This summer I am splitting my time between Pittsburgh and Portland, Maine. I'll be in Pittsburgh to cover games at PNC Park when the Pirates are home for extended homestands, but otherwise I'll be up here in New England.
This weekend the Altoona Curve are visiting the Portland Sea Dogs, giving me the opportunity watch and talk to some of the Pirates' Double-A prospects.
Before tonight's game, I met with pitching prospect Adrian Sampson. Since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, the 22-year-old righty has quickly moved up through both the Pirates' system and their prospect rankings. While he may never become a top prospect in the organization, it is increasingly likely that he'll get a shot at a rotation spot with the big-league club.
After spending his rookie season with State College, Sampson skipped West Virginia and was placed in Bradenton's starting rotation in 2013. After struggling in the first half of the season with the Marauders (6.46 ERA), Sampson steadied the ship somewhat, posting a 4.47 ERA the rest of the way. Sampson said that his struggles in Bradenton were largely a result of trying to learn how to throw the changeup, which Sampson says he never learned before being drafted.
"I never had anybody tell me how to throw the changeup before," Sampson said. "I never really needed it in high school or college. So that was my big project last year."
Sampson credits Justin Meccage, his pitching coach both in State College and Bradenton, with teaching him the pitch.
"It was a big thing in high-A last year. It's probably one of the reasons that I struggled so much early last season."
Sampson said that learning the pitch and incorporating it into his repertoire caused him to throw too many easy strikes early in the count, and too few curveballs late.
In his efforts to get ahead early and set up the changeup, he gave in and threw hittable pitches too often. Then, when he did get ahead, he didn't throw his out pitch, the curve, very often because he was working on the changeup. The off speed pitch, being a work in progress, got hit a lot. The cumulative effect of adding the pitch was his bloated early-season ERA.
"If you're throwing balls [early in the count], you never have the chance to work on stuff," Sampson said. "So that's why I got hit around a lot. I wasn't too worried about it. I knew what I was working on."
"Once the second half of the season started, I was able to use the changeup when I wanted to for strikes. And, I think my last six or seven starts were quality starts. Everything was working for me, I was able to throw the curve a lot more after not throwing it very much for the first half. I have just brought [all three pitches] into this year."
The Pirates liked enough of what they saw from Sampson's pitch mix in the second half of last season to aggressively promote him into Altoona's starting rotation this April.
"It's kind of high-risk, high-reward kind of deal," Sampson said of his fast rise to Double-A. "You get put in these tough situations because they think you are mature enough and they think you will do well. Everyone thinks you can do well and be successful. But the bad part is that if you don't succeed, you're seen as the guy that failed at the level."
So far this season with Altoona, Sampson has been anything but a failure. In 76 innings, he has a 2.00 ERA, allowing only 18 walks while striking out 61. In his last five starts, he's posted a minuscule 1.50 ERA and 0.967 WHIP. But Sampson says that the Pirates won't necessarily be impressed by the surface numbers he has put up this year.
"They've had so many young guys and pitchers come out of this organization, and the big thing is that they are not very result-oriented about everything," Sampson said. "Wins and losses, ERA, don't matter that much. They look at your pitches, your composure, all the little things that can build you to be a big-league pitcher."
"They don't care if you succeed at High-A or Double-A, they want to see wins and success at the big-league level."
Sampson said that the organization emphasizes a very specific pitching approach throughout the minor league system.
"The way we do it as an organization is that we are taught to pitch inside and to move feet and go after people," Samson said. "That's what we want to build an identity around."
Sampson added that the advanced shifts the Pirates utilize are built around the attacking approach.
"And that's how we build our shift. It's just what we do [pitch inside], it ends up that the ball goes where it is supposed to [into the shift]."
Finally, I asked Sampson if he has been able to make it up to PNC Park this season, since he is just down the road in Altoona.
"I have, me and Nick [Kingham], Stetson [Allie], we went at the beginning of the season on our first off day," Sampson said. "We spent the night over there and then went to the game. I mean, it's awesome. It's a great park. Hopefully I'll be up there one day."
Sampson will start Sunday afternoon against the Sea Dogs.