All Aces

Deck Stacked Against Opponents as Indians’ Starting Pitching Rotation is Envy of Triple-A

By Mike Lopresti

Today’s quiz. Who wears size 16 shoes, was born in Venezuela, went to the same college Bill Murray once attended, pitched a playoff game as a Triple-A debut, and needed Tommy John surgery at the age of 22?

That would be the current starting rotation of the Indianapolis Indians. Five pitchers – each owning one of the above factoids — who have become the early-season scourge of the International League, and put a twinkle in the eye of the future-thinking Pittsburgh Pirates.

Glasnow, Tyler_002_April 16, 2016_Adam Pintar
Tyler Glasnow is among International League leaders in strikeouts, and was named IL Pitcher of the Week for April 25-May 1 when he went 2-0 with 11.0 scoreless innings and 18 punch outs.

In order, Tyler Glasnow with the size 16s, Wilfredo Boscan from Venezuela, Steven Brault from Regis University in Denver (where comedian Murray once studied), Chad Kuhl with a playoff start last September as his Indy debut, and Jameson Taillon, who lost nearly two years to have his elbow repaired, followed by a hernia.

How good have these five been?

“It’s a show every time,” Taillon was saying.

This is what he meant:

Until Monday’s loss to Durham, the Quintet of Quiet had given up one run in 35 innings, and made 10 consecutive starts allowing one run or less. Through 23 games, they had allowed only four home runs as a group, struck out 126 batters in 115.2 innings to go with only 30 walks, and carried a group earned run average of 2.02.

Taillon, Jameson_003_April 18, 2016_Adam Pintar
Jameson Taillon (pronounced: TIE-own) entered his May 3 start 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA, and ranked as the Pirates’ number four prospect entering the 2016 season.

But never mind listening to the numbers. Listen to the manager.

“They make me feel young,” Dean Treanor said. “You let them run with what they’re doing. Don’t say nothing. What’s that old axiom, you just try to stay out of their way? I think they know they still have things to work on individually. But you have to be excited for the organization, holy smokes.”

Or the pitching coach.

“To see those guys continue to try to get better and feed off each other, it takes a lot of the anxiety from me,” Stan Kyles said. “I know their heads are in the right place. I know how good their work ethic is.

“It’s not anything we don’t expect. I think everybody understands how talented they are.”

Brault, Steven_002_April 17, 2016_Adam Pintar
Steven Brault struck out a career-high 11 batters in his start against Norfolk on April 27, placing him second only to Glasnow at the time in the league in strikeouts per nine innings (11.44 to 12.81 respectively).

Or one of the men who catches them.

“They make me look good,” Jacob Stallings said. “They make me look like I’m calling a good game.”

Or the pitchers themselves.

Glasnow: “As of now, you can almost guarantee when a starter goes out, it’s going to be a pretty good game. It’s really been fun to watch. Everyone’s been kind of feeding off each other and pushing each other to do better.

Taillon: “I can’t really watch too much of what they’re doing because I need to take care of my routine between starts, so I can keep up with them. But as a baseball fan and as a member of this team just sitting back each night wondering who I get to watch from the bench is pretty fun.

“You’ve got Glasnow who’s just explosive. Scary. You’ve got Chad Kuhl who’s a very refined, groundball guy. You’ve got Brault, the tatted-up, little-different lefty who really pitches like a craftsman. Then Boscan, who’s established. He’s been in Triple-A awhile, mature, pounds the zone, goes right at guys. So everyone brings something a little different.”

Boscan, Wilfredo_002_April 14, 2016_Adam Pintar
Entering his start on April 29, Wilfredo Boscan had not allowed an extra-base hit, and is the Tribe’s reigning Starting Pitcher of the Year which included an unblemished record in his final 12 starts of the year.

True enough. Their results have been almost cookie-cutter alike, but they are diverse pitchers, with diverse personalities. “When you look at them individually, they are different,” Treanor said. “When you talk to them individually, they are.”

Age? They go from Boscan at 26 to Glasnow at 22, with Taillon (24) and Kuhl and Brault (both 23) in between. Height? Glasnow is 6-8, Taillon 6-5, Kuhl 6-3, Boscan 6-2, Brault 6-0. Sounds like the five would make a fine pickup basketball team.

Say a starter’s name to Kyles, and he can give a quick sketch.

Brault? “A high-positive guy with good stuff. He’s very in tuned in his delivery and knows what he wants to do, and has great feel.

Glasnow, the International League’s Pitcher of the Week for April 25-May 1? “His reputation precedes him a little bit and he’s living up to that. He’s got all the pitches, he’s developing a great changeup which enhances his other pitches, his fastball and his curveball. He’s right where we need him to be.”

Boscan? “For me, he’s the anchor. He’s the most dependable guy out there. He’s got some experience from last year, pitcher of the year last year.”

Chad Kuhl (6)_04152016_Dave Wegiel
Chad Kuhl has not allowed more than two runs in any of his four starts so far this season, and is tied for third in all of MiLB in wins (24) since the beginning of 2014.

Kuhl? “Cool. That’s his name. He’s cool about everything that he does, never gets rattled, has that steely demeanor. That’s a kid that just loves to compete.”

Taillon? “He’s like the thinker of the group. A guy that’s got all the tools and the mindset to go with it. It’s fun to talk to him and get some ideas from him.”

Day after day, they’ve dazzled those who play with them, and against them.

“Every other manager is very envious. How can you not be?” Treanor said. “They’re all throwing the ball really well, and they’re getting better. Who knows what the ceiling is on any one of them?”

Stallings: “Just being around these guys the last few years I know that they all want each other to do well. It’s not like probably a lot of cases where they’re rooting against each other. That’s cool to see coming up through the minor leagues. It can definitely be the other way around.”

And day after day, they give the Pirates a promise of what might be ahead. Their handiwork is a frequent topic of conversation on Treanor’s regular phone chats with Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle.

“Everybody knows, and I think everybody’s trying to temper the excitement,” Treanor said. “But I think right now you can say the future of the Pirates – whenever that future comes – is pretty good.

“They’re moving in that direction. Are they there? No. Individually each has things that they need to get better at. So you try to identify that and make sure that they identify that. You want them to understand that. But when the phone rings and they need somebody, I can’t see myself saying `Well, I’m not sure.’’’

Take Taillon. He was on the fast track to PNC Park the moment he was selected as the second pick in the entire draft in 2010. Then came the elbow pain, and the surgery, and the hernia, and two years of darkness. Now, he’s back in the express lane.

“When you have what you love taken away from you, you definitely appreciate it more, you respect it more,” he said. “I’ve had it taken away from me twice really, with the elbow and hernia. So I truly have the attitude that it can be taken away at any second, so you have to live in the moment.”

And at this moment, he is trying to get ready for when the call comes from Pittsburgh, while winning a few games for the Indians along the way. When he sits down to study the tape of his latest start, he is thinking of the day he will be asked to get out the Chicago Cubs, not the Norfolk Tides.

“I’m judging more, what would my pitches do against Anthony Rizzo? Or what would that pitch have done against Kris Bryant? Am I still going to be so pleased with that pitch facing a major league guy?” he said. “So I’m tough on myself. Probably tougher than I should be.”

Or consider Kuhl. Last September he gets called up and is asked to make his first Triple-A start in the heat of the playoffs against Columbus. Gives up one run in seven innings. That sort of thing gets noticed.

Said Kyles, “I think they’re in the right mindset. I tell them all the time, we’re not trying to get to Pittsburgh. We’re trying to prepare ourselves for when that phone call comes. We always tell them, be where your feet are at. I’m pretty sure they’re looking forward to that opportunity. Who wouldn’t be? That’s what their childhood dream has been.

“But I like where they’re at. They’re grounded and they’re here with us and they understand this is a special time. They’re enjoying it, and they’re not in any hurry to do anything other than get better.”

The fast start has seemed as contagious as a cold, passed from one pitcher to the next. It’s been something to watch. Not to mention manage.

“I know it’s like a cliché, that they feed off each other, but I think they really do,” Treanor said. “I don’t think it’s a competition in the sense of where it sometimes could be, but I think it’s, `Well these guys did so good, I’d better do my part to stay on the same level as everybody else.’ Which I like. Nobody here’s trying to one-up the other, but they’re trying to stay with everybody else.”

Come Wednesday’s 11 a.m. game, Durham is scheduled to send out Blake Snell, a hot prospect who made his major league debut for Tampa Bay in Yankee Stadium last month. He’ll be faced by the wily Boscan, who has given up one run his last two starts. Then again, only three times this season has an Indy starter given up more than two runs.

As the manager said, holy smokes.

_________________________________________________________________

Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.

 

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