The Arizona Fall League: It’s For Pitchers, Too

Sean Manaea is one of the few legitimate pitching prospects in the AFL. (Courtesy of John Arguello, Appraising Arizona)

Sean Manaea is one of the few legitimate pitching prospects in the AFL. (Courtesy of John Arguello, Appraising Arizona)

Bats rule in the desert every autumn. The Arizona Fall League has had that reputation for a long time, mostly because of all the quality hitting prospects who play out there every year.

The pitching? That’s another story. Take a look at MLB.com’s list of top 100 prospects in the game right now. Nine are playing in Arizona this fall. Only one, Cardinals righthander Alex Reyes, is a pitcher. Last fall, 20 of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects participated in the Fall League, and only six were pitchers. No wonder the league has a hitter-friendly reputation.

It hasn’t always been that way.

“The league has definitely changed,” said Baltimore Orioles’ director, player development Brian Graham, who managed in the Fall League from 1992 to 1994. “When I managed there, Jeter was in the league and Garciaparra was in the league. But there were also really good pitchers.”

We’ll have to take his word for it because the only significant names that come up on a Google search from Graham’s era are hitters. Derek Jeter. Nomar Garciaparra. Brian Giles. Tony Clark. Mark Grudzielanek. Long-time Los Angeles Angels closer Troy Percival pitched there in 1992, but he’s it.

All the big-name prospects are hitters. This fall, everyone is excited to see what Philadelphia Phillies all-world shortstop J.P. Crawford can do. Or whether Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder and 2013 first-round pick Austin Meadows has the chops to force his way onto the big league roster next spring.

“Most of the top pitchers have either finished the season in terms of their innings limits or went to the big leagues in September,” said Graham.

There are blips, sure. Reyes this year. Archie Bradley, Tyler Glasnow and Mark Appel last year. But most of the sure-fire big league stars are position players.

Neither Graham nor the Rockies senior director of player development, Zach Wilson, said they think Fall League pitching is weak. Pitchers have just as much potential to make an impact in the big leagues as hitters do. They’re just usually relief pitchers.

Graham pointed out that right-handed reliever Mychal Givens used his Fall League experience last year to launch himself into the Baltimore pen this season. After his call-up from double-A on June 24, he struck out 30 in 22 innings for the Orioles. Now, he looks like a lock in the Orioles bullpen for the foreseeable future.

“I think the most important thing about the Fall League is the great competition pitchers get to face,” said Wilson. “At the end of the day, you are facing a lineup, one through nine, of the best of the best. It’s as close to Major League competition as they can get without being in the big leagues.”

Chicago White Sox director of player development Nick Capra agreed. This year, he sent right-handers Brandon Brennan, Robin Leyer, Peter Tago and J.B. Wendelken to the Fall League. While the Southsiders are still developing Brennan as a starter, all of them seemed destined for the bullpen. But that doesn’t matter now.

“Learning how to get good hitters out should help them somewhere down the road,” said Capra.

The Oakland Athletics, meanwhile, like to have each of its Fall League pitchers work on something specific. Director of player development Keith Lieppman said he isn’t too concerned about the competition.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

This year, the A’s sent only three pitchers the the Fall League — left-handed starter Sean Manaea and right-handers Kris Hall and Brendan McCurry.

“Usually, a pitcher we send is trying to develop another pitch and refine some part of his repertoire,” said Lieppman. “It’s all based on what that need for that particular guy is. In some cases it’s command issues. Or it might involve working on a basic mechanic to get them to be more effective in the strike zone.”

Fall League rules dictate that each Major League teams may send four pitchers to Arizona and one of them has to be a starter. In reality, the league is more flexible than that. If one organization wants to send four relievers, fine. That farm director calls up his peers with the other three organizations tied to that Fall League club to see if one wants to send an extra starter.

Somehow, everything goes smoothly and all the rosters fill up. And regardless of which pitchers go, farm directors said they feel secure in knowing their pitchers won’t get worn out.

“The reality is that a starting pitcher will max out at 20 innings over the seven weeks they’re out there,” said Graham. “They’re only starting once a week, and in their starts they aren’t going long.”

Indeed, most Fall League starters don’t go more than four innings, and each inning thereafter typically features a different reliever. Last year’s innings leader was Appel, who logged 31 innings in seven starts. Graham said the starter the Orioles sent this year, Jason Garcia, won’t pitch more than three per outing.

Farm directors generally agree that they have a much harder time choosing pitchers for the Fall League than they do position players.

“It goes right back to innings pitched and pitch limits,” said Graham. “You want to send good pitchers and guys who have specific developmental goals in mind. Choosing those guys, there’s not a great pool to pick from.”

“I think everyone struggles to find a starter to send,” Capra added. “It’s like that industry-wide because of innings. A starting pitcher will get anywhere from 150 to 160 inning during a minor league season, and it’s tough to expand on that.”

Wilson, said he struggles more because the Rockies have so many possible candidates. This year, Wilson chose right-handers Matt Carasiti and Carlos Estevez and left-handers Sam Moll and Kyle Freeland. Freeland is the starter in that group.

“There are a lot of pitchers up and down our system who can go there and get something out of it,” he said. “You hate to leave people out who could benefit from it, but you have to distinguish who will get the most out of it.”

Freeland, the Rockies’ 2014 first-round pick, has one thing in common with most of the Fall League starters. He missed significant time in the 2015 season thanks to an injury. After dealing with shoulder fatigue in the spring, he had surgery in May to clean bone chips and scar tissue out of his left elbow. He didn’t make his first start of 2015 until July 25, although it was well worth the wait for Rockies fans.

Freeland, said Wilson, needed the extra innings the Fall League could provide. And because the southpaw is relatively advanced, the Rockies also liked that the Fall League exposed him to upper-level hitting prospects. He has yet to pitch past High-A.

Lieppman said Oakland sent Manaea, who the A’s acquired from the Kansas City Royals in the Ben Zobrist deadline deal, to make up for time he lost to an abdomen strain. The long rehab kept him out until June. Reyes wouldn’t be anywhere near the Fall League had shoulder soreness not shut him down for about a month this year.

The Orioles were in the same boat with Garcia, a fireballer whose fastball can touch triple digits. Shoulder tendinitis cost him more than two months of 2015. He made just nine starts for Double-A Bowie.

Graham said he not only likes the fact that Garcia is getting his innings in. Plenty of Orioles staffers can be there to monitor him.

“When you send a pitcher to one of the Caribbean winter leagues, you don’t have the opportunity to have your pitching coaches and hitting coaches there,” he said. “The Fall League is 100-percent development. The winter leagues are just playing games. There are no workouts or practices or extra coaches to help out.”

Not only is Graham (and every other farm director) in Arizona, the Orioles have their Triple-A hitting coach, Sean Berry, serving the same role for Baltimore’s Fall League team, the Peoria Javelinas. And Baltimore’s Double-A pitching coach, Alan Mills, is there to keep an eye on the organization’s pitching talent.

“I like that we’re able to set some parameters,” said Wilson. “When you have a multitude of relievers on each team, you can set guidelines for guys who may have logged a lot of innings or need a certain amount of rest. The coaching staffs work with us to make sure we see things executed.”

Reliever-laden pitching staffs also create a very big-league-like structure to games. With starters on short leashes, the bullpen gets active early and often. Perhaps coincidentally — or perhaps not — pitching statistics in the Fall League have gradually improved.

Over the last five seasons the league ERA has dropped from 5.08 in 2010 to 4.27 last year. And while home runs per game climbed slightly from 1.4 to 1.7 in that span, the league batting average has declined, from .283 to .261.

The 2013 Fall League season, which included current big leaguers Ken Giles, Pedro Baez, Marcus Stroman and Trevor May, was a particularly good one for pitching. Fall League hurlers posted a collective 4.14 ERA and threw 14 shutouts. Typically, there are fewer than 10 all season. Last year, for instance, there were just seven shutouts.

“We have three big arms out there,” said Wilson, speaking of Moll, Estevez and Carasiti. “When you’re facing one of those guys, you’re not facing a slouch. They’re all upper 90s with very good secondary stuff. Every inning, you’re facing arms that are are bringing it up there at a good pace.”

Which is kind the way the wind is blowing in the big leagues. Remember when knocking the starting pitcher out of a game was a good thing? Now, not as much. Wilson said he likes that the Fall League is following that trend.

“Whenever you’re facing new pitchers, you better know what that pitcher is bringing to the table and what you have to do to compete,” said Wilson. “Every guy you’re facing in the Fall League has power stuff and, for the most part, has the ability to pitch. The more experience our guys can get against that, the better.”

Lieppman agreed, but said the A’s Fall League hitters take their at-bats with defined weaknesses to work on.

“[Shortstop prospect Chad] Pinder didn’t get a lot of walks during the regular season,” said Lieppman. “He chased pitches out of the zone, so his plan in Arizona was geared not toward performance. It was more about working on an approach to take into a game.”

And here is another area where the Fall League is mimicking the big leagues. Hitters get detailed scouting reports on everyone they face.

“Hitters should be focused in on who they’re going to face and what their plan is going to be against them,” said Lieppman. “It doesn’t matter if they see a pitcher one time or three times. Everyone gets those scouting reports.”

Lieppman added that the pitcher’s names not being up as high on the marquee as the hitters’ isn’t such a bad thing. That, he said, only motivates pitchers to rise to the occasion.


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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7 years ago

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james
7 years ago

Looking at the rosters, I was actually more impressed by the pitching this year than the hitting.

yes there are not many top 100 prospects there, but there is an interesting mix of guys who are coming back from injury…. James Paxton, Nick Travieso, Dan Winkler,. And guys who were/should be top 100 prospects… Sean Manea, maybe Yoan Lopez, Nick Burdi, Josh Hader, Luke Weaver, Aidrian Houser.

If you were looking for top 200 prospects, I think there is a better mix. You hit the nail on the head about innings limits, teams manage their guys closely, and this league is basically there for the guys who for some reason did not get to that range the team wanted. The guys i mentioned had a few positive drug tests, a few late signings, a few guys traded, and mostly guys who had several injuries this year (mostly at the start of the season so this is basically just giving them a full normal season)

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