The Blue Jays took the brakes off Nate Pearson about a month ago, and he’s sure responded in a big way since. Big Nate posted another strong outing last night with 5.2 shutout innings, bringing him to a 1.59 ERA in 28.1 innings over his last five starts, with 32 strikeouts against 11 walks and 16 hits. New Hampshire jumped out to 1-0 lead after the first two batters, and hung on in a game shortened by rain to seven innings to finally secure Pearson his first AA win.
Facing a Binghamton lineup with five batters from the left side, Pearson allowed four hits and three walks against six strikeouts while throwing a season-high 101 pitches. It wasn’t his most overwhelming, with nine whiffs on 45 swings (80% contact), but he managed contact well.
Of 14 balls in play, only two were really hit hard: a first inning line drive double, and a sharp ground ball (“gliner”) leading off the third. The other two hits were a roller up the middle, and a double to the last batter he faced. Will Toffey was actually quite late on a 98 MPH fastball, just managing to get a piece and chop it right down the line the other way. The other 10 were four routine fly balls, four ground ground balls, two infield popouts.
So while it wasn’t his cleanest outing, there’s a couple points to touch that actually made me really even more bullish on Pearson. The first of those was his change-up, which not surprisingly he mixed in against against a lineup with a majority from the opposite side. I counted about a dozen, on which he got four whiffs with another dropped in for a called third strike. Two more were put in play with a routine fly ball and groundout. So it was quite effective for him.
Over his past few dominant starts in particular, I didn’t notice him using a lot of them, but I wonder now if I was just missing them. The MiLB.tv broadcasts in Binghamton aren’t the greatest, but the one big positive is they have the stadium velocity displayed on the screen for most pitches. The first few change-ups he threw, but even throughout the outing, I was only able to identify as such by the velocity being in the upper 80s rather than 94+. That is, it otherwise looked to me a lot like the fastball.
Now, I’m obviously not a professional hitter, not looking at it from the batter’s point of view and whether the arm action is the same (which is really the key to fooling batters with the change-up) — but combined with the good results above, it seems like a positive sign that without the velocity indicator, it’s hard to pick up/distinguish from his fastball. After all, the whole point is an effective change-up is supposed to look like a fastball, just slower. And I suppose ideally with fade to take it off the bat plane, which isn’t the case (this is what is normally identifiable). But with the big velocity and plus breaking ball, Pearson doesn’t need his change-up to be a wipeout plus secondary. He just needs something to keep batters honest, and what I saw was at least that.
That brings me to the other very encouraging point. Writing about his last start, I mentioned that his velocity seemed to actually climb later in the start towards the end, that he wasn’t lighting up the radar gun early and gassing himself.
While he didn’t hit triple digits yesterday, topping out at 99, having the velocity for almost every pitch on screen allows a comprehensive look at this that doesn’t rely on selective data reporting. Below I’ve charted the velocity for the 59 fastballs with a velocity reading sequentially (omitting:
There is in fact a modestly upward trend, with 15 of the 18 pitches above 96 MPH coming after the 28th pitch (roughly halfway), and 11 of the 16 fastballs below 95 coming before that point. And again, this was fully stretched out to 100 pitches, not an abbreviated outing. So Pearson is not only holding the huge velocity late into outings, but it seems like there’s a consistent trend of him actually ramping getting stronger. This is something Justin Verlander is infamously known for, and that’s not to use him as comp, but it’s obviously a big positive.
On the west coast, Adam Kloffenstein turned in a very strong outing of his own, shutting out Spokane for five innings, allowing just two hits and a walk against eight strikeouts. Unfortunately, I can’t add much colour here with just online broadcasts to go off.
The most impressive data point was the 16 swinging strikes piled up on just 37 swings, a 57% contact rate. Beyond the sheer dominance, the efficiency was impressive as well as all but the first strikeout were on five or fewer pitches (four of them on four or less). Though a little slip might have cost him a sixth inning as after striking out the first two batters of the 5th, he got ahead 1-2 but couldn’t finish the batter off and walked him. His pitch limit was apparently 85, so he would have had about a dozen if he had got out of the inning quickly.
That runs his line over his last seven starts to a 1.49 ERA in 36.1 innings, with 35 strikeouts against 17 free passes and 23 hits allowed. That compares to a 4.80 ERA in 15 innings over his first four starts with eight free passes against 14 strikeouts.
I’ll admit to having been underwhelmed and a little concerned in the early going, mostly because the very limited information seemed to suggest he was mostly pitching in the low 90s, and results were mediocre. So it’s been very encouraging to see Kloffenstein really find his stride. It’s clear he can really pitch, as opposed to being a thrower who lights up radar guns with the ability to spin breaking balls, which is always a risk with high school pitching.