that the Astros usually cultivate, but compares well to Kirk Saarloos. His 89-91 MPH fastball is used to set up his two breaking balls, which he can throw at any point in the count. His changeup is also an effective weapon, and Komine will get most of his strikeouts by getting off his timing and mixing in the soft stuff. His command is well above average, and he has a chance to succeed as a control artist with average stuff.
The success Houston has found with pitchers lacking only in height is causing other teams to reevaluate their opinions on the necessity of size. While a small pitcher will always have to overcome his build, they are now being given that opportunity, where in the past they may have been written off completely. Normal-sized human beings everywhere should send letters of thanks to scouting director David Lakey and the rest of the Houston organization.