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Unlocking Austin Pruitt

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Is there an answer waiting to be discovered for the up and down pitcher?

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals - Game Two Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Ahead of the next series in Oakland, the Tampa Bay Rays have re-called Austin Pruitt from Triple-A Durham.

This is Pruitt’s third season riding the Durham shuttle, and it’s fair to wonder whether things will ever click enough for him to stay or figure things out long-term.

This season, Pruitt owns a 6.39 ERA (4.99 FIP) in the majors over five appearances. For his major league career, he owns a 5.12 ERA (4.21). These results are baffling at first blush when the pitch had put up sub-3.00 ERA in the minors in Triple-A before his promotions in 2017 and 2018.

Pruitt’s strikeout and walk rates in the three most recent minor league seasons are 35.5% vs 2.2% in 2017, then 32.7% vs 4.7% in 2018, and 26.9% vs 7.5% in 2019. In the majors he’s averaging a 16.4% strikeout rate and 6.0% walk rate. What was once dominant is declining in the minors, and is not showing in the majors.

Listed at 5’10” and 180 lbs, the right handed pitcher has now faced 715 batters in the majors, and is best defined by performing far worse against the same handed batter, a trend that has continued this year.

  • vs LHP: 293 TBF, 18.1 K%, 5.8 BB%, 73.8 LOB%, .295 wOBA
  • vs RHP: 422 TBF, 15.2 K%, 6.2 BB%, 57.5 LOB%, .358 wOBA

It’s hard to understand exactly why this is happening. The best version of Pruitt would be one who pounds the bottom of the zone with his plus curve and slider, fools hitters above the zone with his rising fourseam fastball, and uses his change to get groundballs along the way.

And here’s the thing: that’s generally what he does!

The fastball doesn’t get many whiffs (averaging only 15.1% whiffs per swing), and the rest of his stuff look average; his slider (27.5%), curve (24.5%), or change (26.3%) have yet to prove to be dominant. Even worse, his fastball has a .315 AVG against, and the curve a .284 AVG, and those are both decent pitches.

No, really!

Fourseam Fastball

Here’s an example of a fastball where I expect Pruitt to be throwing it with success:

And for fun, here’s one fooling a hitter low in the zone:

There ain’t nothing wrong with this fastball in terms of movement. His velocity ebbs between 89 and 95 mph, and it would be nice if that had some consistency, but that could also be sample size noise. His change likewise can be as slow as 85 and as hard as 88.

If you’re mixing 89 fastballs and 88 changes we’ll have a problem, but let’s focus on the positives first. That’s a major league fastball, one that can get more than 15% whiff rates.

Particularly when his secondary stuff is even better.

Slider

Meanwhile, this is exactly what Pruitt should be doing with his secondary pitches. His breaking balls are distinct (the curve, below, has 12-6 movement), and also plus.

Curve

Here’s the thing about Pruitt’s curveball: his spin rate is elite. The curveball is the one that’s popped the most to me in researching Pruitt.

Where Charlie Morton’s and Tyler Glasnow’s curveball have averaged 2879 RPM this season, Austin Pruitt’s has ranked sixth at 3,046 RPM. He’s allowed only two base hits on the pitch this season. He can locate it alongside the slider pretty well too.

Change

Sneaky change! What about one with someone swinging?

We’ve seen quality results from all four of Pruitt’s pitches. So what gives?

The beginning of that first change up clip you might have noticed made mention of a Martin Maldonado home run. Y’all, it went far.

And to be honest, I have no idea why they were setting up a fastball that should live high in the zone so low, but Pruitt failed to paint the black, instead allowing the pitch to ride into the heart of Maldonado’s swing.

You can see how badly the pitch missed in the change of glove placement by the catcher.

Mistakes happen, but based on the results, we’ve seen a lot of mistakes from Pruitt.

Pruitt’s pitch mix lives and dies — mostly the latter — on his fastball, which is getting below average results, and I wonder if he’s simply relying on it too often.

As we have observed with Charlie Morton, the best answer when you have elite breaking stuff may be to emphasize that most of all, and perhaps that style of pitching would suit Pruitt.

Here’s what Morton told me earlier this month:

Some places you go, they want you to establish the fastball, pitch off the fastball, and then mix. While places like here, and in Houston, they want you to throw your best pitches more. I don’t think there’s a wrong way of doing it, but for me, mixing the curveball more has been really beneficial.

...And because I’m throwing it more, I have a better feel for it. So I’m throwing higher quality curveballs as a result of that.

Now compare that to Pruitt’s pitch mix over his major league career:

Austin Pruitt had one memorable outing against the Yankees in 2018 where he flashed the curveball most of all (50% of the time) and cut the team to pieces in a four-out appearance. I wonder what his results would look like if the breaking balls were his bread and butter instead of misplaced heaters.